It's appropriate that Ayman Aaron Harper is speaking to me from the future about the groundbreaking work of William Forsythe. Fourteen time zones away in Sydney, Australia, the former Ballett Frankfurt member discusses reconstructing the consummate postmodern choreographer's One Flat Thing, reproduced with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago as part of an evening of Forsythe's work at ADF.
The dance world has been catching up with the futuristic choreographer for decades now. In the 1980s, while classical ballet remained preoccupied with its own history and traditions, Forsythe helped catapult it into the twentieth century as an early explorer of poststructuralism. After he embraced Foucault and Derrida, Forsythe's dance deconstructions interrupted the genre's conventional aesthetics, techniques, and gender roles. They also upended a subordinating power dynamic in which choreographers often regarded dancers as little more than human playback units.
"Bill understood very early on that dancers wanted more autonomy," Harper says. "At a certain point, he realized that the [performers] in front of him also had ideas—so let's have a dialogue!"
By 2001, The New York Times had dubbed Forsythe "the choreographer ... most important to the present and future of ballet." As innovators in modern and contemporary dance pored over his rigorous re-evaluation of organizing principles and techniques, he became one of the most influential creators across all of dance.
But even among knowledgeable Triangle dance-goers, Forsythe remains little known. Regional promoters have never presented his companies. Although ADF has taught his techniques in its Six Week School, it has only gingerly embraced his work onstage, with a brief excerpt of Slingerland in 2009 and a staging of Quintett in 2012, the year the festival awarded Forsythe its highest honor, the Scripps Award for lifetime achievement.
After German city leaders reduced Ballett Frankfurt's funding, Forsythe left the company, founding his own group in 2005. I caught Ballett Frankfurt's American farewell tour at Kennedy Center in 2004. The evening included One Flat Thing, reproduced and another work to be performed at ADF, the quartet N.N.N.N. I can attest that this program will be a revelation, or even a shock to the system, for regional audiences whose ballet baselines are set by Balanchine and his successors. The irony is not lost on Ballett Frankfurt founding member Elizabeth Corbett, who teaches at ADF.
"Forsythe loves Balanchine," she says. "He quoted him in his work. Balanchine explored and, sometimes, borrowed from social dances in his choreography. Forsythe's been doing that since the 1970s."
But Forsythe has taken those influences into a very different universe of modern architecture, mathematics, physics, and science. He calls his choreographic components algorithms and modalities. He offers free digital applications in which users can reformulate his work, including one devoted to One Flat Thing, reproduced (www.synchronousobjects.osu.edu). As dancers progress through a tight grid of twenty metal office tables at top speed, real physical risk figures into the piece.
"You have to be incredibly alert and present to operate at that speed in real time," Harper says. That's partly because One Flat Thing, reproduced is being changed on the fly. The improvisational techniques Forsythe developed to increase his dancers' agency were designed to be used during their performances.
"That promotes expert-level listening skills and reaction times," says Harper. "The group has to assess, reassess, and then navigate through the situation." It's something to keep in mind as arms and legs scissor through an unforgiving labyrinth at ADF, as Forsythe's creation continues speeding into the future.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Unsafety Dance"