William Forsythe
Text: Astrid van Leeuwen | Photo: Dominik Mentzos

Ballet stripped to the bone

21 March 2022

The great significance of William Forsythe.

William Forsythe is regarded as the most radical and influential dance innovator of the past fifty years. Dutch National Ballet now has seven of his groundbreaking ballets in its repertoire and is paying tribute to the American master choreographer in Forsythe Festival. The programme also includes the Dutch premiere of the company’s eighth acquisition: Blake Works 1.

To William Forsythe (New York, 1949), the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) – who preceded him as ballet’s greatest innovator – was his ‘artistic father’. Coincidentally or not, Forsythe choreographed his first work for Ballett Frankfurt in 1983, the year of Balanchine’s death. Gänge – ein Stück über Ballett, in which Forsythe analysed his mother tongue in minute detail, achieved great success. Like Balanchine before him, he shook up and enriched classical ballet, albeit in a totally different way.

Prising free and shaking up

Balanchine’s contribution was huge. He stripped ballet of its traditional narrative and injected new life into it, adding enormous dynamism, swing and sharpness. However, he did remain true to the structure and rules of classical ballet established in the court of Louis XIV.

Forsythe, on the other hand, expressly questioned the ‘laws of ballet’. Systematically, he began to prise free from and shake up the facade, symmetries and entrenched logic of balletic syntax. He exposed the underlying system of classical ballet and stripped it to the bone, including its relationship with the audience.

Euphoric

Forsythe made his international breakthrough with Artifact in 1984. Those who saw it at the Holland Festival in 1987 will surely remember the euphoria that pervaded the foyers of Dutch National Opera & Ballet during the intervals. With great aplomb, Forsythe had ushered traditional ballet into the realm of contemporary art. The classical lines became quirky, balances were way off the perpendicular, arms and legs were stretched to their maximum extension, and new composition strategies broke open and rearranged standard combinations of steps, whether or not according to algorithmic calculation models or philosophical treatises.

Leading companies

In the years that followed Artifact, Forsythe created groundbreaking works for Ballett Frankfurt, where he was artistic director, and for companies such as the prestigious Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris. His work was in demand at leading companies all over the world. While Ballett Frankfurt continued to perform his hit ballets, Forsythe’s focus began to shift towards more experimental dance theatre works, concentrating on improvisation techniques. In 1999, he created his last major ballet for Paris Opera Ballet: Pas/Parts, which is now being presented in Forsythe Festival in an adapted version from 2018.

Back to ballet

Forsythe’s love for exploration and experimentation gave rise to the Forsythe Company in 2004, which he founded after the closure of Ballett Frankfurt. In 2015, after living in Germany for 42 years, he handed over the reins to Jacopo Godani and returned to the United States. Since then, his focus has shifted to another passion – creating architectonic and performance installations – and his interest in classical ballet has been rekindled. As a freelance choreographer, he recently created new ballets for Paris Opera Ballet (Blake Works I, presented in Forsythe Festival), English National Ballet and Boston Ballet. The American ‘boy wonder’ may have reached the age of 72, but his creations continue to challenge dancers, amaze audiences and inspire new generations of choreographers.