Lucy Johns

Did William Forsythe Invent The Modern Ballerina?

41 posts in this topic

Thanks for posting this, Lucy (although I think the title is ridiculous--but that's not your fault, of course.) I wonder what BTers think of the following quotation from the interview:

"Ideas about what is 'the classical' change, so I think if you accept the idea that terms are mobile in these kinds of relationships, then you begin to understand that in certain cases you understand things in one way, and in other cases, in other ways."

I think many BTers might disagree with Forsythe here, and think that ideas of "the classical" are immutable; that, in fact, immutability constitutes an essential quality of "classical." I don't think this and, in fact, think that dance more than any other art form shows Forsythe to be right. Other thoughts?

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Great interview, Lucy Johns, and thank you for posting it. (And welcome to BT!) I think this would be a good topic for the Aesthetic Issues forum and am going to move it over there. I hope it sparks an interesting discussion.

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Here's a more extended quote from the passage cited by Ray:

ROSLYN SULCAS: What are your thoughts on the relationship of classicism to contemporary artwork? Or to put it another way, between what we know in art – the classical canon and its traditions—and innovation?

WILLIAM FORSYTHE: It’s a question of classification. The position of a category and ideas about a category can shift. Ideas about what is “the classical” change, so I think if you accept the idea that terms are mobile in these kinds of relationships, then you begin to understand that in certain cases you understand things in one way, and in other cases, in other ways.

For example, my piece One Flat Thing, Reproduced could be seen an example of a classical organization – its organizing principle is counterpoint (it works perfectly if you set it to Bach). But it doesn’t use, or excludes, some of the historical references (pointe shoes, a certain kind of music, a historically specific technique) that would indicate classicism.

Thoughts?

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I agree with Forsythe that Balanchine invented the modern ballerina. To pinpoint it still further, her initials are S.F.

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I had the same thought, Farrell Fan, and it is interesting that Wendy Whelan of NYCB is the one Sulcas quotes as giving the nod to Forsythe. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Forsythe 'invented' the postmodern ballerina. (Whelan herself would seem to owe little to the Farrell example, which dominated the company for so long; perhaps NYCB viewers will have more to say about that.)

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I also want to thank you, Lucy, for this link. I find Forsythe much more interesting and rewarding than msot people on BT, so I tend to keep quiet about him. i regret that, although it is fairly easy to find some of his earlier works here in the U.S., it is almost impossible to find his more current work.

I think many BTers might disagree with Forsythe here, and think that ideas of "the classical" are immutable; that, in fact, immutability constitutes an essential quality of "classical." I don't think this and, in fact, think that dance more than any other art form shows Forsythe to be right. Other thoughts?
I agree with Ray on this. "Classical ballet" -- especially when associated with the word "academic" -- is a subset or a series of subsets of the overall "classical" approach to art.

"Classical ballet" is a way of expressing classicism that is associated with a specific time period, a specific culture (broken down further into a number of individual national traditions), a specific schools and works. At least that is how it seems to me.

Forsythe actually expresses this position pretty well, though I admit I had to read it several times -- and think about it -- before I grasped it.

ROSLYN SULCAS: What are your thoughts on the relationship of classicism to contemporary artwork? Or to put it another way, between what we know in art – the classical canon and its traditions—and innovation?

WILLIAM FORSYTHE: It’s a question of classification. The position of a category and ideas about a category can shift. Ideas about what is “the classical” change, so I think if you accept the idea that terms are mobile in these kinds of relationships, then you begin to understand that in certain cases you understand things in one way, and in other cases, in other ways.

For example, my piece One Flat Thing, Reproduced could be seen an example of a classical organization – its organizing principle is counterpoint (it works perfectly if you set it to Bach). But it doesn’t use, or excludes, some of the historical references (pointe shoes, a certain kind of music, a historically specific technique) that would indicate classicism.

RS: So you are suggesting that the principles migrate into a different form?

WF: Yes. One Flat Thing is not balletic, but in a sense it is classical. An idea from one domain can exist in another, and thrive just as well, but in a different form. Something as fundamental to ballet and classical music as counterpoint survives in my work in translated form, even if I chose not to use other associated elements.

For me, a point that is more difficult to agree with is his attitude towards music. I've put a few of the sentences that intrigued me in bold type.

At the start of my career, in Stuttgart, it was imperative that I used the orchestra, and I made ballets to Handel, to Bach, to Penderecki, Hans Werner Henze. I was fortunate to have that situation and I worked my craft according to those conditions. When I began to work in Frankfurt, it became clear to me the orchestra would never rehearse our work enough to provide the kind of excellent musicianship I wanted, so I distanced myself from that. And if one acknowledged that one didn’t have exactly the same skills as Balanchine, where would the function of musicality reside, and how would it express itself for other choreographers?

For me, the answer seemed to be that musicality resided finally, inherently, in the bodies of the dancers. So dancers can be – although they don’t have to be – musical but autonomous from the received practices of musicality. And actually, that particular approach actually echoes the cohesiveness that musical ensembles must have in order to realize a work of art. We perform the same kind of synchronized organization but without that written score. Dances are in their own way visual musical objects as much as symphonies are acoustic musical objects. The difference is that my instrument is the body.

This, I confess, is something I haven't so far been able to penetrate, especially the point about dances being "visual musical objects."

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"Classical ballet" is an expression of the classical spirit that is associated with a specific time period, a specific culture (broken down further into a number of individuial countries), an specific schools and works. At least that is how it seems to me.

What a fascinating subject. Thanks, Lucy.

I'm trying to understand what you mean here, bart. Are you saying that every culture in every time produces its own classical spirit, and that Forsythe's work is a contemporary expression? I'm not sure what you mean by classical then. What is the classical through line from Petipa to Balanchine to Forsythe? The order and the musicality, or is there a cultural through line expressed here as well? Is there anything classical about

besides its use of counterpoint?

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I agree that "classical" changes over time -- and there are dozens of subsets here, as in music. "classical" meaning genre, and "classical" meaning a certain time period are but two. But ballet is a philosophy, and saying that everything is ballet (classicism), or that something that is "good" is "classical," or that something I make is "classical" -- no.

What is the modern ballerina? When do you count "modern"? Used to be Doubrovska (Prodigal) was the modern ballerina. (modern. neoclassical. contemporary. very different terms.)

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Forgot something. There is a huge difference between "classicism" and "formalism." Classicism isn't limited to principles of organization or straight lines.

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I'm trying to understand what you mean here, bart. Are you saying that every culture in every time produces its own classical spirit, and that Forsythe's work is a contemporary expression? I'm not sure what you mean by classical then.

I guess I was thinking of "classicism" in its larger sense: a system of organizing sensory material (sound, line, color, movement, etc.) in a way which maintains a concern for form, balance, restraint, hierarchy and rules. Beyond that, classicism includes a way of teaching this system.

The 18th century associated classicism with "reason." I don't know about that, but my idea of classicism certainly has a strong "cognitive" element, especially when it is taught and passed on. Not every culture values these thing equally. Some, for instance, value intuition, inspiration, and expression more highly. But wouldn't the court dancing of Thailand, as just one example, meet most of the standards for "classicism" in this larger sense?

What is the classical through line from Petipa to Balanchine to Forsythe?
This is, as I see it, essentially the highest form of expression-- a glorious form of expression -- that classicism has taken in Western European dance.

I don't think that Forsythe is claiming that he is part of the "classical tradition." He seems to be telling Sulcas that, because he has incorporated certain elements of classicism into his dance vocabulary -- use of counterpoint in "One Flat Thing" -- he can't be considered anti-classical.

Actually, I get the impression that Forsythe himself isn't really very interested in this topic. It's Sulcas who keeps pressing it. He seems much more interested in his ideas about musicality and "intelligent sensation." His view of musicality seems quite contrary to classical ballet. So are his ideas about the possibilities of movement.

I don't know enough about ballet training and the experience of ballet dancers to be able to judge his ideas about "intelligent sensation," which he seems quite proud of having (as he claims) "introduced." Something about that claim sounds inflated and dodgy, but I can't put my finger on what.

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I don't think that Forsythe is claiming that he is part of the "classical tradition." He seems to be telling Sulcas that, because he has incorporated certain elements of classicism into his dance vocabulary -- use of counterpoint in "One Flat Thing" -- he can't be considered anti-classical.

FWIW (nearly nothing :wink:), when I first saw OFTR I didn't like it, and I certainly didn't think of it as having anything to do with "classical" ballet. But I made it a point to see it several times in a row. Eventually, I came to love it (with the help of a few "tips" from more knowledgable folks than I). I won't soon forget the night when I suddenly "got it". Interestingly, the key to my having "gotten it" was when I suddenly realized (during the performance) how classical it was at its foundation.

For me, Forsythe is a continuation of Balanchine's legacy.

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For me, Forsythe is a continuation of Balanchine's legacy.
This is a position it would be really interesting for us to develop and discuss.

My first reaction (without having time to reflcct) is: All work is, I suppose, a continuation in some sense or others. At what point, however, does moving away from one's roots stop being a continuation and become a repudiation?

Roslyn Sulcas whose interview with Forsythe was posted by Lucy at the start of this thread , continues to reflect on his influence. Shhas review of the Balletto Teatro di Torino in today's NY Times. (They're currently performing at the Joyce Theater in NYC.) I've put a couple of the phrases in boldface.

As the Balletto Teatro di Torino performed Matteo Levaggi’s “Primo Toccare” on Wednesday night at the Joyce Theater, it was hard not to brood that William Forsythe has much to answer for.

In the early 1980s Mr. Forsythe gave ballet a quantum push into new terrain by freeing the torso from its corsetlike carriage, allowing movement and momentum to be engendered from any part of the body, and playing with the principles of verticality, balance and ease that characterize classical technique. These ideas are still reverberating among dance creators, particularly in Europe, and Mr. Levaggi, the resident choreographer of the Balletto Teatro di Torino (making its first appearance in New York), is no exception.

Is that a fair assessment of Forsythe's method? If so, much does indeed seem to be a "continuation" of Balanchine. (I am a little concerned about the phrase: "allowing movement and momentum to be engendered from any part of the body."

By the way, Sulcas makes it clear that she does not blame Forstythe for the work of his successors, stating that "Forsythean is not Forsythe."

The full article is here:

http://www.nytimes.com/pages/arts/dance/index.html

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bart, I'm glad someone besides me is interested in this "Balanchine/Forsythe" topic. Here are a couple of additional thoughts:

1. You say:

At what point, however, does moving away from one's roots stop being a continuation and become a repudiation?

I think you are considering an inadequate metaphor. The image I get when you say this is like: there is a line, a single line, a line such as one thinks of when one thinks of the past and the future. Allow me to suggest another metaphor: a branching tree.

A branching tree is a useful metaphor when considering the evolution of living species, and I think it is just as useful when we consider the "evolution of ballet". Indeed, there are many aspects of living evolution that can be applied to the evolution of ballet. For example, someone like Forsythe may have Balanchine as one of his ancestors (probably his nearest ancestor, that is, a parent), but he may well have another parent (or 2 or 3 or 4 -- unlike strict living evolution); not only that but there must be grandparent and great grandparent influences as well. Even more useful might be the concept of mutation and adaption (with the "natural selector" being, I suspose, the audience broadly defined). So, like in living evolution, a choreographer may be the direct descendent of another (Forsythe and Balanchine in this case), but Forsythe also exhibits a "mutation" that is not unrelated to his "genetic" heritage, but none the less this mutation is wholly new and "survives" with today's audiences precisely because that mutation not only builds on the past but adds something brand new that allows the choreography to have qualities it never had before; which allows it, in a sense, to better adapt to changing times and views of the ongoing human conversation.

So from my point of view, I reject your premise. Perhaps as one "moves away from one's roots" the change should not be characterized as "a repudiation", but as a mutation that pushes the "tree of evolution" into uncharted territory to either survive via adaption or to go extinct (just as some branching tree limbs of living species eventually die off and produce no new twiglets, or continue on into the future spawning new "species").

2. I don't know if

....a quantum push into new terrain by freeing the torso from its corsetlike carriage, allowing movement and momentum to be engendered from any part of the body, and playing with the principles of verticality, balance and ease that characterize classical technique"

is a fair characterization of Forsythe's vision or not, but I do think it comes pretty close. And I am very comfortable with that phrase if it is seen as a "mutation" away from the previous genetic structure that demanded "the torso" have a "corsetlike carriage".

3. As far as your thought concerning the word "any" in the phrase "allowing movement and momentum to be engendered from any part of the body", I can perhaps add a unique perspective here. I had the great privilege last year to sponsor a not well known choreographer, Heidi Vierthaler, to do a piece named "Surfacing" for the Seattle Dance Project. I went to most of the rehearsals and spoke with Heidi many times. Heidi was once a PNB dancer, but more recently danced for Forsythe in Eorope (where she still lives). Heidi is hugely influenced by Forsythe, particularly in this very area of "allowing movement and momentum to be engendered from any part of the body". Heidi stressed to the dancers over and over again to move ANY and all parts of the body in this more fluid and unusual manner. She discussed with me how this had been drummed into her head and body by Forsythe. (It was interesting to watch Heidi do moves and then to watch the classically trained dancers attempt them. None of the dancers, until perhaps performance night, could truly move like Heidi; and if I had to characterize the difference, it would be that Heidi moved ALL and ANY parts on her body in this way.)

If you are interested, here is a YouTube clip of a portion of "Surfacing". This piece starts at 6:36 and ends about 8:33 (and a bit more to the end).

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Forsythe did do what Sulcas described. He's not really doing that any more.

Forsythe ca. 1989 and Forsythe ca. 2009 (or for that matter 1999) are two completely different animals.

At this point, to argue that he continues Balanchine's line is to ignore most of what he's done for more than a decade. It has almost nothing to do with Balanchine, or even dance at times.

When Forsythe is good he's awfully good, but Decreation at BAM (from '03) was pretentious and godawful. He's decided to go from being a first tier choreographer to being a second rate tanztheater artist.

The dance vocabulary in his current works may still follow the theoretical precepts he espouses. But there's little to no dance left in it any more. Movement, yes. But no dance.

It's a crying shame.

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Come to think of it, I've got to ask - why are we still talking about Forsythe like it's 1989 and he's the bold future of ballet when he hasn't made a ballet in years?

Can someone name a ballet work Forsythe's done since the Forsythe rep program for Paris in '99? (Woundwork and pas/parts)

It's not as if works such as Artifact and Czar weren't great and that's I think why we do hold on to them, but that's not what he's doing - and we have to ignore his current output to discuss him in a balletic light.

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And I think it's because he's an amazing talent, and "what have you done for me lately" is a lack of historical perspective.

If Forsythe isn't worthy, let's hear about the real frontier of balletic choreography.

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If we're using worthy as a qualification, let's discuss Paul Taylor as the future of ballet. Or how about Martha Graham?

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Ah, one dead and the other 79. Legacy perhaps, but not active. OTOH, I just saw the Paul Taylor Dance Company last week on the University of Washington campus. One of the pieces they did was "Beloved Renegade": a magnificent work done to the arresting Poulenc "Gloria". He choreographed it recently, so I can't eliminate him too quickly. The entire program of: "Public Domain", "Beloved Renegade", and "Esplanade" was superb. I was persuaded. Paul Taylor must be another major trunk of the ballet evolutionary tree!

Genius is so enrolling.....:o.

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Allow me to return to the original question, and reply that IMO, Nijinska invented the modern ballerina. And she did it during the 1920s.

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Allow me to return to the original question, and reply that IMO, Nijinska invented the modern ballerina. And she did it during the 1920s.
I'm glad we're returning to Lucy's original question. Thanks, Mel. Would love to hear more details about your nomination of Nijinska..

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I'm not sure it was Nijinska. As I posted at the beginning of the thread, Doubrovska is often described as either the first modern ballerina, or the first neoclassical ballerina (at any rate, the first unitard ballerina) and Nijinska used her, but so did Massine and Balanchine. I do think that Nijinska was an extremely important choreographer, who made ballets (real ballets) on then-contemporary themes. I wish we had more of her works.

(There's a very nice DVD about Doubrovska by Virginia Brooks, available from her web site.  http://www.brooksdancefilms.com/Doubrovska.asp )

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Has anyone extended the modern ballerina past "Agon"?

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Interesting point, Helene, and again goes to definitions -- everything Balanchine made for Farrell was after "Agon." Did "Diamonds" or "Vienna Waltzes" or "Mozartiana" extend the "modern ballerina"? Or do we define "modern ballerina" very narrowly to mean a female wearing minimal clothing and stretching and twisting the limbs? (There are some choreographers who do se "Agon" as the beginning of contemporary ballet and toss out everything else. I've heard NYCB fans say that everything else Balanchine did was merely to please the fans. I do not agree with that; just sayin'....)

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