William Forsythe by Gabriella De Ferrari

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Clouds After Cranach, which premired November 2005 in Frankfurt. Foreground: George Reischl and Dana Caspersen. Photo by Dominik Mentzos. Courtesy of the photographer.

I met Bill Forsythe early one morning last fall. He was in New York to work on a new project for the exhibition The Plain of Heaven, a dance that forces the spatial imagination of its dancer to continuously adapt. This single figure, Brock Labrenz, moves in a cavernous space that has been turned into a field of hanging pendulums. Dancing around the pendulums, sometimes with eyes closed, following his own rhythms, the dancer mesmerizes the viewer in ways I had not experienced before.

A thin energetic man with the physical agility of a dancer, Forsythe speaks with contagious enthusiasm about the vast number of projects he has created and the infinite number he would like to produce. They flow from his conversation, the product of a curious and educated mind that finds inspiration in a diverse array of sources. Forsythe is the foremost choreographer today, and every performance in his oeuvre challenges space, movement and the logic of music. These are works of enduring and unforgettable force.

The director of the Ballett Frankfurt for 20 years, Forsythe now heads his own company, which just performed its groundbreaking Kammer/Kammer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Kammer/Kammer combines theater and dance on a stage made to seem chaotic and disjunctive, but the narrative thread, guided by two superb texts and charmingly performed by Dana Caspersen and Antony Rizzi, bind the viewer. Douglas Martin’s Outline of My Lover, an account of the author’s affair with a famous rock star, is refracted by the performance of Anne Carson’s essay, “Irony is not Enough: Essay on My Life as Catherine Deneuve.” To say that humor abounds in the midst of fierce disappointment is an understatement. The piece is quietly ribald, chattily amusing and utterly ingenious.

Gabriella De Ferrari You are so interested in the visual arts; you are always looking. How does that become part of your work?

William Forsythe I’m always looking for an organizing principle. Often it’s literature that induces or suggests process. I could imagine visual artists look for the same sort of thing. It’s the subject. In my case, the subject is something that puts things in a temporal relationship. Choreographic works have a number of dimensions at any given moment. So I’m looking for something that’s going to organize, and at the same time put something in motion. Let’s say I’m looking at a Sigmar Polke painting. I’m trying to see the layers of process. I like to think backwards into the work, deciphering the organizational mechanics, hypothesizing chronologies of construction.

GDF Polke is a visual and intellectual scavenger. I have watched him work—

WF Ah, really?

GDF He’s got this dictionary of images, and he stands there and edits.

WF I like the way he used all those Dürer images, those strange squiggles and things. Those are in Munich.

GDF I thought that was a wonderful series. (Dürer-Schleifen-Bildern [Dürer-curlicues-pictures, 1986]). He looked at the tiny parts of Dürer. You’ve done that in your work too—you find something in a work of fiction that starts you off.

WF Well, in my case, it’s got to land in three dimensions. And it’s got to stretch out over time. The space induces this duration. How the room, or let’s say the situation is perceived, what its organizational premise is, is what instigates motion. I’m looking for new ways to think about self-organizing systems. I like being not so much the inventor of everything that happens onstage but the person who finds the source of invention. The dancers are perfectly capable and intelligent enough to investigate these ideas with their own bodies.

GDF I imagine that a lot of choreographers just do the work and then the dancers go from there, but yours is more like a collaboration with the dancers.

WF Yeah, I’m looking for whatever will allow that process to happen, for ideas that I think would make a dancer curious about what the results could possibly be. So I propose something, and then the dancer offers an educated opinion of that idea. And that manifests itself as a physical behavior on some level. It’s a physical response to a hypothesis.

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Kammer/Kammer, which premiered in December 2000 in Frankfurt. Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

GDF As an example, let’s talk about the piece that you are working on now.

WF It’s an extension of the one I did with Creative Time, ??Nowhere and Everywhere At The Same Time?. It was very specifically designed for the medium: Brock Labrenz. Brock has studied astrophysics, which is an unusual background for a dancer—although there is someone else like him in our company, a woman who has also studied physics.

GDF They understand gravity.

WF Exactly; that’s what the title refers to. Anyway, I set the situation up in relationship to this person and his background. I’m curious to see what his investigation of this particular situation will look like. So it was a room full of pendulums, and Brock as a physicist had a very wide palette of reactions. He tried to look at it from a number of angles, phenomenologically and emotionally. He has also studied acting; he wants to be a filmmaker. All this played into his performance, which was six hours at a go in a very cold, hard room.

GDF Amazing endurance.

WF Indeed. The piece would not have happened that way without him.

GDF Was the piece specific to that space, a vacant warehouse in Chelsea due to be razed to make way for Dia’s new building?

WF Not necessarily. That was the perfect space for the piece, because it involved an architecture that was about to lose all verticality. It was going to enter a new state.

GDF When he was dancing, he was changing all the time: he didn’t have to do it in any particular way.

WF No, but he did have a list of very specific things that we were trying to accomplish. For example, he had to memorize the space and be able to perform it blind. So he went through long periods of having his eyes closed and trying to maintain an approximation of the space and of the movements that he had instigated with the pendulums before he had closed his eyes. There were any number of instructions about how to organize his body in relation to the architectural details filtered through a relationship with the moving objects.

GDF Those are the things that you worked out together with him?

WF Yes, but he worked a great deal out himself. That is what the piece was: a work for an astrophysicist. We had already worked together for a number of years, and this was a culmination of that.

GDF When you say that the next piece is an extension of that piece, what do you mean?

WF Well, I have different dancers with different backgrounds. Sang Jijia, for example, the Rolex protégé, is trained in classical Chinese folk dancing; he was part of a nomadic tribe until he was 10 or so, going from place to place with his family and living in a tent, and then he got chosen to go the Chinese Academy in Beijing. Another person, Yoko Ando, has had a big effect on all of us in the company. She brought in a Japanese martial arts expert, Akira Hino, and his practice is Budo; it’s a nonviolent practice that basically discharges the potential physical violence in any situation. It was formerly a Samurai practice. His Zen philosophy has had the biggest influence on everything. But this piece is for my other physicist dancer, who is very interested in working with the other dancers on ways to think about the situation, and I’m curious to see what will come out of her desire to communicate what she knows to her colleagues. There is nothing, really, to reproduce; this is not the same piece, just a similar physical situation. The whole work has to align itself to the new performers and their skills.

GDF So this new piece will be for the whole company?

WF For a certain group. I have some people who are perhaps more scientifically inclined.

GDF You’ve been working with this group for quite a while. What happens when a new person comes in?

WF It’s very delicate, and people are very nice. They themselves have been through it. I also adjust the work to the newcomers’ abilities. You have to challenge them, but you can’t overwhelm people. We’re always making new stuff and trying to find the right thing for each person. As time passes, I can adapt the work to their new level of experience.

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Kammer/Kammer, which premiered in December 2000 in Frankfurt. Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

GDF When you bring a choreographed piece out in another place with another company, does that piece continue to evolve?

WF Absolutely. I just changed my piece Artifact, which was 22 or 23 years old, and brought it out in San Francisco as Artifact Suite. The San Francisco ballet reflects the temperament of its director: it’s an inspired, intensive and yet levelheaded company. They don’t flip out, but they work really hard. And they dance extremely well, to the end of their abilities.

GDF They chose to do this piece of yours?

WF Helgi Tomasson invited me to restage a work with them, and I suggested Artifact because I though it would be right for the people in that company, and it really was. They are extraordinary dancers.

GDF Did you have a little bit of time with them, like you did with your own company, to discuss the piece?

WF Not as much as I would have liked. It’s never enough.

GDF Is it very different from the last time it was done somewhere else?

WF Yes, it was done at the Palais Garnier in Paris in February, and it was just a different environment. Like I said, the work of the dancers often reflects a lot of the attitudes of the direction of the company.

GDF What are the references in this piece?

WF It references Balanchine, whom I am so indebted to. It’s like a thank-you note to him for everything I’ve learned by watching his work. And it reflects both my love and my doubts: on one hand, it’s reverent; on the other hand it acknowledges the epoch he worked in as something bygone.

GDF The last time we talked, you told me about specific pieces of art that have inspired you.

WF Yes, we were talking about Cranach. That’s coming to BAM in February. I have been working with two images, Cranach’s Lamentation Beneath the Cross and a Reuters press photo from Iraq. What they have in common are these dark, billowing, roiling clouds. In the Cranach they are behind the cross in the upper right-hand corner and in the upper right-hand corner of the Reuters picture are the rolling black clouds from a car-bomb explosion, and miraculously, in the middle of the car-bomb photo is an accidental cross, visually constructed out of the architecture of a building whose windows have been blown out, and in the foreground of the photo is a body being carried off. It has every kind of relationship to the Cranach.

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Kammer/Kammer, which premiered in December 2000 in Frankfurt. Photo by Julieta Cervantes. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

GDF How does this move into the category of dance?

WF I was interested in the chronologies that are embedded in painting of that era. Within one Cranach tableau are several historical periods all depicted at once. You have Christ on the cross, and knights from the Crusades depicted witnessing the crucifixion, which is of course impossible. And then you also have the Stations of the Cross, all displayed simultaneously. At the same time you have the characters from biblical times being portrayed as wearing early-sixteenth-century clothing. They’re not being depicted historically; they are being depicted contemporaneously. In Cranach’s Lamentation Beneath the Cross, there are several perspectives at work, and I used all these things to construct this, how can I say, drama of apocrypha—to make something with no clear center, and to bring up the idea of doubt, which seems to be something that, for example, the current administration would be happy to erase. I think that the U.S. government’s current drive to eradicate doubt is lethal.

GDF That’s what Cranach did so well, compositions with a total lack of balance—

WF Yeah, things are definitely out of balance.

GDF It makes you think, how many artists have been influenced by crucifixion?

WF I never in my right mind thought I’d be interested in it or influenced by it.

GDF Jasper Johns was very interested in the Isenheim Altarpiece.

WF That’s spectacular. I saw pieces in Johns’s studio last year that have those little doors on them, closed panels. I thought that was interesting, the mystery of that.

GDF So what came in after the Cranach?

WF Well, I worked backwards from there. I tried to embody some principles I saw in two other works: Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Project for a Revolution in New York, in which you as a reader are never allowed to know if what is being described is a horrible murder in front of you or if it’s the cover of a detective novel; and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which is about a man having a memory of a future event, which turns out to be his own death. The film is composed entirely in stills, with the exception of one scene. So I constructed a fictitious character, the mother of the boy who is being carried off in the Reuters photo. I wrote a scene of an altercation in a street in what seems like the Middle East, and then staged it as a series of tableaux vivants.

GDF So the dancers move and then they freeze?

WF Yeah. The initial kernels of a scene are themselves only 45 seconds long, but they are replayed, played and replayed, forward and backward from every conceivable point, often starting simultaneously from two different points in their sequences. It’s almost like serial music. Although there is no actual music, the dancers are specifically instructed to compose a series of silences. It is a series of tableaus of this event in which this woman’s son is killed. She comes out in the beginning and says, “Composition one: my son was arrested.” This scene plays for 25 minutes. And then it immediately goes to the second act, in which she is reading a report that is being translated into Arabic by a disinterested bureaucrat. There’s a third person in the scene who seems to be divorced from the events, and he is describing the Cranach paintings and the Reuters photo.

GDF Is this something the audience can follow?

WF I’m not sure if they understand, but neither does the woman. The images that are referred to are lying on the table, and the descriptive character refers to them as composition one, composition two, composition three and so on. He’s describing the postures and the facial attributes, clothing and weapons of the characters in Cranach’s paintings and the Reuters photo, even the architectural detail, but then he begins to include the woman as part of these descriptions. He tries to recast her as one of the images of the Middle East and she says, “Oh no, you’re mistaken, I’m the mother in composition one.” And finally the descriptive character describes the death of her son. He describes this as happening in composition two. And she asks, confused, “What composition am I now in?” He says, “Two.”

GDF It sounds like it should be a libretto.

WF (laughter) Well, the libretto is when the audience leaves: in Frankfurt, I have the painting and the photo hanging right next to each other at the exit.

GDF And the mother is danced by Dana Caspersen, who is also an actress?

WF No, it’s Jone San Martin, who plays Dana’s girlfriend in Kammer/Kammer. She’s a wonderful actress, too. So I have the three performers who do that, and then the last part is sort of an acoustic war scene in which Dana plays a Condoleezza Rice figure with a man’s voice, spouting the vile, patronizing language of the current administration.

GDF The spin that doesn’t create doubt.

WF At least about some opinions. (laughter) What the piece attempts to do is make the war a thing that happens to human beings. There’s so much talk in America about families, and it’s a tragedy if it’s American families, but if it’s families in other countries, it’s not as tragic. Perhaps it’s compassion fatigue.

GDF Do you see your work as having political content, or is it just because there’s so much of that around that it has to be part of the work?

WF Well, on one level the work makes itself. I’m not usually overtly political, but this work seemed to fall into my lap. It happened through a series of dialogues and working in the studio, and it just came out that way.

GDF Do the dancers bring a lot of books and ideas to you, things that they want to work on?

WF They put ideas forward all the time. People are constantly saying, Have you seen this event, have you seen this interesting book? We’re constantly exchanging. I feel responsible for their well-being and their development artistically, which obviously implies intellectually, spiritually. I feel that it’s my duty to instigate something that’s going to challenge them and keep them curious and also make a work that does them justice as artists.

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Human Writes, a performance installation by William Forsythe and Kendall Thomas, which premiered October 2005 in Zurich. Photo by Domnik Mentzos. Courtesy of the photographer.

GDF Tell me about some other artists who have influenced you. I’m fascinated, because nobody looks at Cranach very much. Maybe in Germany they do.

WF Not even there. I wouldn’t say so much influenced, but perhaps artists whose work has awakened me to the diversity of choreographic strategies: Tim Hawkinson, because he’s often dealing with some aspect of the body; Matthew Barney, who is an absolutely superior choreographer in every sense. Really one of the best in our field. No one moves ideas around like he does. And I like Matthew Ritchie very much. He allows you to intuit the mathematics, the geometry, the deeper sense of what he’s drawing on, as Husserl suggests. There’s something about the way mathematics manifests itself in forms that touch people in an extraordinary way.

GDF Well, mathematics is very creative.

WF Oh my God, yeah. I’m very intrigued by Ritchie’s work.

GDF Have you ever met him or collaborated with him?

WF No, but I’d like to talk with him.

GDF Have you ever collaborated with a visual artist?

WF I had a wonderful collaboration recently with Spencer Finch, who shares my obsession with light, and earlier with Cara Perlman, who taught me a great deal. Actually there is a long list of visual artists whose work has informed me about my own field.

GDF And you use a lot of video, too, in your work.

WF Only when it’s absolutely necessary. For Kammer/Kammer, you could not do that subject without it.

GDF One thing puzzled me about Kammer/Kammer: The staging was fragmented, with parts of rooms and video screens revealing some of the action some of the time. Things were happening in all of these rooms, but the walls obscured some of the dance. I was on the balcony, so I could see a lot of the things that the people who were downstairs couldn’t see. I think if I had been downstairs I would have been very frustrated. Was that the intention?

WF (laughter) No, I never intended that.

GDF Of course, some images are to be seen and some are to be intuited. The dancer’s shadows sometimes stood in for the dancers. It’s a little bit of teasing.

WF No, not at all. I’m just trying to elaborate the subject, as I said. I’m trying to be as true to the material as I can possibly be, and that is the nature of that material to me: it’s internal, it’s got all these imaginings, all these fantasies and memories.

GDF The two main characters act more than they dance, each reciting texts about failed love affairs. Catherine Deneuve’s role as played by Dana Caspersen is such a powerful character. You told me that Catherine Deneuve had seen the piece. What was her reaction?

WF She loved it.

GDF Really? She’s such an ice princess.

WF (laughter) She’s not. I’ve known her for years. She’s extremely nice.

GDF It’s interesting, there’s a big revival right now; they’re showing Belle Du Jour again everywhere, with Deneuve in that great pillbox hat that Dana wears throughout Kammer/Kammer.

WF Fantastic. I had a discussion with Anne Carson about the hat. Anne felt that Dana should wear the big blue sweater that Deneuve wears in the film that the work refers to, Les Voleurs. I said no one would recognize Catherine Deneuve in that baggy blue sweater.

GDF No, that hat is special.

WF Yeah, it had to be iconic.

GDF She’s terrific, terrific.

WF I am so lucky to have dancers who are also accomplished actors. The piece was specifically created for the particular skills of the two main performers. The texts fit their dispositions from a number of perspectives. The structure of the work, though, derives from the fusion of the two texts. Anne Carson and Douglas Martin have a number of common themes in those particular works—obsessive love, monetary considerations, power—and the act of weaving them together created a kind of fugal structure. I would also say the piece relies heavily on juxtaposition to accomplish its goals. Predominantly spatial juxtaposition. That includes three versus two dimensions, as in live versus video representation.

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Human Writes, a performance installation by William Forsythe and Kendall Thomas, which premiered October 2005 in Zurich. Photo by Domnik Mentzos. Courtesy of the photographer.

GDF Let’s talk about the next piece that is in the process of being created.

WF Right now there are a couple of things going on. I’m working on a circular room that is completely destabilizing. It has a checkerboard pattern on the floor and it’s a turntable. And it has drapes all the way around in a striped pattern that also rotate, in a different speed and in a different direction. And the ceiling rotates, almost imperceptibly, very slowly. But I would like to make people neurologically uncertain in the surroundings. We’re still experimenting with it to get the right amount of motion, so that it’s subtle enough that you’re not quite sure if you’re moving or not.

GDF And people are going to dance in this room?

WF Well, I don’t know; it’s all about the audience.

GDF It could be a good kinetic sculpture.

WF I’m thinking of it as an environment for the public to experience their bodies and their nervous systems, trying to decipher where they are proprioceptively, neurologically, and why.

GDF And are you still working with the shadows?

WF I’m doing tons of shadows, actually. I’ve been drawing shadows now for over 10 years. The shadow drawings have become integrated into the work principally as scores for the dancers. In You Made Me a Monster, which is a kind of concert, I built these intricate, chaotic paper models from the pieces of a life-size cardboard skeleton. All the boards beneath the models were densely covered with shadows, which were immensely complicated. We then drew the outline of each shadow and put the boards on the wall and they served as a vocal score for the dancers. That’s a technique we’ve been working on for 15 years or so: looking at two-dimensional events and translating them into three dimensions, and then concentrating the torsion of the body into the throat and using this tension to produce sounds that we then filter through software instruments. This particular score is about 30 feet long and 12 feet high. That’s at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich now. I’m also still drawing shadows of my own body, and have people hopelessly wrestling, trying to draw each other’s shadows. And I’ve been drawing the shadows of movies for the next installation at the Pinakothek.

GDF How do you do that?

WF Well, you could stop it frame by frame, but I’m trying to draw them while the film runs. For me, it’s a way of thinking about motion. Oh, and I’m making a shadow clock for Issey Miyake. He’s doing a new building with Tadao Ando, and they asked me to make a proposal for a project. Said they want nothing concrete, could we keep it empty? Typical of Issey. And I said, sure, not having any idea. I thought I’d like to capture every shape of shadow and light that Ando’s building produces. Photograph it and then look at the tag, where it says this was taken at 1:52 and 38 seconds, and work on introducing that particular chiaroscuro image at precisely the time of day it will appear on or around the building at one place, in a darkened room. And so all the light and shadow in that building comes together at precisely the moment it was made.

GDF How does it feel to be back in New York, showing Kammer/Kammer here?

WF Well, it’s fun to share the work.

GDF Are the audiences different?

WF Yeah, in one respect: American audiences, including in New York, tend to feel compelled to laugh. I have a feeling that people feel impolite if they don’t acknowledge the concepts. Also I think the fine differentiation between humorous and funny is perhaps difficult for American audiences to decipher. Like when Dana says, “Due to strengthening thoughts of Ingeborg Bachman’s bangs,” it’s a humorous line but it’s not hardy-har-har. And they were definitely hardy-har-har-ing.

GDF And not in Germany.

WF Not in Germany, not in France, not in England.

GDF When you do these pieces in Germany, you do it in German?

WF No, in English. Frankfurt is a very international city.

GDF Do they get the nuances?

WF Oh, a lot of people do. It’s a very sophisticated city, with well-educated audiences: artists, students, university people. It’s a smart city, just brimming with intelligent people.

GDF My son is an investment banker; he’s not particularly interested in dance, but he came with me to see Kammer/Kammer, and afterwards I said, “What do you think?” and he said, “I really don’t understand it, but I know deep down, this is a very important thing.” (laughter) He sensed that there was so much going on.

WF Well, choreographers are composers; subjects are continually reiterated and played in another key, so to speak, against each other, backwards. In choreography, there is all kinds of motion going on, countless levels of kinetic juxtaposition, many beyond the immediate, visible sphere of dancing. So perhaps he felt the effect of ideas in motion.

Gabriella de Ferrari is a writer and art historian based in New York.

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