Enigma in the Middle

By Siegel, Marcia B. | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Enigma in the Middle


Siegel, Marcia B., The Hudson Review


IMPRESSING THE CZAR, a twenty-year-old work by William Forsythe, staged by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, was the only dance entry in last summer's Lincoln Center Festival. Without revealing anything new about Forsythe, it confirmed the early emergence of the dance inventiveness, theatrics and inimitable stagecraft that have marked him as a major contemporary choreographer with his own company and a legion of followers.

Forsythe has been an enigma to me throughout his career. More than anything, his work is contradictory, not just contrarian. He could never be called ingratiating, and whatever is conciliatory on his stage will sooner or later get the shaft. Just when you start to perceive a pattern or a direction for the action, the lights go out, or the dancers drop what they're doing and walk offstage. He starts with rigorous, elegant ballet technique, then skews and accelerates it so that steps cede their importance to the unclassical thrills of danger, daring, and suspense. The dancers who make this happen may be virtuosos, but the choreographic design prevents them from being stars. They move on and offstage in brief appearances, their duets and solos often surrounded by other dancers doing movement in opposition. They dress alike; it's hard to pick them out of the streaming ensemble, hard to figure out who they are.

Yet they're devoted to their leader. Since movement improvisation is a component of Forsythe's choreographic process, they become partners in creating the dance. Instead of asking them to perform established steps or imitate steps he's made up, he frequently offers a movement sketch and asks the dancers to develop it. The results will be set and repeated in the finished stage work, with allowances for smaller variations in performance.

A gotta-dance person, Forsythe has been dancing since childhood, and at 59 he's still a facile and inventive mover. In the studio he will spring into spontaneous action as fluent and as complex as verbal discourse. Complementing this intuitive, overwhelmingly physical talent is Forsythe's intellectual appetite-a brainy curiosity about art, culture, science, philosophy, technology, politics, realms of history that seem far removed from dancing. The signs and significances of these products of the real world inspire and often appear in his dances, though it can be an uncomfortable fit.

In an extraordinary scene from a 1996 documentary film, Just Dancing Around (released in 2007 by Kultur), he struggles to reconstruct how he came up with a single phrase of movement. He's talking to a confused student. "There's no way for you to enter into this." Student: "Enter into what?" WF: "Into this event. This is an event. It's very specific to me. This event has a significance, it has a meaning, it has an origin. It was a state. I can't quite find the scientific-I know how I got there. I got there through-at one point through geometry, for example? By following something-for example, I had this-what's it? bum-ba-bum [rotating his hands as if they were cradling a grapefruit] I had this curve here, observed it. [left arm goes across his body] And then traced it like that, with that part, [right arm curves up from the elbow] So then I put [tapping his chest with right hand] where I know my heart is, anatomy? Through that and I traced it where I assume to be my heart. General stuff like that, [left hand at solar plexus and chest caved in]

"And then there was an association at that point about [both arms winged out, hands clutching downward]-something with the space of the heart, or something with the heart-and I thought about my own kids, and I tried to figure out what height [right arm stretches out and curves down]-and the height of their heads, their height. So I end up in a state like this, and it goes to a kind of mechanics, [lifts right leg rotated in, right hand grabs his knee] bum. Like that. And so on and so forth. So it keeps alternating between what is that other moment. …

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