I met William Forsythe as a young college dancer.
It would seem a highly unlikely circumstance — a young Singaporean girl somehow decides and goes to a large public American university in the midwest to study dance, while simultaneously the world’s foremost choreographer, his company and its support system, embarks on interdisciplinary research with Professors Norah Zuniga-Shaw and Maria Palazzi (The Ohio State University’s Department of Dance, and Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design) to create the interactive web project, “Synchronous Objects”. This was a digital media experiment analysing, revealing and translating his work “One Flat Thing, reproduced” (2000).
I applied to join a research consortium for the project and got to geek out on dance while seated by the warmth of my computer in the freezing winter. My part in that project was tiny; for me, hugely formative. At the end of days spent between dance studios and lecture halls, I would watch and re-watch “One Flat Thing, reproduced” (OFTr) in search of what were called “cues” and “alignments” till my eyes were dry — Professor Zuniga-Shaw likened the task to that of research students examining and labelling gene sequences in the Human Genome Project. The micro within the macro. The macro questions: What is choreographic thinking? What else might it look like? (Or, how does it apply across disciplines?) My business was in the detail. At 9 minutes and 14 seconds, who was responsible for giving the cue — was it the dancer Yoko Ando or Fabrice Mazliah? A tedious task, but later I would figure that this is not so far removed from the dancing life anyway — driving what we like to call passion, is an obsession over whether or not a movement is, in fact, initiated from the little toe or the big toe, whether the performers should prioritise the internal image of crawling ants or focus on being in step. These details might, philosophically, not seem to matter, until we recognise that an audience’s observations, perceptions and, ultimately, an objective reality, could be the aggregate of these small details.
William Forsythe approached “Synchronous Objects” as the first step into a wider research project “Motion Bank” (2010-2013). It comes after the publication of “Improvisation Technologies: a tool for the analytic eye” (1995), both of which were developed in response to the question of how new media might communicate and rethink choreographic ideas. Though also used as a teaching tool for dancers, the impetus was to teach the eye to see in greater detail (and therefore for the mind to construct meaning) some of the complexities of the moving body and his choreography. Today, his thinking and physical vocabularies are much more understood by dancers and audiences, compared to when he first started. “Motion Bank” expanded on this notion and generously invited several other choreographers to contribute their works and thoughts.
Notably, the subtitle “a tool for the analytic eye” was meant to be slightly ironic — he wanted to make more readable his work to dance critics who often did not have the physical understanding of ballet, and even less so, of his way of moving at the time. This is a choreographer deeply sensitive to the balance of power between patrons, choreographers, dancers, audiences, and critics. This stands out very clearly in almost all his interviews, including this.
Of “Synchronous Objects”, what I know is this — my body, with all its identities (young! female! Asian! et cetera!), memories and divergences from larger cultural bodies and discourse, viscerally retained the rhythms of “OFTr”. I never learned the dance, but I breathed with the dancers, my nerves fired at speed, and now its traces live in my body. This powerful kinaesthetic response — and somehow, his ability to cut through the hierarchic ballet body — is what most draws attention to Forsythe’s work. His choreography builds from an internal logic, a series of chain reactions which seem somehow to enter the audience’s body without necessarily breaking the theatrical fourth wall in the conventional sense. I become embroiled in the activity without once leaving my seat — my body, full of its own life and its own stories, connects across the space with the superhuman dancing I see. I have to concentrate on what is observable first, because there is so much to observe — my body is alert — and this is the state from which I can connect with sensations, meanings, analyses.
This phenomena is one of the key purposes driving William Forsythe’s choreographic universe. What do people seek in dancing and in watching dance? What does dancing do, and what does watching choreography do? He wants to participate in “the big conversations” and choreography is his way in. Philosophers’ names like Jacques Derrida, Rancière, and Lacan come up in association with his; he has shared the podium with philosopher/neuroscientist/cognitive scientist Alva Noë. While the act of dancing is fundamentally physical and bodily, what happens in the body of the performer, the audience and the environment motivates the field of choreography; and ultimately it is in the transmission of ideas, in the movement of emotion/thought/impulse, that a cultural artefact is made.
His works shine a light on this affect. From “Artifact” (1984) featuring characters like The Woman in Historical Dress and The Man With The Megaphone, and “Impressing the Czar” (1987), to “Blake Works I” (2016) and the unusual mixed bill “A Quiet Evening of Dance” (2018) at Sadler’s Wells Theatre which includes a collaboration with Rauf ‘RubberLegz’ Yasit, a breakdancer — his choreographic imagination extends into dance history, the lived experiences of dancers and his understanding of a rehearsal room as an inherently political space; it expands to include the artists before him, his performers and collaborators — he relates the oft-insular world of ballet to the world it lives in, he makes use of his knowledge and position as a choreographer in the ballet world to expand beyond. In deeply considering the possibilities and frameworks proposed in ballet as a language, he has expanded its vocabularies, adding colloquialisms, new syntax. He has had perspective into the different ways a dance company might be organised — from being appointed director of the government-sponsored Ballet Frankfurt in 1984, to running The Forsythe Company from 2005-2015, and now travelling the world to create for ballet companies and his performers from decades in the field while also teaching at University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
While being attracted to the physical prowess of highly-abled ballet dancers and their specific qualities, his choreography extends into working with materiality. He creates “Choreographic Objects”, in which installations and objects create stimulus and impulse to spur people to action. Broader than participation, these pieces intend to invite the audience into paying attention to their bodies, how they move — and in doing so drawing attention to their agency, their imaginations, their mortality. “Towards a Diagnostic Gaze” (2013) constitutes a feather duster on a stone slab with the instruction “hold the object absolutely still”. Engaging with the object, the visitor experiences the body’s struggle with impossibility and perhaps, the life coursing through them that makes it so. This would not be the first time he has engaged thematically with mortality and grief. Eidos:Telos (1995) was made following the death of his second wife, Tracy-Kai Maier, and it was a kind of “roar of mourning” (Alistair Spalding, Sadler’s Wells Artistic Director and Chief Executive). “You Made Me a Monster” (2005) was created from an extraordinary context 10 years later. When Tracy was very ill with cancer, someone thought it was a good idea to give her a kit for assembling a cardboard skeleton as a Christmas present. Years later, the choreographer started playing with it without following instructions and created something of a monster, a model of his own grief. He uses these models in the performance. Audience members and assistants participate in building and adding their own sculptures while dancers would enter, contort and utter distorted speech. Out of an abstract chaos, William Forsythe constructs a narrative of feeling, a web of individuals embroiled in our own coming end.
There is a lot of literature and video footage of William Forsythe’s work available. Seeing his work, live, will be vastly different from those experiences. But – what is his relevance here in Singapore? So what if he is the William Forsythe? We aren’t keeping up with the Kardashians. We don’t need to care about the ballet, we have plenty of other dance forms and physical practices to study. We aren’t living in this extraordinary, wealthy country commemorating the bicentennial of one colonialist’s arrival simply for us to continue in the politics of past exploitation and pain, to fawn on the greatness of another white man, the brilliance of his art. I should hope not. I should hope it is clear that, in fact, this is an artist who cares about his creations being dialogic, whether it be in the dance studio or with the audience. This is an artist who is deeply attracted to the musical and physical prowess of highly-abled ballet bodies and develops those abilities to the fullest — but also decided he would make use of entire theatres to get closer to audiences in the cheapest seats. This is an artist who, over the decades, has been able to turn his gaze back at himself and his art form, to problematise it, embrace it, open conversation about it. He has won the heart of the popular imagination, because he cares about capturing the public imagination as much as he cares about his own integrity. There is something to learn here.
In March, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe will come with the Dresden Semperoper Ballett. There is no more singular czar, but many perhaps. How the artist deals with this new reality in his creation is worth witnessing. At Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 15-16 March.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay,