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Fold, Collapse and Shift: A Conversation with William Forsythe

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal

Later this month, Pennsylvania Ballet will conclude its 2012-2013 Season with a mixed bill featuring the work of Jiří Kylián, Matthew Neenan and William Forsythe. On Thursday evening, Forsythe joined Linda Caruso Haviland, Jennifer Homans and Freya Vass-Rhee for a roundtable discussion at the Arts Bank Theater drawing dozens of local artists and art enthusiasts.

Fold, Collapse, and Shift: Ballet and Beyond in the Choreography of William Forsythe began with a brief introduction to Forsythe’s work, followed by a question. “Where is ballet now?” Haviland asked the panelists.  “Is creative work within the classical cannon possible?”

Recalling his introduction to dance, Forsythe explained that he’d always wanted to be Fred Astaire.  His chance finally came when he got to college.  His roommate, a “chubby organist,” was taking dance and he realized, laughing at the obvious Chorus Line reference, “I can do that!”

Homans, a historian and dance critic best known for her book Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet (2010), noted that one of the “problems” of ballet is that it’s comprised of positions, “of series of movement from position to position,” leading to an emphasis on “mechanical mastery.”

She went on to define ballets as “a method of training that organizes the body” according to “historical, mathematical and social” principles. “Not pointe shoes and tutus.  That came along later.”

“When I came to writing the end of my book,” she continued, “I had a problem.  And that problem was you!”  Forsythe’s earlier works, such as Artifact (1984), pushed the envelope, but they’re still generally recognized as ballet.  His later works, however, are another story.

“Ballet is like Lego,” Forsythe commented.  “You can create anything you want by combining components.  Like the Liberty Bell at the airport.  Why not?”

Elaborating, he explained, “There is no arabesque. Arabesque is an idea.  We move through it.  No one can sustain it.”

The epitome of cool in his rust-colored jeans, printed t-shirt and yellow sneakers, Forsythe pulled his iPhone from his pocket to read a Cy Twombly quote he’d recently shared with dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet.  “The line is the sensation of its own realization.”

“Really fine dancers are masters of transition,” he explained.  “Dance, when it is ‘really good,’ defeats language.  Words disappear… I’d hate to be a dance critic.”

His attitudes toward making art are reflected in the way he manages his company (morning technique classes are optional) and re-stages his work.  “Ballet is changing in the way in which people are communicated with in the room.  As opposed to ‘You need to be together, you’re late, no, do your job, be on your count’ [it’s] ‘How good can you make this? How good can we make this?”

Forsythe suffered from a dislocated hip in March as the result of working with a dancer who was “much better than my choreography of 25 years ago.”  But intentionality—the buzzword for today’s choreographers it seems—is primary to his aesthetic.  “To senselessly kick your leg up as high as possible… I find that problematic.”

He explained the difference between a ballet master and a choreographer as “The ballet master is a ‘what’ person.  I am a ‘how’ person.”

As for Pennsylvania Ballet’s premier of Artifact Suite?  “Broaden your view but blur your eyes,” Forsythe encouraged the audience.  “Look at what everyone is working towards.”

Kat Richter is a freelance writer and teaching artist.  She holds an MA in Dance Anthropology and is also the co-founder of The Lady Hoofers, Philadelphia’s only all-female tap company.  Her work can be found at www.katrichter.com.

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