Talking Dance

Choreographer William Forsythe speaks to Astrid Kaminski about ‘wrong’ kinds of comedy, philosophy in dance and brief bouts of weightlessness

STUDY #3, 2012, Performance Dokumentation, Frankfurt LAB (Courtesy für alle Bilder: The Forsythe Company; Alle Fotografien: Dominik Mentzos)

STUDY #3, 2012, Performance Dokumentation, Frankfurt LAB (courtesy for all images: The Forsythe Company; all photographs: Dominik Mentzos)

For thirty years, US choreographer William Forsythe has lived in Germany where he has created an unparalleled dance cosmos comprising usable art objects, digital dance scores, pioneering ballet choreography, experimental dance theatre pieces – not to mention one of Europe’s largest independent dance companies. For 20 years, Forsythe was the director of the Frankfurt Ballet (1984–2004). After it was dissolved due to cultural politics, he founded his own company, which currently has 20 dancers. The Forsythe Company works between Frankfurt and Dresden, at the Hellerau European Center for the Arts – an avant-garde space in the 1910s that was reopened after German reunification. Forsythe feels comfortable in Dresden, particularly in the city’s creative, uncommercialized Neustadt district. His politeness and humour elegantly complements the rigour and precision of his thinking.

ASTRID KAMINSKI I’ve just seen your newest piece Selon [According, 2013] at the Hellerau European Center for the Arts. Most choreographers only attend the premieres of their pieces – but not you.

WILLIAM FORSYTHE I have been present at almost every performance of my work over the last 30 years.

AK Unlike your ballets, your pieces with the Forsythe Company aren’t repertoire works. They develop further during the performance.

WF This is my ‘choreographic performing’. I direct and edit the show in real time. Things are extended, shortened, added, deleted and modified while the show is running. So every performance is different. That reflects the nature of the work that I share with the artists. It’s a way to live together and not to separate the performance from the normal way we interact. There’s always a dialogic imperative.

AK Your works are epitomised by highly precise coordination and extremely detailed sequences of movement. Your trademarks include movements that isolate specific body parts and allow the centre of the body to be independent from the centre of movement. This virtuosity of coordination comes across as dis-coordination; the independence of limbs seems like a failure. Is this in part a response to viewing habits which treat the centre-focused human being as the norm?
 
WF Well, although some of the movements refer to concrete models or sequences, there are also a great deal of categorical aggregations that engender complex movement. Multivalence in the linguistic sense, the power to recombine, is probably the engine behind what you term ‘extremely detailed sequences of moment’. Ideally the dancers arrive at a state of compositional ‘insight’. So I guess their self-reflection on motion is an ontology that implies the whole of the dancer, not just details of their body – but the whole person in dialogue with the immediate present and the field they are operating in, to the best of their knowledge. We call it ‘the big conversation’.

Scattered Crowd, 2002, Installationsansicht, Messe Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main (Fotografie: Julian Gabriel Richter)

Scattered Crowd, 2002, Installation view, Messe Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main (photograph: Julian Gabriel Richter)

AK One could call you the Derrida of ballet. You’ve developed your own methods of deconstruction.

WF Deconstruction – yes, perhaps. But in what capacity? My work has focused on an analysis of ballet’s categorical positioning. My understanding of deconstruction is that it deals, linguistically, with a non-absolute environment. When we analyzed classical ballet moves we decided not to exclude our observations but rather perform them. So it was not an act of dismantling the practice, but rather an act of revealing facets that had not been acknowledged.

(Forsythe stands up, goes into fifth position and demonstrates various connecting lines between individual body parts)

There is a great remark by Cy Tombly: ‘The line is the sensation of its own realization.’ The sensation of a line is different from the look of a line. If you observe dancers performing an arabesque, they don’t see themselves, they only have the sensation of what an arabesque is. So, starting with a specific sensation in the practice, one entertains the possibility of the emergence of other previously unacknowledged sensations that are involved in a particular enactment. In classical ballet, there is no nomenclature, no taxonomy for the in-between states of the positions.

AK Is ballet your choreographic mother tongue?

WF I dance ballet and I speak it, I could stand up and improvise something for you like a musician could. But actually no, it’s not the mother tongue. I began dancing in clubs and musicals. I come from an entertainment background. I was almost 18 when I began to study ballet and at the same time the Martha Graham technique. When I decided to turn professional, all these influences came together. You can’t separate one from another. In the end the style was maybe ballet with a funk influence.

AK A funk influence?

WF I was always interested in bringing another musical sensitivity to ballet. That’s what I’m calling my ‘funk influence’. It means a certain relationship to the idea of a beat and a multi-layered concept of time. That has now developed into a practice that focuses very little on form and primarily on the time qualities of events. Some works have scores for breathing that determine the dynamics of the situation. Others take into account how syncopation is derived from the observation of the interaction of gravity and the propulsion of limbs. Our main focus, though, has been investigating ways of deriving counterpoint from a two-frame perspective. In one frame perspective, one has an ergodic, statistical relation to the immediate performative-compositional environment which one ‘rides’, adapting one’s own timings to sustain the compositional whole.

AK You work a great deal with the vocabulary of dance as a language so to speak – breaking it down into semantic units. Does ballet remain fascinating because of its incomparably complex catalogue of movements?

WF Fundamentally it isn’t that complex. You can make it complex through recombination, but the foundation is composed of little modules. When I see the work of the Brazilian choreographer Bruno Beltrão, I feel that something structurally similar to ballet has been emerging via hiphop. The rigour and the precisely crafted figures of hiphop are the very points where the perception of the two practices overlaps. This perception of a very sophisticated level of physical craft is what both seem to exploit as their currency. I do feel that at present some of the intricate rigour of ballet is unfortunately in decline whereas hiphop has just begun to imagine the range of its choreographic potential. As an emerging art form, hiphop has yet to experience the full impact of ideological recuperation by market forces – as ballet has in the last decades. Ballet is now artificially sustained by promoting the idea of itself as a form of luxury. It has little interest in its own formal evolution. Ballet does not quite know how to interact with the rest of the world now that its frames of reference, internally and externally, have disappeared.

William Forsythe with Dana Caspersen and Joel Ryan, White Bouncy Castle, 1997, Installationsansicht, Bockenheimer Depot, Frankfurt am Main, 2000

William Forsythe with Dana Caspersen and Joel Ryan, White Bouncy Castle, 1997, Installation view, Bockenheimer Depot, Frankfurt am Main, 2000

AK At one time you also did away with the traditional stage area of ballet, for example the central perspective …

WF Do you know why I did that? I realized that there are people with bad seats, who couldn’t afford better ones. So I used the other corners of the space, the back and the sides that were visible to them.

AK In your 1983 work Gänge [Paths] you were also the first to introduce spoken language into classical ballet.

WF Actually, according to Jennifer Homans, ballet’s preeminent historian, that’s not true. Apparently in the court of Charles IX in France there was an academy of music and poetry, where ballet was danced to silence or to spoken text, instead of music. So it was nothing new. It was a revival! At that time there was obviously a different approach and they were thinking that Platonic ideals and truths would somehow emerge if dance were left to its own devices, or thinking of the purity of metered language. When I began using language in 1976 – the piece was called In endlosen Zeiten [In Endless Times] – it just felt that this dance would need language, that music would disturb it. Language would contextualize the events much more effectively.

AK In Selon there’s far more speaking than dancing. This surprised me: on one hand there’s a formalist part, added to which is a fantastic analytical method borrowed from Gertrude Stein. But for large stretches the piece is a sort of abstract comedy.

WF We say in English it’s broad. It’s very broad!

AK What‘s going on with the humour?

Stellentstellen Film, 2013, Film still, Performance am MMK Zollamt in Kooperation mit MMK, Frankfurt am Main

Stellentstellen Film, 2013, Film still, Performance at MMK Zollamt in cooperation with MMK, Frankfurt am Main

WF I’m not interested in giving things a position that over-determines their value. On the other hand I’m not trying to only feature the consequent logic of humour, but also humour that fails. It’s a terrible risk! One role model is recent British comedy – The League of Gentlemen [1992–2002] for example: oblique kinds of humour that are very ‘wrong’. These are my colleagues. I actually said to somebody recently, ‘I think we are a group of comedians who can dance’. It seems that almost everything I have done in the last few years has turned out to be a strange kind of comedy. The same seems to have happened to Pina Bausch in her later years. I said to her once: ‘Pina, you are the funniest woman in Germany.’ And she was like: ‘NO, I’m not!’ and I said: ‘YES, you are!’

AK Your pieces use the English language, and you remain very closely tied to the US. You have a lot of fans there – it seems to me as if the whole philosophy department of UC Berkeley is in your fan club. But the focus of your work has always been in Germany.

WF You have to consider that the way the language of the works is constructed is determined by the fact that I’m working for a non-native English-speaking audience. If I had been in an English-speaking environment I guess my use of language would have become far more elaborate.

AK Your numerous activities also include the development of software in the areas of dance analysis, notation and improvisation. This seems to be an important matter for you partially for pedagogical reasons. Even your Choreographic Objects – in the arena of visual arts and which you began in 1991 – could be regarded as installations for dance pedagogy: the issue for you is that dance should be readable.

WF Could be readable, but it’s not pedagogic. Motion bank [2010–3] for example is a research project. No more than that. It is not a project determining the way things should be done. It poses a question: is this new digital media useful to enable the communication of certain aspects of choreography, to make those ideas more visible, more sustained? The subtitle of Improvisation technologies is somehow ironic: ‘A tool for the analytical eye.’ That means it is for dance critics, many of whom have no formalized analytical skills. They are not able to mention the mechanics on which pieces are based. So our tools are made in the hope of broadening the community of skilled viewers.

AK What the Choreographic Objects convey, on the other hand, is rather the fun and aesthetics of movement. White Bouncy Castle [1997], for example, actually is a giant bouncy castle for adults.

WF Bouncy Castle limits the range of possible movements, but unleashes a torrent of other possibilities due to the conditions it provides. It subtracts some of normal physical reality’s facts and substitutes them with very pleasurable options: like brief but repetitive bouts of weightlessness.

Sider, 2011, Performance Dokumentation Festspielhaus Hellerau, Dresden

Sider, 2011, Performance documentation Festspielhaus Hellerau, Dresden

AK A lot of philosophers have become fascinated by movement recently. I’m thinking of Jean-Luc Nancy, who sees in dance the enactment of meaning. Or Jacques Rancière or Alva Noë, with whom you’ve shared a podium. Does this interest also have concrete repercussions for dance?

WF I’m one of the choreographers who is excited by philosophy. I believe there is a whole new generation that is deeply influenced by philosophy. For me there is often something in the substance of philosophical discourse that suggests procedures of action: ways, options to engage. For my own work there is the need for an adequate language to describe processes. Often they seem self-evident. But nothing, when you put it in language, is as self-evident as it would appear. Philosophy is a method to speak with the world, not only towards the world. One is within the world, not only observing the world. That’s why, many years ago, deconstruction became very important to me. It suggested an environment in which neither-nor and either-or needed to both be possible in the same sense. I recognized that in our practice we had made assumptions about pretty much everything.

AK Berlin, which alongside Brussels is arguably the European capital of contemporary dance, is on your 2013 tour list, but otherwise you’re not seen there very often.

WF No one place is the centre. They are all outposts. The conceit of a centre is intriguing but probably misleading, if not downright suspicious. Even in Dresden I’m working in an outpost of the town, Hellerau. Almost the same in Frankfurt, where I work in Gallus-Viertel, which is a working-class neighbourhood where they don’t even have fast internet.

AK You’re a banlieue choreographer?

WF Yes. I wish I were.
Questions translated by Jane Yager

Astrid Kaminski writes (on) performance, poetry and social politics for a number of newspapers and magazines. She is based in Berlin. 

Issue 11

First published in Issue 11

Sept - Oct 2013

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