Observations from a dancer: William Forsythe dances in "Solo," music by Thom Willems, filmed by Thomas Lovell Balogh
and Jess Hall.
People who watch William Forsythe, or Bill as dancers call him, performing Solo might wonder at first, why that man in socks is having a seizure in front of the camera. It is definitely provoking to see for the first time, even for many classical ballet dancers. They are used to Forsythe’s neoclassical ballet style, where the world’s most famous ballerinas lunge off balance in pointe shoes, thrust their hips, and whack their legs. That, we say, is fabulous— but what the heck is this?
The video is shot in black and white, with over-exposed lighting that emphasizes Bill’s eyebrows, and casts intense shadows that accentuate the crevices of his eyes and cheeks— adding to the alien feel for the first-time viewer. Violin music by Thom Willems plays adjacent to the movement, but doesn’t really accompany. The music and the dance are two separate entities; they support each other, but aren’t co-dependent.
At first glance, Bill is moving at full speed, we couldn’t say for how long. We see his head and arms writhing, and then proceed down his body. We pause at his feet, which make contact with the floor in different ways, causing him to rock, tremble, and shoot through the space. The light seems to reveal the flecks of dust kicked up from his feverish movement, but maybe that’s just my imagination. The camera scans his body from different perspectives, observing the various ways that movement is channelled through his body— even from a birds-eye-view. His chest turns and flips, his head moves in an opposing direction, and his arms rotate on a new axis. All the while, his feet never stop moving, propelling him to unexplored areas of the space.
You can hear his breathing in the silences between notes. This dance is not meant to look easy, and Bill lets the effort influence his movements. He is a living being, fully invested in the present moment of drawing movement possibilities in a three-dimensional space. The work is not intended to entertain, or even impress us. It might do these things, and even provoke some— but that’s the result, not the goal. Bill is inviting us to witness his creative process, and we can take it or leave it. At the very end, he slows way down, and someone off-camera speaks cues that dictate his last arm movements: “tap,” “move,” and “press.” There seems to be a method to the madness.
The movements that Bill executes are not random— they are derived from his own improvisation technique that explores the infinite ways in which the body can move through space. Forsythe improvisation requires a fair amount of freedom and openness from the dancer, but still uses the frame of classical ballet to establish structure. Look closely and you’ll see Bill step in and out of fifth position and other classical transitions like passé and tendu. The full extension of his foot-line is pointed, just like in ballet. But his pointed foot is a projection of energy, a means to an end, and not a steadfast rule.
Forsythe has used his improvisation technologies to develop his choreography, the neoclassical as well as experimental, for over thirty years. He shares the technique with colleagues who use it in their own creative processes, passing it along to other dancers. This fall, Forsythe has joined the faculty at USC Kaufman School of Dance, leaving his directorship of his Forsythe Company (formerly Ballet Frankfurt), which he held since 1984. It’s a tragedy for Frankfurt, but a great step for the development of dance and dance education in America.
As a dancer, I am fascinated with the way that Forsythe improvisation tools combine with a body’s natural movement style to produce a truly individual movement experience. Like anything else, the technique requires practice. But developing these tools increases the body’s awareness in space and time, making the sensation of dancing feel more perceptible. With this increased consciousness, it becomes easier to communicate ideas to an audience.
Most often, I hear non-dancers say that they don’t understand enough about dance to know whether something is good or not. It’s true that understanding comes from watching dance regularly. But I think that Forsythe’s approach can also be useful to people who don’t know much about dance. In Solo we are invited into Bill’s world, not kept at a distance by tutus and sparkles. Not everything is for everyone, but at least with Solo we’ll have spent a few minutes watching one of the greatest dancemakers doing what he does best: making dance.