In the footsteps of Forsythe

The master choreographer has brought his Frankfurt Ballet to London's Sadler's Wells. But what is it about William Forsythe's work that makes it so distinctive. And inspire such devotion? By John Percival

Ask William Forsythe how he persuaded ballet dancers to follow him on his trip to find new ways of dancing and of creating dance, and you are likely to get the answer, "That's where I come from. I'm a ballet dancer!"

His fellow choreographer Jonathan Burrows had that response when talking to him about Forsythe's duet The The, which was included in a recent Queen Elizabeth Hall programme of dances. Some reviewers found The The hard to take, with the dancers sitting down all through it and making small, sometimes aggressive movements. British audiences will have a better chance to judge Forsythe's work at more length when his company at last makes its British debut at Sadler's Wells tonight.

Reid Anderson, now director of the Stuttgart Ballet, remembers dancing alongside Forsythe in the Seventies. That was when Forsythe, at 26, showed his first public choreography, a duet called Urlicht, to music by Mahler, initially dancing it himself with his then wife Eileen Brady on a workshop programme. "It was an instant success, was taken into the company repertory, and he asked me to dance it," says Anderson. "You knew at once you were working with a real choreographer from the way he could describe exactly what he wanted and how the step had to look. We still have that piece in the repertory."

Anderson sees Forsythe as "one of those really fantastic choreographers who take the art form forward...he changed the face of ballet, not only by stretching the dancers to the limit but by the way he uses music, costuming and the stage."

What Royal Ballet dancer Peter Abegglen likes about being in Forsythe productions is that he always makes dancers give "a little bit more than they think they can achieve". He says that Forsythe "changed things for us to fit our bodies, because he always wants the dancers to look good". His colleague Deborah Bull says of her rehearsals for Steptext that "he moulded it to me, and moulded me to it".

Bull likes Forsythe's work and "him as a person, his attitude: terribly straightforward and enormously enthusiastic. He is working from the base of `It's great, but you can do better', rather than the English response of `That's not it at all'."

But Abegglen and Bull both acknowledge that what Forsythe does with his own company is more complex and difficult - "scary but thrilling". This is because the dancers, steeped in his work (it may take about four years to fully acclimatise), have learned to speak his dance language, and he makes the choreographic process a collaboration. In Abegglen's analogy, "he gives them the words and they have to make up their own sentences".

Forsythe is punctilious about crediting the dancers' contributions on the printed programmes, and pays them for their share, although he makes a distinction between different levels of authorship. "If I've made the material and you're realigning it, OK you don't get paid for that, but if you're developing the material yourself and I need to use it, yes, you get paid for that section."

Reid Anderson adds that although the Frankfurt dancers sometimes have to improvise, it is within a framework that Forsythe has set. "It drives him crazy if they go outside that framework." And in his choreography they "have to remember not only what the step is but how you have to do it".

Even in the more straightforward ballets which Forsythe has created or remounted for other companies, such as the three in the Royal Ballet's repertoire, he takes the dancing out of its traditional alignment, with twists and unbalances, unexpected timing or placing, and a casual way of walking or standing mixed in with the formality of balletic movement.

The creative procedures he has developed within his own company enable him to go further in terms of complexity, of turning sequences inside out or back to front, and of exploring minute relationships between different parts of the body.

Just as George Balanchine, having established his own style of pure classic ballet as a standard for others to aim at, introduced a sharper, more angular neo-classic style in the Fifties with ballets such as Agon and Episodes, so Forsythe has gone a step further in turning ballet into a style that accords with the pace, structure and moods of the other arts at the century's end.

Whereas a conventional choreographer is the person who devises the dances, even though often with some input from the dancers, Forsythe has been writing himself out of the process to a large extent. But he is still the one who essentially has to start things off by setting the tasks for a new work, the timing, the structure, the nature of the movement to be explored; and also to bring the material together, to say no when necessary, to edit and display it, choose the atmosphere and the scenic context. So however much or little of the choreography is directly by him, the complete work remains recognisably his.

That is why it is "so very different from the things that we do," says David Bintley, choreographer and director of Birmingham Royal Ballet. He finds it "a very personal style, and a style which, for all of the philosophical background that colours each piece, is just concerned with bodies, with movements."

Bintley finds that young people are looking back at classicism, and that although Forsythe's work is light years away from the old style, it is still classicism: "There's still the pointe shoe at the back of it."

So BRB will present one of Forsythe's ballets next year, because Bintley thinks it is necessary for British audiences outside London to see this for themselves. They will do the first part of Limb's Theorem, a three- act work, part two of which (under its separate title Enemy in the Figure) is included in the Frankfurt Ballet's programme at Sadler's Wells.

Bintley says of Forsythe's own dancers: "I like the rough edge of the Frankfurt Ballet,. I like the toughness, and the feeling that they're all individual people." Anderson, too, comments on the "extraordinary mixture of dancers and styles" in the Frankfurt Ballet; the fact that they are visually a mixture of sizes and shapes, yet all have this way of appearing right, intellectually and physically.

This fits in with Deborah Bull's conviction that Forsythe's greatest strength is that he "loves to see dancers dancing at their best". And Forsythe says of himself : "I really enjoy dancing too. Just enjoy it because it feels good. I mean, is there something wrong with that? I don't see the need to give it a false earnestness. Why be so serious? You know it's dancing, which is serious in some ways, but it doesn't have to be made more serious than it is. When we're dancing we get a tremendous amount of delight."

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London EC1, to 28 Nov (0171-863 3000)

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us