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
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?