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.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Last week, we highlighted the deliberately, hysterically bad @biscuitballerina Instagram account, created by a then-mysterious dancer with a great sense of humor. This week, the artist behind @biscuitballerina—who turns out to be Royal Ballet of Flanders corps member Shelby Williams—got in touch with us to set the record straight about the intentions of those LOL-worthy posts.
Her photos and videos, with their exaggeratedly cringe-worthy technical flaws, are NOT meant to mock amateur dancers. Instead, Williams is actually hoping the account will help all dancers move past their shortcomings and accept themselves and their dancing.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.