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The Critics: Forsythe -- ignore the theory?

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Loud Tables, but Not a Restaurant


There's a line in Anna Kisselgoff's review of Frankfurt Ballett this morning that struck me as worthy of discusison. I don't mean this to criticise the piece at all, just to say that there will be two views on this sentence -- what's yours?


The sound of this visualized adrenaline rush is both exhilarating and ambiguous: part earthquake, part industrial noise, part joyous release.


As usual, the best advice for looking at Mr. Forsythe's concept-riddled choreography is to forget the theories and watch the movement.


Never mind that his springboard for the table piece "One Flat Thing, reproduced" had something to do with Robert Scott's failed expedition to the South Pole. What you read on paper is not necessarily what you see onstage.


When a choreographer's intention is to be theoretical, should one ignore these theories? One often reads that there's a divide between European and American audiences, and I think this thought is at the crux of it.

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It doesn't surprise me that Kisselgoff has taken this tack. When Forsythe did "Square Deal" for Joffrey - ever after, they recalled it even in print as "the ballet you love to hate" - there was an extended section where Philip Jerry declaimed old ballet reviews at the very top of the mike's volume while gesturing Mussolini-style. When Kisselgoff went back to see a followup performance, she was appalled to hear her review shouted back at her.

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I haven't seen enough Forsythe to know, as I have only seen In The Middle Somewhat Elevated. I saw the Australian Ballet do it, and then I saw it last night with Washington Ballet performing it for the first time. (Official opening is tonight.)


I find it a "dancers' ballet", in that I think it is a work that they love to do, and it's very, very challenging. I have no idea about the theory behind it, therefore the quote from Anna K. seems appropriate to me. It is certainly highly energetic, and I suppose would be exhilerating for some, but personally I have a very hard time dealing with the "noise", which is what, IMO, accompanies this work. I do like watching the dancers do it, but just wish the noise would go away! :)

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Guest Leigh Witchel

I've said something similar in print to Kisselgoff, and I've heard it from others often. It feels like Forsythe's program notes are created after or independently from the ballets they are supposed to comment upon. The choreogrpahy doesn't seem concept-riddled. Only the program notes, and I think that's what inspires that comment in America so frequently.

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Kisselgoff and others often make a distinction, as she does in this review, between Forsythe's works for Ballett Frankfurt, and "the neo-classical works at which Mr. Forsythe excels (often in American ballet companies.)" I take this to mean that he caters to the differences in taste between European and American audiences.

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In either DanceView or Dance Insider, I once read Forsythe's works seperated by what the writer wrote as Good William and Bad Billy. Good William did pure dance works such as "In the Middle..." or "Behind the China Dogs" whereas Bad Billy did concept pieces such as Edios Tellos and others where the program notes are lengthy and convoluted. So I enjoy Good William and put up with Bad Billy. I think program notes are supposed to enhance the audiences experience of a work, they shouldn't be forced down your throat.

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Guest Leigh Witchel

I wouldn't say that it evenly divides into good and bad, but there's definitely a difference between the works for his home company and the works For Export. The For Export works (with exceptions like Square Deal) tend to be more purely dance (Forsythe has said this is for mostly practical reasons; that's how the dancers are trained and that's what they do) and the ones for his home company far more theatrical and conceptual. There are exceptions there too, like the Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, of which only the Milan Kundera-ripoff name - though Forsythe says it was inspired by Roland Barthes, who is probably more upscale a ripoff - is conceptual. The work itself is pure dance.

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Having seen "In the middle" a number of times now in Copenhagen, it has grown on me a great deal. I really enjoy seeing the sort of contest it becomes, sometimes friendly, sometimes not. As for the "noise", it seems to support the movement for me. But I wonder what it would be like without the bass line?

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Guest Old Fashioned
It is certainly highly energetic, and I suppose would be exhilerating for some, but personally I have a very hard time dealing with the "noise", which is what, IMO, accompanies this work. I do like watching the dancers do it, but just wish the noise would go away! :shrug:

Ms. Leigh, I had the same thought when I watched Houston Ballet do it! :thumbsup:

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Guest sandik

I like the Forsythe I've seen, but I've really only seen the "export" works (China Dogs around and about, and Artifact II and In the Middle at Pacific Northwest Ballet). I've found (watching the audiences watching these) that the structure itself it a challenge for some people more accustomed to standard neo-classical works. I've seen quite alot of contemporary dance theater, and don't think US audiences really have that much trouble with it, but so many ballet choreographers have been teaching us to look to the movement for the meaning of the work, it's a switch to keep a narrative/theoretical thread in mind as we watch.


One of my pet theories about the development of dance is that it seems to swing over time between works that have signifiant narrative or overtly expressive content and works that are primarily abstract, where the meaning is in the structure. I sometimes think that the audiences who were weaned on Fokine and Massine, and used to sigh "But what does it mean?" when confronted with neo-classical experimentation, would feel much more at home in the world of Forsythe.

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  • 6 years later...

I've recently discovered the William Forsythe lectures on youtube. There is so much to love. For all the problems that technology brings, it is an amazing gift that I can spend an afternoon with my DD and watch Forsythe's lectures, one after another. It is a simple technological trick where his image is frozen but he himself continues to move around his frozen image, or lines appear on screen seemingly drawn from his fingertips to demonstrate a "dropped curve". I love, love, love books, but what would take reams for me to understand on paper is so easy to see with these videos.


But the real apex is reached when we take in a dozen of the these addictive lectures and then follow it up with a viewing of his piece, "One Flat Thing" and immediately see his different concepts put together and performed. As my DD said, "wow."


Also, using Google and researching the piece as well as reading the comments here on Ballet Talk, as a self-indulgent audience member, viewing the piece from home may be a bit easier than a live performance. I can control the volume and I get to see the piece from varying heights and angles. Apparently, there were quiet a few walk outs and complaints when PNB reproduced the piece in 2008. :angry:

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