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’Dead White European Males’ and William Forsythe
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First published on the Ballet Alert ! Website
Six or seven years ago, accompanied by my friend G.S., I attended a Frankfurt Ballet performance at the Opera there. G.S., an American who wishes to be known by his initials alone, forewarned of what Germany calls the Schicki-Micki dress code, had donned a white dinner jacket with jeans, boat shoes, and a Mickey-Mouse cap adorned with propellers that swivelled gracefully, if somewhat languidly, in the stifling air. He figured the spaced-out audience would not notice. And he figured right. As for the ballet itself, the closest simile would be Nietzsche, foaming at the mouth against Wagner.
Be that as it may, wires are abuzz from Tokyo to London with the news the Frankfurt Municipal Council is about to Lower the Boom on the fellow who has run the Ballet since 1984, the American William Forsythe. Virtually every major troupe in the world has sprung to Forsythe’s support. The whole thing is blowing up into the usual Quarrel between the Ancients, and Moderns.
Who is this man William Forsythe ?
I have made it my business to see every single piece by Forsythe playing anywhere in my vicinity. At the end of the day, my own view is,
- that he is, or rather was, enormously talented, probably more talented than Georges Balanchine. Not only did Forsythe scrap Balanchine’s deadly flat patterns, but the use of music in his better choreography has an unusual inevitability about it,
- that for reasons that one prefers not to speculate on (one might so speculate, but privately), Mr. Forsythe appears to have lost touch with his own faculties, and to have disintegrated, mentally, into the Pina Bausch mould of formless writhing,
- that his choreography is based on hyper-extension of every single articulation, while the cantilena, the singing line, has been replaced by jerking, twitching and popping. as spectacular and photogenic as Chinese acrobacy, it is also titillating, sensationalist, to the highest degree.
- that this represents a threat to the integrity of the human body, and is the theatrical equivalent of extremely violent video games like Counter-Strike. Whether it might not also lead to neurological disorders is something members of the medical profession are better placed to comment upon.
"Neurological disorders ?" Let us hear the Man Himself, from an interview that appeared in The Telegraph a year or so ago.
’Forsythe says one major inheritance from Balanchine is his use of the ballet position known as épaulement, which involves complex counter rotations of the body, including the shoulders, hips, hands, feet, head.
’As he says, "the mechanics of epaulement are what gives ballet its inner transitions. It’s essential to a lot of my thinking." He takes this position one step further by what he calls disfocus. The dancers don’t gaze out, but "stare up, roll their eyes back." Like a hypnotist might suggest, he asks them to "put your eyes in the back of your head." Their movement becomes "very water-like, shaky, unusual and serpentine". He warns: "Don’t try this with too much furniture about."’
Now, that’s an odd definition of épaulement.
It so happens that épaulement corresponds to contrapposto in Renascence drawing. The torso is "counter-posed" to the legs. In classical ballet, it is the turnout that allows the torso to "oppose" the legs. Professors like Vestris took as an ideal, in this regard, the work of Leonardo and Raphael. One casts first the eye in the direction one is going (the coup d’oeil), then a very slight rotation of the head, followed by a very slight rotation of the shoulder to create a dissymmetry as beautiful, as it is efficient in terms of kinetics. The key word is SLIGHT, this is not Japanese Origami.
As for staring, rolling one’s eyes back, undergoing hypnosis, or banging into the furniture, or stage props, any relation between that, and épaulement, is a figment of Mr. Forsythe’s imagination.
Since the scandal broke in the last days of May, Deborah Bull, former Principal Artist of the Royal Ballet, wrote an Open Letter in defence of Mr. Forsythe that reads, in part, as follows:
"it seems that the city of Frankfurt is to pass him over and install, in his place, yet another tradition-bound, creatively moribund troupe of dancers to give yet more performances of ballets by choreographers dead for over a century."
I beg to differ with Miss Bull, who, perhaps naively, has simply restated, in a different context, the Credo of a certain American faction who believe that black people should not bother themselves with Dante or Shakespeare.
A century, in the thousands of years of our history, is but an instant. Beethoven was but yesterday. He will move farther away, only when someone greater still is born. That has not yet happened, therefore, Beethoven is but yesterday.
Classical dance in the Western world is a modern art form, really only about four hundred years old. Being, as it is, utterly dependent on progress in music, it burst out into history as a major form only with Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. All the technical breakthroughs, notably the integration of épaulement into the great jumps, invented by professors such as Auguste Vestris at the Paris Opera, occurred in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.
Since the death of Schumann, there have been no major breakthroughs. Indeed, the ballet has shrivelled. Epaulement was eliminated at the beginning of the Twentieth century, under the influence of Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism and so forth, while most of the steps used by Perrot or Bournonville, are fallen into disuse. The ballet has become flat, one-dimensional, and stale. Professional dancers are retiring at the age of 25 and 26, fed up to the gills.
No-one, save for a few diehards like Altynai Assylmuratova - and perhaps a few dancers with the unbelievable commitment of a Kobborg, a Rojo, or a Cojocaru - feels passionate about it any more.
Now, the present writer’s idea of Felicity on Earth, is perched on a stool watching Professor Ryberg teach a class in the Royal Theatre at Copenhagen. In other words, the present writer is notorious as a rabid fan of Auguste Bournonville (1805-1879), which prejudice should nevertheless not prevent one from listening to what other schools have to say in this precise respect.
In October 2001, Altynai Assylmuratova was appointed head of the renowned Vaganova School at Saint Petersburg. She was herself for two decades the Maryinsky Theatre’s prima ballerina. That autumn, she told a Belgian reporter, Marc Haegemann, the following:
"You see, when you work with a teacher who has been around for 30 or 40 years, he or she will tell you immediately what has been lost and why.
’When you watch a video tape of dancers of the old generations, for instance Galina Ulanova, Marina Semyonova, or a bit later Natalia Dudinskaya, you can see a certain coordination of body and arms, a musicality - you might call it ’singing with the body’ - and above all an emotional depth to the dancing which no longer seem to exist today. The technique was present alright, but it was never there just for the sake of technique. The accent was first and foremost on emotion. However, now it’s all about high legs. I consider that a serious problem. All we seem to think about today is how high the legs can go, but there is hardly any concern anymore about form, plastique , harmony, and about what’s coming from inside the soul’.
Forsythe and Petipa - Scylla and Charybidis ?
In the ballet world, the Ancients are believed to be the Tutu and Tiara Faction, dyspeptic middle-aged people like myself who want to see the equivalent of a Broadway show, but with the girls in pointe shoes, and the men in white tights. The main supplier of such entertainment has, over the last century, been the work of Marius Petipa, a French-born choreographer who spent his entire adult life as Ballet Master at the Maryinski Theatre.
The Moderns, represented by Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian of the Nederlands Dans Teater, et al., are presented as Reformers and Innovators: they claim to have kept the classical training, the turn-out and the pointe shoes, while jettisoning the rest.
In the eye of the storm, William Forsythe has referred to Petipa’s Swan Lake as a pre-prandial divertissement. The present writer could not agree more. Indeed, whether Petipa’s work might ever have qualified as classical, is a moot point. And I am not alone in so thinking.
On October 31st 2001, www.ballet.co.uk posted up a transcript of a most edifying exchange on BBC 2 Newsnight Extra about Petipa’s Don Quixote at the ROH (Nureyev production), of which the juicier extracts appear below.
"Philip Hensher: This is such a depressing statement of intent. This awful piece is so dreary. (...) The orchestra just plainly couldn’t be bothered, and I don’t blame them. The designs could have been executed 50 years ago. This was one of the most depressing, boring evenings I could have imagined spending. It gives ballet a bad name. It is very difficult to see the cultural merit of this.
"Natasha Walter: (...) there’s something sad about seeing all this technical training, this virtuosity, with no art really to spring it into life. In the end, it’s very hard to take this kind of thing seriously, to see it as high culture (...).
"Kirsty Wark: Was there any emotion in it for you ?
"John Carey: None whatsoever, nor any intellectual content. That’s the trouble. Here’s this glittering audience, paying a great deal for their seats, and the intellectual content is less than a first-class football match. Much the same skills are used, and this is thought to be high culture."
So there you go.
What is more, when people go out today and dance Nineteenth Century works, they are NOT dancing them as Perrot, Louis de Saint Léon and so forth, would have wished. They are dancing them with the aesthetic of Balanchine or Forsythe. The ramrod-straight lines, the extreme hyper-extensions, pressed and cracked way beyond the normal ambitus of articulation, the jetés opened out beyond 180 degrees, the thundering overdose of pointe work - the original piece, disfigured, has lost all weight, all worth.
Bankruptcy and the ballet
The German economy, like every other economy in Europe, is imploding under the weight of the dictatorship of the European Commission, the Maastricht Treaty, and three decades of industrial decline. Virtually every town and city is thus on the verge of bankruptcy. Municipal councils are casting about frantically to cut every non-essential expense. Even hospitals are now considered to be a non-essential expense.
Industrial decay has come to threaten the physical existence of nations. It must be halted.
As for the ballet, how is it to survive in such a climate ?
Heads on blocks !
Flashback to Russia, under World War II, in what I seem to recall was not precisely a flourishing moment in that country’s economic history. Galina Ulanova was probably the most beloved figure in the country. She was, like Furtwaengler, a sort of alternative Head of State. Her artistic reputation, may I add, was not the result of media hype. Disagree as one might with certain technical or stylistic aspects, her dancing, was, in essence, the expression of beauty and love.
Over the last thirty years, a fact few would dispute, ballet has become a up-market branch of athletics. It is coarse, it is strained, it is brutal, it is outlandish. The only thing that is missing is anabolic steroids. There are now very few people, in the general public, who feel as strongly about the ballet as those Russians did under World War II.
Thus, when a Municipal Council stands up and bellows: Heads on blocks ! the limp neck of people like William Forsythe is all-too-readily offered up for the axe.
The public will defend a work of art, an artist, a company, ONLY if they have been moved by art. It’s that simple. Classical artistic compositions do not produce the same effect as the Football World Cup, or athletic races. Their subject is Man, his ability to think and to produce entirely new concepts ab nihilo.
In 1995, this writer interviewed Elisabeth Maurin, étoile of the Paris Opera, where she said, inter alia,
"As to the impact of television, and the fad for gymnastics, to my mind, classical ballet is, at the end of the day, something for the connoisseur, for people who know something about the form. Some would have it be a popular art form. Well, it IS a universal language, but IT IS NOT A POPULAR ART FORM. The public, I think, has got to be educated."
Yes, the public has got to be educated. But who is going to educate them, if the most highly-trained professionals in our society, people like William Forsythe himself, are themselves addicted to a Laura-Croft aesthetic, that sweats emptiness, nihilism, from every pore ?
What people in the audience who have never danced themselves do not understand, gob-smacked, as they are, by how sensational it all is, is that this frenzy is unnatural. And, like everything unnatural, it has a severe debilitating effect on the performer, who becomes a broken little toy, a grinning Death’s Head. His mind is turned off: that is what Forsythe really means by Disfocus.
Let Forsythe have his Disfocus. May I suggest, however, that classical ballet has itself lost its focus. Focus will not come back of its own accord, like five o’clock shadow. Anything on this earth that is positive, has got to be fought for.