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Chevalier de la Barre, 8-30: Bring Billy Home; Saving Martha
How NYC Can Step Inside the 21st Century with Forsythe;
Mason Gives Props to Preston and Remembers Graham

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- William Forsythe writes, elaborating on his Ballett Frankfurt resignation letter shared here Tuesday: "Things were not worked out" with local officials, who control Forsythe's contract. "We were only in negotiation. I leave at the end of the 2004 season. I feel good about the decision not to work for people (politicians) I don't respect. It's hard in some ways to lose most of all my work.."

Mr. Forsythe's troubles with the government officials who control much of the purse strings for the ballet company (the company also contributes substantially from earned income) reveal an Achiles heel to the much vaunted European public arts funding model. Generally this model is seen as a boon to choreographers and company directors, encouraging risk and enabling lavish production values. What the Forsythe saga reveals is that a crumbling economy, such as that of Germany since reunification, and philistine politicians can quickly turn this solid infrastructure into a house of cards. I believe, though, that Frankfurt's loss need not be Forsythe's loss and could be New York's gain, closing its one credibility gap to the title "dance capitol of the world."

To truly be the capitol of an art form, a city needs to not just preserve the form's legacy but ferment its future, providing a home for innovation for the form's most advanced thinkers; thinkers for whose work, perhaps, the local audience isn't even ready. Otherwise it isn't really a capitol to the form, a beating heart to the form, but just a museum for it. As Modern Dance goes, New York still welcomes and encourages and incubates innovators. These innovators don't always succeed, but at least they are trying, the audiences are eagerly flocking to see what they try, and, within the constraints provided by often dance-numb editors in the mainstream media, writers are engaging the work.

As ballet goes, once upon a time New York did provide a laboratory for the form's greatest experimenter -- measured by persistence, longevity, clarity of his goals and success in achieving them. The city's philantrophiists and dance-goers, aided eventually by federal public funding, furnished George Balanchine with not just a company but a school as well.

Balanchine could not have re-imagined ballet's vocabulary -- to the extent he was able to on New York City Ballet -- as a freelancer; cultivating a company that understood his method was essential to his success. It wasn't just that the dancers quickly apprehended his phrases, but that muses like Suzanne Farrell quickly picked up on where he wanted to go, and helped him extend ballet's limits by being willing to test their own. We may understand the necessity of New York City Ballet to perpetuating Balanchine's legacy less these days, as its care of the Balanchine oeuvre has been spotty since he passed away in 1983 (particularly since Farrell was pushed out by ballet master in chief Peter Martins), while, meanwhile, other companies have presented Balanchine in respectable or even stunning fashion. But remember, these companies are headed by, or the ballets usually staged by, Balanchine's principal dancers.

But the New York of today is not, ballet-wise, the curious laboratory of yesterday which was so primed for a visionary like Balanchine. Forsythe, our generation's Balanchine as a ballet revolutionary -- he has pushed the form towards its next evolutionary step in expressiveness -- had to go to Europe to find the support for creating a company on which he could not only manifest this new mode of ballet expression, but work out the means to get there. When he talks about "losing most of all my work," he's referring to the company, laboratory, and, essentially, school he has built. The ballets are so layered and dense and even, sometimes, bombastic, that they demand a corps of dancers who understand not just the director-choreographer's physical instructions, but how he arrived at them; if not his mental processes, then at least his kinetic logic. Otherwise the work might just seem abstract for abstraction's sake. There is a mind at work here, not just a kinetic trouble-maker. If the work is not presented with some understanding of its kinetic origins and at least an awareness of its mental base, it might even come off as pretentious; so the dancers have to be attuned to the choreographer's genuine and earnest sensibility to get the work across as intended. That awareness doesn't come with the two to six weeks allotted to a visiting choreographer.

Other companies have presented some Forsythe works, but, with the notable exception of Paris Opera Ballet and, perhaps, San Francisco Ballet, only the most accessible of the ballets. I don't know that Forsythe would have been able to create a work like "Pas/Parts," made in 1999 on the POB, on any U.S. company.

No, for Forsythe to continue his real work, sporadic commissioning is not enough. It's not even enough to make him director of another company, on which he'd have to start again with the educative process. No, what's needed here is for a group of U.S. ballet patrons to step forward and provide a home for Forsythe and his current ensemble of dancers.

To save the work of William Forsythe -- and, from a selfish point of view, to legitimize the ballet community's claim to New York as the dance capitol of he world -- it's time for a group of funders, private and public, to provide the American-born Forsythe the resources to re-install his company in New York. Even allowing that the New York City Ballet executes Balanchine with pristine care, and that no one does story ballets like American Ballet Theatre, neither of these enterprises truly fosters ballet innovation. And maybe it's not their job, nor my place to tell them to do so. But imagine if the New York art world had a Metropolitan Museum, but no Museum of Modern Art. This is the state in ballet in New York right now. When William Forsythe concludes his relationship with the city of Frankfurt in the summer of 2004, the ballet community of New York has a rare opportunity to step inside the 21st century. One of the many theorems proved by the Martha Graham community in its recent victory over Ron Protas is that this community does have the resources, human and financial, to triumph over Evil when the stakes are huge.

There the stake was preserving the legacy of the choreographer who created Modern Dance as a workable language; here it's enabling the continued resurrection of ballet in a language that, I suspect, will have an even broader influence once it is given more volume in New York City. And here the enemy is not Evil but Entropy. Now the New York dance community has an opportunity to ensure that ballet as an art form does not atrophy but advances. William Forsythe has more than proved his mettle and value. I'd even argue that where he's going IS the mainstream for ballet, the stream that offers its best shot at contemporary vitality.

William Forsythe's contract with the Ballett Frankfurt concludes in two years.

....Speaking of the Martha Graham Center's financial resources and the recent court decision in its favor, board chairman Francis Mason writes to report: "How this decision will help us financially depends on the individuals who care about Martha Graham's work and on the foundation community. Government, city, state and U.S. (funders) have been giving throughout the trials."

Mason also gives proper props to executive director Marvin Preston: "This victory came about because Marvin Preston has a real head on his shoulders and worked closely with our board, with our dancers and with attorneys Dale Cendali in the first trial, Katherine Forrest in the second and Victor Kovner throughout, to be sure all bases were covered. Everyone kept cool, a dramatic contrast to the overheated atmosphere of the Protas years."

We also asked Mason to summon for Dance Insider readers his sharpest memories of Graham and her work.

"I frequently remind myself," Mason shared, "that the dance that persuaded me that she was a major choreographer as well as a major performer was "Canticle for Innocent Comedians" (1952), which I hope will see the light again one day in its original form. Yuriko, Bertram Ross, Linda Hodes, Pearl Lang and others I saw in the premiere at Juilliard are with us and on top of the world.

"My major first recollection of Martha was the first time I interviewed her, sight unseen live with no preparation, on my radio show at WNYC soon after 'Canticle.' I knew at once she was the smartest dancer in the world and the most articulate about the art. We became friends, I helped arrange appearances by the company in Europe when I was working overseas as cultural affairs officer, and when, after my return to New York, she asked me to chair her board in 1973 because John Houseman had to leave and many believed she could not carry on after her illness ("Everyone thinks I'm too old but I want another season"), I said, "Of course." Little did I then imagine that I would become chairman again in 2001 and help lead the response to Ron Protas's attack upon Martha's Center.

"Our chairman for 12 years before that, Judith Schlosser, our president, Inger Witter and board member Delores Weaver have been crucial throughout. But Marvin Preston is to me the hero. You have to have someone who can keep cool under all circumstances. That is Preston's genius."

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