Sofiane Sylve doesn't mince words. "If you are just going through the motions," she says to her trainee class at the San Francisco Ballet School, "we might as well stay home."
The veteran SFB principal is famed as much for her directness as for her exquisite technique, astonishing interpretive range and captivating stage presence. "I don't do average," she says in an interview at SFB headquarters, across a tree-lined street from the War Memorial Opera House. "If somebody has made the effort to come and sit in the audience, I'm going to give everything I have. There is no holding back."
These are among the first words Sylve has said to the press since she joined SFB as a principal in 2008. Defiant of the trend for self-promotion, she avoids interviews and social media. "I'm highly, highly private," says the French-born ballerina, who turns 41 this month. "I'd rather spend time in the studio."
We're not ashamed to admit it: The Dance Magazine staff is a big bunch of dance history nerds. But we also know that, sometimes, learning about our art form's past via textbook can feel stale. That's why we completely lost it (in a good way) when Seet Dance, a contemporary school in Sydney, Australia, contacted us about their special take on dance history. As part of their curriculum, they recreate scenes from famous modern and contemporary works with Legos.
Yes. You read that right. With Legos! Who doesn't love Legos?
And the level of detail—from the figures' positions to their costumes and the accompanying sets—shows a keen understanding of these iconic moments.
Browse through some of Seet Dance's set-ups below, and put your own dance history knowledge to the test. How many do you recognize? Scroll to the bottom for the choreographer and name of each work, and links to clips of these memorable performances.
All photos Courtesy Seet Dance
Kathryn Bennetts credits William Forsythe's Artifact with changing her life. “I've heard a lot of people say that—the piece is just a monster in its importance," she says during a break in rehearsals at Boston Ballet, where she and Noah Gelber are staging the full-length work for what will be its North American company premiere tomorrow night.
Bennetts has danced in and staged Forsythe ballets for more than 30 years as a Stuttgart Ballet soloist, ballet mistress at the Frankfurt Ballet and artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders. “Audiences are transported, even overwhelmed, by the enormity of Artifact. It ends with a bang, after which the audience tends to sit in silence for a minute."
“It makes you think about society and life for days after," she says.
Video by Ernesto Galan, Courtesy Boston Ballet
Even as a seminal work—the first full-length ballet Forsythe created as director of Frankfurt Ballet in 1984—Artifact is not pinned to its place in history, forever under glass. Forsythe has allowed his “ode to ballet" to evolve with the advancement of ballet technique and his own experience as a choreographer, says Bennetts.
For the first ballet of a new five-year relationship with Boston Ballet, Forsythe came to town just a few weeks before opening night to tweak certain parts to suit specific dancers, while creating a new group section before the finale and updating Act Three. (In the early years, Act Three gradually included less improvisation and more structure. “Part three in Frankfurt was rather crazy aggressive," says Bennetts.)
Boston Ballet rehearses Artifact. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
“Bill doesn't hold on to the past," Bennetts explains. “He doesn't get sentimental; he can just let it go." After all, Forsythe was 33 years old when he choreographed Artifact. “Now he says he's a grandpa. His movement is less harsh, less like an attack."
He wants this to be the Boston version, says Bennetts. “Bill always wants to update certain parts for the dancers in front of him. It challenges them, but it's also an older piece and the technique has improved."
Forsythe working with Misa Kuranaga. Photo by Liza Voll, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Forsythe is also spending time with the Boston Ballet dancers just as he's discovering his enthusiasm for ballet again. “He took a break for a long time, and I think he's having fun challenging himself as much as the dancers," says Bennetts. “This process is also for himself—he's like a painter or an actor watching himself in film. He has examined this work for more than 30 years and never had time to fix it."
“I've never met anyone not blown away by this piece, but every choreographer has doubts," she adds. “Recently he said to me, 'I can actually do this.' "
Photo by Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet
We're sure of it.
William Forsythe's full-length Artifact runs February 23–March 5, 2017 at the Boston Opera House.
Mondays can be a struggle. But thanks to 52 Portraits, a dance video series produced by Sadler's Wells, I get my #MondayMotivation courtesy of some of the coolest dancers and choreographers working today. Every Monday, the site posts a new video "portrait" of a dance artist; the plan is to release one for every Monday of 2016. The portraits are by turns funny, thought-provoking and poignant, but all are equally gripping for distinctly individual reasons.
The project is a collaboration between choreographer Jonathan Burrows, composer Matteo Fargion and videographer Hugo Glendinning. Each video is brief, some only a minute long, and features a dance artist at a table in front of a simple black backdrop. The choreography is primarily gestural, reflective of the subject's individual style and background; the lyrics are comprised of statements made by the subject during the filming process, set to the tune of existing songs. The result is a deeply personal glimpse of the dancer or choreographer at a moment in time.
Take, for example, this portrait of choreographer Crystal Pite.
Pite shows off her lighting-quick hands and arms, repeating small sets of frustrated, precise movements as the score describes her struggles with memory since having her child.
Or Zenaida Yanowsky, a longtime principal dancer with The Royal Ballet. Yanowsky subtly adjusts and readjusts her classical port de bras with a fluidity that suggests her portrayal of Odette. The quiet music says that this piece is partly about her dealing with the thought of retirement.
One of the strangest yet most mesmerizing videos is William Forsythe's. The lyrics report Forsythe's musings on creativity in the kitchen to his garden to the place of dance in the world, while the choreographer, wearing a mask and a hoodie, plays with the folding of his hands and wrists across and above the table. He settles his fists, then his elbows on the table and looks at the camera directly as we hear, "He says moving makes him curious."
I'm not familiar with the work of all of the artists on the site, but getting to know them through these portraits has resulted in some delightful surprises. Today's contribution from London-based choreographer Seke Chimutengwende, accompanied only by a recording of him "making a sound of the dance he is dancing," brought a smile to my face. His fully embodied movements seem to illustrate a creative thought process.
All of the previous portraits and the accompanying lyrics are available to view on the 52 Portraits website. I, for one, can't wait to see what inspiration they have in store for next week.
American dancers have always liked to think of William Forsythe as one of our own. He was born in New York City! He got his start dancing with The Joffrey Ballet! No matter that he's spent the vast majority of his career in Europe, where he created ground-breaking works like In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, and directed Ballet Frankfurt for 20 years then The Forsythe Company for 10 years. We die-hard Forsythe fans have always held out hope that one day he'd make his return.
William Forsythe, photo courtesy USC.
Now, it seems like our dream is finally coming true. When he left The Forsythe Company last year, he insisted he was looking for a more nomadic lifestyle, hopping from one company to the next without being stuck in any one place. He quickly became both Paris Opéra Ballet's associate choreographer, as well as a professor at the University of Southern California's new dance department.
But with his POB contract up, Forsythe is following Benjamin Millepied's lead and leaving the company. His last program of works there (in his official capacity as associate choreographer, at least) will be performed next month.
And right now, it seems like most of his future plans will bring him back to the U.S.(!)
Boston Ballet recently announced a five-year partnership: Starting next season, the dancers will get one new Forsythe work added to their rep each year. (No word yet on whether those will be new creations, but artistic director Mikko Nissinen is hopeful).
Then this week, we found out that the previously announced "Celebrate Forsythe" program at The Music Center in Los Angeles—in which Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet will each dance one of his works—has expanded into a month-long "Fall for Forsythe" extravaganza. Hurray! Check out the lineup of events:
September 29-30: Focus Forsythe: The Choreographer's Process
Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, University of Southern California
Everyone's invited into the brand-spanking new USC studios to get an insider's look into Forsythe's process. How does he do what he does? Watch him develop work on the students in real time, then listen to USC Kaufman vice dean Jodie Gates lead a conversation between Forsythe and two of his longtime collaborators, Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman.
October 14: Futures in Motion
Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center, University of Southern California
As part of a three-day summit hosted by the USC Choreographic Institute (an interdisciplinary research center that Forsythe advises), this presentation will look at his "Synchronous Objects," an interactive website that translates and re-imagines the organizational structures Forsythe uses to create his choreography.
October 15-16: Site-Specific Forsythe
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Rauf "Rubberlegz" Yasit and Riley Watts in Stellentstellen (2016). Photo via LACMA.
The ultimate mash-up of bodies, Stellentstellen (2016) will be performed by dancers Rauf “Rubberlegz" Yasit and Riley Watts. Watch them entangle themselves until you can't tell who's limb is whose.
Students from USC will take on an immersive dance challenge in Acquisition, a new creation by Forsythe. A press release promises it will "offer visitors the opportunity to personally acquire the choreographic work, which consists of an apparently simple, but cognitively challenging choreographic task." Intriguing.
October 1-23: Forsythe Designed: A Costume Exhibition
Los Angeles-area locations to be announced
Misa Kuranaga in Stephen Galloway's Vertiginous tutu. Photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy Boston Ballet.
Love 'em or hate 'em, you can't forget those tutus from The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. This exhibit offers an up-close look at costumes Forsythe designed himself, as well as some he developed with fashion designers like Gianni Versace, Issey Miyake and Stephen Galloway. It will also include videos of dancers performing in the costumes.
October 21-23: Celebrate Forsythe
The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
To cap off the month-long celebration, the cherry on top of the sundae will be Houston Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet sharing a program of Forsythe works. (Apparently, each was personally chosen by the choreographer himself.) Houston Ballet will dance Artifact Suite, Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and San Francisco Ballet will do Pas/Parts 2016.
Personally, I'm thinking of starting a campaign to name October "Forsythe Month." In the meantime, I can't wait to find out what other Forsythe goodies might be in store.
Boston Ballet principal Misa Kuranaga in Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
For most dancers, performing (or even watching) William Forsythe's electric, exaggerated vocabulary is an exhilarating experience. For dancers at Boston Ballet, it will soon be a new norm. Today, the company announced a five-year partnership with the master choreographer starting next season. Although Forsythe will be fresh off his position as associate choreographer at Paris Opéra Ballet this summer, according to a story in The New York Times, preparations have been underway for several years. The dancers have even been workshopping with former Forsythe performer (and Harvard dance director) Jill Johnson to familiarize themselves with his process and style.
So what can dancers and audiences expect? Boston Ballet will add one new Forsythe work to its repertoire for the next five years. Artifact is first up, in February 2017. Although the other works are still being nailed down, artistic director Mikko Nissinen told the Times that he hoped Boston would have the chance to perform works that aren't often seen in North America. No world premieres have been confirmed, but that doesn't mean they're off the table. “Mikko’s support of the work means that the dancers and I can deepen our wonderful relationship,” Forsythe said in a statement to the Times. “And I will have a new home for new ideas.”
It's a major step for the company, especially these days when many dance institutions want a taste of Forsythe. (Both Pacific Northwest Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago mounted all-Forythe programs in 2015, and he's also on faculty at the new dance program at the University of Southern California.)
If you're like me and can't wait until February, get your Forsythe fix with this clip, featuring footage from a compressed version of Artifact danced by the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and the choreographer's thoughts on the work.
Benjamin Millepied on his predecessors, the French style and his ambitious new era at Paris Opéra Ballet
Millepied working with Aurélie Dupont. Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy POB (2)
Ever since the news broke in 2013 that Benjamin Millepied would be artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, many wondered whether the Bordeaux-born choreographer and former New York City Ballet principal was experienced enough to handle the oft-insular company. The unveiling of POB’s 2015–16 season—the first programmed by Millepied—demonstrates that he has the ambition to steer it in a new direction. With 20 creations or company premieres, it puts the focus firmly on new classical choreography. Millepied’s masterstroke is the appointment of William Forsythe as associate choreographer; top names in ballet, from Alexei Ratmansky to Justin Peck, will also make the trip to France next season. Local reactions have been mixed due to the quasi-absence of French choreography, but change is in the air: Millepied is shaking up the status quo in everything from health care to casting. As the company gears up for a brand-new era, the young director sat down for a frank assessment of his new home, and a taste of things to come.
You went from a small operation with L.A. Dance Project to the huge machine that is the Paris Opéra Ballet. Was the transition a shock?
I’m very aware that the two jobs are completely different. The idea behind LADP was to create a home for the American modern dance repertory, but Paris is bringing me back to my career as a dancer. It’s a ballet company, first and foremost. Of course there are all the issues that go with the size—the bureaucracy, the French laws, the unions. There is stuff in the system that’s 150 years old, and there is so much talk about tradition!
How did you construct your first season?
Everything is about choreography and its relationship to music. My goal here is to focus on ballet: I want a repertoire that will challenge the dancers’ technique, utilize their talents. In a way it’s a transition season with Brigitte Lefèvre because there is also some contemporary work with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maguy Marin, but I chose pieces where the craft of choreography is almost balletic. The seasons after this one will be more classical.
Millepied giving notes on his Daphnis et Chloé
The season has an American feel to it, with Balanchine, Robbins and Justin Peck. How do you feel about the French repertoire, and choreographers like Roland Petit or Maurice Béjart?
I have to get to know their work. My interest doesn’t necessarily lie there, but there are ballets which may be relevant on some programs. My time here is also a chance to do something different for a while, and I don’t see why I should deprive myself of the best people making ballet today, from Alexei Ratmansky to Justin Peck. At some point I won’t be here anymore—I’m sure they’ll get to do other ballets again.
Nureyev productions have dominated the classics in Paris. Do you want to keep them?
We are doing his La Bayadère and Romeo and Juliet next season, and I’m going to keep some of his other works, but not all. There are some where the choreography is really lovely, but essentially he made things that he loved to do himself. He liked difficulty, oppositions, things that are quite awkward. But that’s because he loved technique so much: You have to find that pleasure when you dance his choreography.
You immediately started casting young dancers in big roles, starting with Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet in Nutcracker.
I feel it’s very important to give dancers roles at the right time, and you have to start quite young if you want to see an evolution. But I want to try to push everybody up, not just young dancers. I want everyone to have more opportunities, which is why we’re doing a ballet like Goldberg Variations next season.
How would you define the French style nowadays?
What I retain of the French style is the elegance, the restraint. But in the last 10 years, I’m missing a lot of the essentials: the épaulement, the musicality... This company had these things at one point, more so than today. There’s been too much concern with positions and not with how you move from one to the next. I want more contrast, more life.
Do you plan on doing away with the infamous internal competition, the concours de promotion?
We’ll see. I think it’s anti-art: You can’t rank dancers, and it’s completely unfair to judge them on one day. The dancers say it’s a chance for them to be seen, but when I started to teach class, a lot of people didn’t come because they were afraid to show themselves. There are a lot of contradictions. If they want to keep the concours, in a way, too bad for them.
Injuries have been a major issue at POB. How are you addressing it?
Dance medicine doesn’t exist in France, and unfortunately that goes along with not knowing how to take care of your body. I’ve been looking for staff to work with me. I found a French orthopedist who is aware of the problem, and we’re bringing in new PTs, Gyrotonic, massages. The culture is going to change, and I want people I can talk to so I know what’s wrong with the dancers and how to cast them.
You’ve mentioned the need for more diversity. Do you want to hire from outside the POB School?
I want to bring in the best possible people, period. I’m not going to just hire from the school if I have better people from outside when we audition.
How will the new academy for young choreographers work?
I think ballet should be taught like music composition. It’s a craft, and choreographers need to have the keys to find their voice. We’ll select a few people from the company and two choreographers from outside, and for one year they will have dance history classes and mentors to work with them. William Forsythe will be a part of it as our new associate choreographer. It’s everything that I wish I’d had.
Is choreography taking a back seat for now in your own life?
I look at choreography differently now. I want to create work that’s right for the company, challenges the dancers, teaches them how to partner. The work I will create next season will be for the corps, to push them.
What are the challenges of being a choreographer-director?
I believe that ballet companies belong to choreographers. You could say some choreographers don’t have management skills, but a ballet company should have someone at the helm with a very clear vision for ballet. If you think of Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky or Justin Peck, they make people dance a certain way. The system that I arrive in here makes it hardly possible to do that. The truth is that today the real tradition of ballet, as it should be, is in America. Whether or not you like how the companies are dancing, they are the right size and the director can have a real impact on the dancing, starting in class. Here, with 154 dancers, seven company classes every day, two theaters, it’s very hard.
You’ve been called an American in Paris by the French press—do you feel French or American now?
Both. I have 20 years of experience in America, but I felt French my whole life there. I think when you come in from the outside, you always bring something.
Choose an improv method that will challenge your weaknesses.
Freedman (left) practices a phrase in the studio. Photo by Anna Maynard, Courtesy Helen Simoneau.
Often, the key to growing as a dancer is getting out of a mental or physical rut. One solution? Improvisation. Its unpredictable, uncomfortable challenges can help dancers find their voices while fostering playfulness and body awareness. But each style of improvisation—Gaga, Forsythe and contact are among today’s most popular choices—has its own strengths. Whether you’re looking to improve your partnering skills, inspire movement creation or become a more confident performer, choosing a method that targets your weaknesses can help you discover something new about yourself.
Uninhibited and often wild, the stylistic qualities of Ohad Naharin’s movement language Gaga are popular in choreography today. Naharin’s work is performed by his Batsheva Dance Company (see page 48) and repertory troupes like Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and has inspired flocks of successful choreographers like former Batsheva dancers Hofesh Shechter and Andrea Miller. “Gaga is certainly a window into a whole aesthetic, which seems to be pretty widespread at the moment,” says Ariel Freedman, a former Batsheva dancer who teaches Gaga classes internationally. “It’s very much about connecting to your untamed and unpredictable nature. And playing with the very fine line between being in and out of control.”
Dancers enjoy Gaga classes because they’re physically and mentally engaging from start to finish. But what’s most difficult, for first-timers and experienced dancers alike, is letting go of the presentational quality that traditional training develops and embracing the style’s raw nature. “Allow yourself to be very silly, perhaps absurd—the many versions of you that are less often asked for in a technique class,” says Freedman. Gaga can help dancersovercome shyness and insecurity, which leads to making bold choices and dancing with abandon—all helpful whether you’re choreographing, auditioning or taking the stage.
For Freedman, exploring her body’s range in Gaga helped her become a more versatile and flexible dancer. “In the time since I’ve been doing Gaga, people comment on how unrestricted, how unbound my body is physically.” She credits this as much to Gaga’s mental training as its physical methods. “My mind and body together experienced a kind of unbinding, a release.”
At its finest, contact improvisation is complex and daring, with partners working through lifts, falls and counterbalances together. Because the study incorporates principals of martial arts (aikido and tai chi), dancers become very aware of energy, effort and the space around them.
One of contact’s great learning curves is being able to trust another person with your body weight during moments of disorientation. “It can be quite scary for someone whose training has taught them to balance,” says Chris Aiken, a dance professor at Smith College who studied under improv great Nancy Stark Smith. Dancers must rely less on visual stimuli and more on physical sensation. “When you practice contact, as much as 80 percent of what you’re responding to is touch, and that has a way of reorganizing your perceptual systems,” he says.
Because of this shift, Aiken says it’s important to make peace with the fact that expertise takes time. Eventually, you’ll take away fine-tuned partnering skills with a much sharper sense of exactly how much force a movement requires. This can make for more dynamic dancing—with or without a partner—and a heightened perception of how to adapt to the bodies around you.
Jill Johnson and dancer Sokvannara (Sy) Sar work through a Forysthe modality. Photo by Rachel Papo for Dance Teacher.
Forsythe Improvisation Technologies
Although William Forsythe designed his movement language on ballet dancers, its principles can boost anyone’s creativity. “It’s beyond a stylistic approach—it’s an approach to the creative process,” says Harvard University dance director Jill Johnson, who danced for Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. “We’re cultivating the ability to respond to any given moment.” With more than 130 modalities, or prompts, such as “room writing,” which involves tracing an imagined room with a specific part of your body, the possibilities for invention are endless.
A challenging—and rewarding—element of Forsythe’s technique is allowing each body part to process movement possibilities on its own. For instance, drawing a shape with your knee is a completely different experience than drawing it with your nose. But through these isolated studies, dancers discover the full range of their bodies, and learn how to initiate movement from unexpected places. “The hope is that the dancers will be empowered with new forms of self-expression that they can utilize as an artist, building a library of resources,” says Johnson. “And it can be greatly individualized. Some may learn through imagery and others may find a structural sense that helps them soar.”