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Forsythe to step down

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I just received a statement as an email from their press office, so I reprint it here:

Frankfurt, 27 August, 2002

Dear Friends, Respected Colleagues, Persons and Governors of the City of Frankfurt,

In light of recent developments, I would like to take this opportunity to express my deepest gratitude for the encouragement I have received in every imaginable kind of gesture from here at home and every part of the world.

For the last 18 years, the City of Frankfurt has provided unwavering and generous support for the development of Ballett Frankfurt. I have gladly served as a cultural ambassador, attempting to demonstrate world-wide what this city’s deep commitment to the performing arts could accomplish. This commitment of the City of Frankfurt has enabled the evolution of my thought-work to a degree which would have been have difficult or even impossible to realize in a majority of metropolitan cultures in the world.

Over the course of the last several years, I have experienced a shift in my perception of the field in which I am operating. This has engendered a very specific professional intention which lacks adequate identity with my current position as director of a large municipal institution. As an artist I feel it would be inconsistent to pursue this personal and particular telos in such a setting, over a longer period of time.

The practice of introducing methods which delineate perceptual rules and boundaries is central to the domain of artistic practice. For the present, I feel strongly that my own methodological evolution would be best served if conducted in a context less integrated into a field of political practice that is, understandably, challenged by the task of establishing primary descriptive models of cultural policy that can be accurately represented by numbers. It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to objectively translate or reduce intrinsic, multiple values as are typically embedded in art, into interest-maximizing  numbers that explicate it’s relevance in political models of cultural well-being. Simply said, I wish to pursue a more independent organizational path. I must admit however, it is difficult to leave a body of work, my life’s work, behind.  

I especially wish to extend to the citizens of Frankfurt my deepest and most heartfelt gratitude for their enduring and intense devotion to the long-term constructive development of that extraordinary entity, the audience of the Ballett Frankfurt. The work is first and foremost conceived for you who have determined the direction of this institution’s artistic goals. I thank you for your exceptional rigor and sensibility.

With greatest respect,

William Forsythe  

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Well, we certainly wouldn't want any artist to be forced to pursue an incorrect telos (do you think this was a translation from the German?)

There are several interesting aspects to this news (aside from the What Really Happened one, which I think we should avoid, since we don't know). What I think he's saying is that right now he wants to have his own company, not a city or state institution -- and I'd second that. Do others read it that way?

Also -- and we've discussed this before, regarding Forsythe's statement that after he dies, he wants his work to die with him -- what happens to his work? It's a problem that dates back to Diaghilev: when Fokine left, he thought he could take his work with him, but found he didn't own it.

The modern dance model is "I am the company." It's inconceivable that Paul Taylor would leave the Paul Taylor Dance Company to form, say, Paul's Dancers, and have to worry about what happens with his work. And maybe Forsythe wants to go in such a different direction that past work would be a hindrance to that.

Frankfurt Ballet has been more a European phenomenon than an American one. The company does not often perform here. About 15 years ago, when Forsythe was The Next Great Choreographer, lots of companies performed his works. After he had his own company and didn't need, nor have the time, to freelance, he hasn't been an active presence in American ballet, although he has many, many imitators.

What happens now?

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I liked the right to make unpopular work idea, too. I think the European companies that took on the one-choreographer model made a mistake. I usually like, and nearly always admire, Pina Bausch's work a lot, but if I lived in Wuppertal, I think I'd be screaming for something else within a year. Forsythe and Bausch are working like American modern dance choreographers -- I want to do what I want to do; I have a vision -- more than the European institutional model, Balanchine's "I'm a cook and I make something for everybody." I think you need both, but I humbly suggest our model is more workable. In New York, Forsythe would find an audience -- and probably a fairly large one; in the postmodern dance world, he'd be accessible. In Frankfurt, he'll always be fighting the people who really want to see Romeo and Juliet.

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I didn't say that all European companies had this model, but "the European companies that took on the one-choreographer model". I think the major European companies (not all big cities, since Copenhagen was counted as one of these) were institutions rather than one-man shows. They may have had only one choreographer, with assistants, but they weren't auteur companies, the way American modern dance companies were. (I know there were German modern dance companies built along the same lines, but for a variety of reasons, they didn't develop.)

In London, weren't the first modern dance companies -- London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Ballet Rambert -- more collective than auteur? We've never had a successful LCDT; there were a few attempts at repertory modern dance companies but they didn't last.

The idea of models has interested me for awhile, because when I started looking at dance companies' histories, it seemed there were some that were institutions and others that were not, and that there's an institutional model, where a repertory and aesthetic is consistent and develops slowly over time, and an ex-institutional one, where the company reflects the tastes and expertise of the Artistic Director at that specific period in time. (In ballet, the great example of the latter was Robert Joffrey, I think, and it's become the model that more and more American companies are adopting -- and it's spreading.)

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One wonders a bit about the priorities of a person who tosses around hundred-dollar words with such reckless (if rather incomprehensible) abandon, yet can't manage to make proper use of the lowly, but ever-so-important "its/it's." Reading that letter, I can certainly see why Forstythe has chosen a career based on non-verbal communication!

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Not to mention the awkwardly split infinitives.

I feel strongly that my own methodological evolution would be best served if conducted in a context less integrated into a field of political practice that is, understandably, challenged by the task of establishing primary descriptive models of cultural policy that can be accurately represented by numbers. It is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to objectively translate or reduce intrinsic, multiple values as are typically embedded in art, into interest-maximizing numbers that explicate it’s relevance in political models of cultural well-being.

If I understand him right, he's saying, "I'm leaving because I don't want to have to make things that people want to see." I'm not saying this isn't a perfectly defensible, not to say wise, reason for taking his leave; but did he require quite so many polysyllables to say it? :)

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As a German translator I can say that all those would be typical grammatical errors (with telos) made by a translator whose native language is not English. But doesn't Forsythe speak English? Did he have to write a press statement in German (perfectly possible) and then the press department had them translated into various languages and sent them off?

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Actually, when reading Forsythe's message, I had the feeling it was something produced by Babelfish- and thanks for the comments, because I really didn't understand what he meant!

Alexandra, I'm not so much knowledgeable about German geography, but perhaps if you lived there you could go rather easily to other German cities with a larger repertory, Germany still has a rather large number of companies with a varied repertory... But I agree that it can be a problem. Now in most French cities the only "home" companies are state-funded "centres chorégraphiques nationaux" directed by modern choreographers, and so when you don't like the works of Gallotta (in Grenoble), Monnier (in Montpellier), Saporta (in Caen), etc. you can only rely on touring companies, which often aren't very numerous.

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Forsythe is American, and English is his native tongue - also I'm pretty sure the language of business of the company is English. He has always had a fascination with language that I think may explain the extravagance (and pretention) of the words used. A major work brought to American in '99 was Eidos:telos - which may explain that obscure choice. I think his love affair with words and sounds means that unfortunately sometimes the more concrete goal of communication is overlooked.

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Thank you for that, Jane. The huge funding cut fits with the reports a few months ago that the company was in trouble financially. And doing video work fits, too, because that's as independent as a choreographer can get. He doesn't have to worry about pleasing a board, nor a general audience.

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We live in Germany, in the general area of Frankfurt.

There are indeed quite a number of dance companies around; each city seems to have their own.

In the Rhein Main area (including Frankfurt, Mainz, Wiesbaden, Darmstadt, Giessen.... I think those are the nearest ones with city theatres....) there is only ONE which has a classical ballet company.

It is not Frankfurt.

As far as I can tell, all of the others are more - or -less modern/ Tanztheater. (dance theatre trying to be

like Pina Bausch)

Mainz does some classical, but not the big story ballets so well liked by a lot of the populace.

- Please correct me if I am wrong, someone! -

Someone mentioned recently that it is nice to have a choice; to be able to see many different things.

I love to see modern-dance and Tanztheater now and then.

I also love to see neo-classical works and a well danced Coppelia, for example, is a delight.

The problem here is that there are so many tiny companies who can do naught but dance-theatre or some other sort of modern-dance works, for their companies seldom have more than eight dancers. (cut-backs in budgets)

So, the public - or a lot of the public - get a bit tired of one obscure piece after another, and would sometimes really like to see a real, old-fashioned story ballet with the stirring music and the fantasy.

As to touring groups: no, there are not that many, and if they do come through, they are usually in some big hall and not in the theatres which are more in the centers of the towns.

I guess it mostly boils down to: money.

The cities and states have to save money.

They cut back where they feel they will encounter the least resistence.

Too bad for Forsythe, though I am sure he will get enough work.

Perhaps it is not the worst for Frankfurt, though.

Unless the city uses this as an excuse to cut the ballet company into tiny pieces and then get rid of it altogether.

That would indeed be tragic.


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Thank you very much for that perspective, Diane. I think that one of the main reasons for the move to contemporary dance companies and away from classical ballet is expense: the expense of training and the cost of toe shoes for one thing, as well as the need for live music and a much larger company, to be able to do Swan Lake. And I can very much understand the point that every city doesn't need to have its own company doing Swan Lake (and the like) -- but I can also see the point that an audience needs variety.

Could you tell us, from the German perspective, how this (the Forsythe issue) is being received there? By the general public as well as by dance fans? My understanding is that Forsythe is very respected in Europe (probably more than he is in Ameica). I don't know whether that means he's popular, but I know the Frankfurt Ballet tours a lot. There's the view that having a company that is so well-regarded is important to the city, and that the city has a responsibility to support it. Could you (or anyone, of course) comment on that?

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As one who has visited the German scene as an academic (I once helped run an educational exchange program) and a dance buff, I am grateful for Diane's comment. For reasons both cultural and historical, every German town feels obliged to have its signature arts institution. Don't forget that the modern German state emerged from a mass of duchies and city-states, each of which still has its collective ego.

In this context, it is not unsurprising for Frankfurt, a city that resents the treatment it has received from the country at large (the unquestioned financial and transportation center of the country, it lacks both political clout and cultural prestige) to endorse an international artist of Forsythe's stature.

Now comes the political dimension, mentioned in Forsythe's letter but overlooked by other commentators. Some 80% of the Forsythe's company's budget came from the taxpayers of Frankfurt. (As a matter of contrast, the New York City Ballet gets a bit more than 10% of its budget from the taxpayers of New York City and New York State.) In short, the life of the company depends on money voted by representatives of the people of Frankfurt, most of whom are mid-level executives of banking corporations. If they've tired of Forsythe, the money will shrink. Frankfurt has never been governed by a prince, but by an elected council, so Forsythe is in a bad situation if he's lost public support.

When it comes to American choreographers seeking "freedom" in Europe, the poster boy is Mark Morris, who agreed to succeed Maurice Bejart in Brussels. Funds flowed, the company grew, and his first major work in the new house -- "L'allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato," to Handel -- was a great hit. Management made no effort to limit his work, but disillusion soon set in. The city is very conservative and very Catholic and the critic for its biggest newspaper (Le Soir) attacked Morris (openly gay and agnostic) for his lack of traditional values. Morris left at the end of his contract and settled in Brooklyn, just down the street from my apartment.

Forsythe faced a much more cosmopolitan city, but the political concerns were similar. When money is tight, how much do you give to dancers and how much to the police? The Mayor does not want to be seen as a barbarian, but she does have to balance the budget. The question is unknown in America but common in Germany.

As for the actual Forsythe statement, which was extensively quoted in today's New York Times, I suspect that we are seeing an inept translation from the incredibly stuffy language of the city's largest newspaper, Die Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, which either received a (bad) translation from the Ballet's press office or (more likely) prepared its own ponderous text from an English-language letter written by Forsythe. As several contributors have noted, good English is widely spoken in a city adjacent to the largest US military base in Europe.

In any event, Forsythe may yearn for the freedom (artistic, though not financial) of an independent American choreographer, as opposed to the freedom (economic but not artistic) he has enjoyed in Europe.

What will become of his work? This is hard to say. The recent prolonged dispute over the Martha Graham copyrights (a court battle that still continues, though the dancers have won most of the battles) shows how complicated these question can be. Maybe Forsythe wants to see his die simply to avoid this sort of tawdry side show!

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There has not yet been, as far as I have seen, a huge amout of coverage in the press over here on this.

There are a few commentaries; usually to the tune of what we have seen so far. ("how could Frankfurt sacrifice this choreographer, how can Frankfurt expect to be a world city now?", etc.)

In the dance community here it appears to be seen as a tragedy that Forsythe should be leaving.

Personally, I would have loved to have seen more of his work. (Being out-of-town, it is not easy to get there when the company is in town, which is not all that often. They tour a lot; mainly in other European countries.)

Frankfurt, being a medium-sized city (not even 700,000 people) cannot fill that many performances of anything which is not popular to a large audience. That is undoubtedly a reason for the tours. As you may know, Frankfurt is not the capital city of Hesse, so the theatre must be funded nearly entirely by the city, and not the state.

Ah, yes, it is true: It would be wonderful if cities put their priorities more on the arts.

In the olden days, that seemed to be the case, at least in many German cities.

It is becoming harder and harder to live from this type of work. (I danced professionally, my husband works in the theatre, and we feel the pinch.)

This is rather complicated, and I do not know all the ins-and-outs; but it appears that the taxation in Germany of firms and such has changed over the years.

(I think Morris Neighbor went into this somewhat above, so just ignore me if I repeat; I had written this earlier before I logged on)

Some of this revenue has been re-directed to the federal govt., instead of to the city governments as in the past. The federal govt. decides what to do with the money; the cities are going broke. Literally.

(It has been speculated that this is on purpose; to take away the sovereignity of the cities. Hmmm.)

Some big manufacturing companies, which contributed so nicely in times past to the tax-income of the cities, have downsized considerably; some others have gone bankrupt or left the city/country for areas of cheaper-labor. (sound familiar?)

So, the tax revenue which used to be available to the communities - to fund their schools and cultural centres, for example- is just not there.

Politically, schools and things like garbage-collection and police-protection have more clout than do the arts.

Therefore, it appears that politicians can demand these "sacrifices" (cut-backs in the arts), which may well have quite different motives as well. (In the case of Forsythe, there may indeed be other motives, of which I am only vaguely aware. However, I do not think that he ever did anything which was really "obnoxious" or "disturbing" for the audience. Perhaps a bit obscure... but that is usually not a reason to cut support.)

I am pretty sure that many politicians never go to the theatre or dance performances.

They _are_ interested in being popular, though. (gotta win that next election!)

Now they appear to be trying to please a different audience than the one which goes to see Forsythe's works.


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Diane raises a lot of important questions.

I know from my contacts in Frankfurt that the city has many resentments. For instance, before World War II, it was an independent city-state, like Hamburg and Berlin. It even refused to stage a parade for Hitler unless his handlers paid all the expenses.(They refused.)After the war, it expected the same status, but the allied forces, dominated by the US, saw only the massive destruction of the war (inflected by allied forces, led by the US) and chose to make it part of the state of Hesse. Even worse, they chose to place the state capital in the minor spa town of Wiesbaden (undamaged because it's a minor spa town). Given the division of the country, Frankfurt was the rational choice for the "temporary" (almost 50 years) capital, but again it was sent to a minor spa town (Bonn, which at least was the birthpalce of Beethoven). Frankfurt is still Germany's major banking and transportation center, but its political influence remains limited, especially since the restoration of Berlin as the national capital.

I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that many Frankfurters see sending Billie back to New York as an appropriate response to being dissed so often by those folks in North America. The Bush Administration may have accelerated the trend by so conspicuously ignoring European opinion in matters of foreign affairs.

We all hope that culture is above the political fray, but not all hopes are granted.

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Originally posted by Morris Neighbor

I have no way of proving this, but I suspect that many Frankfurters see sending Billie back to New York as an appropriate response to being dissed so often by those folks in North America. The Bush Administration may have accelerated the trend by so conspicuously ignoring European opinion in matters of foreign affairs.

We all hope that culture is above the political fray, but not all hopes are granted.

Well, I do hope that it won't be the same with some other American company directors in Europe, like Nanette Glushak in Toulouse or John Neumeier in Hamburg... However, those two directors seem quite popular in their home cities, so that doesn't seem very likely to happen- except perhaps if there is a need of budget cuts...

Diane, thanks for your explanations. I hadn't heard about the changes in the tax system, that's an interesting element. It seems that unfortunately some German companies are going the same way as some French ones: the cities want to spend less money on the arts and cut the budgets, and it's less expensive to have a small modern company than a ballet company...

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I'd like to add my voice to the thanks to Diane for her very interesting summary of the political and economic situation there.

What's odd about the Frankfurt economic situation is that the first reports, a few months ago, was that the city wanted to replace Forsythe's company with a classical ballet company -- that wouldn't save money. It would also certainly be going against the trend that Estelle noted, that elsewhere in Europe the smaller classical troupes are being turned into modern dance troupes.

Generally, Estelle, I think your comment that It seems that "the cities want to spend less money on the arts and cut the budgets, and it's less expensive to have a small modern company than a ballet company" is very true. No pointe shoes, taped music, much smaller roster of dancers. Ballet is in danger (another reason why we started Ballet Alert!) :) NOT that there's anything wrong with having contemporary dance troupes; it's that they're replacing not supplementing, or adding to, ballet.

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