Every Copy an Original: William Forsythe on Restaging His Ballets

San Francisco Ballet performing William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Editor’s Note: This essay was commissioned as part of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (the Center’s) research on the topic of “restaging.” The Center also recently funded the production of William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite at Pennsylvania Ballet.

Of all the dance forms, a ballet would seem to be the least troublesome to restage or reconstruct. It has a vocabulary of specific movements that spans more than three centuries and is taught worldwide. Restaging a William Forsythe ballet, as the Pennsylvania Ballet recently did with Artifact Suite, should be a straight-forward process. But Forsythe’s attitude towards the sanctity of the original complicates the process considerably. His curiosity about and drive towards the not-yet-known (the “possibles” within the dance structure and, importantly, the “possibles” within the dancers) are far stronger motives than any melancholic or nostalgic desire to preserve the old. 1

Forsythe never intended even his earlier ballet works to remain fixed in their choreographic vocabulary or sequences. He originally choreographed Artifact Suite so that moments in the dance would emerge from a dialogue between Forsythe’s suggestions and a dancer’s resulting movement invention. Regarding this, he has remarked, “You look at people in front of you and if you insist on things (at least in my work), you miss a tremendous opportunity because people have a lot to contribute and every dancer is different.” This creative flexibility persists each time the work is re-performed. 2 When asked once about a ballet that was being restaged, he said he was, “more interested in the performance than in the ballet, because ballet only lives through performance.” 3 He characterizes his work process as constant exploration, a perpetual “what if?” 4 This leaves open the possibility that any movement might become something else, that the dance might change.

The restaging begins with a restager training the dancers, teaching them the ‘steps’ that constitute the dance. In July, I spoke with Noah Gelber, a former Forsythe dancer trusted with setting Forsythe’s works on other ballet companies, including the recent presentation of Artifact Suite in Philadelphia. Gelber explained, “I still have to set very clear parameters—this is what [this dance] ‘is’—and when I’m first setting, of course, I’m trying to be as specific as possible. But because Forsythe is ever interested in the live performance of the work, it doesn’t end at ‘steps’, even in the initial phases of re-staging. Gelber went on, “Dancers might think, ‘OK that is it’…but that is not it. It’s just the first level and it’s nice to get them to the point where it is not about the steps anymore.” 5

Pennsylvania Ballet performing William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Although Forsythe entrusts the process of re-staging his ballets to a select few, like Gelber, who have worked with him and danced in those works, what characterizes his attitude when he does eventually step into the restaging process is that he seems more interested in working with the dancers dancing the dance, than in preserving some original notion of the ballet. As he has noted about the restaging process: “It’s easy to learn the steps; it’s difficult to learn how to be in relationship on stage.” 6 Gelber told me,

“[Forsythe’s] inspired by what he’s inspired by in that moment. When he sees a particular person, he likes to go with what he sees. He might be very inspired by one particular dancer in the room and just tend to say, ‘Oh, that looks good, let’s all try that.’ That’s why there are so many different versions when you look at the videos. At the end of the day, it’s not about what it ‘is,’ it’s about how they feel it…and as Bill is always saying, ‘It’s about how the dancers feel it for themselves.’ It’s not an arabesque in a museum; it’s not a museum piece. It’s live theater, and it’s something that they recreate and recreate each time, and each time is going to be only as they are in that moment.”

Ballerina Brooke Moore has worked twice with Forsythe in the restaging of Artifact Suite, once as a member of the corps with San Francisco Ballet and then as a principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet. She has experienced Forsythe’s practice of attending to the details of the dancer and dancing as well as the dance. “[In saying] ‘do this arabesque as it’s never been done before,’ he is giving you the liberty and luxury to explore who you are within his steps,” Moore explained to me when I spoke to her during rehearsals. “He can personalize everything within every dancer and really bring out so much. He has this ability to not say no and to keep pushing [so that you] just explore every aspect of your body in his choreography.” 7

Forsythe’s ballets change over time because Forsythe continues to see them as living works that have the capacity to evolve to become works that are more satisfying to him as a choreographer. About Artifact Suite, he has said, “There is always something to improve, something you can do better. Every year you acquire some craftsmanship, you’re a little better at doing something […] and you actually see solutions for things that you didn’t see two months ago.” 8 Artifact Suite has not only continued to change over the last 25 years, but at any one time multiple instantiations of it can be found being performed by different companies at different times, set on the dancers by different restagers and possibly including additional changes that Forsythe himself made to the work. All are quite recognizable performances of Artifact Suite, but they are not exactly the same and they are certainly not identical to the original.

This presents a perplexing problem about how to identify a particular work of art—is it the first performance, is it the sum of all performances, is it any performance that falls within the range of permissible variations from the original performance? —but it also presents a challenge in the restaging. Which version of the dance is chosen and who chooses? Because Forsythe has encouraged a process in which, as Gelber said, the dance “resided independently and individually in each one’s body,” there were, and are, likely to be as many minute variations as there are dancers, all bound to the ‘steps’ so to speak, but with multiple possibilities of slight divergences. This is further complicated if more than one stager is assigned to a single project. However, these stagers are used to the give and take of collaboration and the shared body politic that have characterized Forsythe’s choreographic approach since his early days with the Frankfurt Ballet. They are able to reach consensus fairly quickly as to which version would be most appropriate when they gather all of the dancers together in the studio for the first time to assemble the dance as a whole.

William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite. Photo by Costin Radu.

The process of restaging is even more complex and difficult in Forsythe’s more recent choreography. Since the founding of the Forsythe Company in 2005, works are so intimately and specifically created on and with the dancers that the dances are not available for restaging by other companies. Commenting on his present company, Forsythe has said, “Ballet is infinitely interesting. I still love it madly but I have a different kind of artist [now] and I work differently. I try to think of propositions that might interest this group at this stage of their lives and careers.” 9 Further describing his working process, he has said:

“I start the idea, [so] I’m the initiator, right? So I say I believe that something could emerge from these conditions, and then I name the conditions, which is basically the algorithm to make the choreography. We then work on these instructions, and these instructions then give it a kind of result, and we discuss it, and from that I have to keep deriving other conditions…let’s say like variations, on these results, until we arrive at something that is…agreeable.” 10

Shifts in personnel within the company further complicate matters and mutually affect and change both dancer and work as each absorbs the other. Forsythe recounts a conversation with his dancers viewing two videos of a 2012 work, Sider—one from a performance in Paris and one from Dresden. The performances or the works themselves seemed so different from one another that after several hours it was not completely resolved what work would emerge from the dialectic. These works will continue to shift when new creative propositions or algorithms propose new possibilities for the dancers and choreographer. The problem of re-performing is both internal—focusing on the changes that emerge from the shifts in the lives, the bodies, the vision, and play of dancers and dance maker—and external, considering the space, the time, the audience, and the world at large. Unlike his earlier ballet works, which have the potential to remain in multiple repertories and enjoy multiple performances, these works will have a life and be repeatable only so long as Forsythe is interested in keeping them alive in performance with his company. They are not, or not yet, designed to be re-performable once they are out of or are dormant in his repertory; and should that situation arise, it will necessitate a completely different take on the why and how of re-enacting them.

See Andre Lepecki, “The Body as Archive: Will to Re-Enact and the Afterlives of Dance,” Dance Research Journal (Winter 2010), pp. 42, 2, 31.
William Forsythe speaking at the symposium, “Fold, Collapse, and Shift: Ballet and Beyond in the Choreography of William Forsythe” (May 30, 2013), held at the Arts Bank, Philadelphia, with Pennsylvania Ballet, and made possible by support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
“William Forsythe in Conversation with Zachary Whittenburg,” Movement Research: Critical Correspondence (May 28, 2012).
Forsythe articulates this question in several interviews. See transcript of the John Tusa Interview with William Forsythe, BBC Radio 3 (February 2, 2003).
Noah Gelber taped interview with the author, June 1, 2013.
Whittenburg and Forsythe, 2012.
Brooke Moore taped phone interview with the author, May 14, 2013.
“Three Colors Green: Interview with William Forsythe,” (Semperoper Ballett, uploaded June 2, 2011).
Quote in Sarah Crompton, “William Forsythe Interview,” The Telegraph (April 7, 2009).
Tusa and Forsythe, 2003.
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