William Forsythe began to assimilate the world of choreography with the language of classical dance, vital for any ballet dancer. His productions, however, are very distant from classical harmony. In his works Forsythe rethinks the laws of the structure of dance plots, deconstructing classical movement and the typical logic of a composition.
In The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude the choreographer offers a view of classical pas from positions of his own time. This ballet is part of a diptych the choreographer entitled Two Ballets in the Manner of the Late 20th Century. Forsythe places himself within the historic system of co-ordinates of the ballet world, representing his position with regard to the mainstream of “home-grown” American ballet of the 20th century – namely the choreography of George Balanchine. On the one hand, Forsythe “grew” out of Balanchine with his intoxication of the technique of classical dance, while on the other hand the world is alive today and so things move in different ways. This is precisely why in Forsythe’s 1996 opus the “iron” classical verticals and arms are cast aside, forgetting about classical softness and airiness, springy lynch-pins in order to change quickly the angles and the retention of balance in unstable poses. Initially it seems that the choreographer is submitting to the romanticism of Schubert’s music and gives the dancers language from a classical dictionary in an intoxicatingly fast tempo – the leaps, the spins and the pointe technique – but that’s just at first glance. In attitude the dancer almost loses balance, the centre of balance shifts from the supporting leg to the working leg. Neither do the backs look classical – suddenly for a moment they lose their fixed evenness, they become curved, with a sense of each and every vertebra rather than the typical solidified ramrod. It’s as if the choreographer is showing how the borders of classical dance have shifted today, enriched by modern dance and the tremendous variety of 20th century dance techniques. And in this contrast there is a slightly ironic play in which the serious is mixed with the non-serious, even so far as the costumes are concerned – here the tutus are not traditional and fluffy, but resemble cardboard circles. The thrill of exactitude comes when the dancers sense and underscore the difference between typical classical elements and Forsythe’s amendments to them and, feeling free in the unrelenting tempo, dance with a change of style. The logic of the production’s composition is entirely traditional – each of the five participants in the dance performs some solo expression, and in-between the choreographer offers various forms of development of the relationships within the quintet – duets, different trios and a quartet.
In In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, staged in 1988 at the Opéra de Paris, the compositional structure is less predictable. The kaleidoscopic glimpse of the countless solos and duets in this ballet are dictated by the stage space. And for Forsythe as a postmodernist choreographer stage space has no centre. Its life is filled with the creative play of numerous voices that resound from different sources. On the stage there are several centres of development of the action. Sometimes they dance together, sometimes alone, sometimes with the effect of invisible presence when the dancers are standing on-stage just outside the lit areas. The choreographer also plays with the individual space of the dancers, extending in movement the lines of the arms and legs to the extreme, as if trying to take it all to the very limits of what is humanly possible. As a result there is virtuoso dance bordering on stability. The nature of dance language here has nothing in common with classical movement, even though they do dance en pointe and certain classical pas can be recognised. Here there is no primacy of the vertical axis required in classical dance in the grand poses and turns, here the axes of the bodies freely bow to different angles and in different directions. The dancers, like a perpetuum mobile, are in constant movement in the dance, and if they freeze in a pose it is only because of inertia – freezing in one spot like a statue so that on the return path they can bring to life the energy they have amassed. It’s like a “clockwork” ballet – to stun the public, stun them with technology and not inspiration. And our entire industrial age has been an era of technology, not discoveries. And here the mechanics of dance takes centre stage. Forsythe’s dance is powerful, and the tension in it is not concealed. Although in the duets the choreographer does not make the audience feel sorry for the backs of the partners who lift the female dancers up high. In his duets the function of the partner is to support and not to withstand, to serve as a support from which, as if on elastic, the dancer is drawn back, to provide an impulse for the next pas. The unusual focus of the movements with the maximised amplitude and the impressive tempo of Tom Willems’ music, aggressive in its mono-tonality, bereft of melody but with an underlying rhythm that gives a drive to the dance structure – that is what In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is all about.
And Forsythe’s dance, highly prized in its own right, creates emotionality – cool, but enthralling and refined in terms of its intellectualism.