Golden cherries, ostentatious dresses, a ballet set to classical music – the tsar would have been very impressed. But he has long since been swept away, just as living legend William Forsythe tends to sweep away conventional dance: radical, peppered with humor, he demonstrates this in the ground-breaking ballet »Impressing the Czar«, which premiered in 1988. The story ballet without a story begins to opulent costumes and sets, a naughty pictorial broadsheet, which turns out to be a scathing satire of art history and deconstruction of the history of dance. On its ruins, Forsythe rebuilds a new world: Traditional ballet movements are heightened, accelerated and combined anew to create »In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated« – since 2006 part of the Semperoper Ballet repertoire – the center section of this ballet evening. Dance and dancers alike celebrate themselves to electronic sound beats: »Drive, sex and virtuosity«, according to one review. Excess is eliminated, and in the end of »Czar«, even the remnants of any cultural heritage are auctioned off. What remains is a wild troop of college girls dancing to MTV-like moves, as outrageously simple as it is breathtakingly fast-paced.
World premiere in 1988 in Frankfurt am Main
Set for the Semperoper Ballett 2015
An interview with ballet master and Forsythe dancer Laura Graham
»Choreography is a living being«
An interview with ballet master and Forsythe dancer Laura Graham
Laura Graham is one of the select ballet masters who stages the works of William Forsythe with various companies all over the world. She began classical dance at the age of six, studied at the renowned Joffrey Ballet School in New York and spent six of twelve years as first solo dancer at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada. During her career, she has performed all the important roles of the classic genre before William Forsythe invited her to the Forsythe Ballet Frankfurt. Since 2006, the multi-talented artist has been the ballet master at the Semperoper Ballet in Dresden.
What was your first contact with the work of William Forsythe?
It was in the mid-80s and I saw »Love Songs« on the TV, a piece by him which isn’t shown anymore today. I was so impressed that I decided, one day I want to work with this choreographer! Then, when I saw »In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated«, of all things, live on stage a short while later, I realised that this wouldn’t remain a dream. I was captivated by the energy of the movements and complexity of the choreography.
William Forsythe saw you dancing in Toronto in 1991 and immediately wanted to hire you. After a few years’ hesitation, you accepted his offer and came to Frankfurt. Did you ever regret this? For an experienced choreographer such as Forsythe, what is important in the selection of his dancers?
Going to Frankfurt was perfect for me. I always had a lot of energy. I only wanted to dance and I had a really varied training. Besides classical dance, I also learnt tap and jazz dance, sung and have acted on stage. Sometimes, I even had a little ›too much‹ energy for classical ballet but I was, in this, in exactly the right place with Forsythe in Frankfurt – that’s what he wanted. This is a choreographer for whom it is important that his dancers are also individuals on the stage. Besides wanting his dancers to be passionate about dance, he also wants them to critically examine movement, question it and not always accept everything. Each dancer brings different talents with them, works differently and fills the same choreographic work with individual expression. Forsythe builds a structure in his pieces which the dancers have to fill. The unique synthesis of classical ballet and abstract dance requires Forsythe dancers to have an extremely high degree of musical skill and immense coordination ability, in addition to an energy level which pushes boundaries and leads to total exhaustion. If a dancer gets »too comfortable« in their choreography, Forsythe changes the requirements for them. The only consistent thing is change. Forsythe manages to change our perspective, create a whole new world like in the four very different parts of »Impressing the Czar«. In each performance, the audience sees a »new« piece which is created in the moment of the movement.
»In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated« is the second part of the evening and was the first piece you danced in, in Frankfurt. How do you, as ballet master, pass on your knowledge to dancers?
The circumstances in which I performed this very complex piece for the first time are typical for our profession and theatre in general: you have to be very flexible. Due to the lack of time, I didn’t have much rehearsal time but learnt straight from the video, ten days before the first performance in winter 1995! I danced the part Sylvie Guillen danced in the premiere in Paris in 1987, and about which she later told me that it was the hardest thing she ever had to dance.
But I am passionate about the stage and love training others who are the same. Since 2000, I’ve staged and coached around ten different productions of »In the Middle«. To establish the essence of what Forsythe wanted; I watched and compared many videos of performances, including the original cast in Frankfurt in 1988 and spoke to the dancers. Of course, I also asked Forsythe whether there was a particular performance to which I should orientate myself to. But he simply said, »Recreate the ballet you wanna watch«. I therefore relied on my experience of his work and pursued the original idea. I create images which I give the dancers to take on their way and ask them what energy, what sound a movement has for them. A particularly high jump is, for example, like a high C. I tell them that they should find out what they think the core of a movement is. If, in a phrase, they only concentrate on leading the movement with the right hip, for example, or simply turning their calf, everything else will come together. The most important aspect for me is the dancer’s musical sense, their ability to understand various rhythms and dynamics, and then to put this into practice. The movements of a choreography can be performed differently and every dancer will make their own piece out of it. Dancing is an existential experience. The piece remains alive and the performance is always an exciting experience.
And the current cast?
Choosing the cast is always exciting. »In the Middle« was the first piece which I staged when I came to the Semper Opera in 2006. I didn’t know any of the dancers but saw them in a performance. The ballet director Aaron S. Watkin made his suggestions and we then discussed them together. The cast has, of course, developed and we now have two very strong casts which have both already performed »In the Middle« several times. And they’re great! They are very strong, expressive and precise. It is a luxury that one has the choice between so many great dancers and the more they dance it, the more their body ›understands‹ the piece. But the work on this never ends and the process always continues. The choreography is a living being.