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Six of the best: Ballets by William Forsythe

The choreographer has brought a fiercely contemporary edge to an art form often defined by tradition.

By Paul Kilbey (Content Producer (Ballet))

16 May 2017 at 12.45pm | Comment on this article

Very few choreographers have changed ballet as greatly as choreographer William Forsythe, whose radical works in the 1980s and beyond have brought a fiercely contemporary perspective to an art form often defined by its traditions. Crystal Pite has said that working with Forsythe at Ballet Frankfurt ‘changed everything’, citing his recklessness and commitment to pursuing new choreographic ideas.

We've picked six of his most vital works and what makes them so important:


‘Step inside’, says our host, wearing a Baroque dress. ‘Welcome to what you think you see.’ Forsythe’s first work for Ballet Frankfurt, created in 1984, was a prodigious beginning. Music by Bach, Ballet Frankfurt’s rehearsal pianist Eva Crossman-Hecht and Forsythe himself accompanies a work that glances back at tradition – not just to the Baroque but also to the more recent choreographic age of George Balanchine and his influential abstract dance – while also reinventing it.

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated

His directorship of Ballet Frankfurt put Forsythe on the map, but the work that became his international breakthrough was made for another company. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was a 1987 creation for Rudolf Nureyev’s Paris Opera Ballet, including a young star dancer of the company, Sylvie Guillem. To a propulsive electronic score by Thom Willems, In the Middle… sends its nine dancers through an astonishing series of variations, rearranging recognizably classical steps in strikingly modern combinations.

Impressing the Czar

‘You can’t make a full-length ballet any more, because that’s something that was made in another era’, Forsythe once claimed in an interview about Impressing the Czar. So what to do instead? ‘You make something that looks like a full-length ballet!’ This ‘fake’ work was created for Ballet Frankfurt in 1988. In three highly contrasting sections, the work begins with a lavish look at ballet history before In the Middle… returns as the central section. It closes with ‘Bongo Bongo Nageela’, a pounding piece for 40 dancers dressed as Catholic schoolgirls storming around the stage.

Choreographic Objects

As well as choreographing stage works, Forsythe has been highly active in the creation of what he calls ‘Choreographic Objects’. More like art installations than works for theatrical performance, the choreography is created as objects and viewers interact. A chestnut tree in a town square vibrates as people sit beneath; a bouncy castle joyously destabilizes its visitors. ‘You have to move to know’, said Forsythe of an exhibition of his in Frankfurt: movement remains at the heart of his work, but this is movement that’s not just for professionals.


‘Bill is Balanchine on steroids’, said Forsythe dancer and stager Thomas McManus. In a longer abstract work like Quintett the similarities come out quite clearly: it is a poetic celebration of both the dancers and the music, which in this case is Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Forsythe made Quintett for Ballet Frankfurt in 1993, and Bryars’s music – containing a melody sung by an anonymous homeless man, repeated many times – creates a deeply emotive context in which the five dancers move in and out of partnerships and solos.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

The cultured classicism of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is a contrast to some of Forsythe’s other musical choices, but its joyful finale provides the basis for The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, a 1996 work for five dancers created for Ballet Frankfurt. ‘Apparently it has a reputation of being extremely difficult to dance’, Forsythe innocently admits – but that is part of its point, as it at once challenges its dancers and celebrates the breathtaking extremes to which classical technique can be pushed. Rigid, circular tutus, designed by former Forsythe dancer Stephen Galloway, are the perfect complement to this playfully radical revision of ballet tradition.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude runs 18–31 May 2017. Tickets are still available.

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