William Forsythe: a Revolutionary Look at Classical Dance

Improvisation and choreography are equal partners in a dance. Improvisation is the most important direction of choreographic thinking, it organizes the form of dance and the specificity of dance performance. One of those who made a serious contribution to the art of improvisation as a method of searching for choreographic vocabulary and a tool for developing creative thinking is William Forsythe.

Researchers of modern dance rank Forsythe’s improvisation as postmodern improvisation, or the art of dance performance. Forsythe system has been shaped and honed for 15 years. And in 1994, it was designed in a specialized video manual “Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye”, which is still used for training new dancers of Forsythe’s troupe and is also a part of training professional dancers of modern dance in Europe and the USA.

About William Forsythe’s work and his influence on modern dance – read below.

Life and Career

William Forsythe is a ballet master, a specialist in the field
of modern dance, a researcher of the specifics of human body movement and improvisation. He was born in New York in 1949. He got his choreographic education in Florida. He got at the first dance class at the age of 17 with his roommate by accident, having absolutely no idea what the lesson will be.

In 1971 he joined the Joffrey Ballet (a company famous for the works of contemporary choreographers). It was there that Forsythe first saw Balanchine’s ballets on the stage of the New York City State Theater, which undoubtedly contributed to his development as a researcher of dance and choreography.

Since 1973 W. Forsythe has been working in Germany as a performer in the Stuttgart Ballet. Already in 1976, he was appointed ballet master of the company. For this company, he created his first neoclassical miniature – “Urlicht” – a duet to music by Gustav Mahler.

In 1984 William Forsythe became the head of the legendary Frankfurt Ballet and continued to be so until its closure in 2004. At Frankfurt Ballet, the choreographer worked on productions such as Artefact (1984), Steptext (1985), In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987, Paris Opera), Impressing the Czar (1988), Limb’s Theorem (1990), Loss of Small Detail (1991), ALIE/NA(C)TION (1992), Eidos:Telos (1995), Endless House (1999), KAMMER/KAMMER (2000), and Decreation (2003).

His productions are part of the repertoire of the world’s major theatres, including the New York City Ballet, London’s Royal Ballet, Paris Opera, National Ballet of Canada and the Netherlands Dance Theatre.

This period of the ballet master’s work is characterized by a special radicalism: he puts on performances that are completely different from classical ballet, transforms the aesthetics of classical dance, proclaims freedom in dance from any canons and narratives.

In 1994, the program “Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye” was developed and released.

After 20 years at the Frankfurt Ballet, William Forsythe founded his Forsythe Company troupe in 2004. In addition to appearances at the main venues in Dresden and Frankfurt, the artists were active on tour. Forsythe has staged such ballets for the new company:

  • Three Atmospheric Studies (2005);
  • You made me a monster (2005);
  • Human Writes (2005);
  • Heterotopia (2006);
  • The Defenders (2007);
  • Yes we can’t (2008/2010);
  • I don’t believe in outer space (2008);
  • The Returns (2009);
  • “Sider” (2011).

He worked as a director and ballet master until 2015 in the troupe. As the reason for Forsythe’s resignation, the need to reduce workloads due to health reasons was reported. However, Forsythe has remained a consultant for the company, a guest lecturer and teacher, one of the co-directors and teachers of the European Dance Students’ Network program. The directorship of the Forsythe Company was taken over by Jacopo Godani under a new name The Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company”.

Forsythe produces and participates in the creation of a large number of architectural and performance installations. The installations have been exhibited at the Louvre, the Venice Biennale, and other important venues. His short film “Solo” was presented in 1997 at the Whitney Biennale.

The choreographer has also received special recognition in the field of fine arts, organizing amazing installations, whose viewers themselves become participants in the action.

Today Forsythe regularly holds lectures and seminars at various universities and creative organizations. He lives and works in Vermont.

Exhibitions

Special attention we should pay to Forsythe’s work in the fine arts. The project “Choreographic Objects” includes various installations, including interactive ones. Over the past few years, they have been shown in many museums.


Some of its current* interactive installations:

  • The Fact of Matter (Brisbane, Australia) – December 7., 2019 – April 26., 2020;
  • Acquisition/Körperschaft (Hasselt, Germany) – March 14. – May 10., 2020;
  • Aufand, Doing and Undergoing (Besançon, France) – until April 26, 2020;
  • City of Abstracts, Human Writes Drawings, Backwords (Essen, Germany).

* Expositions are temporarily closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

“City of Abstracts” is scheduled to be shown in Essen at Art Basel on September 17-20, 2020.

Forsythe’s Technologies of improvisation

In 1994 the computer program “Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye” was presented. Until now, it is actively used in the process of training dancers of different levels. This work deserves detailed consideration because its importance for the dance world is immeasurably great.

Improvisation technologies basically use the geometrical approach, working with lines, arcs, corners which form a body of the dancer. It was important for Forsythe to use what his dancers already knew. Since they were graduates of ballet schools, they were used to working with lines in body and space. This approach allowed the dancers to forget “how to move” and focus on the inner part of the movement, to overcome “numbness” in improvisation.

Forsythe Dancer.

The choreographer shows simple movements and techniques in the program. The main purpose of his training is to teach the mind of a dancer to analyze movement in geometrical categories, corresponding parts of his body in space.

It’s useful!

Check out the program, even not only for ballet dancers. You will definitely learn a lot about your body.

For example, here are a few techniques from Forsythe’s technology. In his video lessons, the choreographer shows how to work with lines. For example, you can create an imaginary line with body parts and “move” that line in space, or you can create the same line with one of your body parts. You can also create a line by “pulling” it out of a point, or you can stretch not just a point but an entire line and create an imaginary plane. You can extend the line by unbending a joint, for example, an elbow. You can work in the parterre by building movements along imaginary lines on the floor. The technique of getting into the line is to find a way that you can “get” into the imaginary line by a part of your body.

William Forsythe’s New Ballets

After leaving Forsythe Company in 2015, the choreographer has staged several ballets:

  • «Blake Works 1» for the Paris Opera Ballet;
  • «Playlist [Track 1, 2]»;
  • «A Quiet Evening of Dance»;
  • «Playlist (EP)» – the work for Boston ballet company;
  • «Artifact Suite».

Influence on modern dance

With the death of George Balanchine, the era of great discoveries in ballet was coming to an end, and few people believed in the possibility of a new revolution in dance. Nevertheless, the postmodern era has made its mark and proclaimed in dance freedom from any canons. The improvisation and value of the moment “here and now”, the study of the movement and limits of the human body, the importance of the process rather than the final product of art – all this became the basis of contemporary dance. It was William Forsythe who brought ballet into the realm of marginal art, making it speak about contemporary ballet.

The avant-garde Forsythe has pushed back the boundaries of what is generally accepted: while in classical dance the position of arms and legs is fixed, Forsythe gives freedom to both arms and legs, and head. This also applies to his methods of working with dancers. Improvisation – the main method of working with dancers – requires not only freedom to own their own body in space, but also freedom of thought. In this case, the intellectuality can be called one of the most precise characteristics of the specificity of W. Forsythe’s works.

Opinion!

Forsythe is a new turn. It’s basically a classic, but as if turned from a different angle… It’s as if you look at it through some special optics – and you get Forsythe.

At the same time, despite this release of thought and body, William Forsythe’s approach to choreography is surprisingly algorithmic. Through systematic exploration of the boundaries of space and time, the potential of the body and the mechanics of movement, the choreographer has developed his own author’s method of dance geometry and thus gives rise to a characteristic Forsythe’s style of movement.

The imagery and abstractedness of Forsythe’s ballets deserve special attention. After all, not every spectator is ready for a Forsythe’s form of interpretation, hence the complexity of perception. We can state the mechanical or geometrical style of dance plastics, but certainly not the lack of content. Forsythe is simply not interested in stories and characters that are important in classical ballet. What is more important in these works is the emotional dynamics of the performers, the way the change in body movement determines the changes in a person’s emotional state. An abstract stage reality is formed on stage, within which a multivariate narrative of philosophical content is performed.

Biography.

Dance critic Roslin Sulkas highlights the following features in the work of William Forsythe:

  • the presence of so-called “flickering movement” (based on elusive points of presence), performed by dancers with classical training, that is professionally developed in the aspect of ballet plasticity;
  • the use of the principle of inclusiveness – the possibility of including elements of absolutely any kind in the dance, both on the technical and conceptual sides;
  • approach to the realization of a complete work on the basis of the concept of “one theatrical universe”, where each element is a significant part of the multidimensional structure of the dance;
  • the development of a plastic language based on personal ideas of movement, where each element is endowed with volume.

We can’t help but mention the improvisational inserts in Forsythe’s ballets. Certain parts of the composition are performed by dancers in accordance with the concept of dance at their own discretion based on their own vision. Thanks to this, each display of a dance piece becomes unique and each broadcast gives a new reading to the work.

By its nature, modern dance is “dance of the head”, i.e. choreography that stimulates thinking tone not only of the dancer but also of the viewer in the process of perception of dance. Such mutual work of the ballet master and the viewer gives the necessary body and emotional contact. Then the viewer leaves with a huge plume of emotions and thoughts after the performance.

William Forsythe does not like to repeat himself, he always speaks to the viewer through his work in different ways. And no one knows what this choreographer will present to the public next time…

Conclusions

Doesn’t matter whether we call Forsythe by The New Balanchine or The Classic of the Ballet Avant-Garde, many today consider him one of the most important choreographers working today. Having traversed in his life from a dictatorship of ballet to a free of contemporary, William Forsythe has struck the ballet world with radicalism and experimentation. He has transformed and continues to transform the aesthetics of classical dance, has led to a rethinking of the importance of dance improvisation and has made an invaluable contribution to the training of dancers around the world.

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