A Forsythe Study Day
Autumn, 1998 was a great time for the annual Dance Umbrella festival and the newly reopened Sadler's Wells. There was a wealth of riches from both sources and the much-anticipated visit of Ballett Frankfurt represented the first Dance Umbrella event in the new venue. Blissfully, this all too brief season exceeded our high expectations, and was greeted with rave reviews from the critics and contemporary and ballet fans shouting their appreciation. I went to the Friday night performance and then attended the Forsythe Study Day on the Saturday. After that I simply had to go back to see the company a second time.
This personal view concentrates on the Study Day, which was organised by Nigel Hinds of Sadler's Wells and Ann Nugent, with help and input from others, including Susie Crow of BIG (Ballet Independents Group). The programme had two intermixed components - one group of sessions featured the architect Mark Goulthorpe and the writers Rosylyn Sulcas and Ann Nugent. In the second, dancers were centre stage. For me, this latter group was more interesting and I shall focus on these sessions.
Nik Haffner is a dancer with the company, who is also an IT specialist. Working with Forsythe, he has developed a CD-ROM presentation, which describes the improvisation techniques that the choreographer uses and includes short illustrations from the repertoire. This brilliant use of technology has now been further developed and the CD-Rom, Improvisation Technologies' is available from Dance Books for £27. It includes a detailed formulation of Forsythe's choreoghraphic methodology, a 17 minute solo dance by Forsythe himself and an accompanying booklet.
Nik was not dancing during the week, but spent his time in London taking groups of UK choreographers and dancers through the CD-ROM and the related techniques. This may well prove to be one of the most influential aspects of the visit. Scrolling through a hierarchy of menus, Nik showed us Forsythe explaining in simple language how a system of improvisation is derived from a series of basic movements, which can then evolve as reflections, or transformations performed either on other parts of the body or in a different position. For instance, in one piece he asked a group of dancers to walk across the stage and trace their names with the top-most vertebrae. In another improvisation, basic ballet steps were transformed into arm movements. We also saw an example where a dancer worked with a number of sequences, one of which had been given the label 'A'. 'A' stands for Abraham Lincoln' and consists of movements such as a representation of his cylindrical hat and his beard drawn out by hand from his chin. These basic movements were then transformed in a variety of ways by the dancer to create a piece of choreography, which although improvised, had links with the movements of other performers in the piece when using A' as a ground.
This fascinating presentation illustrated the crucial role of improvisation in Forsythe's work and explained why the original dancers now share the credit for choreography. Most pieces include at least some element of improvisation actually in performance. For instance, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated has a couple of 10 second sections where the Royal Ballet dancers improvise. It also explains how Forsythe's work can be so rich with movement, by using these shorthand techniques to generate choreography. Despite the importance of the creativity of the dancers, the final word lies with Forsythe, who will frequently look at a sequence of steps and decide it just doesn't work well enough to be included.
The highlight of the afternoon was Deborah Bull. Relaxed and witty, she raised everyone's spirits with a heartfelt presentation. She told us how in the 1990s she had felt frustrated that there was no great choreographer creating works for the dancers of the Royal Ballet in the way that Ashton and McMillan had in earlier decades. Then she experienced working with Forsythe and it was a revelation for her.
Deborah had been surprised that Forsythe wanted her for In the Middle..' as he had not really seen her dance, but only seen her outline some movements while a second cast was rehearsing a work from the repertoire. She and the other dancers involved then spent several weeks learning the basics of the piece with Glen Tuggle, one of the Frankfurt Ballet Masters. Having overcome the initial strangeness of a different, but wonderful movement vocabulary, she then had the worry of performing for the first time in front of the choreographer, himself . From earlier experiences, she knew that just because you have satisfied an assistant does not mean that the boss will like it! She decided to go for it' in her own way and to her relief, Forsythe approved. She told us how Forsythe does not worry if movements are sometimes not performed perfectly and that, because this fear of failure is removed, dancers actually fail far less often.
Deborah described the period preparing Steptext with Forsythe as, Six weeks in Paradise'. There has been much discussion of how Steptext was a consolation prize, when the original piece to be prepared for the Royal Ballet had not been pursued. Rather than the RB being incapable of the steps required, she told us that Forsythe decided that it would simply be unrealistic to ask the company to spend the time required to learn his distinctive vocabulary. In describing the process of preparing the work, she told us how the one-minute gestural improvisation at the start of Steptext was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences she has ever endured on stage. Although the complete work is only 14 minutes long, Deborah always feels a build-up of acid in the muscles of her arms as well as her legs, because of the intense whole-body activity required in the work. Clearly the choreographer has made an enormous impression on Deborah Bull and, as was echoed by the other dancers taking part, she values the experience of working with him immensely.
The final session was a forum with the speakers joined by Dana Caspersen, a dancer with Ballett Frankfurt. She described how the company does ballet class each day, which still provides the most appropriate basis for their work in combination with the improvisation exercises described earlier. Given the sharply kinetic movements of the pieces, one questioner asked about the injury rate in the company. Dana replied that the natural flow of the choreography helps to alleviate the problems, but that, like all dance, it's a dangerous game with injury a regular event.
She was asked about the problems for companies and audiences coping with a dance spectrum that includes Forsythe's contemporary work as well as classical pieces from the 19th Century. She rejected this concept and said that it really felt like part of the same body of work to her, rather than distinct entities. Deborah Bull told us that she believes that, as the millennium approaches, Forsythe's Ballet-ballets' should be a part of the repertoire of every major ballet company.
The question of democracy in ballet companies was raised. As mentioned earlier, the Frankfurt dancers are now given co-credit for choreography and there is no hierarchy of dancers - no Principals coming out from the curtains to take applause. Deborah commented that in her view the major ballet companies have only a few years to modernise and democratise, if they are to survive and develop. Given the apparent esprit de corps and commitment of the Ballett Frankfurt dancers, I was convinced that the democratic approach has a lot to commend it. Overall, the Study Day was a great success and I hope it will be the first of many at Sadler's Wells, as dance appreciation classes are few and far between in London.
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