William Forsythe
Dominik Mentzos

Ballet stripped to the bone: The great significance of William Forsythe

15 May 2023

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. The programme includes the Dutch premiere of the company’s eighth acquisition: Blake Works 1

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen

His ‘artistic father’. That is how William Forsythe (New York, 1949) sees the Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983), who preceded him as the greatest innovator of the art of ballet. It may or may not be a coincidence that Ballett Frankfurt first danced a work by Forsythe in 1983, the year of Balanchine’s death. The title, Gänge – ein Stück über Ballett, would soon turn out to be significant. Forsythe was to analyse his ‘mother tongue’ down to the last tiny detail. Like Balanchine before him, he would shake up and enrich classical ballet, although in a totally different way. 


Prising free and shaking up  

Balanchine’s contribution was huge. He stripped ballet of its narrative character and gave it fresh vitality, adding enormous dynamism, swing and sharpness. However, he did remain true to the structure and rules of classical ballet as laid down at the court of Louis XIV. 

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



Forsythe made his international breakthrough with Artifact in 1984. Anyone who saw it at the Holland Festival in 1987 will surely remember the euphoric mood that pervaded the foyers of Dutch National Opera & Ballet in 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 like 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 big balletic work for l’Opéra national de Paris: Pas/Parts, which is now being presented in Forsythe in an adapted version from 2018.  


Back to ballet

His preference for experiment was continued with The Forsythe Company, a smaller company set up by Forsythe in 2004, after Ballett Frankfurt folded. In 2015, he handed the company over to Jacopo Godani and returned to the United States, after living in Germany for 42 years. Since then, he has been preoccupied with another passion – creating architectonic and performance installations – and his interest in classical ballet has been rekindled. As a freelance choreographer, he has recently created new ballets for Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris (including Blake Works I, which will have its Dutch premiere in Forsythe), as well as for English National Ballet and Boston Ballet. The American ‘boy wonder’ may have reached the age of 73, but his creations continue to challenge dancers, amaze audiences and inspire new generations of choreographers. 

  • Forysthe will be performed at Dutch National Ballet from 10 to 27 June 2023