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"It's in my will that when I die my work won't be performed."


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 02 November 2001 - 10:31 AM

That provocative quote is from Ismene Brown's interview of the ever-provocative William Forsythe

http://makeashorterlink.com/?I2D561F1

Brown immediately brings up the objection that with this attitude there would be no Giselle or no Swan Lake. Forsythe counters that ballet would be fine, other living choreographers will fill the void. It's a fascinating discussion no matter which side of the issue you are on.

I wrote an article that was published in Ballet Review, Spring 2000 which posited that one of Forsythe's problems with classicism is his questioning of the very nature of time and continuity. Interesting to see that theme echoed and it's interesting to see that as time passed, the auteur has become more important than the work. I think that's a much larger movement that began when artists in all disciplines stopped working anonymously and continued on through copyright.

There's plenty to discuss in the article. What do people think?

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 02 November 2001 - 10:44 AM

Leigh, the line you refer to is at the very end of this piece -- I choked several paragraphs earlier, at the claim that "Forsythe is Balanchine's most convincing heir." Not that I'd nominate anyone else for that position, but the relationship between Forsythe, Balanchine and Petipa is that of a rock to a tree -- they're both found in nature. That's it.

Since I'm definitely in the camp that Forsythe is "intellectual bubble gum" I won't contest his will smile.gif But seriously, I think he has a point. Having seen most of the ballets I love destroyed, lost, trashed or distorted beyond recognition after the deaths of their creators, I think he might be speaking in self-defense. It's not that Time Moves On, or that ballet masters are not men of good will and set out to destroy ballets, but that each choreographer worthy of the name has a different style, different way of moving dancers, different way of defining ballet. Forsythe's dancers could not dance Ashton (any more than Cunningham dancers would look good in Taylor, or vice versa).

At the Ballet Russe reunion a few summers ago, one of the grand old ballerinas said (I'm told) that she prayed no one would try to revive Massine's work. "Let it die." Of course, I'd love to have a company that treasures works of the past and has the ballet masters who can set them -- the Royal Ballet of Ruritania, in my mythology. But the people who can do this are even more rare than choreographers.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 03 November 2001 - 12:34 AM

What about the question in general, not just as it relates to Mr. Forsythe. Should ballets disappear with their choreographer's death? And, after what's happened to the works of Ashton -- some that he asked not be performed have been -- and Graham -- a whole 'nother can of worms -- CAN a choreographer protect his works after his death, or prevent them from being done? A painter can burn the canvases. A choreographer is dependent on the kindness of strangers.


Does Forsythe have the right -- perhaps moral right, if not legal right -- to keep his works from being performed after his death? Do future generations have the right to see his work? There are a lot of interesting issues in this topic. Opinions, please.

#4 felursus

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Posted 04 November 2001 - 02:59 AM

Interestingly, choreographers have tried to control who can dance what and when in their lifetime and reaching into post death. The Balanchine Trust is an obvious example. Another is Jerry Robbins. I was told that when the Royal Ballet were "given" "Dances At A Gathering" a largish number of people were taught the various roles, and more were taught roles as time went on, but Robbins had stipulated that a certain number of the group that had been taught by him had to be in any one cast for the ballet to go on. Eventually, all those dancers got older and retired, so the ballet can no longer be performed by the RB. Does Robbins have a Trust for the staging of his works?

#5 salzberg

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Posted 04 November 2001 - 03:56 AM

[quote]Originally posted by alexandra:
Does Forsythe have the right -- perhaps moral right, if not legal right -- to keep his works from being performed after his death?

Absolutely. It's his work -- his intellectual property. To argue otherwise is to open a Pandora's box; it's just a short hop down the road from arguing that his copyright is not morally valid during his lifetime and that anyone, anywhere, is free to perform his choreography.

[ November 11, 2001: Message edited by: salzberg ]



#6 Estelle

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Posted 04 November 2001 - 09:42 AM

A famous example of an artist who wanted his works to die at the same time as him is Franz Kafka, who had asked his friend Max Brod to burn all his manuscripts. Max Brod didn't obey- perhaps not a very faithful gesture, but better for the history of literature... I wonder if Brod actually owned the copyright for Kafka's works, and if what he did really was legal?

But the situation for ballet is quite different from that of literature: a text is fixed and doesn't depend on staging and interpretation (though sometimes there are problems of abusive cuts and rewritings by heirs... For example it happened with Rimbaud's correspondance, the first
published version of it had been changed by his sister and brother-in-law, in a rather stupid way in general... For example they had changed the sums of money he mentioned because they wanted him to look richer than he actually was! rolleyes.gif )
so it's less likely to be destroyed.

While it is the right of the choreographer to forbid his works to be danced after his death, I think that it'd be a pity if all choreographers did that- and I'd rather see a distorted work that nothing at all.

Also the idea that seeing only recent works would be fine disturbs me. Leigh wrote: "Forsythe counters that ballet would be fine, other living choreographers will fill the void." Well, perhaps I've missed something, but it doesn't seem to me that many works as great and lasting as "Giselle" or "Swan lake" have been created in the last few years. Not all artistic periods are equally rich...

That's anecdotical, but I couldn't help laughing while reading "Paris Opera Ballet is his favourite outside company."- remembering an interview in a German newspaper one or two years ago where he was extremely negative and scornful about the POB dancers, calling them "soulless robots" for example.

#7 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 05 November 2001 - 07:30 PM

The more I think about what Forsythe said, the more it proves to me that Forsythe is uninterested in classical ballet, or that his interest is flawed. As I said before, to be interested in classical ballet means to be interested in its tradition. It isn't classical without a tradition, and it's not ballet, either. Balanchine may have always said that he didn't care what happens after he died, but at the same time, he set in place an institution, and that institution preserved his work. This did not happen by accident no matter what he said.

If every choreographer behaved like Forsythe, any choreographic tradition would be strangled at the roots, assuming myopically that the only thing they might need to know is what came just before them (if that at all.) To assume that future choreographers will fill a void in choreography when the only work they see is the generation immediately before them is not the thought of a choreographer interested in classicism. I understand these thoughts coming out of an auteur choreographer where the work is inextricably mixed with the choreographer (I thought it took real courage for Bella Lewitzky to close her company down). Nor does this make Forsythe's work better or worse, it is what it is. But why do people want to hand the succession of ballet to "Balanchine's most convincing heir" who couldn't give a damn where it came from and where it goes once he's done with it?

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 05 November 2001 - 08:36 PM

Picking up on Leigh's point about the difference between what one says and what one does, Balanchine gave his ballets to many, many companies, which insured that his work would continue after his death. I'm not saying that was his motivation; I don't know, one way or the other. But I think often we make a lot of quotes -- that Ashton was always saying his work was negligible. That's good manners, not to brag, not an artistic manifesto.

Not surprisingly, I'm on the side of keeping works alive, or as alive as possible. I'm with Estelle. I'll always go to see an old "classic," no matter what shape it's in.

#9 Richard Jones

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Posted 10 November 2001 - 04:41 PM

The parallel with music gives food for thought. Nineteenth century performances of Bach became more and more romantic; then, in the twentieth century the movement to recover authentic performance of old music arose. However, I have heard many 'authentic' performances of Bach which seem to be totally at odds with each other! Of course, the act of re-creation inevitably provides us with a fresh view of a work of art. Somehow, Bach survives; the spirit of the age (present age, that is) seems to give approval to a particular style of re-interpretation. I can remember 'authentic' performances of Bach from the 1960's that would be totally at odds with what is accepted today. If the Kirov does a new Sleeping Beauty 30 years from now, studying all available sources, they will probably produce something different to what has been done already, however strong the claim for authenticity.

I agree with what Leigh has written about tradition (and Forsythe's rather self-centred response to it). Now that dance is recorded on film and video, the limitations of notation won't be a handicap for the future. But new performers will have their own feelings and expectations. Likewise in music notation is imperfect. Not only that, but instruments have changed vastly over the centuries. (Bodies have also changed!). However, whether a performer uses a modern instrument or a copy of an old one (of the composer's era), the influence of the performer (who lives now) is still a factor in performance.

Tradition is not the fossil that some might have us believe it is.

[ November 10, 2001: Message edited by: Richard Jones ]



#10 Mel Johnson

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Posted 10 November 2001 - 11:03 PM

And as long as we bring up the Bach Revival of the 19th century, it's also worth noting that the character of Mendelssohn's vocal writing changes dramatically after he takes up his championship for Bach. The same sorts of forces work on dancers. The historical aspect of a dance brings a new dimension to their work, if we're lucky. Ballet is one of the most historically unusual art forms in that it has institutionalized the "oral tradition" of history, with a dancer able to trace his or her "genealogy" all the way back to Noverre.

#11 Drew

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Posted 11 November 2001 - 02:10 AM

It is a very interesting quote. I hope Forsythe's works are performed after his death, and I'm glad companies are still performing Petipa (even if only imperfectly), but when artists reflect on their own work, I don't really read it the same way I would if a critic were making general reflections about that work. As has already been noted, Balanchine and Ashton said things that didn't exactly accord either with their actions or with critical views of their importance (and it's history's good fortune that Max Brod ignored Kafka). I assume that artists' reflections on their work may well be rhetorical and strategic anyway -- not in some 'insincere' way, but still partly staged...for the public but maybe even, in way, for themselves. One could quote many, many statements by painters, writers, etc. that would, like Forsythe's, seem to reflect a complete carelessness about the very tradition that feeds them -- a carelessness that their work, however, might belie. (On Forsythe there is, to say the least, some difference of opinion about his work's relation to tradition.) There are many different personal, psychological, historical reasons why this might be so -- and why an artist might think of his work as something that should die with him/her. So, while I agree very much with what others have written about mainting a relation to the past, I'm not much inclined to jump on Forsythe about his reflections or, indeed, think that it NECESSARILY reflects his practice as a choreographer. I'd be more interested in thinking about the kinds of questions that his words (and his will) raise...As it happens,one of the very first threads I read on Ballet Alert concerned whether lackadaisacal or blurry performances of Balanchine were really 'still' Balanchine or even ought to be performed at all.

P.S. One thought re. Balanchine's career. He honored Petipa and Ivanov, but had little interest in traditional productions of their work, freely reworking their materials even when he used the same titles ("Swan Lake"). We would (rightly) scream if we saw that approach applied to the preservation of HIS works, and evidently he wasn't too keen on the idea either...

P.P.S. I don't mean a choreographer can't also be a fine critic...as readers of Leigh Witchel can attest.

[ November 11, 2001: Message edited by: Drew ]

[ November 11, 2001: Message edited by: Drew ]



#12 Richard Jones

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Posted 11 November 2001 - 04:36 PM

Just to broaden the discussion slightly, I wonder how many others have seen a role performed by the dancer on whom it was created, and then seen a later performance by someone else, either during or after the choreographer's lifetime. Two that come to mind for me are from MacMillan ballets: Mercutio in R & J (David Blair) and The Chosen One in The Rite of Spring (Monica Mason) - both from the mid-1960's. I have seen MacMillan's R& J a number of times, with Mercutios of varying shapes and sizes. Of course it always works in some way or other, but I am grateful that I saw David Blair in the role; the strength of his characterisation is still vivid in my mind. I saw MacMillan's 'Rite' two years ago (English National Ballet) with Tamara Rojo as the chosen one; again a very different style of dancer to the role's creator, but bringing her own special qualities to the part.

#13 Alexandra

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Posted 11 November 2001 - 04:56 PM

Richard, that's an interesting question -- we have discussed it before, although, as with any question it can always be discussed again. It is very different from the topic of this thread, though, so I'm going to start it as another thread, in Aesthetic Issues. I'd ask anyone who wishes to discuss this to do so there, and leave this thread for the question of choreographers' rights.

Here's the new thread:

http://www.balletale...=29&t=000094&p=


Drew, very interesting post -- sorry I haven't had a chance to comment. I'll be back later smile.gif

[ November 11, 2001: Message edited by: alexandra ]




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