William Forsythe’s ‘deconstructive’ choreography. An analysis of Kammer/Kammer (2000) and we live here (2004) by Ballett Frankfurt
Author: Daniela Perazzo
Observed both in the light of the historical development of the dance form and in the synchronic perspective of the field, William Forsythe’s choreography can be described by a term, coined by the dance critic Roslyn Sulcas, that has almost the appearance of an oxymoron: ‘contemporary ballet’1 – a dance that finds its roots in balletic tradition, whilst opening up to experiments currently undertaken in contemporary performance. With this approach, Forsythe seems to acknowledge both the diachronic dimension intrinsic in the discipline of ballet and the occurrence of socio cultural change over time. In fact, from the point of view of dance technique and practice, the definition of ‘contemporary ballet’ establishes a double-sided relationship: with classical ballet and with contemporary dance, describing a form that is at the same time influenced by and distinct from both.
Aiming at examining the limits and potential of dance and at discovering what lies at its heart, Forsythe employs ballet history and technique as the source of his investigation, as ‘a reference point to which he constantly returns.’ He refers to ballet as a language whose established vocabulary can be employed, by reworking its grammar, to tell new ‘stories’ and produce new meaning. Thus, although Forsythe considers ballet as ‘a kind of Latin’, a tongue of the past, he recognises and exploits its potential as a ‘fertile’ tradition that can generate new modes of expression. As the dance critic, ex-dancer and choreographer Senta Driver points out, ‘he treats the premises of classical technique as a usable language capable of new meaning, rather than as a collection of phrases and traditionally-linked steps that retain traditional rules, shapes, and content subject only to rearrangement.’
Although ballet acquired its recognised classical form in the nineteenth century, with further stylistic developments in the twentieth century, Forsythe’s position is that its vocabulary can be dissociated from the ideology of classicism and the socio-cultural context of the danse d’école and can be rephrased into formulations that reflect and express meanings and values that are pertinent to our times. He sees classical dance ‘as a point of departure – it’s a body of knowledge, not an ideology.’ About his relationship with ballet, its history and language, Forsythe states: ‘You look at ballet and you read history. … What we try to do is to keep the syntax logical without resorting the rhetorical ballet language. Choreography is a language. It’s like the alphabet and you don’t necessarily have to spell the words you know.’ His explorations are therefore carried out as an enquiry into the nature of ballet, aimed at stripping it of its superimposed connotations – connected to the ideological and stylistic sphere of classicism – in order to discover the potential of its vocabulary as a denotative instrument to convey meanings that are connotatively specific to the present time. This result is achieved by establishing associations previously left unexplored by dance tradition, and it engenders what Sulcas describes as ‘ballet without quotation marks around the word, as much a part of the contemporary world as film or architecture or quantum physics.’
In this perspective, Forsythe’s choreography manifests itself as artistic work that, by employing a critical approach to ballet tradition and enquiring into the nature of dance, aims at embodying contemporary values and ideas. In this respect, here borrowing the methodology and theoretical framework adopted by Maria Shevtsova in her socio-cultural analysis of performance – which applies Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of ‘habitus’ and ‘position-taking’ within a certain ‘field’ to the examination of specific forms of artistic practice – the choreographer can be seen to occupy a distinct place within the historical development of ballet style and technique as well as within the synchronic condition of the contemporary dance scene, in relation to other current artistic choices and results in ballet, modern dance and contemporary performance.
The purpose of the present research is therefore to investigate Forsythe’s place in the dance field through an examination of his critical exploration of choreography, namely its vocabulary, syntax and reception, as exemplified by two of his most recent pieces – Kammer/Kammer (2000) and we live here (2004), created for and performed by Ballett Frankfurt. The paper will propose an interpretation of Forsythe’s ‘critical engagement with ballet’ as a deconstructive approach to the form and history of ballet aiming at reorganising its language, structure and perception into a discursive form that opens up a dialogue between the past and the present, the classic and the contemporary. In carrying out this examination, the study will make use of a theoretical framework comprising notions such as Derrida’s idea of deconstruction, Foucault’s perception of history as discontinuity and the idea of hybridity, with reference to theories of the changing dynamics of space and time in contemporary Western society, as well as to Lefebvre’s concept of social space. Furthermore, the study will engage with some of the issues raised by the debate on postmodern performance. The fragmentary nature of Forsythe’s dance, at the level of its vocabulary, structure and perception, as well as its accumulation of signs and multiplication of references, are at the basis of the categorisation of his work as postmodern by many critics. Yet, it can be argued that the inextricable relationship of Forsythe’s choreography with the diachronic development of dance nevertheless places his work within a specific socio-historical context, thus revealing the purposefulness and meaningfulness of his various references and excluding their interpretation as a postmodern collage of arbitrary citations. It will therefore be argued that the deconstructive and discursive approach of Forsythe’s choreography transforms the dichotomy between classic and contemporary, modern and postmodern into a dialogic situation that allows the opposites to coexist, interrelate and enrich one another.
In the first chapter, the distinctive balletic movement of Forsythe’s choreographies will be analysed in relation to the development of the classical technique and style, with special reference to the influence of Balanchine’s innovative style and Laban’s ground- breaking theories of movement. The second chapter will examine the composite and multi- layered architecture of the two observed pieces, Kammer/Kammer and we live here, which include spoken texts, video images, theatrical devices, multiple focuses and activities and complex technology, describing how their hybrid forms challenge the codes and boundaries of a traditional ballet piece. The third chapter will investigate the spectators’ perception of these pieces, analysing the disruptive effect of the choreographies on theatrical conventions and on the audience’s expectations.
The present dissertation will therefore focus on Forsythe’s enquiry into dance movement and examination of the limits, conventions and potential of the theatrical event. Although, for the purposes of this study, this paper will not give a comprehensive account of William Forsythe’s biography, choreographic career and stylistic development over time, nor of the history of Ballett Frankfurt, where he has been artistic director for twenty years, his work will be contextualised in relation to its historical moment, and socio- cultural guidelines will be given that will allow for a possible interpretation and evaluation. The two full-length performances chosen to represent his artistic position and achievements, both among his latest works, are examples of his highly theatrical productions, which could be characterised as dance-theatre, as opposed to his purely abstract, on-pointe balletic pieces. Because they combine dance movement with speech, live images with film, employing light, music, costumes, sets in a distinctly theatrical way, challenging the boundaries of a dance piece and playing with the uncovering of the mechanics of performance, these two works allow the analysis to reveal the results achieved by Forsythe’s deconstructive approach to ballet not only at the level of the dance vocabulary, but also of its syntax. Kammer/Kammer, which was first performed in 2000 and was presented in London last October as part of ‘Dance Umbrella 2003’, and we live here, which premiered in Frankfurt am Main in April this year, constitute, with their differences and similarities, significant examples of Forsythe’s most recent and radical experimentation. They have been chosen because together they show how his enquiry into ballet operates a fragmentation of both the movement and the architecture of the dance, illustrating how his multi-focal and multi-layered choreographies challenge the audience’s reception and understanding of the dance work.