Ballets Memory, or: William Forsythes Disappearance Acts
For the first time since the 1960s dance in the 1990s has come under radical scrutiny again. What does it mean to dance and what are the underlying social ideals that make a body move and which body are we talking about to begin with? In a global society where mobility and flexibility are the ultimate requirements for every well conditioned consumer citizen, movement as an art form has to fight the suspicion that it merely panders to the imperatives of the market place. The refusal to move, a notion, which a lot of choreographers nowadays cherish, equals a refusal to spend. It thus seems like a strategy of resistance to reclaim some of dances critical and even subversive potential. In his witty pieces Jérôme Bel questions the idea of authorship in an age of sampling, Meg Stuart plays with the theatricality of watching, Xavier Le Roy denies his sculptured body any kind of representational matrix, and Boris Charmatz reduces the activity of his naked dancers to the point of non-articulation. Dance for them becomes the discourse of dance with its own historical prerequisites, traps, faultlines and power structures.1
Although their dancers scarcely move like any dancer, regardless of which technique s/he subscribes to, is supposed to move, their pieces are still dance pieces precisely because they probe into the very nature of the dancing body, the (historical) subject that is somehow thought to inhabit it, and its representation in a theatrical framework. As Roland Barthes, whose ideas are special to a lot of choreographers regardless of style or age, has so succinctly put it in regard to his emphatic notion of text: the discourse on the Text should itself be nothing other than text, research, textual activity, since the Text is the social space which leaves no language safe, outside, nor any subject of the enunciation in position as judge, master, analyst, confessor, decoder. The theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of writing.2
Substitute text with dance and what Barthes describes here is a specific choreographic practice that views dance as a constant process of reading and writing, of re-reading and re-writing history which results in an incessant inter-textual production activity which does not hesitate to leave the traditional notion of ballet behind. Dance as text: there is one name that has often been associated with this: William Forsythe. His name looms large over the world of dance. Reviews all over the world are enthusiastic. Yet his work has to my knowledge never been related to the current discourse on dance. There are two reasons why his art seems to stand apart from contemporary preoccupations with authorship, theatricality, presence and representation. One, he explicitly works within the framework of neo-classical ballet which considers dance primarily as motion. Born in New York in 1949, he was trained at the Joffrey Ballet School and the American Ballet Theater School, before joining the Joffrey Ballet and leaving for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1973. Since 1984 he has been director of Frankfurt Ballet. Two, his dancers display an incredible virtuosity and spectacularity which obviously run counter to the ideals of the dance avant-garde as formulated by Yvonne Rainer in her famous No-manifesto in 1965: NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic and make-believe no to glamour and transcendency of the star image ... not to involvement of performer or spectator no to style... no to eccentricity no to moving or being moved.3
Forsythes ballets are certainly nothing like that. But does that mean, on the other hand, that he merely engages in dance for dances sake and that his pieces are commodities easily to be consumed because they look so good? Certainly not. The reflex-like opposition to anything remotely connected to ballet from the side of the moderns or contemporaries is as old as the last century. One should think it would have long been overcome. To no small amount the rupture with the somewhat arrogant understanding of ballet as a timeless art form and a universal language which Balanchine-impressario Lincoln Kirstein has put forward as late as 1976 is precisely due to William Forsythes questioning of ballets inherent laws and historical contexts.4
It is my aim in this brief exploration to highlight some of Forsythes ideas about dance and movement and to draw attention to the fact that despite his work with Epaulement and ballets axial model of the body, his choreographic ideas have a lot in common with the entirely different bodies of the contemporary dance scene and its preoccupations. The idea about Forsythe fighting a neo-classical rearguard action, a view of the choreographers work that seems to be especially prevalent outside of Germany amongst younger artists, is also due to the fact that apart form France and Paris, where Ballet Frankfurt has had a residency in various theatres, only the most obviously neo-classical pieces are staged or programmed. Artifact II
or In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
can indeed stand on their own brilliantly. But it is the context of the respective full-length ballets they are taken from that throws a different light on their form, meaning and intent.
2. Analysing: Discussing
As early as 1982 William Forsythe together with the set and light designer Michael Simon and the musician Thomas Jahn addressed the question of the status of a dance performance. In a his second full length ballet, Gänge. Ein Stück über Ballett
, the first part of which was premiered that year in The Hague with Nederlands Dans Theatre, the full length version one year later in Frankfurt, Forsythe refuses to represent Swan Lake. Traces of the quintessential ballet run through the performance. Yet we never actually see the finished product as an object to be fetishized. The ballet is constantly evoked yet never present. It is described and talked about but never existent outside the multifarious perspectives and practices that constitute it while it is absent. The title of the piece roughly translates as Ways. A piece about ballet. It refers to the ways dancers and audiences look at and conceptualise ballet both with their bodies and in verbal language. Ballet is a complex set of interactions on various levels of language. There is ballet terminology, there is everyday language, the history of ballet, the role descriptions of dancers in the 19th century; also how they describe themselves; there are dependencies, educational dependencies for example, how an individual dancer has been trained. All these are experiences, every dancer has his or her own history, but he or she also knows about the history of ballet.5
Instead of representing the finished product, Forsythe traces the process of becoming thereby weaving a text that picks up the threads from all kinds of historical and personal sources. The ballet thus becomes what dance historian Mark Franko calls an intertext with the dancers bodies participating in various discourses that in turn constitute them as dancing bodies.6
Various voices are woven into the fabric of the performance. In the beginning, a young man lies on the floor with his front to the audience, his head hidden away behind a white piece of paper. He constantly repeats the phrase the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world while he flies a little airplane that has been drawn on the paper. Three female dancers enter to perform a couple of battements against the back wall that bears the traces of their movements in blood-like thin red lines. Images of sometimes violent exercises are constantly thrown in with dancers trying to keep up with the ever increasing tempo of two to the back, two to the front. Two dancers in the pre-classical long white muslin skirts jump in the back kicking a door shut with their extended legs in flight. Later, a chorus of dancers shouts Stuttgart, Miami, Honolulu, obviously having lost orientation in the international ballet circus. When using adjectives like boring, fantastic or wonderful their own perspective is overlapped by that of the audiences reaction to what they have seen. Hopes and dreams are articulated just as fears are ever present: You walk towards me. You lift me up. You wont drop me. Measuring bars are lowered and dropped, their clanging sound functioning as a rhythmical device to end the uncountable mini-scenes that are separated by harsh black outs. The first act ends with a ballerina in a red bodice preparing for her role. The young men from the beginning approaches her, still looking for the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world. Their meeting can of course be referred to as the first meeting between the prince and Odile, but it is also and visibly so the meeting of a ballerina rehearsing and a man lost in his own fantasies about women, the allegory of ballets desire that is thwarted. The ballerina looks at the young man and turns away. Work here takes the upper hand over love a sharp contrast to the ballets romantic content. In Gänge
romance is demystified as ideology in the Barthian sense that myth covers up the historically fabricated to make it appear natural, organic and therefore of eternal value. Forsythe reinstates history to crumble the predominant view of ballet as natural artifice.
In its three act structure, the performance narrows down its focus from training in the first via rehearsal in the second to performance in the last act. As the references to Swan Lake
increase, for instance when the ballerina says, the room spins around me 32 times thus alluding to Odettes famous 32 fouettées, what we see on stage is only an abstraction of the geometrical principle of ballet, a principle that Forsythe sums up with the words but together as an imperatives to dancers. Dancers are ejected from a diagonal row of doors which as they open flood the stage with light while a dancer talks about the making of a line: He will walk from here to there. She will walk from here to here, and thats how well make a perfect diagonal. In ever changing formations mainly in the dynamic diagonal the dancers are indeed together, but their corps activity is devoid of any narrative content. Forsythe has repeatedly stated that he loves to work with classically trained dancers because their bodies bear the traces of ballets history. In fact, the history of ballet is only handed down to us today through the body memory of the dancer. It is to this effect that he makes excessive use of the corps formations thus emphasising the historically coded and conditioned functioning of the balletic body. The dancers body enters Gänge
only as part of the discourse of ballet the power structures of which Forsythe exposes and destabilizes. The body does not represent anything else (roles, the star) but its own structuring process. The idea of memory and the ontology of ballet as essentially devoid of any essence is explored further in his next piece. The destabilisation of the powerful axial model will lead Forsythe into research of increasingly complex movement. The production has for various reasons long been out of repertoire, a fact, which uncannily turns Gänge
into the invisible foil for Forsythes future forays into the world of ballet.
3. Remembering: Restructuring
The artifact of ballet is also the main focus of Forsythes full-length ballet of the year 1984, which is aptly titled Artifact
. Like Impressing the Czar
(1988) and Slingerland
(1990/91) it is a four act piece making use of the classical four act structure of narrative ballet. In all three pieces acts I and III are the colourful narrative acts whereas acts II and IV are the white abstract ones. Yet the story Forsythe has to tell is a much less narrative than analytical. Artifact
begins with a bald greyish figure walking across the stage in next to complete darkness. Only a single light lights the floor on the left hand side of the empty stage. A person in a historical costume with her long cape-like sleeves billowing imperiously enters and takes centre stage. She claps and on cue the music starts, Eva Crossman-Hechts Bach variations which will be followed by Bachs Chaccone in d-minor in act II. Step inside, the woman invites us. Behind her in the dark the shadow of another figure appears, a man with a megaphone. I forget the dust. I forget the rocks, his tinny disembodied voice can be heard saying. I remember a story and it went like this. She stepped outside and she always saw it. She stepped inside and she has always seen it, he continues only to end with I forget the story about you. Remember, remember, remember. Do you remember me, the woman in the historical costume chips in only to be reprimanded by the voice to use the right words. That is the only small drama there is in a ballet that displays its material in paradigmatic relations like a poem. Artifact
makes use of a limited number of words the functions of which are examined like in a grammar exercise until their meaning evaporates and they become empty shells. Often the words are basic verbs such as to hear, to see to say, pronouns or deictic expressions that only make sense when they are in fact related to an upright body which serves as a focal point for spatial and interpersonal orientation. It is exactly that stable point of reference that is not only questioned here, but in all of Forsythes other ballets having, as we shall see, far-reaching consequences for his concept of movement.
The ballet follows the structure of the double or the spectre. The artifact that we think we see, is indeed only an art effect, the illusion of a thing long since past when we actually think we see it. The grey woman, whose head appears in a trap in the floor, is mirrored in the woman in the historical costume. They both make extensive use of port de bras, while their respective positions on stage are diametrically yet symmetrically opposed: one is up, the other down, one is lavishly dressed, the other almost stripped bare. Whereas the historical woman rearranges words within a given grammatical structure, the woman in grey rearranges the ballet vocabulary. The corps de ballet enters in darkness along the back curtain of the stage. They perform a few jétés that are more heard than seen. Finally the grey woman from down under claps and the corps picks up the sound echoing it across the twilight which is also a historical twilight. Artifact
can be described as an echo chamber of ballets historical formation the correct order of which has been lost or forgotten. The fragments of movements, syllables so to speak, are rebounded between the past and the present to form an intermediary space where linear time is suspended and echoes only ever answer echoes. It is merely a remembrance of things past, a spectre that can only haunt us today because the social formation ballet depended upon, namely an extremely stratified society with a supreme ruler on top of the social pyramid, is no longer that of an open democracy.
Forsythe stages its ghosts and its smouldering ashes. He does so by disrupting the illusion of a viewing continuum which also implies an unbroken tradition of staging and viewing ballet and displays its elements that have now been set free ready to enter new relations. Act two consists of two pas de deux framed by various corps formations. The four dancers of the pas have their bodies pulled out from underneath: their backs are extremely arched forward so as to give the dancing less of an aerial and more of an earthy look. Every now and again the curtain drops with aplomb over the scene. Every time it rises the formations have changed position: from lining the three walls of the stage to forming the apex of a triangle to a single line at the back, to two lines on either side of the stage. By refusing to choreograph smooth transitions which would only gloss over (historical) gaps and rifts, Forsythe emphasises the structural possibilities of the line by isolating every single position in time and space.
, a related piece premiered in 1985 which is also danced to Bachs Chaccone, the curtain does not drop. However, frequent black outs startle the audience out of their complacency. Watching is not taken for granted. Instead we are constantly made aware of the fact that we are watching and that what we are watching is nothing natural but a series of historically coded forms. When the lights go on again the two dancers competing over a ballerina have changed positions on stage while repeating the exact same phrase of dancing and enlarging it. Steptext
is a play of difference and repetition, to borrow Deleuzes phrase, that weaves an infinite net of possibilities without beginning nor end. As the man with the megaphone has repeatedly stressed near the beginning of the ballet: remember, remember, remember. Artifact
remember ballet not as a thing of the past, but rather from the past while restructuring its constitutive elements.
4. Forgetting: Freeing
In The Loss of Small Detail
the relation between ballets past and present is not so much conceptualised as an echo chamber of rebounding, remembered fragments but as a layering of superimposed strata. The making of the piece itself reflects such a layering. A first version was premiered already in 1987, but was quickly forgotten until in 1991 Forsythe presented a completely new version which in turn underwent another radical reworking in 1992. Again, the ongoing process of ideas is much more important to William Forsythe than the mere representation of a finished product. The ballet is set in a white cube that resembles a museum. Its walls can be scrolled up and down like roles of parchment functioning as the basis for all kinds of projections. A female dancer is sitting behind a table centre front, while another dancer is lying on the floor to her right. Slowly she draws herself up from the floor, her arms extended, her body curling inwards. She seems to float upwards. A male dancer dressed in black approaches to bring her a stool. She sits down facing the woman behind the table. Suddenly she walks to the table and folds her body around it, legs stretched out underneath, arms rested on top. The man in black carries her away holding her stiff body horizontally in his arms like a plank. The phrase is repeated several times and indeed marks the ballets first instance of forgetting: the forgetting of something that has been done before, even unsuccessfully so, and yet is repeated over and over again without having left a trace in the dancers memory. Later the woman behind the table and the dancer engage in a question and answer ritual. From her notes and translations she reads out questions like What is the door? or What are the two sides of the river? trying to wrench some meaning out of old prehistoric stories that Forsythe has taken from a collection of stories by Jerome Rothenberg. The second woman interprets her questions in explicitly sexual terms with the doorstep being a crocodile, its handle a penis, the two sides of the river a man and a women. But the sign on the table reads Version III A, implying an infinite number of other possibilities that could be brought to light if the session be continued or somebody else asked. Everything can indeed mean everything because of an original loss or the loss of an origin, the loss of small detail the title refers to, that guarantees origin and thus a safe ground to base ones interpretation on. The Loss of small Detail
stages the loss of an Ursprung which leads to a production of meaning even out of possible misunderstandings. To forget is viewed here a constructive activity. It is considered to be a necessity for making new developments possible.
A few minutes into the ballet snow softly begins to fall on the stage covering it in a metaphorical layer of forgetfulness hushing up its sounds. Lines from Yukio Mishima appear on the rolled up backdrop: Each passing year, never failing to exact its toll, keeps altering what was sublime into the stuff of comedy.7
Films are projected in the lower right hand corner backstage. From behind the screen a naked primitive appears, his voice electronically distorted. His body is painted white with black dots. He is covered in snow as if the ludicrous dust that is mentioned in the Mishima quote as a cover of the sublime essence of things had indeed settled upon him. The snow/dust has turned his appearance that in another time and context would have been sublime into something ridiculous and comic. But the body paint also turns him into the negative of the black film images. A subtle shift of frames sets in, a jump onto another level, where we can no longer distinguish between inside and outside, who is in the film and who is not, who is watched and who is watching. It is a disconcerting intermediary space opens, a memory space of historical sedimentations that function like a palimpsest with layer after layer of text being overridden by more text.
5. Moving: Traces
I have focussed my discussion of William Forsythes work on the aspect of memory. So far the aspect of memory has mainly been highlighted as part of the discourse of ballet, the stage sets, themes and their theatricality but hardly ever in the movement itself. The final section of this essay shall therefore deal with Forsythes concept of movement which is, after all, what ballet consists of. In my reading of The Loss of Small Detail
I have already mentioned a few specific qualities that I would now like to explore a little further. The first visible results of Forsythes exploration of ballets movement principles could be seen in Die Befragung des Robert Scott
, (The Questioning of Robert Scott
) in 1986 in which the classical lines, corps formations and the pas de deuxs that characterized his earlier work were abandoned in favour of a succession of solos. In all his ballets from the early nineties onwards, i.e. Limbs Theorem
(1992), As A Garden in this Setting
(1993) or, most prominently, Eidos:Telos
(1995), the classical body was exploded to the very degree where it falls out of every code or context. Rudolf van Labans model of movement analysis can serve as one adequate tool for describing what Forsythe does.
Laban is not primarily preoccupied with the dancing body as such. His model, he asserts, serves to describe any body in any kind of motion. The focal point of his theory is the kinesphere, the space that surrounds the body and which can easily be delineated by extending ones limbs without stepping away from that place which is the point of support when standing on one foot.8
The kinesphere travels with the body. It is the space that the body itself creates. In order to represent the kinesphere, Laban takes recourse the image of a cube which itself is made up of twenty seven smaller cubes describing spaces to the top and bottom, front and back, left and right in relation to the stable body movement can be directed to. As in classical ballet, Laban basis his observations on one fixed centre point through which all movement passes. But, as Heidi Gilpin has pointed out in connection with Forsythes idea of movement, what if a movement does not emanate from the bodys center? What if there were more than one center? What if the source of a movement were an entire line or plane, and not simply a point?9
With Forsythe any kinesthetic point can become the centre of movement thus destabilizing the axial body model. He abandons the idea of a one-centre body in favour of a multi-centred and even multi-timed body since various regions of the body can follow different rhythmical patterns. Thus the relationships between the centres, the limbs and the points in space and time can become much more complex. Forsythe tilts the body off-balance and engages in a free play with its weight, falling, yet constantly moving onwards. The effect is one of a elliptically rotating rolling body whose movements go off at various tangents simultaneously. As opposed to a choreographer like Trisha Brown, whose movements are also famous for their flux, Forsythe accentuates and punctuates his movements strongly. Dancers interrupt their patterns abruptly only to walk off. They stop and start on all kinds of levels therefore making it completely unpredictable which direction the movement will take next.
Forsythe bodies and their kinespeheres are folded over many times so much so that in a ballet like The Loss of Small Detail
they seem to be entirely concerned with themselves completely oblivious to the space around them. In an interview, Forsythe describes this method with the term disfocus: The gaze of the dancer is not going outward but inward towards the back of his or her head.10
Thus the body is seen from the inside. It becomes its own space with residual movements gently rippling through it. The result is a highly suggestive hypnotic quality of movement which in Loss
is conductive to the ballets theme of memory and forgetting. Here movement closes in on itself. It works towards its own vanishing point in the gap between inside and outside of what Laurence Louppe calls the fonds corporel: a pre-articulate phenomenological body that is the residue of meaning but never meaningful in itself.11
If in dance movement is at the same time that which is produced and that which produces, if the dancing body is at the same time an agent, that has no consciousness of itself, and its own interpreter, which keeps movement at a distance, then movement is never given or transparent to itself. It is, as Jacques Derrida has pointed out in relation to the gesture of a painter, in its presence already un acte de mémoire.12
Movement is generated in the gap between I and Not-I, a gap which hands over every movement to the past in its very state of emergence. Movement is always in a state of emergency. It is always a matter of life and death. It is this gap, however, that opens up a space for movement to think: it is the pre-articulate time-space of effort (Antrieb) were choices are made. Movement thus becomes a mnemonic trace of a future, of something which is not anymore, but not yet. In the case of William Forsythe it remembers the historical traces of ballets body to open them up for a ballet still to come. Forsythes immensely flexible bodies defy every kind of representational matrix by fulfilling the potential inherent in Labanss matrix. By thinking his model to its logical conclusion, Forsythe brings it to the point of collapse thereby liberating new ways of moving. As experts have often remarked, Forsythes complex movements cannot be translated into Laban notation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this newly articulated space is soaked like a sponge with all kinds of styles traditionally opposed to ballet: the flexible spine of Modern Dance, the weight and breath of release techniques and contact improvisation, the raw energy of street dance. After the hierarchies of dances binary oppositions have collapsed, a subtle play of differences sets in, a to and fro between various techniques that have been amalgamated into something completely different while all the same their origins remain visible as mnemonic traces.
6. Concluding: Disappearing
If the Text is that which goes to the limit of the rules of enunciation (rationality, readability etc.) as Roland Barthes suggests, then William Forsythe is exploring these limits.13
Ever since he started his work with Frankfurt Ballet, he has been concerned with issues of discourse, representation, the politics of watching and the disarticulation of presence in movement as a mnemonic trace. In Self Meant to Govern
(1994) the choreographer disappears himself leaving the development of the movement patterns entirely up to the dancers and then organising them in Cunningham-style chance procedures. Without human affects that structure them, they become increasingly banal, a fact, that a lot of critics have noticed and complaint about recently.14
Paradoxically, despite its complexity and articulation movement with Forsythe has abolished all aspirations to transcend, to heal, to please or to shock. It simply is in the sense that it constantly evolves out of itself as an idea shaping and reshaping the body beyond notions of usefulness. Despite its apparent fullness, it is completely empty and neutral. The ballets of William Forsythe therefore suggest a different strategy to make movement disappear. Whereas with Jérôme Bel, Boris Charmatz or Xavier Le Roy it is more a question of less is more, Forsythe achieves similar results by building into movement. Having said that, it is of course self evident that his ballets are completely different on other levels. It is merely to hint at some points of convergence in their thinking about dance that I have brought the two parties together. Emptiness and fullness- both strategies leave the middle ground behind where dance naturally signifies, moves organically and ultimately becomes a meaningless pastime.
1. see Gerald Siegmund, Von Monstren und anderen Obszönitäten: Die Sichtbarkeit des Körpers im zeitgenössischen Tanz, in: Erika Fischer-Lichte et al. (eds.), Transformationen: Theater der Neunziger Jahre, Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 1999, 121-132.
2. Roland Barthes, From Work to Text, in: Roland Barthes, Image - Music - Text, ed. by Stephen Heath, London: Fontana Press, 1977, 155-164, 164.
3. Yvonne Rainer, Some Retrospective Notes,in: Tulane Drama Review 10 (1965), 178.
4. Lincoln Kirstein, Classic Ballet: Aria of the Aerial, in: Roger Copeland/Marshall Cohen (eds.), What is Dance?, Oxford: OUP, 1983, 238-243.
5. Gänge, Programmbuch Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt, 1983.
6. Mark Franko, The Dancing Body in Renaissance Choeography, Birmingahm, Alabama: Summa Publ, 1986.
7. The Loss of Small Detail, Programmbuch Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt, 1991.
8. Rudolf von Laban, Choreutik, Wilhelmshaven: Florian Noetzel, 1991, 21,. im orig: Die Kinesphäre ist die Raumkugel um den Körper, deren Peripherie mit locker gestreckten Gliedmaßen erreicht werden kann, ohne daß man den Platz verläßt, der beim Stand auf einem Fuß als Unterstützungspunkt dient.
9. Heidi Gilpin/Patricia Baudoin, Proliferation and Perfect Disorder: William Forsythe and the Architecture of Disappearance, in Parallax, Programmbuch Städtische Bühnen Frankfurt, 1989, 9-23, 12.
10. Gerald Siegmund, William Forsythe, in: Dance Europe No.23 (1999), 12-17, 16.
11. Laurence Louppe, Poetique de la danse contemporaine, Paris: Contredanse, 1997, 72.
12. Jacques Derrida, Lautoportrait: mémoires daveugle et autres ruines, Pris: Gallimard, 1990.
13. Barthes, op. cit., 157.
14. See Jochen Schmidts review of Die Befragung des Robert Scott:Einübung ins Sinnlose, in: FAZ , Friday 4th February 2000, 45.