After four decades in Germany, choreographer William Forsythe returns to the U.S.—and to his ballet roots.
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?
Setting work at PNB. PC Angela Sterling for Pointe
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.
SFB's Maria Kochetkova and Francisco Mungamba in Pas/Parts 2016. PC Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
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?
Last year's Blake Works I at the Paris Opéra Ballet. PC Julien Benhamou, Courtesy POB.
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.
Leading a lecture-demonstration at USC. PC Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy USC.
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.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!
We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."