Not every dance performance is a tale of tutu-clad princesses in distress. Not every piece of contemporary choreography contains a secret message that audiences are supposed to "get." Yet many people avoid modern and contemporary dance, daunted by an assumption that they're supposed to discern some sort of hidden meaning and, when they can't, feeling alienated or bored. They can't figure out what the hell is happening. They zone out. The mark of a sophisticated choreographer—like the brilliant American choreographer William Forsythe—is the ability to produce compelling dance that doesn't require a code or deep knowledge to appreciate.
He doesn't leave his audience behind. His choreography is based in recognizable human interactions, and when the dancers demonstrate vulnerability, confusion, and panic, it's hard not to give a shit about what's going on onstage.
Even if the shit the audience gives is a full-fledged temper tantrum.
In 2008, when Pacific Northwest Ballet performed Forsythe's One Flat Thing, reproduced, some audience members walked out because, according to PNB, it so thoroughly "called into question the definitions of 'ballet' and 'dance.'" Other audience members thought it was the best thing they'd ever seen. (Shortly thereafter, PNB won a Stranger Genius Award.) This spring, PNB will be the first American dance company to mount an entire program of Forsythe's work. What the hell is PNB doing inviting back a choreographer who inspired some people to get up and leave last time? To start, PNB is not remounting One Flat Thing. This season's program, titled "The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe," is three individual pieces that retain the visual beauty of ballet vocabulary, the geometric illusions constructed by the perfect placement of body parts, but with a linear perfection that's been screwed with. Forsythe breaks off lines in unexpected places to create intense, alluring effects.
In one of the pieces in "The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe," called In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a male dancer dressed in emerald-green spandex poses and collapses over and over, set to a caustic and heavy score by Dutch composer Thom Willems—electronic grating sounds and echoing beats. Finally, he successfully executes the movement and joins other dancers doing turns. At times it's incredibly fast, and the choreography goes back and forth between matching the music and playing off of it, like jazz musicians in an improv session. In addition to choreographing, Forsythe is a filmmaker, visual artist, writer, and designer of computer applications for dance improvisation, and he brings his wide range of influences to his choreography. (He also used to dance with the Joffrey Ballet, spent 20 years as director of Ballet Frankfurt, and now runs his own company.)
And Forsythe isn't afraid of a little controversy. When Peter Boal, PNB artistic director, decided to mount "Vertiginous Thrill," he sought Forsythe's advice. "When we produced One Flat Thing, I was almost chased out of town," remembers Boal, laughing. "Forsythe guided me to this program aware of the reaction to One Flat Thing and applauded PNB and Seattle audiences for presenting and receiving it. This was candy to him." The piece titled In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was selected "because it is a technical exercise, pure classical ballet at warp speed with really cool costumes. It's like looking at Shakespeare through different lenses, from somewhere else than Verona, from a modern perspective. Forsythe," Boal argues, "isn't a model breaker, he's a tradition builder."
New Suite, another piece on the program, is a collection of three duets set to the music of Handel, Bach, and Berio. Boal says that New Suite is reworked every time it's performed and provides audiences with a view into Forsythe's own artistic history. "It traces him from the classical period and moves toward what we think of as far edgier, more provocative work. It doesn't slap the audience in the face when the curtain goes up."
In the Middle, with all its gritty music and erratic pacing, may be the most accessible of the three ballets for audiences used to more traditional stuff. It was first performed in 1987 by the Paris Opera Ballet and is perhaps the best introduction to Forsythe's choreography, as its lines are bent with such drama and audacity that Forsythe's whole thesis on the evolution of movement is pretty direct. "It was made in the '80s, so it's vintage controversy, an education," says Boal. "I always liken it to being a curator in a museum. It's my job to look at weaknesses in our collection and not ignore them, to have a good selection of choreography. There's a little bit of building, as any good museum would want to build a good collection."
And building that collection of repertory means bringing in new and daring material, even if it's not something that classical ballet audiences might expect. "Audience favorites are Swan Lake and Nutcracker first, but for dancers, it's Forsythe," says Boal. "Dancers really love this, the freedom of movement and the sexiness. Thanks to the work of George Balanchine, movement in dance is lush; before that, it was based on the concept of the spine as a broomstick. Balanchine knocked that off-center, and Forsythe took it beyond. When the hip is thrust out, it has a whole different look. The dancers love that edge. There's something audacious about it."