Classical ballet

William Forsythe’s radical idea: to combine classical ballet with pop and make the public dance

During a recent rehearsal, 69-year-old choreographer William Forsythe jumped and sprinted with gusto, modeling elaborate footwork for dancer Lia Cirio. The choreographer, one of the world’s most influential, frowned, muttered split-second vowel sounds – “Dah”, “Dee”, “Ooh” – as he demonstrated the precise steps that wanted Cirio.

Sometimes if he was inspired by Cirio’s own rhythm – “Dang girl, that’s good!” he exclaimed once – he would change the steps according to her movement.

He was creating a daring piece on location called “Playlist (EP)” – a joyous fusion of classical ballet and pop music – for its world premiere as part of Boston Ballet’s “Full On Forsythe” program, which runs from March 7 at 17 at the Boston Opera. The program is an eclectic showcase of Forsythe’s talent, including a performance of last season’s singular and rigorous ‘Pas/Parts 2018’ and the North American premiere of ‘Blake Works I’, an ambitious 21-dancer piece on songs by popular singer-songwriter James Blake that is like a love letter to ballet.

Members of the Boston Ballet in rehearsal of “Playlist (EP)” with William Forsythe. (Courtesy of Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)

For a world-renowned choreographer, Forsythe’s behavior remains rather selfless. “I joke with the dancers and said I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing because I’ve never done this ballet before,” he later told me.

But of course, Forsythe knows what he’s doing. To say that “Playlist (EP)” is one of the most important choreographic pieces in modern ballet history is not hyperbolic.

Forsythe’s decades-long career was spent designing pieces for Europe’s top ballet companies, including the Paris Opera Ballet, and directing the Frankfurt Ballet and his own company. . “Playlist (EP)” is his first world premiere for an American company since 1992. The premiere marks the midpoint of a five-year partnership with the Boston Ballet, which brought the choreographer back to the United States for a more permanent stay.

“Bill’s choice of this location as his new home base is the envy of the industry,” said Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet Artistic Director.

Isaac Akiba in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe.  (Courtesy of Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)
Isaac Akiba in rehearsal of “Playlist (EP)” with William Forsythe. (Courtesy of Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)

Forsythe, known for his inventive pieces that use classic ballet body language in demanding and innovative combinations, has created what he calls “neo-classical ballet” for “Playlist (EP)”. It presents strict classical ballet movements in the context of high-level popular music.

“It’s pretty classic and that’s kind of the key to the piece – is that it moves in two directions. It moves historically. It points backwards. But it also points forwards in same time,” he said. The music ranges from R&B pop by Khalid to hip-hop and house club anthems, to the classic “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” by Barry White and Natalie Cole. Nissinen said it was a “very groovy” ballet.

Forsythe not only wants classical ballet to survive, but to capture the attention of a wider audience. The way to do this is to innovate without compromising the rigor of classic movements.

“Ballet is always about recombination. If you recombine rigorously, you’ll have all the funk you need,” he said. “…I think about the art form, and I love it so much that I want it to survive to some degree, and I think it’s all an interesting mode of survival.”

Boston Ballet in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe.  (Courtesy of Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)
Boston Ballet in rehearsal of “Playlist (EP)” with William Forsythe. (Courtesy of Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)

But “Playlist (EP)” does more than survive. It drives the art form forward, Nissinen said.

“I would say it’s like what William Burroughs did with his sentences or his poetry. He took scissors, cut them into pieces and rearranged them,” he said. “Then there was this sort of abstract association of words that was so much stronger than reality.”

Forsythe seeks the musicality of the dancers, so that they almost embody the music and also syncopation – the unexpected emphasis on certain rhythms.

“Bill Forsythe, he’s a big, big name and having him in front of the room can be intimidating, but he doesn’t make you feel that way,” said dancer Lia Cirio, who will perform a solo for “Playlist (EP) .” Cirio will perform in the three pieces that make up “Full On Forsythe”.

Seeing them work together – Cirio so tenacious and nimble – made me think of something Nissinen told me earlier. “Our basic motto in the organization is that I want you to be so strong that you can be vulnerable, because only a vulnerable artist is interesting.”

There is a vulnerability in presenting this bold new context for classical ballet. But all Forsythe wants is for the audience to dance for him.

Boston Ballet’s “Full on Forsythe” runs at the Boston Opera House through March 17. Click here to listen to some of the music from “Playlist (EP)”.