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Inside Transitions - An Interview with Richard Siegal
of Ballett Frankfurt

by Donald Hutera

September, 2003

 

Ballett Frankfurt’s third Umbrella visit since 1998 will also be its last under the artistic directorship of revered American expatriate William Forsythe. In spring 2002 word spread like wildfire through the global dance community that the Frankfurt politicians wanted to have classical story ballets on the stage of their city’s premier dance company. Anyone who has seen Forsythe’s startling and challenging productions knows what an alien concept that would be to him. The situation was never resolved in a mutually satisfying fashion. Thus, after nearly two decades, Forsythe will soon be moving on. Another American, dancer Richard Siegal, has been a member of Forsythe’s company since 1997. Siegal says he has ‘dabbled with choreography as long as I’ve been dancing.’ Not unexpectedly, Forsythe has supported Siegal’s steps towards step-making. ‘Bill has been very encouraging of my choreography. I was commissioned by Ballett Frankfurt last January to present a full evening of my work. It was richly rewarding, giving me much to grow on. I’m still learning from it now, each time I consider the experience or when choreographing something else.’

Asked if there is much hierarchy Ballett Frankfurt, Siegal replies, ‘It’s not explicit. Everyone has soloist contracts. But due to the diversity of the repertory, different skills become more highly valued relative to which pieces are active. So there is something of a floating hierarchy.’ And just what skills might those be? ‘An intelligent, curious mind helps. A strong work ethic is necessary. Creative problem-solving can go a long way. Flexibility is important. And a powerful dance technique of some sort or another.’

Not everyone is as well-versed in text as Dana Caspersen, a leading light of the company and quite unforgettable in the bare-breasted monologue of Forsythe’s magnificent enigma Eidos:Telos [a highlight of Umbrella 2001]. ‘Not everyone is interested in speaking on stage,’ Siegal clarifies. Those who are generally do, to some extent. Some are called upon regularly to work with text. Emoting is something else altogether, and is specific to the piece, scene, performance, individual, etc. Dana is a stage animal, entirely gifted and experienced in Bill’s process. Her gifts and person have influenced the work tremendously. But in general, skills seem to find their ways onto the stage. Bill rarely overlooks a possibility.’

Kammer/Kammer is not an easy piece to grasp. It features two texts, Anne Carson’s ‘Irony is not enough: Essay on my life as Catherine Deneuve’ and Douglas A Martin’s ‘Outline of my lover.’ Each is about love, desire and especially jealousy. Each has a same-sex angle. There is also a good deal of film/video work. This is how Siegal describes it: ‘From my vantage point – and it’s a very limited perspective – it would appear that we are engaged in the telling of two separate stories on a collision course with one another. Two principal characters, played by Dana and Tony [Antony Rizzi], spiral into a vortex of jealousy. The other performers are, to a great extent, more ambiguous, at times completing the points of jealous triangles, at times changing the physical context of the drama to elucidate a scene. ‘There’s quite a bit of scenery,’ Siegal continues. ‘Primary are two mattresses upon which much of the dancing is done. There are also many plasma, flat video screens on stage and in the audience. There is also a camera woman who shares the stage with us in a highly choreographed manner. A video editor sits in the audience mixing the live images and occasional stock footage. From inside the performance I can see very little of this extremely important element. I have heard that it is beautifully rendered and complementary to the stage action.’

Siegal is an original cast member, one of a total of just over a dozen. ‘Mostly I am dancing,’ he says, ‘occasionally in direct relation to Dana or Tony, at other times using my body and presence, in concert with all the other elements, to excite an emotional state on the stage, in the theatre, in myself.’ In some quarters it has been remarked that there isn’t enough dance in the performance. ‘I can’t really quantify how much dance is in the piece,’ Siegal says. ‘I think that would also depend on one’s definition of dance. I have heard criticism along these lines, however, most often based on certain expectations. For my part, I can say with confidence that it is a work for which I need to be in top form. I dance hard.’

‘It can be a bit of a balancing act between taking full responsibility for each and every moment,’ he adds, ‘and knowing that in many of those moments your contribution may be completely overlooked by the audience. There are even choreographed moments which absolutely cannot be seen. The performer is confronted, therefore, with a question one should ask in any performance situation: For whom am I performing? What is an audience to me today? What is it for me to be seen? How am I different as a result of being onstage? Usually this is a matter of course. In Kammer/Kammer , performance conventions are sufficiently called into question to make these issues salient.’ Has, by any chance, Catherine Deneuve seen it? ‘Yes,’ Siegal answers. ‘In Paris, no less.’

There are many questions to be asked about Forsythe. How did he assemble this show, and how would Siegal characterise his working methods generally? What does he show or tell? What kind of collaborator is he? Are company members allowed much in-put? Is there a collectively questioning atmosphere during the creation process, and even once a piece is up on its legs?’Bill seems to do what ‘works’. To this extent, the collaboration in the processes I have been involved in have run the gamut. Even in the most collaborative of cases, though, there is usually a point at which Bill, perhaps like every choreographer, must make his piece. At this juncture, any questioning atmosphere that may have existed or been fostered prior to that time is diminished in favour of a more efficient method in which information is parcelled out as needed. The stuff of theatre-making is the nuts and bolts of the sequence of events, blending of elements and the transitions between. These are decisions that Bill must make himself, although suggestions on every count continue in many forms, overt and unintentional. The latter is often the best.’

The last question to be asked is obvious:What’s the atmosphere at Ballett Frankfurt like now that Forsythe’s departure is nigh? ‘Certainly people are concerned about their futures,’ Siegal admits. ‘I, personally, have become quite accustomed to the security of a stable job. This may be as good a reason as any to welcome the change. Sometimes I’m anxious, but mostly I’m just curious.’

*********************************

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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