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The continuing evolution of Mr. Forsythe.

FRANKFURT, Germany - Frankfurt Ballet's most recent premiere, last October, was notable for more than the strange, beautiful dancing and the weave of text, image and sound that often marks works by the company's director, William Forsythe. Sleepers Guts is described in the program as "A Piece by the Frankfurt Ballet," and the choreography is credited to ten dancers, as well as to Forsythe.

At first impression, there is no reason to think that the work is by anyone but Forsythe: the dancing has the style this choreographer has made uniquely his own, moving through ballet like a fish through water as it disregards the conventional logic that governs the order and impulses of steps, incorporating infinite planes of orientation. Legs buckle, bottoms push back, arms skew, classical lines are drawn and erased in the air or on the floor. A finger determines momentum and direction; an ear leads the body as it writes in space; verticality and effortlessness appear and vanish like the imaginary constructs they are. Sleepers Guts is marked by all of these elements.

The explicit acknowledgment of a collaborative choreograhic process is nonetheless an important moment for this company, which in many ways serves as a model (or an aberration, depending on your point of view) of what is possible for ballet, where independent thought is seldom encouraged and dancers learn that success comes from sticking as closely as possible to a specific physical and mental mold. in his twelve years with the Frankfurt Ballet, Forsythe has steadily worked towards this moment when dancers would not only participate in the choreographic process during rehearsals, and have the freedom to improvise onstage, but actively take responsibility for their own material in a larger sense.

Forsythe is not abdicating responsibility: he knows he has provided the context in which the dancers can explore their own experience of dancing, and that his own choreographic preoccupations will largely determine the way that the movement looks. "I have always wanted to facilitate dancing that shows the body's own experience of itself," he says, "and this is an idea in opposition to my desire, as a choreographer, to organize movement. Trying to have each dancer articulate, choreographically, what he or she knows about dancing has made some coexistence possible between the two apparently irreconcilable elements."

Collaboration and improvisation are regular tools for contemporary dance groups, and many classical dance choreographers ask dancers to contribute ideas or work on movement themes. It is extremely rare, however, for the shifting power structure of the relationship between creator and interpreter to be explicitly articulated. This is what Forsythe does in attributing Sleepers Guts to the entire company. "We have been working for quite some time on developing movement material together in the process of making a work," he says, "and nearly all of the recent pieces have been the result of that process. What was different this time was that we followed an open-door policy for the first three weeks of rehearsal: no schedules, no casting. The dancers worked singly or in groups, as they wished; sometimes no one would be in my rehearsal, and I would just work alone. It was scary in a way, because I really had no idea what people were doing."

After three weeks, the company came together to share their material. (For some, it wasn't steps: Helen Pickett made a video; Stephen Galloway put together the alternately spare and exotic costumes; others wrote texts.) "It was a great lesson in what resonates," Forsythe relates, "and in showing us that sometimes you have to let go: there was wonderful material that just didn't work in the context of the piece that began to develop. But at some level, nothing is wasted: all of this is part of an experience of dance that goes beyond choreography,' and that feeds into one's life as well as one's work."

Forsythe acted as editor, often eliminating his own contributions in the process. "I had been working on the feeling of impulse, moving when weight and gravity require it," he says, "but very little of that made it in." This editing was still underway at the sixth and seventh performances in October: the first and second halves were apparently switched around, and some of the speaking sections taken out. The following evening, the order was restored, and some of the texts reinstated, but in new places, where they linked the final section of the work - an extended, poignant duo by Jacopo Godani - more closely to its beginning.

Sleepers Guts, which has astoundingly complex computer-generated sound produced by Thom Willems and Joel Ryan, played onstage on cello, oboe, percussion, and didgeridoo, and a set by Forsythe (a floating, translucent "laser-fabric" object and an off-kilter screen, on which are projected Mark Goulthorpe's enigmatic forms), will be presented during Frankfurt Ballet's annual Paris season, in June and July 1997. By June, the formal structure will no doubt have solidified, and Forsythe might well have further employed his extraordinary theatrical sensibilities to focus the slightly diffuse air that the work has at present. As presented in October, the ballet was an intensely visual and spatial experience; an intimate encounter with gorgeous dancing that seemed to float amidst layers of speech and sound - less about specific steps or prowess (although there was no shortage of either) than a world in which to enter. "Fiction (as wish)" reads one of the repeatedly projected texts, evoking the fragile moment when creative desire wreathes itself in form. Watching these early performances, and witnessing their evolution, was an invaluable insight into these moments as shown by a number of unique artists, of whom Forsythe looms first among equals.
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Title Annotation:choreographer William Forsythe
Author:Sulcas, Roslyn
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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