Is this ballet for you?
Go if: You love contemporary art and think ballet is a tired old art form destined to die very soon. Also, one for those who seek the thrill of stunning dance performances.
Skip if: You are a 19th century story-ballet junkie.
Artifact is not performed in its entirety very often, but a section of it, called Artifact Suite, is part of the repertory of many companies: The Royal Ballet of Flanders is well known for its Forsythe performances, and the Paris Opera Ballet also regularly performs Forsythe’s work. San Francisco Ballet got some great reviews when it last presented Artifact Suite.
History & Background
William Forsythe was born in 1949 in New York City. His passion for dance and movement encompassed from Fred Astaire to Rock’n'Roll, but he trained as a ballet dancer, taking lessons with one of Balanchine’s original dancers, Nolan Dingman, among others.
Following an invitation by John Cranko to join Stuttgart Ballet, he moved to Germany and started choreographing for that company and others around the world. In 1984, he became Director of Frankfurt Ballet, which he led until the company closed in 2004.
Artifact was the first ballet Forsythe choreographed for Frankfurt Ballet. He has defined Artifact as “a ballet about a ballet“, as it references different points in the history of the art form:
The strict group work, the unison choreography for the corps de ballet, and the “Woman in the Historical Costume” remind the audience of baroque court dancing, from which ballet evolved from, while the presence of speech evoques the fact that dance on stage originally appeared within operas or plays.
New York Times critic Roslyn Sulcas has said that Artifact is “a direct descendant of the four-act classical ballet, taken into the realm of abstraction“, and indeed it follows some of its rules (the length and the large number of dancers), but not others (as it eschews a storyline).
Forsythe sees ballet as a language (his ‘mother tongue’) that can be studied and transformed: its vocabulary can be manipulated, its grammar can be extended. His particular focus is on the mechanics of dancing, starting from the Laban system – where the body is seen in relation to 27 points in space – marking an area (the kinesphere) that the body is moving within and that the mover is paying attention to.
This led Forsythe to visualize the “dancing body” as a number of relationships between different points. For instance, he considered épaulement – the oppositional alignment of the shoulders with respect to the waist – as “the key to ballet” because of the extraordinary mechanics of torsion that “give ballet its inner transitions.” Forsythe understood épaulement as the result of ”a tremendous number of counter-rotations determined by the relationships among the foot, hand, and head and even of the eyes”.
Forsythe focused on how ballet incorporates these relationships, and how they could be changed and pushed in different directions. He often connected ballet to mathematics and said that ballet is “a geometric art form”, that a dancer is “taught to match lines and forms in space” so Forsythe imagined how lines could be “bent, tossed or otherwise distorted”.
In his CD-Rom Improvisation Technologies, we have a brilliant visual demonstration of the idea of relationships between points, and inscribing geometry in space:
The result are steps that look different, yet still in the ballet mould: they are extensions of it, with warped angles, fast speed, and a sharpness of execution.
Are these still ballet, or are we moving into athletics and gymnastics? This point has been heavily debated given that Forsythe changed the conventional shapes of ballet. But here’s what everyone agrees on: he has deconstructed ballet and, for that, he has been hailed as the heir to Balanchine. The athleticism and use of balance in his choreography and the way he uses dancers to create lines and shapes on the stage link back to the Russian ballet master.
Forsythe was heavily influenced by the ideas of French philosopher Michel Foucault. From his readings he took that “the nature of history is to conceal as well as preserve“. Ballet was being turned into a “monument”, an “artifact”, preserved, unchanging. But he saw a difference between the ballet technique and the ballet language; its phrases, steps, lines, and that the language could be changed. For Foucault, the meaning of statements can only be examined within the historical context they were made in. Meaning is derived from context. Forsythe never gives the audience the key to unlock a work. He wants them to do a bit of thinking for themselves.
In Artifact in particular, the two arguing characters are not explained (are they representing ballet’s past and future? are they lovers? what are they arguing about?) and their speech is not a simple narrative. It opens with “Welcome to what you think you see. Just try to imagine you stepped outside.” Forsythe also plays with our memory: the curtain comes down and the scene has changed (have we seen this before?), he wants the audience “to call into question their perception of what they are seeing on stage”. If you think the above it’s too much, just watch and enjoy the dancing. The choreography really shows off dancers’s abilities.
Choreographically, Artifact is based on the basic elements of ballet technique (e.g. tendu front and back), developed “into a large number of choreographic variations”, some of which are particularly intricate.
The ballet involves 33 dancers and 2 performers and lasts approximately 120 minutes:
- Act 1 starts with clapping and a dancer in white demonstrating arm movements, later picked up by a large corps of dancers. Two speaking characters appear, walking around the stage and among the dancers, they are “The Woman in the Historical Costumes” and “The Man with the Megaphone”. They argue between themselves.
- Act 2 is danced to the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2. Surrounded by the corps de ballet, two couples perform duets (including the famous Steptext). Led by the dancer in white from Act 1, the corps de ballet reprise their arm movements, while the soloist couples perform typical Forsythe partnering moves: big extensions, off-balance poses, oppositional push and pull.
- Following the return of the speaking characters in Act 3, the corps de ballet evolves into ‘a kind of military machine’ in Act 4, hammering out steps as if they were in a super regimented ballet class.
Artifact is well-known for its design and lighting. In particular, going against theatrical conventions, Act 2 is often interrupted by the safety curtain coming down with a thud, only to come up again and reveal a new set up on stage. Forsythe also frequently uses backlighting to turn the dancers into shadows and dim lighting so they are hardly visible.
Forsythe himself has said that Artifact references Balanchine:
It’s like a thank you note to him for everything I’ve learned watching his work. On one hand, it’s reverent; on the other hand it acknowledges the epoch he worked in as something bygone.
- Paris Opera Ballet’s Dorothée Gilbert and Alessio Carbone in Act 2 of Artifact
- Daria Pavlenko and Maxim Khrebtov in Steptext
- Artists of The Royal Ballet of Flanders in Artifact
Choreography: William Forsythe
Designs and Costumes: William Forsythe
Music: Score for solo piano by Eva Crossman-Hecht (principal pianist for Frankfurt Ballet at the time). Act 2: Johann Sebastian Bach’ Chaconne (from Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin, BWV 1004)
Premiere: 24 February, 1998. Ballett Frankfurt.
Sources and Further Information
- Interview: William Forsythe by John Tusa, BBC Radio 3.
- Interview: William Forsythe by Marlon Barrios Solano for Dance-Tech.net, April 2009.
- Interview: William Forsythe by Gabriela de Ferrari for BOMB magazine, Summer, 2006.
- Contemporary-Dance.org: Dance Composition.
- Michel Foucault entry on Wikipedia
- Archeological Choreographic Practices: Foucault and Forsythe by Mark Franko, History of the Human Sciences, October, 2011.
- Reviews: Forsythe’s Artifact by Frankfurt Troupe and The Sound and the Flurry of William Forsythe by Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, July 1987.
- Obituary for Eva Crossman-Hecht New York Times, October 1989.
- The Body Artist by Ismene Brown. Daily Telegraph, October 2001.
- William Forsythe on Sanjoy Roy’s Step-by-step guide to dance. The Guardian, October 2008.
- Review: Those twisted, deconstructed bodies. The Economist, September, 2005.
- Dance geometry: Forsythe by Paul Kaiser. Open Ended Group, July-August 1998.
- Review: Another Fine Mess by Jann Parry. The Observer, November 2001.
- Review: Renewing a Classic, Adventure Intact by Roslyn Sulcas. New York Times, November, 2009.
- Interview with William Forsythe. Semperoper Ballet Video Interview, 2011.
- Video: Artifact: William Forsythe’s ode to ballet. Sadler’s Wells, 2012.
- Video: EXQI cultuurjournaal report on Artifact, 2009.
- Official website of William Forsythe.
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