Getting to talk with Forsythe Company repetiteur Jodie Gates last month was one of the highlights of my dance-writing career. I’ve shared some of what she said about the work of choreographer William Forsythe in my Urban Tulsa preview of this weekend’s Tulsa Ballet contemporary mixed bill. But we got into some nitty-gritty detail about Forsythe’s work that I was very grateful for and would like to share here … where I can really geek out with no word limit.
Gates has staged “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” for companies like Houston Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet, and she performed in it and many other Forsythe ballets when she was a member of Ballett Frankfurt, his former company. She knows his choreography from the inside, well enough for him to trust her to teach it to dancers around the world.
I wanted to ask her about the so-called “death of ballet,” the advent of which dance writer Jennifer Homans proclaimed in her recent book Apollo’s Angels. We got so busy discussing Forsythe that I never got around to asking that question … but then I realized that’s precisely what we’d been talking about all along.
Homans’ argument is that classical ballet — the art form we associate with Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, tutus and pointe shoes and ethereal women and everything that goes with them — is no longer a live prospect, in large part because the cultural values that informed it and helped it thrive are no longer dominant. Values like idealism, nobility, order, purity, tradition, and a dichotomized heaven/earth paradigm. Values like what Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of New York City Ballet, meant when he wrote that ballet is essentially “conservative.” It is what it is — and it is glorious — because of its circumscriptions.
I agree with Homans that classical ballet no longer “lives” the way it did when those sorts of values still reigned. It belongs to the past, and thus it’s a challenge for modern people to interpret it in ways that speak to modern audiences. I do not agree, however, with her wholesale disparagement of the choreographic ideas that have rushed in to fill the perceived void left by the “death” of classical ballet.
She says those ideas tend to be (because our modern world is) fragmented, vulgar, superficial, and cynical. There is certainly a lot of ballet choreography today that matches those descriptions. And goodness knows much of our culture does, too. But to suggest that there is nothing of value in contemporary ballet — not even of value to ballet as a discrete category — is to think too narrowly about the possibilities of the art form.
William Forsythe is perhaps the greatest living example of a choreographer who came out of the ballet tradition and has created something new out of it — something that is both “ballet” and “modern.” His work finds new ways to think about the interior dimensions of the art form that, in my view, help us see that it reaches deeper and further than its cultural origins. (Here’s a taste of what I mean.)
Gates and I spoke specifically about “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” the Forsythe work Tulsa Ballet will perform this weekend. Created in 1987, it is seen by many as the nail in the coffin of classical ballet, the opening shot of this new devoid-of-meaning era. It’s seen by many, in other words, as … fragmented, vulgar, superficial, and cynical. The music? Harsh and ugly. (Even the ballerina who starred in its premiere, Sylvie Guillem, is loathed by many for her extreme style — kicking her leg up to her ear every chance she gets like a trick pony, they say.)
In Gates’ view, the reality of the ballet couldn’t be more different than this perception. “It is one picture,” she said. “It’s a canvas with various depths and levels of activity in various areas.” There’s one moment when dancers doing highly challenging, off-axis movement in the middle of the stage are shadowed by a group improvising through pure ballet positions in a back corner. You see the foundations and the riffs on them at the same time.
“You see the same elements again and again here; it’s a ballet based on a theme and variations structure, very much about counterpoint and counterbalance,” Gates said. “There’s basically Theme A and Theme B, which recur in different formations and fragments, in partnering and turning and jumping.” In other words, although the ballet gives the effect of randomness, there is nothing random about it.
Then there are the extremes of the movement — the super-stretched extensions, the whip-fast changes of direction, the rapid shifts in speed, the juxtaposition of easy port de bras and precise legs (and vice versa). It’s harder to speak about what’s going on within the body here than it is to describe the structure of the work, but Gates emphasized a few details.
–“The movement is highly musical, but the musicality can be individual.”
–“Trying to be ‘on the mark’ can make it a battle. Unless the dancer approaches the movement with a shifting torso, she’s not doing it right.”
–“There’s a need for equal weight sharing in the pas de deux; it’s a conversation with physicality instead of with words. The dancers must keep in mind their negative space, so that in the duets there’s almost a bow-and-arrow tension between them. They have to be aware of when to give their partner slack or not, so that the movement isn’t ‘gripped.'”
–“They have to allow themselves to rise and fall, to feel and use the weight of their bodies in space. It takes commitment, and a willingness to go the distance.”
–“The dancers need to use their epaulement all the way through.” [Epaulement is an enigmatic quality, strictly defined as “oppositional torsion of shoulder and waist,” which gives shading and dimension to movement and very often distinguishes great dancing from mere technical skill.]
–“They have to let go of what they think it is and do it the way they want, so that it becomes original. It’s both universal [i.e., the choreography is a given] and particular.”
And finally: “A sense of community and trust is important in setting this work. Dancers as a breed are intelligent and intuitive, but it can take time for them to trust themselves, to believe it’s okay to break rules, to use their own voice, to be very individual.”
“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” like all of Forsythe’s work, takes the realities of our world seriously. It’s true, he seems to say: we are no longer living in an age of gentility, moving from “low” to “high” in search of a shared ideal. Today we move alone, sharing little but a common humanity, a common physics and geometry, and a common space — and a set of instructions from an earlier common tradition for enabling the (heretofore) most beautiful expression possible out of the human body using all those common elements.
I’ll conclude with a quotation from Forsythe himself, from an interview he did with BBC Radio in 2003. (The transcribed interview is here.) Responding to the charge that he is merely interested in “deconstructing” ballet, he said:
“We are looking at these things and saying ‘is it possible with this velocity to accomplish that’ and rather than say we are working teleologically and want an absolute outcome – this is not classical physics, this is more like quantum physics – there is a probability that you will fall over, and there is a possibility that this thing will transform into something else – and we’re just basically pushing the system to say ‘OK, at a certain level, what are the probabilities, will this thing become something we don’t know? Can ballet, something we know, actually produce something we don’t know? That’s an interesting thing.“
(If you want to play — literally — with Forsythe’s choreography, visit the website Synchronous Objects, a collaboration with the Ohio State University industrial design department, which analyzed and disassembled and reassembled Forsythe’s work “One Flat Thing, Reproduced” into parts like alignment, movement density, and so on. On the site, you can toggle on and off different annotations as the dance video plays, revealing the various harmonies and disharmonies that make the piece so fascinating. Thanks to Jessica Vokoun for pointing me to this project.)
See you this weekend “in the middle.”