The Force of Forsythe: Not Content with Remaking Ballet, the Choreographer Is Pushing Theatrical Boundaries

By Sulcas, Roslyn | Dance Magazine, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The Force of Forsythe: Not Content with Remaking Ballet, the Choreographer Is Pushing Theatrical Boundaries


Sulcas, Roslyn, Dance Magazine


William Forsythe made his first work (a pas de deux called Urlicht) in his living room in 1976. Since then--as a choreographer with the Stuttgart Ballet; then as head of the Ballett Frankfurt; now with his own company--he has fundamentally changed the way we look at, and think about, classical dance. Like Balanchine, Forsythe has enlarged the physical dimensions of the form, first forgetting, then changing conventional limits on balance and flexibility, the constraints of a vertical torso and unweighted arms, the practices of partnering, and the uses of pointe work. Early on, Forsythe also expanded the theatrical possibilities of ballet, bringing improvisation, speech, film, highly innovative lighting, intellectual propositions, and surprising visual effects into some of his works in ways that shocked audiences as often as they delighted them.

Born on Long Island, Forsythe grew up "always dancing around," and studied ballet with Christa Longo at Jacksonville University in Florida. He left school to accept a scholarship at the American Ballet Center (the school of the Joffrey Ballet), spent his evenings watching the Joffrey Ballet and the New York City Ballet, and joined the Stuttgart Ballet at 23. After critics hailed Urlicht as the creation of a distinctive new talent, Forsythe became Stultgart's resident choreographer. He made 10 pieces before embarking on a freelance career in 1980. Four years later, he took over Ballett Frankfurt, then a respectable provincial ballet company. Over the next two decades, Forsythe created a body of work for this company--and a number of groundbreaking ballets for others--that established him as the foremost dancemaker of his generation, and established the 35-member Ballett Frankfurt as perhaps the first truly contemporary ballet company.

In 2004, amid huge public outcry, the city of Frankfurt cut his funding to such an extent that Forsythe was forced to disband the company. After some initial uncertainty, he formed a new 18-member company in January 2005, funded by the states of Saxony and Hesse, the cities of Dresden and Frankfurt, and corporate sponsorship. With this company, Forsythe has concentrated on smaller-scale, installation-like pieces. But one certainty about this choreographer is uncertainty. His work seems to have moved far from the neoclassical pieces of his early career, or the spectacular, theatrical full-length works of the Frankfurt era, but what he will do next remains unpredictable: Forsythe has always been reliably capable of surprise.

Dance Magazine editor in chief Wendy Perron interviewed Forsythe by phone about his singular approach to choreography and the upcoming performances of The Forsythe Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music in May.

Wendy Perron: What qualities do you look for in a dancer?

William Forsythe: I'm looking for autonomous artists, people whose own creativity is a priority, movement investigators. This is a choreographic collective and everyone is constantly creating with each other.

And what made you want to work that way?

Being in the front of the room by yourself is a privilege, but working in a group is even more fascinating. Plus I like helping dancers realize their own desires if they have the intense desire to investigate dancing. If that's there I will do everything I can to help that person realize that vision of themselves. The dancers in Frankfurt are very responsible for themselves and often for their own material. We work so that everything is in flux. So, for example, what you have invented three years ago might not be commensurate with your experience three years later, so we go in and change it and modify it and alter it.

And do they say, "Bill I'm just not happy with this part. Can we change it?"

Absolutely. Yesterday Dana Caspersen and her partner came up and they said, "We've taken out the lame parts."

Did they mean artistically lame, or one-legged lame? …

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