Alistair Spalding: My Favourite William Forsythe Dance Pieces

“William Forsythe changed my view of what dance can be”, says Sadler’s Wells Artistic Director and Chief Executive Alistair Spalding, who has closely followed the work of this ground-breaking choreographer throughout his career. Forsythe’s style, which questions and reimagines the norms of dance, continues to inspire artists across the world.

As a master of contemporary dance, his work features prominently in our programme this year, as we mark the 20th anniversary of our current theatre building. We present two of his pieces – including the world premiere of Playlist (Track 1, 2) – as part of a mixed programme by our Associate Company English National Ballet this month; a triple bill performed by Semperoper Ballett in June; and produce a new evening of work by him in October. In this blog, Alistair Spalding picks the William Forsythe pieces that, in different ways, changed the way he thought about dance.

1. Eidos: Telos

Ballett Frankfurt, Eidos:Telos

“Under Bill’s 20-year tenure, Ballett Frankfurt became an internationally renowned company. The first time I ever saw them was in Montreal, at a festival called FIND (Festival International de Nouvelle Danse). They performed a piece called Eidos: Telos. The promoters of the festival were allowed to go to the dress rehearsal, so we watched this piece being directed by Bill. We were in the circle and he was somewhere in the stalls. I heard his voice on a microphone and it was like the voice of God. This piece still remains my favourite. It’s extraordinary and operatic – a huge, epic, three-part evening. Former dancer Dana Caspersen, Forsythe’s wife, performed an extraordinary solo in it. There were wires across the stage and the dancers would pluck them to create a soundscape, and three trombonists would come on. Bill made the piece following the death of his second wife, Tracy-Kai Maier, and it was a kind of roar of mourning. Eventually we brought the piece to London, and it’s still number one in my view.”

2. Enemy in the Figure

Semperoper Ballett perform Enemy in the Figure

“I was working at the Southbank Centre in 1998 and came to Sadler’s Wells to see a triple bill, which included Enemy in the Figure. The choreographic material is fantastic, he invented new ways of dancing and making ballet. He took this centuries-old and fairly formal art form, ballet, and took it forward, made it current. He divided the stage in two parts with a curving screen and lit it with a mobile light moved by the dancers. These weren’t like other creatures; they were extraordinary human beings and he made them look so cool. He played with light and shadow, order and chaos, movement and stillness. I saw this work and thought “my god, you can do this with ballet”. Lots of people have followed in Bill’s footsteps pushing the boundaries of ballet, but at the time there weren’t many people doing that and it just felt like that was the sexiest thing. I got out of the performance and thought to myself: I have to be where this is happening! Nigel Hinds, who was Programming Director at Sadler’s Wells at the time, invited me on a tour of the theatre, as it had just reopened. A year later, he rang me up and told me he was leaving and encouraged me to apply for the job. I always say that, in a way, Bill Forsythe brought me to work here.”

3. Kammer/Kammer

Ballett Frankfurt, Kammer/Kammer

“Once I joined Sadler’s Wells in 2000, I managed our relationship with Bill and his company, and we gradually got to know each other. I would regularly travel to Frankfurt to see his works – including Kammer/Kammer, another of my favourite pieces, which blends dance, theatre and film. I saw it in an old railway depot that they had turned into a theatre. The dancers are often behind moving walls – so you can’t see the dancers from your seats, but there are cameras filming and screens on stage and around the auditorium showing the audiences what’s happening. It is a complex set up that I thought couldn’t be replicated in a lyric house like Sadler’s Wells. I said to him: “Bill, that’s a fantastic piece but it’s never going to work at Sadler’s Wells!” He told me that it would. One of the lessons I’ve learnt is that dance makers like him know. He knew the space at Sadler’s Wells and how he could make the production work in it and when Kammer/Kammer came here, it was fantastic. It also had two extraordinary performers in it: Dana Casperson, who played French actress Catherine Deneuve, and Tony Rizzi, who impersonated a young man in a relationship with a rock star.”

4. Three Atmospheric Studies

The Forsythe Company, Three Atmospheric Studies

“The first work made for his new company after leaving the Frankfurt Ballet, this three-part work was made as a response to the Iraq conflict. The last part is a kind of enactment of people in a war situation, so the choreography was about people being knocked down, hiding or running away from firing, explosions and devastation. His pieces always mix choreography and theatrical elements, and Dana Casperson played this American officer who approaches a woman who has just learned her son has died in the war, telling her ”This is not personal, Ma’am”. It was an incredibly powerful and moving work, which stuck in my mind. We brought it to our stage soon after it first premiered in Berlin in 2006.”

5. DUO2015

The Forsythe Company, DUO2015

“When Sylvie Guillem put together her final programme Life in Progress, which Sadler’s Wells produced, she asked for something from Bill, but not necessarily a piece made on her. He gave her this duo. I saw it many, many times because it came here twice and then it was on tour around the world for a year. Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, the two former dancers of The Forsythe Company who perform it, are so incredible. Bill makes movement that’s captivating because the dancers inhabit it and are allowed to play with it. DUO2015 is comic, virtuosic and minimal – hence the title. It exemplifies the essence of dance and is all about movement, so everything else is stripped away. The piece will feature as part of A Quiet Evening of Dance, the new Forsythe programme we are producing and presenting later this year.”

6. You Made Me A Monster

The Forsythe Company, You Made Me A Monster

“In You Made Me a Monster, audiences were led on stage to tables set out with unfinished brown-paper skeleton models. The performance began with an assistant inviting people to continue to build these by adding pieces wherever they want, creating this kind of abstract sculptures. There was ticker tape text going across the stage on a screen and three dancers would come in and improvise around the models, contorting their bodies and faces, making inarticulate sounds or uttering words in distorted speech. Gradually, the words on the screen told the story of Tracy, Bill’s wife who died of cancer. It was about the moment when they found out and its aftermath. When she was really ill, someone thought it was a good idea to give her a kit for assembling a cardboard skeleton as a Christmas present. Years later, Bill started to play with it without following the instructions. He created this thing and it was like he created a monster, because it was a model of his own grief. On stage, you gradually realised the story and that you were helping to build this thing – it was really extraordinary.”

English National Ballet present a mixed programme of American-inspired choreography including the work of Forsythe in Voices of America from 12 – 21 April, followed later in the season by Semperoper Ballett with All Forsythe. Forsythe himself will present four works, including two new pieces, in A Quiet Evening of Dance, which has been shortlisted for the FEDORA Van Cleef & Arpels Prize for Ballet 2018.

Main image: William Forsythe; photo by Dominik Mentzos.