I’ll admit it: I am a fan girl.
Last week, I got to sit down with one of my choreographic heroes, William Forsythe.
I came away from that conversation with renewed admiration for both Forsythe’s dances, and his respect and love for dancers – and theirs for him.
Forsythe has been in residence at Pacific Northwest Ballet since the start of March, in preparation for the March 13 opening of the first American all-Forsythe evening, “The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe.”
The bill includes one dance local audiences have seen, “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” But PNB also will present the American premiere of “New Suite,” a 2012 compilation of pas de deux that Forsythe says he “rescued” from works that had fallen by the wayside. “New Suite” has been performed only by Dresden Semperoper Ballett before this Seattle premiere.
If you Google videos of Forsythe ballets, you’ll come up with some hits, but many of those videos are fragmentary, or of poor quality. Forsythe believes that people need to see his work in the arena for which it was created: live and in person.
That may be why he’s made his first professional trip to Seattle to work with the PNB dancers.
Although he’s American, Forsythe has spent most of his professional career in Frankfurt, Germany, first with Frankfurt Ballet and then, after he was forced out, with the dance company that now bears his name.
Many American companies have Forsythe ballets in their repertoires, and the choreographer has worked with some of those companies.
“I would say one thing about Americans: There’s a very can-do mentality, and I like that,” he says.
When you watch Forsythe, now in his mid-60s, in the PNB studios, you understand that part of the "can-do" mentality is fostered by the evident affection and respect that Forsythe has for the dancers.
“Gather ’round, my dears!” he beckons with a smile at a recent rehearsal.
The dancers are like sunflowers bending to the warm light as they form a large circle around him. After a few explanatory words, he sets to work. He and stager Kathryn Bennetts do individual coaching before a planned run-through of “In the Middle…”
“I’m really interested in building good dancers in the process of setting the work, not just setting the work,” he explains.
But it’s the work that really seems to thrill dancers.
Laura Graham danced for Forsythe at Frankfurt Ballet. Now she travels the world staging his ballets. Graham believes Forsythe’s choreography pushes the borders of traditional ballet, technically and stylistically.
“Pas de deux, created by Bill, there’s no comparison to any other choreographer,” she says. “It’s challenging, stimulating, oh, add all the adjectives you want!”
It’s clear most of the PNB dancers agree with Graham’s assessment. Principals Seth Orza and Jerome Tisserand wore huge smiles during a recent rehearsal break. Orza, just back from an injury, is still regaining his strength and energy, so he has to push himself hard to meet Forsythe's expectations. That effort doesn’t seem to faze him.
“It’s great,” he says. Tisserand nods his agreement. Corps de ballet member Chelsea Adomaitis is even more effusive. “It’s the best!” she says beaming.
The PNB dancers have worked with many of the world’s best living choreographers: Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, to name a few. But it’s clear that William Forsythe has inspired them to take their work ethic, and their artistry, to a new level.
“I try to give them a kind of ownership or authority,” Forsythe says. “Usually I say at the beginning of rehearsal, listen, all of us in this room are experts. So let’s just start from that point.”
The Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Forsythe” runs March 13 to 22 at McCaw Hall.
Here’s a link for a discount for the March 14 matinee performance. I will be leading a post-show conversation with Peter Boal, PNB's artistic director and some of the artists in that matinee. Hope to see you there!