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In conversation with William Forsythe

by Judith Vrancken

Woven State clearly reveals William Forsythe’s remarkable craft which has left an indelible mark on the trajectory of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), and the dance world at large. Due to Covid circumstances, which prevented Mr. Forsythe from rehearsing in person, we spoke on Zoom, about Zoom as a choreographic medium, rehearsal as a space of production and the importance of adaptability in both creativity and in life.

For many people, the past year and a half have revolved around solitude, working from home, and finding new ways to be present in absence. When staging or choreographing works with dancers, how has technology, and in particular Zoom, offered tools to make this happen and keep some sense of normalcy for you?

“Zoom is a perfectly good medium to choreograph in, but you have to accept that it has its limitations. The workflow is different. It takes more time and requires a lot of guesswork because you don’t have all the information one would normally have when working in the studio together. Certain kinds of details are difficult to perceive, so you adapt the production to those facts. It’s all about your willingness to adapt to the way the situation is, not how one would prefer it to be. For example, it’s imperative that you adjust the production clock in your head, the one you use to time your rehearsals and get the work ready on time for the stage. You have to re-calibrate. You can’t argue with technology! [laughs].”

William Forysthe working with the dancers on a world premiere via Zoom. Photo: Rahi Rezvani.

Speaking of adaptability, expanding the quartet N.N.N.N. to a piece for twelve dancers titled N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N., is probably the most poignant example of that mindset. What made you want to make these changes?

“That was a dramatic change. It became an entirely different work. I think the change was motivated by our uncertainty about the immediate future; you really don’t know in COVID times if all the cast would have even gotten a chance to perform. They worked so very hard to assimilate the material, and they could, theoretically, have had the opportunity to perform- but this was not a certainty by a long shot. So, the re-structuring was like an insurance policy for the dancer’s efforts, to make sure that they would all be included and that their work would be honoured, even in the worst case scenario.”*

*Due to the restrictions in the Netherlands, it was becoming a likely scenario that the dancers would only have one opportunity to perform the work, therefore Forsythe wanted to ensure they would all be on stage. Eventually, NDT was very lucky to perform the works several times during matinee performances.

“As for the piece itself, the performers autonomously regulate how N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N. structures itself and progresses. I’m curious to see how they provide opportunities for themselves and each other within the works parameters, advance the structure and give the audience a satisfying reading of the piece. So, our discussions have revolved around first: delineating structure, and then: what sustains those structures as effective communicating entities? The dancers have autonomy, but with that autonomy comes a lot of responsibility. I think they feel that, and they accept it and are proving to themselves how very capable they are. I think it’s important to find opportunities for the dancers where they can exercise their judgement in more than one capacity.

N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N. is therefore really a product of the dancers’ discernment. Right now, with the way the world is operating, I’m very curious about self-regulating communities. Dancers are like citizens of a little country. NDT is its own little entity. Politically, socially, and in many other ways. How can we, they, contribute to that community while retaining a sense of self? They are inheriting a very complex world and anything that might help them navigate, I consider much more important to communicate than the X, Y, Zs of a particular choreographed movement.”

'N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.N.'. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of rehearsal as a space of production and the tools it can offer us, especially in times of COVID that has often eliminated public performances all together. Instead, the rehearsal, as the space of trial and error and experiment, has taken on new shapes and perhaps forced us to relinquish control. Would you agree?

“Well, I’m older now. If you’re lucky you will be too! So, I’m basically enjoying the idea of letting things go, you don’t have to keep control of everything, because ultimately you won’t have control of everything, so why set yourself up for a big surprise, or a big disappointment? Considering that this is our next generation of artist leaders, why not give them the opportunities now to test the sophistication of their skills? I think the issue is perhaps more about how we support the future of our arts communities through practice.”

As that community, NDT has been under new guidance since August of 2020 when Emily Molnar, who you’ve worked with extensively in the past, took on her new position as Artistic Director to the company. In many ways, Woven State marks a rekindling of your relationship to NDT, a company you’ve been creating work for since the early eighties. How do you feel about this new development?

“My impression of the company is that this is an extremely focused ensemble. The dancers are very skilled; they have had a lot of different experiences. You can feel Sharon’s [Eyal] influence for example, you can feel Marco [Goecke]. You can feel all they’ve encountered, and those accumulated experiences have of course strengthened and supported the work they offered me. They gave me the impression they wanted to exercise the extensive knowledge they have acquired and add new experiences to that base. I get the impression they are happy to develop evolving versions of themselves.”

'One Flat Thing, reproduced'. Photo: Rahi Rezvani.

“A lot of the works they have performed are extremely demanding insofar they require tremendous precision: Bedroom Folk (Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar, 2018, red.), for instance. Their interpretation of a work like that is extraordinary, and I’m sure Sharon is very appreciative of their efforts.

That said, I felt they collaboratively brought that same rigor and focus to their work with me. They are comfortable with craft, which is great, but are capable of modulating their relationship to it. They are fine with the freedom that I give them, but they are also fine with the stricter parts of structures. In my case the request is for a collective temporal entrainment to drive the work, rather than using the imperatives of a musical source to propel it; you could think of it as “acapella” choreography but in this case, I’m thinking of choreography as a form of musical-conducting practice. In every one of the works on the program this musical responsibility was shared and there was the sense that this was a self-evident task.”

Some of the works in Woven State are over 25 years old. For you, do works need to be unfamiliar enough to keep working on them?

“To a certain extent, yes. For one, you never have the same dancers. If I had been there physically, I would have probably changed things for Of Any If And too. I always assume I can do it better: this is because 25 years ago I didn’t have the breadth of skills I have now. I have more distance to the works now, so I can entertain the idea that I’m somewhat objective. I can definitely be critical of my own work, even though it might be “fine” for other people. I’m like a plumber, I’m always looking for the leaks, haha. I find those everywhere, so then I have to reconcile with knowing I could have built it better to begin with, but I guess I didn’t, and that’s okay! It keeps me relevant in the rehearsal room haha. If everything was “fixed” I would probably have nothing to say other than “faster”, or “slower” which is not my idea of a meaningful life. Most importantly, by revisiting and renovating work I’m able to keep connected to the dancers of each new epoch.”

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Woven State was worked on by a team of on-site stagers, that all share strong connections to the works, often having danced in it themselves. Considering the way this program was set up and worked on from a distance, how important was their presence at the NDT studios?

“Oh my Gosh, we couldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the stagers. By the time I stepped in, the dancers really knew how the pieces operated, and this high level of competence they could offer was the result of months of work with the stagers. My role then became much more about challenging them. Asking the question, what would interest them, as people of their generation? What would be the most interesting changes I could implement? And change it in a way that would influence not only their work for this program but also their thoughts on future repertory. I told them, this is not just this piece, you can think about other pieces from other choreographers within the parameters that we’re discussing now. They – the dancers – are the subject, much more than the design of the work.”

'Of Any If And'. Photo: Rahi Revzani

William Forsythe

William Forsythe (1949) has been active in the field of choreography for over 50 years. His three decades of work with his ensembles in Frankfurt exerted significant influence upon generations of artists in a wide array of creative practices.

With an initial focus on the organizational underpinnings of academic ballet Forsythe has, since 1991, extended his choreographic discourse into the field of visual arts. While his work for the stage resides in the repertories of ensembles worldwide, his installations are featured internationally in both museums and private collections. Forsythe has been the recipient of numerous awards which include the Golden Lion of the Venice Biennale and Der Faust, both for lifetime achievement.