Guest article by Ada Bronowski
William Forsythe is a choreographic living legend whose works have been gradually integrated into the universal book of dance repertoire.
His most famous creations are danced worldwide by companies whose place in the world of dance is partly established by being able to dance Forsythe.
The mastery of some of his most famous pieces, for instance the 1987 In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, or his 1996 creation, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, has become a marker of a coming of modern-age dance for any dancer and dance company with perfectionist ambitions.
If you can dance Forsythe, you can dance anything, the sky’s the limit – actually, no, the Andromeda constellation might be, and Alpha Centauri is your touch-base.
But here’s the rub: time passes, even light-years accumulate into years. The absolutely modern, the ground-breaking, the beyond the beyond becomes a classic. That is after all what integrating the repertoire means.
It is an age-old conundrum and age-old pitfall that the moderns of a time and a place, become the classics of a future new-modern.
The processes are well-known: canonisation, curriculum-isation, becoming a compulsory on competition programmes, being analysed, learnt by heart, ingested, expected.
The ordinary profanation of the consensus which transforms the popular into a national treasure, the admirable into the norm.
As I walked out of the Dresden-based Semperoper Ballett performance at London’s Sadler’s Wells on the summer equinox of 2018, I heard someone behind me say: ‘that was very 90s’.
Are we already the new-modern of a classical William Forsythe of the late 1980s and 90s?
Semperoper is a company making its international mark. It was taken over in 2006 by Aaron S. Watkin, who used to dance for Forsythe in his company, Frankfurt Ballett.
Watkin has rocket-launched the Semperoper as a world-class company by inviting a host of contemporary choreographers to create for the company including Mats Ek and Ohad Naharin. But of course, what he did (how could he not?) was foundationally to inject into the company’s repertoire the works of William Forsythe.
In their London stop, the company showcased a Forsythe bonanza in which two works from the 1980s, the infamous, and above-mentioned In the Middle… from 1987, and the 1989 Enemy in the Figure, with, in the middle, a re-configured work from 2012, Neue Suite, constituted by snippets and quotations from a number of different works from the 1990s.
The performance is not only an exquisite presentation of what the company can do in terms of technical prowess and possession of a space, but also the visible process of a canonisation of works which scream out both their modernity and their classicism.
It is an existential crisis which every great artist has gone through: to scandalise and to be loved at the same time. The present case with Forsythe is rendered more complex still by the fact that the choreographer is alive and kicking.
He has himself worked with the company on the revival of these past creations. The audience too remembers and relives at every new representation the sensations and memories and expectations conjured at the time when these creations premiered, shocked and rocked the world forevermore.
What has time done to these pieces, what is so 90s about these works, which are breath-taking, heart-stopping, and utterly complex?
An ‘All Forsythe’ evening, as the show’s title has it, gives a comprehensive idea of a style, of a message, of a signature – all aspects of the process of canonisation.
The three pieces presented are different enough to demonstrate an underlying connective theme: behind the exuberance, behind the pizazz of technique, speed, agility, it is, undoubtedly, the thrill of dimorphism.
The thrill, that is, of the utter difference of the male and female body and the infinite variety which dimorphism enables as to the relational compatibility of the one with the other.
Perhaps it is this, which is essentially classical, and our present-day modern, or post-modern, is the conscious and obsessive negation of dimorphism.
This smoothening of sexual differentiation is at work in recent sumptuous creations, such as Crystal Pites’ Seasons Canon or Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings. Both from 2016, both explorations of the affiliation of humans as a species to a higher order genus characterised by motion, rather than an inquiry into the specificity of the human species as such, and its extraordinary dimorphism.
Our present times seem to be characterised by our nature-defying attempts at climbing up the slippery trunk of the Darwinian tree of selection and infinite variety, rather than sliding down into the folds of substance and differentia, which in other times and places, were the spice of life.
And so, Forsythe represents that spice, that life, that constant surprise at what the utterly other and yet utterly close can do, right at the outermost tip of the Darwin’s tree. There are no more species under species, but where every individual parades its “variety under domestication”.
In The Middle Somewhat Elevated
The first piece at the Semperoper’s night was In The Middle Somewhat Elevated, created in 1987. The title refers to the two small golden cherries hanging in the middle of the space above the dancers to which every now and then, the nine dancers look up, in the midst of the dazzling and flamboyant movements of up and down, across and oblique, square, spherical and polyhydric.
So much has been written about the piece since 1987, when it premiered at the Paris Opera with Sylvie Guillem in one of the main roles. But still nothing definitive, as critic after critic, after each of the numerous representations around the world, adds layers of admiration at the jubilatory plasticity of the frenetic dance.
The golden cherries remain enigmatic; the piece’s construction, as the years and decades go by, is increasingly described in terms of theme and variations as the work settles down into its canonised place in the contemporary repertoire.
Of course, there is order; there is form; there are point shoes, pas de deux, ensembles. And there is rebellion: for instance, classical ballet coded arm positions are consciously broken when hands, instead of finishing the shape of the arm in roundness, suddenly bend the other way, in an offensive right angle.
A small hand-gesture for man is a huge step for humanity in directing the line of the gaze upwards, sideways, diagonally, anywhere but inwardly, into the sweet and polite frame in which the classical ballerina closes all the lines of her body, as if setting out the boundaries of a protective shield.
Forsythe, in the wake of Martha Graham, of George Balanchine, of Merce Cunningham – all the great innovators of dance of the 20th century, all of them American, as Forsythe is himself – continues that work of breaking the codes of classical ballet.
Like his predecessors, the dialectic between order, rigour, straight lines, point shoes, and rebellion, satire, breaking loose, is the keystone of his revolutionary creation.
Of the golden cherries hanging above and in the middle, we would wish, on the one hand, to leave them be, as the sort of capricious presence that makes art great and always a few steps ahead of meaning.
But in a world of precision, of vertiginous precision, surely nothing is left to chance, nothing is meaningless, even if the meaning of some things is beyond words, and only articulated in movement.
Of the golden cherries, then, it is hardly a twisted imagination which sees them as a pair of testicles, hanging in mid-air.
Etymologically, a ‘testicle’ is, from the Latin, the word for ‘witness’, a ‘little witness’, he who bears testimony – testimony, that is, for the act of procreation, the ultimate compatibility between the ultimately different.
The two testicle-cherries hanging above the dance bear testimony to the compatibility between man and woman: for the fruit of the tension between classic and modern in Forsythe generates a new dialogue between the male and female dancer.
There are two central pas de deux in the piece: the same male dancer dances first with one female dancer, then with another.
Both pas de deux are extremely different: the first is an ecstatic conquest of the space around the couple. A central recurring movement is the male dancer lifting his female partner into the air at an oblique angle with one leg pointed straight out into air, the other bent inside to form an L-shape, as if she were an arrow launched into the airs; her chest loops as if to progress further forward into the space beyond.
The man is shooting his partner into the air, as if she were an arrow and he spends the whole pas de deux moving her like a corporeal bow: stringing, tightening, stretching her to the utter bedazzlement of a awe-struck audience.
The brusque changes of positions in that pas de deux consistently anticipate the brusque launching of the musical beats from Thom Willems’ rhythmical minimalist space-music.
These anticipatory moves contribute in the same way as the chest-looping of the dancer to extend the music, as if tricking the beat, by playing with the micro-gaps of before and after a sound.
A fourth dimension is created by the couple’s conquest of the space and time around them, in which motion is time, and the beat is space.
The overall effect is that speed is created by the impossibility of deciding whether the bodies fill up time or fill up space. The male dancer’s role here is to push his female partner in every new possible way he can come up with.
The second pas de deux is very different in tone and direction. The same male dancer is now engaged in an intricate negotiation with his new female partner, not throwing her into the air, but holding her, exploring the space around her body, and turning and twisting around her to find the best, closest way to connect.
From a trophy-partnership, the pas de deux has transformed into a sensuous exploration of the ways the bodies of man and woman can connect through discoveries of all that differentiates them.
As if to remind us, the audience, of the difference, the first female partner dances alone in the background, as the second pas de deux unfolds.
The more closeness the second equal partnership displays, the lonelier trophy-girl from the first coupling seems, as she goes through her hyper-extensions, grand pliés and wavy arm movements, all alone.
The second couple dance in symbiosis, almost glued one to another, and continue to twist and turn as the curtain falls, suggesting that they will never separate again, under the cherry-witnesses of the supreme act of inter-connection.
It is the same investigation which unravels in the second piece of the evening, Neue Suite, a collage of eight pas de deuxs, set to short extracts from Handel, Berio, Bach and Handel again.
Each couple comes on stage on its own, dances, leaves, and a new couple arrives. With each new arrival, we get a new chapter from a history of couple communication, a couple therapy in dance, which is colour coded, as each pair is distinguished by its shared hue.
What is fascinating is not so much the relation of the dance to the music, but the dance’s appropriation of the music and the way the dialogue between the man and the woman becomes itself an arrangement of the music, as if the notes were transformed into movements.
The mix of baroque and contemporary music does not distinguish between a more modern and a more classical dance. Rather, as the pas de deux follow one another, we see different patterns of power dynamics between the couples.
The first piece, to an extract from Handel, is almost a caricature of classical partnership in which the male dancer supports, anticipates and carries every movement of his female partner.
But each successive couple distances itself further and further from these classically coded expectations, in small ways and in big ways: the male dancer in one pair goes as far as to tap on the leg of his partner as if to say: now lift. Another couple, dances independently and meets only to create criss-cross lines across the stage.
In the penultimate pas de deux, the elongated grace of an absolutely stunning dancer of Semperoper, Sangeun Lee, leaves her partner mimicking the gestures of the male supporting dancer, while she spins and arabesques on her own, highlighting in this way, the space between the pair and the asymmetric shapes the void makes, framed between two bodies.
Each pair exhibits what was so subtly worked through in In the Middle…, namely a renegotiation of the roles of the man and the woman, shedding off layers of coded behaviour and gestures, in order to discover the real freedom and the variety of the infinite possibilities which the connection of dimorphic human bodies allows.
The Enemy in the Figure
The last piece of the show, The Enemy in the Figure, is, simply put, mind-blowing. And it was in 1989 when first created, and still is today almost thirty years later.
The eleven dancers involved dress up and dress down in configurations of white and black. The costumes are important, since all the dancers are constantly changing from a black suite with jacket and trousers, to white leotards – and for some of the male dancers, a naked chest; one dancer wears a polka-dot black shirt, which he ends up taking off and dancing a solo which is a desperate fight with the heavens above, with scissor-legged jumps, flayed arms, and squashed head.
For, whilst all the body reaches upwards, the head is bent down, as if a mythological god full of malice is pressing down on it.
The stage is plunged into darkness, with a dividing wooden screen splitting the space in two. The dancers come in and out of the light, from behind the screen.
They flit in and out of the shaft of light produced by a moving spotlight which the dancers themselves push around on stage, opening and closing different columns of yellow-white light, creating shadows in different areas of the stage.
Things happen in the shadows like in a painting by George de la Tour: things mysterious, things to do with the light, but that no light can ever reveal.
Some of the dancers wear trousers with feathers, and one dancer has a whole outfit made of black feather, which create a tubular effect when spinning.
This added feature contributes to sow seeds of unrest and electrifying movement, confirming that beauty needs a touch of madness and constant unrest in order to endure.
The changes of dress give an impression both of a mad-house in which people spend their time taking their street clothes off and putting them back on.
At the same time, this seems like a normal, that is, relatable, state of mind, in which we are all constantly playing roles in which we have to wear street clothes, to face the world, but in which we are also our naked writhing bodies, trying to find stillness and calm in a world which never stops spinning.
Wearing suits and jackets and elegant black leotards, the dancers run after one another, try to interact with each other, try to communicate messages; but sometimes, when the music stops, they stop dead in their tracks, and our minds, the minds of the spectators, wander elsewhere.
Again, the thunderous, space-music of Thom Willems accompanies the dance like a pulse not of a living organism, but a living thinking desiring organism whose pulse therefore, is not regular, but unsteady, disorderly.
Dimorphism again is the undercurrent of this portrait of mixture, relentless agitation from without and from within.
The jumping madness of the male dancers is starkly contrasted, like black a against white, with the inward-looking movements of the women.
One magical, out of the world moment, is a pause in the middle of the piece, in which only a small corner of the stage is illuminated in an orange cave-like light, with three female dancers tilting backward and forward on a music which is almost still, primordial.
It is a moment of absolute femininity, in which time and space and motion are frozen, almost suffocating in its finality, until a male dancer breaks the spell, charges the group and the motion recommences.
What makes the world go round, the feathers spin and the jumps fly high is the constant rediscovery of dimorphism, which makes each dancer and each spectator jubilantly murmur inside: dimorphism I love you, dimorphism I live you.
The great literary critic – but aren’t all literary critics ultimately critics of society? – Julien Gracq writes in a work about criticism, that what we, contemporaries of all the ages, read is always and only the classics.
Writing and working in the 1960s and 70s, the time of the great dreams (or delusions) of revolutions in art, (structuralism, minimalism or deconstructionism), Gracq was suggesting that wonderful though the revolutions may be, when we want to read something that speaks to our heart, that runs through our minds, reassuringly understandable and clear, we do not read Alain Robbe-Grillet or Thomas Pynchon, but we read and re-read Flaubert or Dickens, revolutionaries in their time, classic forevermore.
Gracq is subtly suggesting there is something terribly wrong with his contemporary moderns: namely that they are unreadable.
What is a classic then? It is what is readable, and readable means that we can think with the work, that we can breathe with it, understand it, it is our world, the world we actually live in, as opposed to the world the moderns force onto us.
Forsythe’s becoming a classic, in the footsteps of Flaubert, Dickens or more recently Philip Roth, or the great Mister B. for George Balanchine in the world of dance, is an acknowledgement of where we, as an audience, as receivers, have arrived at, and where our own new-modernity is herding us towards.
We can breathe in Forsythe, where intrepidity is worked into our integrated Darwinian acceptance that dimorphism is a fact of life, and we can enjoy it.
Of course, the further horizon, which is suffocating in comparison to the breathability of Forsythe, is where the new Avant-guard is forcing us to look: defying natural selection and natural differentiation.
The latter will be the classical of thirty years from now, unless there is something deeply wrong with it after all, like the still unreadable Robbe-Grillet, forty years after his unreadability for Gracq.
Not all moderns have what it takes to become classic. Forsythe has a lot of it, in every good way.
Review by Ada Bronowski at Sadler’s Wells 21-23 June 2018