Interview William Forsythe: about ballet and Balanchine

The interview with William Forsythe took place at the time of Bill & Mr. B, a program of the Dutch National Ballet at the Holland Festival in 2012. ‘A tribute to two of the great dance innovators and choreographic geniuses of the twentieth century.’ 

Interview William Forsythe

To have an interview with William Forsythe (William is now the preferred first name rather than Bill), seems almost a mission impossible. The choreographer has an extremely busy schedule. At the time of the interview The Forsythe Company got back from a tour to Reggio Emilia and would soon travel to Montpellier. There was an ongoing research project Motion Bank, new art installations, and the two pieces at the Dutch National Ballet Steptext and The second detail.

You sound like a busy man. Never a dull moment?

“One could easily say that. I am not sure all the moments are highlights either. But I am not easily bored.”

How do you manage a ballet life with a normal life, let alone grandchildren?

“My children live in town. And grandkids don’t have time off always (laughs). Grandchildren are certainly a lot less responsibility than having your own children. I think it is really hard to have a dance career with children. Especially if you tour a lot.”

In the early eighties, works of William Forsythe such as Say Bye Bye and Love Songs were seen at Nederlands Dans Theater (‘Those were great for that time’, he says now). And Gänge, which would mark his career with the Frankfurt Ballet. The story goes that this particular piece caused a scandal in Frankfurt and the choreographer was offered a contract right away to be the theatre’s new ballet director.

“We made Gänge also at the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), which was not such a scandal. I think the audience there was sophisticated and open-minded. NDT had a solid reputation for being experimental. In Frankfurt I was using a ballet company in a traditional German opera house, so of course there was a certain amount of friction. However, I was very surprised about the reaction at first.”

The Forsythe Company just performed in Reggio Emilia in Italy. In 1985 you created Steptext for the company Aterballetto in Reggio. Reggio Emilia seems to be a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere. How come you can stage quite a modern piece there?

“Reggio is indeed a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere but the dancers certainly weren’t sleepy. They were young and so was I, and it was the right time to do something like that. What you get in the studio: work is work. I don’t think one gets influenced by the sleepiness or liveliness of a town around you. By then, I wasn’t creating a piece with keeping a type of audience in mind. I was too inexperienced to think that. Maybe now I would do so more: I am a different person in different respects.”

William Forsythe Bill & Mr B foto Erwin Olaf

When William Forsythe hears the program at the Dutch National Ballet is called Bill & Mr. B, he thinks it’s very funny and laughs. When George Balanchine came to the stage it was said that ballet was at a low ebb.

Was it the same when you started to choreograph?

“Not at all. I think ballet was at the high point. There was a dance boom in New York City in the late sixties getting into the seventies. I was in the Joffrey Ballet and got to work with (Bronislava) Nijinska, Massine, Kurt Jooss. All these generations have done tremendous works: Joffrey was a great curator of lost work. I had a very interesting time.”

In the program Bill & Mr. B the choice for the two choreographers is made as follows: ‘Whereas the former (Balanchine) transformed classical ballet into an abstract art form filled with dynamics and sharpness, the latter (Forsythe) went one step further by turning ballet technique and logic completely upside down and making it his own.’ 

Did you know this text? 

“Everyone starts to write about what other people wrote. I just say: I did what made sense, to me. If you practice ballet and you’re in it. If you ask the dancers who dance it, it doesn’t feel that bizar. Some 25 years ago, it was not standard but now this is not the case. It’s been adopted, accepted and naturalised. I find it gratifying to watch people do it now, because it’s much more native. I think that the new generations of dancers are very comfortable with this stuff.”

You and Balanchine stood out with a different approach to ballet technique though.

“I focussed on ballet, that’s true. I had a company that focussed on trying to see what you could do with it. Until a certain point, for about twenty years. From then on I’ve began to evolve, I no longer had a company of ballet dancers. Actually it wasn’t so much that I changed, it’s the dancers themselves that changed. We also moved location from a theatre to a depot. If you’d put ballet on stage there, it would have looked a bit eccentric. So, it had also to do with the conditions of our work.”

It is said Balanchine, being an heir of Petipa, was in love with the past. 

“That is a critical opinion and probably meant to position Balanchine.”

It was said by dance critic Arnold Haskell in 1936.

“Then he was trying to legitimise Balanchine. Or he was saying Balanchine wasn’t modern enough.”

I believe he was comparing him to Massine.

“Massine didn’t have the skill. He had the ambition, but he did not have the musicological skill that Balanchine had.”.

But Balanchine was fond of Petipa?

“Exactly, hello! If you look at the concert version of Paquita then you see the foundation of all of Balanchine’s work. I think he said that himself. He could not have done what he did without having had Petipa being in the place where he was. I grew up with Balanchine and thought he was the way you should choreograph. That is also what my teachers told me: there is only one ballet choreographer and that is Balanchine.”

Are you in love with the past?

“I am not sure. We are doing a piece now called Yes, we can’t, which will tour to Montpellier. We spent the whole afternoon watching Les Noces. All the dancers are too young to know it. When they saw it, they said: it’s so radical! The past is useful for someone who writes and composes in the domain of choreography. Not everything appears in a vacuum.”

Are you perhaps more in love with the future?

“I try to be where I am. I like moving in both directions.”

Have you actually met Balanchine yourself?

“In the elevator once, I was a student. I knew who he was but he did not know me.”

Is there an image that drove your career, a person or production?

“Hmm, interesting. I would say individual performances of dancers. A choreography is only as good as the interpretors.”

William Forsythe Bill & mr.B. 2nd detail - photo Angela Sterling

You mentioned Joffrey being a great curator. Why did you move from the Joffrey Ballet to the Stuttgart Ballet?

“A lot of dancers were competing for the same job and I thought: maybe I don’t have to work here. I went to see work of John Cranko at the Metropolitan Opera House. It wasn’t like Balanchine and I wanted to try that.”

Did the city of Frankfurt influence you as a choreographer? 

“Back in 1984 Frankfurt was very gemütlich and not a big financial center by any means. In the meantime it has changed tremendously. My work was effected however by the conditions of the opera house which had an unusual flexibility. It was also a very good opera house with interesting directors: Adolf Dresen, Hans Neuenfels, Michael Gielen. Technically it had all the possibilities, if you learned how to be inventive with the space. The production conditions determined the work. Certain things for example would have been impossible to recreate in New York. How it was scheduled, the amount of time on stage to produce a work, sometimes three weeks! Today there isn’t the same financial luxury to do that anymore.”

What made you stay all this time in Germany? You could have moved back to the States?

“No way. I had developed myself as a choreographer in Germany and became a product of the environment. I am a European in that sense, like Hans van Manen or Jiří Kilián.”

You now create installations. Which do you prefer: choreography or installations?

“An installation requires less attention. If there is no performance involved in it, you need to make sure it’s installed right. You usually work with museums and festivals and so you have a lot of good people around. In my case I have a full-time producer who takes care of it.”

Recently I met with Ohad Naharin (artistic director Batsheva Dance Company) and I asked him about the absence of big choreographers in the ballet world today and whether that had to do with an increasing pressure to make more ballets in less time. Naharin commented that earlier on, choreographers had to make even more pieces, sometimes seven a year. 

Would you agree with that?

“That’s the truth. Up until two years ago I was making about two if not three full-length pieces a year. Which is crazy. But that’s how we survived.”

William Forsythe wrote an open letter in 2010 to Royal Ballet of Flanders artistic director Kathryn Bennetts. Up until now there is fear that the ballet company, under the idea of ‘synergy and artistic excellence’, will be added to the Opera house as a necessary extra. Time ago, The Frankfurt Ballet itself seized to exist and was reformed into The Forsythe Company.

“It wasn’t about finances but more about how politicians use cultural institutions as weapons against other parties. If one party wants to create a problem for another party, all they do is look at what that party supported with culture. As culture is not the biggest money producing entity of all the civic institutions, the politicians that support it must therefore be bad. The problems at the Frankfurt Ballet at the time had more to do with a power struggle in the government. I decided not to participate in the power struggle.”

Do you see a trend in subsidy and cutbacks nowadays?

“It’s always up to the politicians. Subsidy is public money and controlled by politicians with party alignments and obligations. Even now, I could lose my fundings as well.”

It sounds like you place the company above your own position…

“I have to: these are my friends. Some of us work together for twenty-five years. We are not just a group who works together, we live together and know each other’s lives intimately.”

June 2012


The Forsythe Company is now The Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company, based in Dresden and Frankfurt am Main under directorship of Jacopo Godani. In 2014 the Royal Ballet of Flanders merged with the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen under directorship of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

William Forsythe is associate choreographer with the Paris Opera Ballet during the 2015-2016 season, with Benjamin Millepied as artistic director. Both will leave the company. William Forsythe starts a five-year partnership with the Boston Ballet. He also holds a position as artistic advisor at the Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

Bekijk meer informatie over Bill & MR. B met de werken Symphony in three movements, Steptext en The second detail

Lees de recensie over Bill & Mr. B: Shock and awe-ballet in Bill & Mr. B loopt aan alle kanten over van kwaliteit; er is geen stelpen aan

(foto’s: William Forsythe / Dominik Mentzos, poster/Erwin Olaf, The second detail/Angela Sterling)

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