Methodologies: Bill Forsythe and the Ballett Frankfurt by Dana Caspersen
Skip to main content
Fourth Wall

Methodologies: Bill Forsythe and the Ballett Frankfurt by Dana Caspersen

I joined the Ballett Frankfurt in 1988, having auditioning the year before during the period when Impressing the Czar (1987) was being made. My audition consisted of running around with the rest of the company creating mini melodramatic scenes involving golden props, and being videotaped trying to draw my ear with my mouth on the back of my head. I also learned a section of In the Middle Somewhat Elevated (1987) and spent some time improvising, with Bill directing me.

Bill speaks of the Ballet Frankfurt as a choreographic ensemble. The company members are often involved in several sides of the creative process, choreographing, writing text, making costumes, writing music, creating sets, etc., so the dancers in the company are fellow artists and colleagues, people who are interested in Bill’s work, but who also have their own art hearts and minds and don’t wait for orders. Bill is an excellent enabler; he has great faith in people and welcomes ideas. He looks for people with what I would term dance intelligence: curiosity, fearlessness and the desire to continuously re-approach dancing.

Part of Bill’s beauty and strength is that he lets go of things when they are dying, and he recognizes that which is being born. He consistently seeks to re-imagine himself and the dancers, and that is what has made the Ballett Frankfurt such a wildly rich environment.

The work we do takes place on many levels, but always comes back to the undeniable fact of the body: its capacity for oceanic depth and complexity, its simple pressure against the air, the intricate nature of its thought, its states of oracular, dreamlike possession.

Bill dances with extraordinary vision, his body releases into time in fine, detailed increments; magnificent, rhythmical waves of complex, shearing form. In his dancers, he looks for the ability to coordinate in highly complex ways, creating folding relational chains of impetus and residual response, using isolation and extreme articulation of head, neck, hips, torso and limbs. When I work with new people, I find that I end up working most on developing in them authentic residual response, which means allowing the rest of the body to respond in an accurate way, i.e. with physical mechanics that are functional and not extraneous, to the impetus of one point. These initiations and reactions within the body are simultaneous and inextricably linked. The body is a continuum, like a body of water; all parts are continuously alive to the others. I notice that the biggest challenges for dancers seem to be maintaining the authenticity of this full body integration, maintaining and traveling large forms, understanding the complex internal relationships that inform the movement and letting the hips drop. We do a lot of work where the hips initiate movement by dropping and releasing backwards. In the company we work on how to release into these complex co-ordinations of the body, seeking clarity of articulation without inappropriate muscular control.

Throughout the years, Bill and the company have been developing an extensive group of procedures that we use constantly in choreographing and improvising, to either modify or generate movement. Bill has produced a CD ROM in which he demonstrates about 100 of these procedures. This was originally intended as a learning tool for his new dancers, but is now used by educators worldwide. These procedures, some of which I will be describing here, should be regarded as tools for the playful mind, not laws or some kind of choreographic machinery. The dancer’s own curious mind is the most important thing. I find these procedures, and Bill’s methodologies in general, useful in that they tend to promote an inventive curiosity. This is unfortunately something that is often missing in dancer training. In the effort to train young dancers in technique, many schools (and companies) promote a dogmatic adherence to a particular form, which doesn’t allow the dancer’s mind to consider the vast number of states and organisations that the human body has to offer. I find the kind of dutifulness this produces, and the fear of being wrong, or of stepping over an imagined line between ballet and other kinds of dancing, to be some of the most detrimental things for a dancer. This is to say that young dancers need to be taught that rigor is a state of discerning intelligence, not a state of exclusion. The difference between discipline and obedience is vast. The idea that different dance techniques are in conflict or mutually exclusive is silly, and a waste of time. All knowledge that the body acquires increases its intelligence.

The process of creation is different for each new piece, as Bill is always attempting to re-see things. Bill’s role in each new piece varies, but almost always he functions as a catalyst and an editor and then there are many levels of collaboration between Bill and the company within that framework.

Some pieces are choreographed in a more traditional fashion with Bill creating all the movement and the structure, for example the duet Of Any If And (1995). In this piece we worked with video, as we always do. Bill recorded the sessions in which he constructed the basic movement sequences on camera, with Thomas McManus in the room. It was originally intended to be a danced solo for Thomas in which I would speak, and then later, as the piece became a danced duet for the two of us, I learned the material from the video and we began to construct the piece. I have found this kind of video analysis to be very informative. Bill’s dancing is co-ordinatively extremely complex and at the same time completely organic. The key to understanding how to dance his choreography lies in figuring out which points on his body are initiating movement and which are responding to the initiation. This inner response, which we call residual movement, is refraction, like light bouncing between surfaces. There are countless coordinative reactions in the body that need to be allowed to happen in order for the initial, initiating movement to function properly. In order for these reactions to be effective they cannot be decorative, applied after the fact, rather, they must be the result of skeletal-muscular co-ordinations reacting to the original movement impulse. It sounds complicated, but it’s just a matter of letting yourself stay in a clear reactive state and finding the point of origin. When I work with people who are new to the technique, I find that commonly there is a lack of coordinative reaction between the shoulders and the hips. Also, there tends to be a lack of shaped response in the upper arms, which makes the hands inexpressive. These are all things that you can learn. Video affords the opportunity to discover how this works.

In creating Of Any If And, we took the original movement phrases and sometimes used them straight and sometimes transformed and splintered them. For example, Bill would ask us to collide specific sequences; I would try to do one while Thomas was doing another, starting with his arm under my arm and his right leg between my legs, and the resulting movements became duets. In this case, the movement that occurred naturally from Thomas and me dancing together, using Bill’s movement, shaped the physical nature of the piece, but Bill directed, very specifically, the whole work.

This kind of material collision was also used in The Loss of Small Detail (1991). Loss was the first piece in which Bill started working on the idea of ‘disfocus’, of moving away from strong outwardly directed visual focus and heading toward a trance-like state. The original solo material was produced through Bill dancing out entire phrases on camera. We then applied various procedures to the original material to produce alternate versions. We use this material, original and altered, as solos and as a basis for improvisations during performance. Additional material — duos, trios and group dances– were developed by colliding material and applying various procedures to the original sequences. I will give examples of some of these procedures in the next section.

ALIE/N A(C)TION, part 1 (1992) was a process where Bill developed the key parameters of the event: the methods of creating movement through iteration (solving an equation, folding the results back into the equation, solving it again, etc.), the methods that would determine the spatial configurations in the piece and the systems that would determine its temporal structure. Within this framework, the dancers (Christine Brkle, Noah Gelber, Jacopo Godani, Thierri Guiderdoni, Francesca Harper, Thomas McManus, Helen Pickett, Ana Catalina Roman, and myself) developed the movement. We each started by choosing a page from the book, Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel, picking a word or phrase, freely associating away from it to some other word that struck us and then making a short gestural movement phrase based on that word. We took sheets of transparent paper and drew and cut geometric forms into and onto them. We folded back the cut out forms to create a 3D surface that could reveal surfaces underneath. Then, we placed this paper on top of the book page and photocopied it, took that photocopy, repeated the drawing and cutting and photocopying technique several times, using various undersurfaces; a computer -generated list of times (i.e. 5:26, 7:32) organized into a random field (created by David Kern and Bill), various texts and a flattened projection of the Laban icosahedron, which is a model that is composed of 27 points, developed by Rudolph Laban, a dance theorist and notation pioneer who has greatly influenced Bill’s work. In the end we had a document rich in layers and information. We used this document to generate movement. First, the words that would appear through the cut out shapes on the document were translated into the 27-part movement alphabet that Bill had created. “Alphabet” refers to a series of gestural movements based on words; for example, “H” represents a gesture created by thinking about the word “hat”. Then we developed floor patterns, which would determine how we moved through the room, by choosing the shapes of those geometric forms on our paper that happened to pass through the words on the paper. We took the 3D shapes from the folded paper and imagined them as volumes or lines inscribed into the stage space (the air in the room), and along these imagined volumes and lines we directed the gestural phrases that we had made. Next, we each constructed a list of times, letters, numbers and Laban symbols (part of his notation system indicating location in space, i.e. forward, low, left, or high, right, back) from the document, which we then used as a map to guide us through the stage space and through the structure of the piece as a whole.

For example, I began with the gesture of the first word on my page. In this gesture my arm is bent with the elbow moving high, right, side to low, right, side (in the Laban model). I re-directed the path of that gesture in space, following a shape from the map that I imagined projected into the stage space. I performed this altered gesture while traveling along a floor pattern, which I chose by picturing one of the lines that bisected the previous word on the map being projected onto the floor. Then, I began what we call an iterative process. I examined my original gestural phrase and observed where I was and what I was doing when I performed it. Then I re-described that event by applying an operation to it. For example, I imagined watching myself in space doing the original movement, and I tried, now, to draw with my knees the path and form that my hands had made when I originally did the movement, meanwhile avoiding with my ribs the actual position in space where my ribs had been. I continued expanding on the movement phrases using this iterative algorithm: examining where I was, what I did, re-describing it, and folding the results back into the original material, lengthening the phrases with these inserts and repeating the process several times. Bill worked with us between each version, pointing out places that needed expansion, re-direction, more clarity, etc. The basic material that we made in this manner was used intact in solos or as something to improvise off of. I actually ended up throwing out all of my material and I improvise on my original word using those same choreographic methods.

We then began to navigate the stage using our maps. We would alternately read the Laban symbols as directing our limbs in relationship to our body (kinesphere), i.e. my arm moves, low, left, front in relationship to my body, or as directing the placement of our bodies in relationship to the stage space; i.e. my arm moves low, left, front in relationship to the fixed points of the room. A flattened projection of the Laban model was taped to the stage floor and low, left, front was then that particular spot on the floor where that symbol was. The other information on the map refers to a series of foot stomp patterns that we used to travel from point to point, if we were not busy with something else.

During the performance there are several kinds of time running: the DAT monitors offstage that show the actual minutes and seconds, a man who reads out the minutes and seconds on stage, sometimes de-synced from real time, the film Aliens 2, which is shown to the dancers on monitors facing upstage, and the soundtrack of the movie which was recorded separately and is played at various times throughout the piece.

Our individual maps determined when we had to be somewhere, how long we had to get there, and to some extent, what we did along the way. While we were constructing the piece, moving slowly through the structure, each trying to follow the instructions from our own maps, our activities would often be interrupted by something else happening around us. Sometimes the instructions would be impossible to carry out, either time-wise or spatially, in which case we would get someone to assist us in accomplishing the task or we would have to abandon things. All these interactions became part of the final structure. That is how the first nine minutes were composed.

Once this basic spatial and temporal structure was organized, Bill created a stage environment with a variety of informational sources for the dancers to react to improvisationally. We glance at the video monitors playing the film Aliens, and the shapes, velocities and directions in the images are used as directions for movement, or the images are re-written by “spelling” them with the movement alphabet. A cat in the film would be represented by the gestures of the letters “C”,”A” and “T”, which we would perform following the direction of movement taken by the cat. The actual cuts between scenes in the film at some points determine the timing of a particular scene’s structure in the piece. We “ read” each other, the paths of movement, shapes, etc., we react to cues in the sound track of the movie in a set unison manner, if we hear it, and we improvise on our own material using all this directional information.

In Eidos Telos, part III (1995) Bill began by creating a 130-part movement alphabet. The letter “A” for example is “Abe” (as in Abe Lincoln) and contains amplified gestures describing a top hat, clapping, someone leaning over the railing in a theater, and someone being shot. He then made four quasi- balletic combinations with an emphasis on counter-rotation: movements that have two opposite curved paths of rotation, moving against each other. The dancers collided these combinations with Bill’s alphabet to produce short, hybrid combinations, which he reworked and linked together to create longer phrases. These phrases were then used to produce a series of quartets and octets, based on a counterpoint algorithm that Bill developed. The instructions of the algorithm consisted of following four directions and four constraints. The underlined words are examples of some of the procedures that we used.

The directions were:

1. Effect an orientation shift: for example, shift the relationship of your torso to the floor by 90 degrees, moving through plié (bending the knees), and using inverse kinematics bring a limb to a hand (i.e. leave one hand in a fixed point in space and bring another limb to it), while performing an isometry of an existing piece of the phrase. An isometry is, for us, taking the shape or path of a movement and translating it through the body so that it happens in some other area, for example, instead of making a spiral with your right arm, maybe it happens with your left leg.

Take this result and:

2. Drop a curve, i.e. take any point on the body and guided by the skeletal-muscular mechanics inherent in the body’s position, drop that point toward the floor to its logical conclusion following a curved path- the desire being to reconfigure the body or to set it into motion in a way that varies from the original sequence.

Take this result and:

3. Perform unfolding with inclination extension: for example, notice the line between your elbow and hand, extend that line by leaving your forearm where it is in space and maneuvering your body to create a straight line between shoulder and hand.

Take this result and:

4. Perform internal analysis and extension: analyze a movement and let its mechanics suggest to you an alphabet letter, then do an isometry of that letter. For example, observing the workings of the knee joint could remind one of the mechanics of the gesture for “veil”, an alphabet letter, which involves a lifting movement of the right hand. Some aspect of that movement could then be reflected through the body to take place in the lower left hand portion of the body, as if diagonally mirrored.

The four constraints were:

1. Identify form or flow of motion in your own movement that is similar to events being executed by another dancer in your vicinity. Align yourself to them, either through aligning your motion to the direction and velocity of their flow or by identically matching their form.

2. Change your orientation, in space and in time (rate of activity).

3. Agree to wait for others.

4. Notice thematic similarities and link up to another by performing an isometry of their movement, interrupting the sequence that you are currently performing.

To work on these tasks the movement phrases were divided into sections, and each person in the group had a different order of phrase components. For example, person #1 had components a, b, c, and applied directions 1,2,3 respectively, person #2 had b, c, a and applied 3,1,2. Then, they would simultaneously perform the resulting phrases, starting at points in the phrases that coincided in terms of either the letter or the direction. They would observe each other and look for events to which the constraints could be applied. These initial instructions were repeated and altered as the group worked with Bill to create octets out of the quartets, and large group dances out of multiple octets aligning themselves to the actions of each other. Bill worked as an outside eye to bring the smaller group dances into a larger structure. He would notice and amplify the diverse kinds of alignment that emerged among the individuals or groups. The resulting structure has a complexity that, as Bill said, could not have been created by any one person, the many simple parts having recombined in unforeseeable ways because of innumerable decisions being made by the many involved.

Sometimes the choreographic process is much simpler. When we made Quintett, (1993) we were simultaneously working on the 2nd act of ALIE/N A(C)TION , so Quintett appeared in the interstices. Bill danced the solo material and a series of balletic movement combinations on video. Steven Galloway, Jacopo Godani, Thomas McManus, Jone San Martin and myself then collaborated with him on the duet and trio material, using the principals of material collision and working off of our experience of movement analysis and the various procedures that we have developed. The dancers would get together and work in couples or trios, creating a sequence, and then Bill would come back in and make suggestions and in the end we folded it all together. We agreed on a final structure two hours before the premiere.

In preparing for Sleepers Guts, (1996), Bill and I had been looking at forests and talking to my brother, John, an ecologist who studies the dynamics of tree species populations based on the competition for resources. We thought about how these competitive processes, with all the incumbent death and failure as well as growth and adaptation, are analogous to what happens during the creative process in a group like ours. The process started with giving out this information. People then had three weeks to do whatever they chose. Bill worked on his own or with whoever happened to come into the room, people made groups and created movement or structures or texts using the forest ideas as a basis or not. There was of course in the end a lot of highly divergent material and Bill was responsible for the process of editing and structuring the piece. Things that somehow did not work out in that context, or in general, died, and other things found their way into the piece. There is choreographic material contributed by many members of the company; video work by Nick Haffner and Bill Seaman; text by Bill, Simon Frearson and myself; and the third act is a duet choreographed by Jacopo Godani and staged by Bill. The structure of the piece was decided entirely by Bill, and the second act was choreographed by him, using material from the first three weeks, his own and others. To reflect the increasing creative input from the dancers, Bill has altered the structure of things and dancers are now paid an extra sum for their input, receive program credit and, when appropriate, pieces are credited to the entire Ballet Frankfurt.

In all the works created by Bill with the Ballett Frankfurt, he has been responsible for the structure. There are a few works that were created elsewhere and then brought back and re-worked where the structure was co-made. For Firstext (1995), which was made for the Royal Ballet by Anthony Rizzi, Bill and myself and later brought to Frankfurt, the three of us worked together on the structure of the piece. In TheThe (1996), choreographed by Bill and myself, also outside the Ballett Frankfurt, we created the structure together. Later, I took the piece over when we brought it back to Frankfurt and made the new version working closely with the dancers: Jone San Martin, Ion Garnika, Christine Brkle and Steven Galloway.

Most pieces change as they go along, particularly in the first few years. Often there will be two or three radically different versions. Then, some pieces have a substantial amount of improvisation in them, so while the basic structure will stay intact, the content will change. There are a few pieces where Bill directs the flow of events by talking to the dancers over the microphone. For example Artifact part III, (1984), which is all improvisation, he calls out people waiting on the side and gives drastically varying directions, things like “do Act 1 backwards; knock the house over and try to dance underneath it; use just your feet; just your nose, ” or sometimes just “Go!”. He sometimes also gives directions to the characters, “The woman in the historical dress” (which I perform) or “The man with the megaphone”, although it is usually so loud that you end up with your own idiosyncratic version of what he might have said. In the beginning of The Questioning of Robert Scott, (1986), (original version) the entire company is improvising on stage, based on the phrase we call “ Tuna”, and Bill conducts the currents of events with short, whispered directives having primarily to do with time. In The Vile Parody of Address (1988), the dancers are called out at unpredictable times during a loop of music, and in Sleepers Guts 3, (1996), the four women who speak have in-ear headphones and Bill directs us in what to say, based partly on our text from the first act. Most recently, in We Live Here, (2004), Ballet Frankfurt’s final performance in Frankfurt, we created a kind of behavioural village. We established large groups of kinds of events and kinds of behaviour and possibilities for movement methods, which became our common language. The version for the last show in Frankfurt had a fairly set order that was prompted in a very loose way over a video screen, but the future performances of the piece will take place in non-theatrical settings and will be more like our rehearsal process; an internally regulated event structure, depending entirely on the decisions made by the dancers, based on a shared physical event language, over an undetermined period of time. Misunderstandings occur frequently in these situations, and that becomes part of the nature of the event. Bill is an extremely curious person and is interested in how set structures change when a few basic instructions are altered.

We often use spoken text in our work. Sometimes we will start out with a known text; sometimes we develop it as we go along. The source material for text in Bill’s pieces is extremely eclectic. I perform many speaking roles and wrote several of the texts that we use. In Eidos, for example, there were a variety of text sources. Bill had asked me to organize a fugue of text and music, so I wrote a text and working with the composers and musicians, Thom Willems and Joel Ryan, first structured a small piece that was intended to take place in front of the curtain. This eventually transformed into the monologue in the 2nd act of Eidos: I wrote the text, Thom and Joel made the sound environment and Bill staged it and directs me in it. During the creation of what became the waltz section of the 2nd act, Bill played around trying people out, speaking or singing or barking, or whatever, to see what they were capable of and what they might do naturally. We worked for several weeks with a number of film scripts and a Beckett television play, virtually all of which finally disappeared. In the end Bill came up with his own texts for people, a series of extremely distinct characters, which are a sort of distillation of the work with the other film scripts.

In 7 to 10 Passages, (2000), which is a radically distilled version of Robert Scott, Bill used texts that he had written for the original “ Scott” and for The Vile Parody of Address. These texts have to do with the disappearance of the body over time, with our attempts at order and control. The four speakers, Sjoerd Vreugdenhild, Timothy Couchman, Nicholas Champion and myself, engage in a sort of surreal court marshal proceeding, seated at tables behind a line of dancers. The dancers move forward in a similarly intense, reduced version of the “ Tuna” phrase from “ Scott” The dancers move like a slow motion crashing wave, with occasional outbursts of speed. They move as if they are being pulled backwards through time. The text in a piece like this is related to the dancing in the way that disparate words are related to each other in a poem: the tension between them contains the nature of the heart of the piece.

In Kammer/Kammer, Bill began with two separate texts, from the authors Douglas Martin and Anne Carson, and the idea of two characters, played by Anthony Rizzi and myself. He created a stage that alternately hid and exposed events and was constantly transforming. Tony and I rarely intersect in the piece, only in the 2nd act, when everything falls apart. In the piece, I speak directly to the audience only through a camera, which makes visible the hidden portions of the stage or transforms my visible stage self into an intimate, onscreen, one. The gaze of the audience moves between the stage and the floating fragments of the interior/exterior seen by the camera and projected on the screens that hang over the audience. Kammer/Kammer takes the text as its basis, and turns itself around the figures played by Tony and myself. The dancers are characters in this revolving development and most of the dancing in the piece takes place on mattresses. I experience the body of the piece as folding in same way that our bodies do when we dance, in relational chains of impetus and residual response. Words function like bodies. When they are correctly placed and configured, they are capable of conveying a power and meaning that transcends them.

What I have learned from Bill is to direct myself to be equally curious about failure and success; to try to move continuously back into the work, and not anticipate the outcome. As I was trying to find a good way to describe Bill’s work, I came across a quote from the 17th century Japanese Zen master, Takasui, who taught: “ You must doubt deeply, again and again, asking yourself what the subject of hearing could be.” This is the way that Bill works, he doubts with a tenaciously curious delight. He instinctively moves to investigate and explode the layers of ossification that seem to occur naturally in institutions and in the wake of success. I have learned extraordinary things from watching Bill’s fearless (or sometimes fearful) curiosity in areas of blindness and sorrow, as well as joy, the way that he responds to obstacles and failure as opportunities to re-see. He has a joyous physical genius and an extraordinarily fluid and un-grasping mind in his working, which allows both the sublime and the grotesque to move through him. He trusts himself, but he never assumes that he knows.

Get Walker Reader in your inbox. Sign up to receive first word about our original videos, commissioned essays, curatorial perspectives, and artist interviews.