Three atmospheric studies

19. 20/05 > 20:30
21/05 > 18:00

William Forsythe is a prominent figure in the world of contemporary dance. For twenty years, the American choreographer has been developing a physical language in Frankfurt which has taken ballet in completely new directions. He shatters the commonplace in the classical repertoire and has made dance evolve towards a form of dynamic art, firmly rooted in the 21st century. With his new set-up at the Forsythe Company, he intends to hang on to his trailblazing role. This new dance company's very first creation really will be something to see.

A work from:

The Forsythe Company


William Forsythe

The Forsythe Company:

Yoko Ando, Francesca Caroti, Dana Caspersen, Marthe Krummenacher, Vanessa Le Mat, Roberta Mosca, Jone San Martin, Heidi Vierthaler, Elizabeth Waterhouse, Cyril Baldy, Amancio Gonzalez, Ayman Harper, Sang Jijia, David Kern, Ioannis Mantafounis, Fabrice Mazliah, Georg Reischl, Ander Zabala


Part 1: David Morrow - Part 2: David Morrow, Thom Willems - Part 3: Thom Willems

Light Installation:

Spencer Finch


William Forsythe


Satoru Choko, Dorothee Merg

Sound Design and Synthesis:

Dietrich Krüger, Niels Lanz


Andreas Breitscheid, Manuel Poletti (dsp-programming in cooperation with the Forum Neues Musiktheater Staatsoper Stuttgart)


Daniel Kohl

Video Archiving:

may zarhy


The Forsythe Company

Supported by:



Théâtre National de la Communauté française, KunstenFESTIVALdesArts

Back to top

Ballet as a performative practice

William Forsythe has stressed more than once that his ballets represent a hypothesis about ballet art and its possibilities. Since he became a choreographer for Ballett Frankfurt, in 1983, he has been investigating the system and the form of ballet, and questioning again and again his own working methods and context. Moreover, his movement vocabulary has changed so radically, from its neoclassical origins in the seventies and eighties until now, that he has unravelled the form of ballet as it were from the inside and changed it into something totally different.

The point of departure for these changes is the idea that ballet is in the first place a corpus of knowledge. During their daily training, the dancers practise to coordinate their body parts in a certain way, e.g. to link their head with their shoulders or their hips with their torso. And they exercise to give a certain spatial orientation to their body, which only develops as a dancer’s body by training and repetition. That embodied knowledge is not only applicable to individual dancers. It is always an ideological symbol, carrying the concepts of beauty, moral and – what is most important for the usually upright standing corps de ballet – reason. The organisation of the ballet, from the general corps to the first soloist, embodies the hierarchical social order of an absolutist court. Besides, the court was the first entity to generate ballet as a form of representation. The knowledge is passed on from the master to his disciples and from generation to generation.

Besides these foundations within the dancer’s body, there is of course a corpus of knowledge, surrounding the ballet. The role description, the established representations of ballerinas, the choreographers’ and dancers’ memories, photographs, notes and other written material or drawings are not just part of the ballet tradition; all these very different methods of knowledge transfer also belong to the essence of ballet.

Assuming the above, we can conclude that in fact there is no such thing as ballet in itself. The concept of ballet as a closed system, as a typical form to organise bodies in time and space, makes place for a new concept of ballet as a discourse, as an accumulation of certain rules and methods, which inevitably exclude others. Forsythe searches precisely for these possibilities, which were rejected by the system. In 1986, in the piece Die Befragung des Robert Scott †, he started to develop so-called “kinetic isometries”. The relationships he thus brought about between limbs on the one hand, and space and body lines on the other, were unusual for ballet. Forsythe breached the structures of ballet and found new ways to give his elements a place in space and time. The body was reorganised. From 1990 onwards, in pieces like Limb’s Theorem, it was enlarged to include the reading of information, which the dancers, while they were dancing, had to absorb and process with lightning speed. E.g., the position of a hand in space could express information that evoked memories, and so become the point of departure for the continuation of the movement. The dancers increasingly became their own choreographers, creating and developing their own combinations within established choreographic structures. In the early nineties, pieces like Alie/N(A)Ction and Eidos:Telos were the first ones to intensively use computer technology. This way systems were created, based on the principle of chance, and which the dancers could partially give shape to in real time during the performance.

If ballet and dancing bodies are a corpus of knowledge, what is their relationship with other forms of knowledge? One of the characteristics of William Forsythe’s work is that he constantly combines ballet with other fields of knowledge. The way you look at ballet and the vocabulary you use to describe it, have an influence on the results obtained when you work with the dancers’ acquired body knowledge. From architecture to brain research: Forsythe searches everywhere for thinking processes, related to dance. Forsythe thinks in terms of theatre. He is just as much inspired by literature as by philosophical writings, films, music, or plastic arts. These ideas cannot always be translated into movements. They often enter into his pieces in a linguistic or visual form. This way, his pieces bring into action all means theatre has to offer in order to sort effect:

In the early eighties, the first other fields of knowledge were linguistics and semiotics. If ballet is based on five positions, following a certain sequence of dance steps and complex figures, e.g. the arabesque, the separate units serve a purpose, analogues to the words of a language. There are rules that determine the combination of dance steps and the organisation of dance figures, just like any other language has a grammar that determines the correct wordorder within a sentence. In order for ballet to get a meaning, the dancers have to apply the grammar, like in Artifact. But what happens when we mix up the word order or simply leave out entire words, i.e. entire sequences of steps? To the idea that ballet is a form of knowledge, Forsythe associates a second insight: ballet is not an unchangeable concept, but a performative practice. As a consequence, one cannot possess tradition. As a choreographer, you can only move, and with each movement, tradition will unavoidably change. The traditional concepts of ballet always link ballet to the Platonic idea, and particularly to that Platonic concept, that gave Forsythe’s play Eidos:Telos (1995) part of its name. Eidos refers to the very first and original representation we make of an abstract concept. This means an abstraction that can never really be translated back into a real representation without losing clarity and perfection. In Plato’s universe, art is always two steps away from the original idea. First, the idea is evoked in our real world. Second, art imitates this representation of forms and figures, moving another step away from the original perfection. In the past, ballet dancers tried to embody the original idea by striving for perfection. The result was a whole system of value judgements, e.g. this ballerina dances the arabesque better or more perfectly than that other ballerina. To Forsythe, “arabesque” is an idea without an equivalent in the real world.

This means that every dancer who tries it inevitably fails, because his individual body adds forms and inaccuracies that stand between the idea and its expression. But when you consider the arabesque or any other dance figure from the ballet vocabulary as a performative action, coming into being only at the moment that it is performed, then any approach of the arabesque is valuable and creates a different potential of knowledge, feelings or associations. As the arabesque as such does not exist, a dancer can only move right through it. He can approach it from different sides, before moving away from it again. You cannot stay inside an arabesque. It is only there when you move, changing its place again and again; when you think that you’ve finally made it. The typical stream of movements in Forsythe’s pieces is a consequence of the following insight: there is no simple movement from point A to point B with controlled poses in each place, but only a going through these points, a continuous change into something else, time after time.

The last couple of years, the representation of the performative has been extended to the spectator, via his interest in installations. In the jumping castle White Bouncy Castle, designed by Forsythe and Dana Caspersen, the body turns into a projectile, following the laws of ballistics. In City of Abstracts the people passing through the city could observe themselves on video screens and spontaneously develop small choreographies. In Scattered Crowd the spectators walk with helium filled balloons in their hands, towards a different consciousness of the body. In all of these cases, the choreography has a situational origin by means of the constantly changing relations between the participants. It is based on the participants’ decisions, and made visible by changes in space, e.g. by a sea of floating white balloons. Forsythe extends his “choreographic thinking” to situations on the other side of the stage. He makes consciously directed test sequences. The body’s own perception of space varies during the movement.

After more than thirty years, he has come to a point where, even on stage, the ballet system is no longer of principal importance. Almost without any music, only directed by the sound of the dancers’ breath, the four men in his piece N.N.N.N. try to find the balance between total relaxation and impulsive attempts to rebel. In pieces like Decreation or We Live Here he tried to find out in what physical positions bodies can move themselves to find and understand a certain, unusual way of moving. Detached from the established structures of the city theatres, William Forsythe can only continue to follow this way with his “Forsythe Company”.

Unlike e.g. George Balanchine, Forsythe’s movement method is not aimed at perfection or the ability to perfectly produce and repeat a sequence of movements over and over again. Instead, it enables the dancer to take his own decisions. Forsythe’s choreography should be understood as a field where something can take place, and which is not in advance occupied by well determined concepts, but open to the unexpected, to new ideas. It offers room to discover possibilities so far unconsidered possibilities. The results are bodies that study themselves; creative units and at the same time products of their creativity; bodies that see and are seen, that are judged and decide for themselves, in one word: vital bodies.

Gerald Siegmund

Back to top