Choreography isn’t complete—it’s a proposal.—WF
Three striking images accompanied William Forsythe’s presence in Boston over the winter. A mysterious knot of bodies hovering in a white space, on the cover of the Institute of Contemporary Art’s catalogue for his four-month-long exhibition, “Choreographic Objects.” A solitary dancer in a body suit, black in front, orange in back, posed in profile with her spine deeply curved, surrounded by an empty stage at the beginning of Pas/Parts 2018, the first number in Boston Ballet’s “Full on Forsythe” program. And a full-page ad for the program, in The New Yorker magazine, with a photograph of a man lifting a woman upside down in a split, and musical captions naming five kinds of contemporary music. Provocative as these were intended to be, they didn’t equal the invigorating effect Forsythe had on the public and the ballet dancers alike. At age 69, Forsythe can hardly be called a mid-career artist, but he acts like a novice who’s looking for discovery every time.
All three works on the Boston Ballet program were termed premieres, but all of them had been seen before, at least in part. Forsythe treats his revivals like new pieces, making additions and adjustments for new interpreters. The “Choreographic Objects” show offered museum viewers a chance to create their own movement events and to act as spectators to those living exhibits as they were being made. With all his dance-company bridges burned (Stuttgart Ballet, 1973–1980; Frankfurt Ballet, 1984–2004; the Forsythe Company, 2005–2015), Forsythe now lives in Vermont and engages in teaching and special projects like the show at the ICA. He’s a professor and artistic advisor on choreography at the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. He’s in the middle of a 5-year choreographic residency at Boston Ballet. And he probably spends some time overseeing and supervising his other projects: books, websites, shows, and interactions with students, dancers, academics, and civilians.
In the past, Forsythe has offered dense program notes for his ballets. One time, they were so extensive I never got around to reading them. But nothing challenging surrounded Boston Ballet’s 2019 all-Forsythe program. As if to deflect audience qualms, artistic director Mikko Nissinen encouraged us to “Enjoy the ride.” No further clues were appended to the three works. Set to various species of contemporary music, Forsythe’s pieces energized and humanized the performers but preserved their identity as ballet dancers. Forsythe began his career as a ballet dancer; he isn’t a modern dancer, either by training or inclination. His dance is modern but not “modern” in the self-expressive sense of historic modern dance or in the personal modern dance of an Ohad Naharin. Forsythe’s ballets might look like Merce Cunningham dances, but he doesn’t acknowledge Cunningham as one of his mentors. Where Cunningham generated much of his movement by computer or disrupted his body’s intuitive flow by subjecting it to chance procedures, Forsythe seems to entrust movement to his own body and follow its preferences—he’s a flexible and inexhaustible mover, as can be seen in his videos. Dancers are encouraged to interpret his phrases in their own ways.
Without relying on the intervention of chance procedures, the Forsythian body can be fragmented and move in contrary ways. You often see two or three different things going on in a Forsythe dance simultaneously, Cuninghamlike. But unlike Cunningham, Forsythe is devoted to structure. His ballets are formal, even though they may look random or peculiar. Cunningham thwarted formalism at all times, depriving the audience of the chance to recognize and relax into material it had seen before. The music, lights, sets, and sometimes the choreography might be different for every performance of a given Cunningham dance, ensuring that the dancers and the audience wouldn’t sink into autopilot. Every move was new; every experience was a surprise. Forsythe’s dance is inventive too, but we sense a framework even when one is not on display. Especially in his recent works, the dancers preserve their balletic bodies and their presentational focus, even when they’re tilting out of the vertical or twisting away from front.
All three of the Boston ballets are deliberately “democratic” with all the dancers dressed alike or in male/female costumes. The ballets all have large casts. The dramatic lighting and the frequent fast turning sequences prevent you from getting a fix on the dancers’ faces. Even in solos and duets, Forsythe doesn’t observe ballet’s hierarchical dictum that plum roles should go to principal dancers. As often as not, he will choose a member of the corps to be featured in this way, and Boston Ballet has lots of strength in the lower ranks. The three ballets in “Full on Forsythe” looked a lot like each other, despite big differences in their musical accompaniments and small stylistic details. But in all three, I thought the company looked more at ease in the movement than I’ve ever seen them.
Pas/Parts 2018, which opened the program, was first choreographed in 1999 for the Paris Opera Ballet and built up in 2016 on the San Francisco Ballet. More parts were added last year when it premiered at Boston Ballet, and I don’t know if any new things have been incorporated since then. The score, by Forsythe’s frequent collaborator Thom Willems, consists of contrasting electronic sounds. The 17 or so dancers came and went, but the dance never stopped through all 20 separate numbers listed in the program. As initiated by Maria Alvarez in a solo that could have been a skewed and extremely stretched ballet barre, the movement suggested classroom effects that could go out of whack or soften into intimacy.
Blake Works I (made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016) was set to songs by James Blake. I don’t know Blake’s music, but the songs for this ballet, taken from his album The Colour of Anything, were introspective and vocally mobile, like Forsythe’s movement. The stage was surrounded by black drapes with invisible openings through which the 20 dancers could leave and enter unobtrusively. Opening with the whole cast in unison lines, the ensemble shrank into smaller groups and duets, and the balletic idiom got kinked out of shape. Forsythe gave small solos to several of the company’s excellent cohort of men, exploiting their speed and elevation and their ability to question the balletic proprieties.
The audience loved the last piece, Playlist (EP), listed as a premiere, although bits of it began in 2018 for the English National Ballet. Like its title, the dance was set to an eclectic assortment of pop tunes ranging from Peven Everett’s “Surely Shorty” to Natalie Cole’s “This Will Be an Everlasting Love.” Forsythe designed the women’s flared fuchsia mini-dresses and the men’s T-shirts and track pants. Perhaps cued by the club atmosphere of the music, flirtatious swishy shoulders and tilting heads belonged to the women, and the men caught a springy Latin rhythm. After a big group number to the last of six songs, Kathleen Breen Combes and John Lam appeared briefly, perhaps representing a senior generation in the company. Then the rest returned for a showbiz finale, all together at the footlights, as the audience roared its approval.
I feel the project of the democratic dance is almost impossible to achieve within a theatre . . . It seems that only by ambushing amateurs can you arrive at a truly democratic way of organizing dance.—WF
Days before “Full on Forsythe” opened, “Choreographic Objects” came to a close across town at the Institute of Contemporary Art. Worlds apart from the proscenium experience in the opera house, the show at the ICA offered its audience a series of open-ended but structured invitations for mind-body exploration. As Forsythe told curator Eva Respini in a talk at the end of the show’s run: “I’m always in the process of reconfiguring—-thinking how else you can do it. Choreography is a process of problem solving. We’re setting up problems in a chaotic and unpredictable environment, where the possibility you can fail is what makes it exciting.”
The exhibition was strung out along several galleries on the ICA’s top floor. Emerging from the elevator, you entered a room (“City of Abstracts”) with one mirrored wall. Well, it seemed an ordinary mirror until you focused in on the crowded reflection. Then you realized the people in it were oddly shaped and out of scale, as if they were in some giant fun house.
The wall was set up to distort the images in both space and time. As Forsythe explained it, whereas a video camera projects hundreds of lines together, the software for “City of Abstracts” feeds images one by one, scrolling them from the top with an intentional time delay. Any movement would leave its path in a slowly decaying trace form. As the subjects moved, they’d see their crazy doubles in the mirror, not as bodies, but as drifting zigzags, chains, spirals, bending-over trees. Encouraged to try different movements, the museum-goers would find out “what’s anomalous and what’s regular,” according to Forsythe. In my two visits to the show (the press opening day in October and almost the last day, during school vacation in February), I saw people fascinated with seeing themselves as giraffes, snakes, locomotives. They leaped, they skipped, they ran and waved scarves. They gazed at what they’d created with awe and delight.
The next gallery, a room filled with gymnastic rings hanging at different heights, with mats underneath, was called “Fact of Matter.” The task, to make your way through this moving jungle gym without using the floor, looked like fun. Tricky though. I failed in my attempt to mount the rings, but other museum-goers took to it. Chaperoned by their teachers or relatives, hordes of kids from toddlers to teenagers grabbed at the challenge. I noticed most of the climbers stayed in the rings closer to the floor; a few rose toward the ceiling. Some climbers made it from one end of the room to the other, but not many. Defeated kids recovered and went right back in to try again. The movers seemed preoccupied with figuring out how to snag the nearest ring as it swung nearby. Often it would swing away before the mover got his or her leg out in the right direction and readjusted. The spectators, directed by the staff to stand around the edges, got to see wonderful moves as their companions reached and telescoped and slipped around the rings. In his February 21st Artist Talk with Respini, Forsythe remarked that what was most interesting to him about this installation was “why you think you should keep going.”
In the next room, two short film loops titled Antipodes l/II demonstrated novel moves assisted by technology. Forsythe seemed to push himself up, head-down, from two tables. Gripping with one arm as the rest of him rose into what seemed like midair, he levitated upwards. He performed slow somersaults as if resting in outer space. He hung by his shoulders, apparently from the ceiling. A wall calendar was provided to help the viewer orient herself to gravity as the dancer seemed to be contradicting it. I flashed back to Fred Astaire’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” in the 1951 movie Royal Wedding.
Another uncanny film was Alignigung, a document of two nearly naked men wrapped together (Riley Watts and Rauf “Rubberlegz” Yasit).They seemed to float in a non-space, created by a white background and floor as a camera moved around them. The viewer couldn’t tell where the men were or even what they were, as they slowly shifted their positions in their locked-together embrace. The film was based on Forsythe’s 2012 dance Stellentstellen. “I wanted Tiepolo,” Forsythe said, tagging the Baroque painter whose angels and biblical characters hover in the ceiling frescoes of churches in Venice.
The “Differential Room” was reserved for small structured improvisations with instructions posted on six chalkboards. The visitor was given exercises that seemed simple but were hard to execute, like lifting the heel of one foot and jumping many times until you’re exhausted, without changing your facial expression. Forsythe called this exercise “Act I,” referring to the ballerina’s famous hopping variation in Giselle. Another board listed about eight tasks without specifying whether they were connected. On a mat below the board, recruits could start by lying down, then they were to stretch an arm or leg in contrary directions. I watched a young woman with green fingernails lie on the mat while her friend read the instructions to her. Laughing, they gave up after about four tasks. The same women walked around a large bench in the center of the room, turning, as instructed, after a certain number of steps. I tried one instruction where you sat on another bench, walked a certain number of steps, then turned and went back to the same place with your eyes closed. The problems, invented for Boston, would replicate tasks that ballet dancers have to master. Stripped of ballet language, they called on everyday moves with hard choices to make. They brought into play the fragile connections between body and mind—you had to do something physically while your mind was telling you to do something else.
There were objects in the show that the audience could literally pick up and manipulate. If you tried to hold a feather duster absolutely still in your hand, you’d find it wavering, its apparent weightlessnes absorbing the motion of your own heartbeat and pulse. A seemingly ordinary door turned unreasonably heavy when you tried to open it. Wide tapes tied in knots were intractable when you tried to change the knots.
Another space was built so that the “ceiling” was only a few feet above the floor. People crawled and slithered into it, then explored ways to move with this restriction. Kids dove in with enthusiasm. In Forsythe’s public talk, he and Eva Respini noted they’d observed lots of activities going on in this simulated cave: people read their mail or watched video on their phones, they told each other stories. “It became a social space,” Forsythe remarked.
The last room in the show, “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time,” was a gallery filled with light and the soft sound of 80 small weighty objects (builders’ plumb bobs) swinging from the high ceiling on thin cords. The other sound was a quiet clicking, made by the computerized boxes to which the strings were attached; they’d been programmed to slide the strings along short tracks in what seemed like random patterns. The only instruction given was to make your way through the room. If the strings had been still, this would have been a cinch, but the randomness of the swing-paths made negotiating through them a challenge. When I tried it, one of the objects hit my ankle. I was surprised how heavy it was. Watching from the sidelines, I saw people twisting and leaning their way through the dense forest of moving obstacles. Some got caught in the mechanism and pulled a weight off its mooring. A museum guard ventured in to collect fallen strings.
I saw the show twice. It satisfied me in many ways besides my personal enjoyment as a spectator and mover. Its deliberately simple setups and apparatus succeeded in drawing ordinary people of all ages into a physical experience and possibly, as Forsythe had wanted, into a greater awareness of their own bodies. It satisfied my lifelong calling as a people-watcher to see how many solutions could be found to the same problems. Then I had more practical questions. How were the pendulums in “Nowhere and Everywhere” programmed? How did Forsythe’s “Antipodes” films get made? Did any of the “communities” and personal contacts that popped out of the exercises continue after the participants left the ICA building? What were the possible long-term rewards of one’s initial insights and contacts?
What else, besides the body, could physical thinking look like?—WF
The ICA’s hefty catalogue that accompanied “Choreographic Objects,” edited by Louise Neri and Eva Respini, includes generous photos of Forsythe’s exhibitions in Europe, selective archival information, and contributions by the editors, Forsythe, and scholars from the dance and art fields. Respini, who curated the show, describes the encounters between dance/performance and museums. The ICA has sponsored several of these events, part of the recent trend in cultural restitution aimed at breaking down the public’s resistance to high culture and bringing more patrons into museums. The process has rebounded to infuse museum art with new ideas. Respini describes the way Forsythe’s thinking applied the principles of dance choreography to ordinary situations. The choreographer, in an interview with editor Neri, offers an account of his career and how his ideas developed out of specific dances and environments.
Forsythe talks in abstractions. He seldom describes particular movements or effects. I sometimes think he doesn’t want to dictate how people will use or interpret his instructions. His language can sound like an elaborate way to circumvent direct comprehension, though he probably means to be transparent. There’s a great 2015 photograph of him in the catalogue, seated with his legs stretched out, on the edge of what I thought of as the cave space. The real title of this Object was “A Volume, within which it is Not Possible for Certain Classes of Action to Arise.” Critic-historian Roslyn Sulcas, in her essay on his choreographic strategies, is much more straightforward. She points out that both his dance work and his movement gambits for nondancers are “informed by consistent preoccupations and explorations.” These include avoidance, or “moving around an imaginary form”; disfocus, or counter-classical moves; disorientation, or “losing a specific point of orientation”; failure, as in off-balance, over-extension, and odd coordinations; and inhibition, or impeding the completion of the task or phrase. Sulcas, now based in London, is writing Forsythe’s biography.
Forsythe is a fascinating if enigmatic character. He can be intimidating: the sumptuous but seemingly simple installations, the ponderous program notes and explanatory materials, the crowds of famous artists and intellectuals around him. But when you translate these accoutrements into plain words and actions, he’s very immediate and even down to earth. His proposals are deliberately unsettling: If “the present is always the perfect moment,” then how do we account for him in the aftermath? This is the critic’s problem. I look forward to our next chances to try and solve it.