When George Balanchine died in 1983, a void appeared at the creative centre of classical ballet. Already for years people had been looking about them, had noted the increasingly grizzled mien of other grand master-choreographers, and wondered where the next generation could be. It wasn't surprising they hadn't noticed the new generation, because the new generation was a pretty limp lot, dancemakers in sub-Balanchine and sub-everyone else mould. So, when an American working in Europe started causing Richter-scale earth tremors, the ballet world paused and focused its gaze on him.
William Forsythe, now 51, became artistic director of the Frankfurt Ballet in 1984 after a few years freelancing as a choreographer. He has transformed a provincial company into an international phenomenon. He has become the most desired ballet choreographer anywhere, wooed by leading companies convinced that a Forsythe piece is indispensable for their credentials in restoring ballet as fashionable.
The Royal Ballet has four pieces, the Paris Opéra even more and although the Kirov has none it apparently lives in hope. For such companies, he tends to mount or create short pieces – lucid formal experiments in hyper-classicism that might be subsequently incorporated into full-evening works for his own troupe. But even these short ballet pieces have provoked reactions and expect considerable adjustment from their performers.
When, last month, the Kirov's director Makhar Vaziev and a clutch of his dancers came to Frankfurt for instruction in technique, they would have found the classicism visible enough, but deconstructed, distorted, diversified and reassembled in unconventional phrases. Balances are pitched off-centre, conveying a sense of impermanence. Hips thrust forward and torsos lean back in disobedience to classical precepts. Small units of movement are joined up in sequences contrary to those ingrained in a dancer's muscles from childhood. All this might have been no more than iconoclasm; but what makes Forsythe a valid innovator is the unerring eye he brings to his aesthetic, shaking out fresh configurations that startle with their sombre glitter and rhythmic logic.
He also brings an overarching intelligence to the epic full-evening pieces that he creates only for his own company, and which he now brings to Britain for the first time. Initially these might seem sprawlingly chaotic, with text, props and thematic threads that don't constitute a narrative as such, but rather suggest associations of ideas and atmosphere. In many of these pieces the dance has mutated into such exhaustive explorations of spatial moving geometries that it becomes unrecognisable as ballet.
"When the nature of ballet is investigated and its components reassembled in new ways," says the dancer Dana Caspersen, "it has the possibility of producing rich and detailed complexity. Bill's work varies greatly from piece to piece. Sometimes it is more evidently balletic and sometimes we work using ideas from the classical but end up with something quite different."
Forsythe's technique has evolved so far down the ballet line, it has become virtually autonomous, which is why in 1994 he collaborated on a CD-ROM, a dance primer for new recruits to learn the movement patterns and their permutations.
The genesis of Eidos: Telos, one of the two full-length pieces appearing here, is directly connected to the CD-Rom. Its first section, originally a stand-alone piece called Self Meant To Govern, collates the CD-ROM's information and demonstrates how it can be applied to structured systems of improvisation. Six dancers share the stage with ticking clocks, a metronome and a violinist.
Taking their cues from the letters on the clocks, each dancer has to choose from several movement phrases and then make further decisions within these. "So every night," says the dancer Demond Hart, "you investigate the possibilities within your own instructions and no performance is ever the same." This demands not only physical dexterity, but unremitting concentration. The process is echoed in the ballet's apocalyptic finale, where groups of dancers intermittently gel in spectacular, elaborate refractions and interconnections.
Those moments of alignment are further evidence of Forsythe's controlling hand without which the dance would, in his words, be "like watching a mass of worms". Improvisation following precise rules is a commonplace in contemporary dance, but Forsythe is unique in importing it so systematically into ballet. He will choreograph by first setting the dancers tasks to improvise on, but it is he who directs and sifts the material, then shuffles it to arrive at the finished structure. Although it is tempting to focus on the mechanics of Forsythe's choreography because of its newness, the emotional energies that swirl about a performance have an almost visceral impact. Eidos:Telos, which translates from the Greek as "Form: The End", has a terrifying charge, with a conclusion that can be read as catastrophic or as the prologue to renewal.
When Forsythe made it his young wife had died and he and his dancers were reading Roberto Calasso's book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, a reworking of Greek myths. "In Europe, there's a history of devastating events – plagues, terrible wars, the Holocaust," he has said. "And the culture has often, I feel, been affected by this. Calasso is extraordinary in the way he goes back to classical feelings of seeing death. And Eidos is about seeing, and seeing the end of things."
In Eidos you see and hear humanity at its lowest and highest. A man declaims a scatological diatribe in the midst of a beautiful waltz. The ballet's central female figure is played by Dana Caspersen who wrote and recites her extra-ordinary monologue. She evokes the Persephone-Demeter story, representing an elemental figure that alternates between living below and above ground, in a cycle of loss, madness and retrieval.
If Eidos is partly an exposition of Forsythe's methods, translated into a stage work, the early Artifact (1984) is a conceptual manifesto, a visual declamation of a disruptive intent to reform an antiquated art. Two pas de deux and sweeping contrapuntal corps de ballet lines are periodically interrupted by the curtain which comes crashing down. Three enigmatic figures travel about the stage: a "Person with Megaphone" who seems to be trying to communicate across the ages with a ghostly "Other Person". A third "Person in Historical Costume" is inspired by Catherine de Medici, whose court entertainments gave birth to ballet.
In Artifact, Forsythe makes art out of fragmentation, chaos and process. That this disintegration should be an artistic end is prob- ably a sign of our edgy, confused times. Calm order might be largely absent in the Forsythe repertoire, but that may come later. At present, the old harmonies are being shaken up, the old symmetries pulled away from walls and the dust vacuumed away.
Where other choreographers have tried to regenerate ballet by grafting movement from outside contemporary dance, Forsythe has achieved what most of us wanted: to renew glorious, centuries-old classical ballet from within.
'Artifact', 3-5 November, 'Eidos: Telos', 8-10 November, Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (020-7863 8000)Reuse content