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For Forsythe, a Vertiginous Chill from Town's Somewhat Elevated Officials

By Paul Ben-Itzak
with Dance Insider Staff

PARIS -- William Forsythe has been told that on Monday Frankfurt Mayor Petra Roth will hold a press conference to announce that his contract as director of the Frankfurt Ballet will not be renewed in 2004, effectively putting an end to the most important dance experiment of the last 20 years.

"There's been a political mobbing," Forsythe told the Dance Insider yesterday in an exclusive telephone interview from Frankfurt, explaining that he learned of the impending action recently from a sympathetic local Green Party politician and a culture journalist at one of the city's main newspapers, which he declined to identify. "Other than that, I haven't been spoken to by a single politician," the shocked and dumbfounded director reported. "The (city) culture minister also refuses to talk to me, so (it's) obviously something bad."

Frankfurt Ballet artistic director William Forsythe. Peggy Jarrell Kaplan photo courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music, copyright 1999 Peggy Jarrell Kaplan.

Forsythe, hired by the city to direct the company in 1984 after first creating a ballet for it in 1981, has re-invented the ballet form as Balanchine re-invented it fifty years before him. Like Balanchine, he has sought new frontiers in the art form and, with the collaboration of physically and intellectually facile dancers, mapped new borders on the human body. Just as Balanchine was able to connect dance with modern sensibilities in other art forms -- particularly architecture and music -- Forsythe has made dance not only a collaborator but a co-equal with avant-garde music, theater, and literature, as well as architecture. But he has also surpassed Balanchine -- as a ballet revolutionary, any way -- by applying a new methodology to the form. While other companies, including the Paris Opera and San Francisco Ballet, have been able to apprehend and do justice to the individual ballets, his own Frankfurt Ballet has been critical in fostering the development of that methodology. If Balanchine needed "first a school," as Lincoln Kirstein put it, to launch his new vision for ballet, Forsythe has relied on the physically dexterous and attenuated, stylistically flexible, international, and above-all smart dancers of the Frankfurt Ballet to realize his.

"The Ballett Frankfurt interprets this visionary artist's ideas about dance," said Joe Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the premiere presenter of the company in the United States. "They are a company of virtuoso dancers and their interpetation and performance of Bill's work electrifies audiences." Speaking to the Dance Insider via e-mail Thursday from the Vienna Festival, Melillo added, "Bill needs a company, because he trains dancers with his unique vocabulary. The consistency of their work together advances his art and the dancers' ability to communicate these innovative ideas."

The way Forsythe has heard it from his sources, he said, conservative city officials, spurred on by a select clique of the town's wealthy class, would reverse those twenty years of innovations locally, replacing the company at the Frankfurt Opera House with touring companies performing traditional story ballets.

"What they've basically said," Forsythe said he has been told, "is that they think my work is no longer acceptable for Frankfurt, they being a group of politicians from the two more conservative parties," politicians who are also in the local government. "What they want now is a sort of dinner theater ballet, the kind of ballet you go to after a nice dinner." Frankfurt is in the midst of a "terrible financial crisis," Forsythe said, explaining that some of "the rich and powerful" in Frankfurt, "a small cadre of influential people," have "determined" that "a different kind of product" of ballet in the Opera House might somehow thus be in order.

However, as Forsythe sees it, if this explanation for attempts to disband the company is accurate, it is faulty on two bases. First, the company regularly sells out the Opera House. Among the city's cultural institutions, he said, it produces the highest proportion of earned income to public subsidy towards its 10 million mark budget.

The second problem with a plan to replace Frankfurt Ballet with story ballets from other companies, dance insiders say, is that Forsythe's colleagues in the closely-knit community of ballet directors would be likely to boycott Frankfurt were the city to ax Forsythe.

While other ballet companies, particularly in North America, are no where near as radical in most of their repertoire as the Forsythe-centered Frankfurt company, many rely on the acquisition of Forsythe ballets for the edge factor. Forsythe standards like "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" stretch the horizons of these companies' dancers and audiences, drawing a younger, hipper crowd than do the traditional story ballets. An all-Forsythe evening at the Garnier in Fall 2000, danced with exceptional alacrity by the Paris Opera Ballet, drew in one of the youngest, most chic crowds seen at the imposing opera house that year. In recent years, regional U.S. companies have been adding Forsythe ballets to their repertoires.

As jarring as the work can sometimes seem to the uninitiated who have seen only story ballets on ballet companies, one of the reasons Forsythe has been able to fullfil this niche -- singularly making up the hip contingent in many ballet companies' repertoires -- is that as far-out as he is in a ballet context, he is still a ballet master working with the ballet vocabulary, as opposed to a modern dancer trying to impose an alien vocabulary on a classically trained dancer. To an audience, dancers performing Forsythe may sometimes look like aliens -- a combination of their ability to perform super-human tasks, and of Forsythe's ability to find those limits and then push the dancers to exceed them -- but to the dancers, the principal tools, at least, are still from ballet, and the combinations still work those tools, albeit often in new ways and new formations, as well as on new levels.

Forsythe explains his way of working as "an ideological approach to an historical field....It's basically trying to establish methodologies of ideological investigation..... It's a very conscious way of working within the... historical field. It's an attitude. It's an educated approach toward ballet; I'm sort of like a professor; I'm a ballet master and have a specific approach to steps. I say, 'Examine this, and its methodologies, and how we arrive at this particular state of things.' It's a scholarly investigation of a field, and it has a certain kind of result, and this result is visible and resonant. You don't get that same result when you work with other companies."

In Forsythe's investigation, it becomes critical to have collaborators (my word) who understand not just the terrain he's mapping out, but his way of working. "As much as I respect the dancers I work with at other companies," he says, "it takes a long time to work within this sensibility. It's always an extraordinarily deep coordinative investigation. It's not just fucking with style.... It is not a style of ballet, it's a confrontation, an examination of historical method, because ballet is finally a method, a methodology, first and foremost...."

This expanded and expansive model of not just ballet but dance that Forsythe has been able to fashion on the Frankfurt Ballet definitely resonates within the global dance community. On Wednesday, Forsythe e-mailed an SOS to about 70 dance world leaders, which they subsequently forwarded to their colleagues. By Thursday, the ballet had received hundreds of letters of support addressed to town leaders. "God bless the Internet," exulted Forsythe. "Without the Internet, we'd be finished." The Dance Insider was forwarded Forsythe's plea by modern dancers, Streb dancers, Flamenco dancers, dancewear executives, presenters, and dance-technology list-serves, indicating the respect for Forsythe's achievement across the dance spectrum.

But is William Forsythe just dance's Mikhail Gorbachev, like the former Soviet leader worshipped around the world but rejected by his own town? Not at all, says the embattled director. "The home town gets it. It's a group of four or five people in the more conservative arenas of local politics who do not want to have anything other than a sort of decorative reactionary art.... We're sold out! You can't get a damned ticket for the Frankfurt Ballet in Frankfurt."

For those who want to ensure there continues to be a Frankfurt Ballet in Frankfurt, the ballet has asked that letters of support, addressed to Frankfurt Mayor Frau Petra Roth, be e-mailed to the ballet at celestine.hennermann@stadt-frankfurt.de. They can also be faxed to the company at 49 69 212 37 177.

Dance Insider special correspondent Timothy Heathcote contributed to this report. Special thanks also to dance insider Terry Dean Bartlett, now appearing at the Joyce Theater, through June 16, with Streb Go!

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