William Forsythe is a man of mystery. Just when you feel like you start to “get" what he's doing, he surprises everyone by going in a completely different direction. After revolutionizing ballet as we knew it in the '80s, he began experimenting with contemporary, dance theater and even performance art as he explored everything from the Iraq war to his second wife's death from cancer. Now, after a combined 30 groundbreaking years at the helm of Ballett Frankfurt and then The Forsythe Company, he's left Germany and directing behind. At 67, he's launching a new chapter by returning to where it all began: He's back in the U.S. and back in ballet.
Where is “home" for you these days?
In Vermont, way up at the tippy top. I moved from Germany and I'm here now. I'm slowly adapting myself.
How's that going?
It's totally interesting because American companies have an entirely different way of operating. If you have a board, there are opinions involved, right? Whereas in Europe, your funding is decided by politics—which can often be very mercurial and ill-considered, too. But I totally enjoy learning something new. And actually trying to figure out how I can be helpful—seeing if there are other strategies companies haven't thought of that I can assist with, thinking of funding as a creative field rather than a daunting uphill thing.
Do you miss having your own company?
I miss the people. I had the luck to work with these incredible artists and I just miss their persons, you know?
But I like being back in ballet right now. And working with ballet dancers. My biggest epiphany recently was when I walked out of Paris, and I thought, Ballet is Olympian. You can't fake it. There's no “sort of."
Your Blake Works I last year at Paris Opéra Ballet had critics saying it “moved ballet into the future." How do you keep finding something new in ballet?
Well, that statement is a bit tricky because ballet is contemporary. Houston Ballet made me a T-shirt of this joke I said to them: “Somewhere, someone in the world is doing a tendu." Right now, this is the contemporary state of ballet. I didn't bring it someplace other than where it evolved on its own. I'm not working with special, extra-human ballet dancers at the Paris Opéra. I'm working with the history of the Paris Opéra, and their dancers and their traditions. I don't feel it's different than anyone else making a ballet now. And we're all friends—Justin and Alexei and Benjamin and Crystal. Everyone's trying to figure it out. People have these very different takes on it. We socialize and the conversations are very interesting.
Has teaching at the University of Southern California affected your approach?
What I really like about USC is that I get to practice legwork. The ideas that I was going to approach Paris Opéra with, I got to practice those at USC all year before I went. The USC students are like my lab. They learn the work, and also how I'm making the work. I really enjoy teaching, telling them everything I know about the subject. I didn't expect how much progress they'd make in a year. This generation is extremely…I'm thinking in German, I'm sorry. What is the word? Formed? Yep. Formed by popular culture, through YouTube and music videos. They apprehend new movement incredibly fast.
What do you hope to give to your students?
The same thing their parents sent them there for: self-reliance. I often put them in my position so they can understand why I said what I said, or why I'm seeing things the way I'm seeing them. And I ask them: In the future, how could you be the best possible person in the room in the sense of a collaborator, a leader, a person who's really able to communicate and build other people?
Do you have any new pieces in the works?
Oh, yeah, quite a few. I'm working on an evening with some of my ex-dancers and some urban dancers for Sadler's Wells. I'm working on a number of commissions for ballet companies. I've got big plans! But right now it's all smaller scale. Paris was a lot, which was really fun. Now I'm trying to make work that maybe doesn't need so much technical support.
Why go smaller?
I can very quietly start workshopping something here at home in my studio. I don't need to have a premiere date. I can just work on the piece itself, and then if I see something, I'll say something!
What is intriguing you as a choreographer right now?
Ballet. Ballet's fantastic. And actually, you know what's the most exciting thing? Good ballet dancers.
Have you noticed any changes in today's ballet dancers?
Yeah, their musicality has changed. Because each successive generation has been exposed more and more to popular music, their sense of timing is more sophisticated. Even at a place like Paris Opéra, where people get sort of isolated, they're touched by that change. Some of the best dancers there, like François Alu, also have a hip-hop background. People who are exposed to that usually are more sensitive to counterpoint and syncopation, obviously, but there is also a better sense of isolation and complicated coordination. I hope it'll boost people's creativities in the field, without doing hip hop, but just making ballets that reflect the beauty of urban musicalities.
With so many different projects, what do you do to relax?
Number one is to come to Vermont. I work in the woods, chopping up trees. The thing about woods is that they fall down. Trees grow up and trees fall down. We always forget that. I really like taking care of the forest. It's very rewarding and also very relaxing. And it's physical, too, so you're not sitting around. I don't like sitting around.
Where Is William Forsythe?
Teaching: As a faculty member at USC's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance and artistic advisor of the Choreographic Institute, he teaches for several weeks each semester.
Upcoming ballets this season:
• San Francisco Ballet, Pas/Parts 2016, Jan. 26–Feb. 5
• Boston Ballet, Artifact, Feb. 23–Mar. 5
• Pacific Northwest Ballet, New Suite, Mar. 17–26
• English National Ballet, In the middle, somewhat elevated, Mar. 23–Apr. 1
• The Washington Ballet, In the middle, somewhat elevated, Mar. 29–Apr. 2
• Paris Opéra Ballet, Trio and Herman Schmerman, Apr. 14–May 13
• New York City Ballet, Herman Schmerman (Pas de Deux), May 16, 20–21
• The Royal Ballet, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, May 18–31
Art installations: Now represented by the prestigious Gagosian gallery, Forsythe is currently showing two of his interactive art installations (which he calls “Choreographic Objects"): Doing and Undergoing at Brussels' Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, and The Fact of the Matter at Berlin's Akademie der Künste.
Film: His recent short film, “Alignigung," for Paris Opéra Ballet's online stage, 3e Scène, features former Forsythe Company dancer Riley Watts and L.A. dancer/acrobat Rauf “RubberLegz" Yasit.