In many ways, William Forsythe demands more from the dancers of Boston Ballet physically, mentally, and musically than any other choreographer in the company’s current repertoire. Not only is his work challenging from the get-go, but he constantly tweaks and edits, updating movement in real time, sometimes just hours before curtain.
Yet dancers have said they adore the internationally acclaimed choreographer, some even joining the company in part for the opportunity to work with him. “It’s a complete love affair,” says artistic director Mikko Nissinen, who is thrilled that the company has evolved into Forsythe’s artistic home. What started out as a five-year plan in 2016 has morphed into a flourishing open-ended relationship, and November 3-13, the company’s “As Anticipated” program at the Citizens Bank Opera House is devoted entirely to Forsythe’s work, including a world premiere. This will be Boston Ballet’s third all-Forsythe program.
While the influential choreographer’s work has been performed by virtually every major ballet company in the world, Boston Ballet’s repertory now has the most extensive Forsythe collection in North America – 13 works since 1989, including five world premieres during the past five years. And there’s no end in sight. “It’s like a marriage — there is no expiration date,” says Nissinen. “At this stage of his career, Bill wants clear consistency and continuity, and that’s one thing we can provide. But at the same time, the world is his oyster. Everyone wants Forsythe. We are just so damn lucky to have him here in Boston.”
Forsythe’s choreography is based on a solid classical ballet foundation, but it is innovatively shaped and dense with details that give it a fresh edginess and push the boundaries of the art form. Nissinen cites the “integrity, quality, and musicality of his work” and says Forsythe’s choreography is creating a distinct profile for Boston Ballet and transforming its dancers. “He demands absolute focus and attention and has made them grow like artists on steroids,” he claims. “Sometimes I go in the studio and watch a new person working with him and think I’m watching a National Geographic special where the flower opens in front of you – it’s that kind of effect.”
And for Forsythe, the company has offered a place to develop deep roots, both artistically and personally. “I came here because of the dancers,” he says. “There’s always been an extremely musical cohort here. I was attracted to their musical rigor and precision and a kind of dramaturgical awareness and sophistication. And they have a great work ethic.”
He adds, “What I really appreciate about a long-term relationship like this is people become accustomed to the kinds of decisions you make choreographically, and they become native to the ensemble. And it’s so interesting to see people grow and flourish over the years.”
Principal dancer Lia Cirio, who has been with the company for 19 years, has danced in every Forsythe work in Boston Ballet’s repertoire. “I’ve grown tremendously in the years he’s been here,” she says, adding, “We lovingly refer to him as Grandpa. A lot of us have developed close friendships and mentorships, and we want to make him as happy as possible, but we know we have to push ourselves. In the room, our whole technique is out there for him to use. You’re full force all the time, your whole body and mind are in it. He expects you to play with the music and phrasing in a different way....That way of working pushes us to work the same way for other choreographers.”
The upcoming program features three Forsythe works that draw from nearly four decades of the choreographer’s prolific career. In addition to the world premiere “Défilé,” the program includes “Approximate Sonata” (1996) and “Artifact Suite” (2004), a work distilled from the full-length “Artifact” (1984), created at the beginning of Forsythe’s 20-year tenure as artistic director of Ballet Frankfurt and taking the classical art form in an entirely new direction. Forsythe says “Artifact” has “a fundamental athletic swing.” He sees “Défilé” as a more courtly kind of prequel to the suite. “It’s more formal as well as extremely contrapuntal and very delicate in some ways,” he says. Involving roughly 40 dancers, the work reimagines the century-old ballet tradition of the défilé, a stately procession showcasing the entire company.
“Défilé” is set to a sampled cello and trombone score created by Forsythe and company music director Mischa Santora that Nissinen calls “magical.” “Bill is so musical, he uses relatively simplistic music, then colors it with choreography, and together it makes a big symphony,” Nissinen says. “The marriage of music and counterpoint is totally fascinating.”
As with most of Forsythe’s work, “Défilé” has gone through many iterations. “It started off with just me doing a lot of brain work, doing these arm movements with no particular patterns,” says Cirio, who is the work’s central figure. Gradually, Forsythe developed sections for trios, small ensembles, and a very large corps. And as per usual, Cirio doesn’t expect it to be finished until the last moment. “Even older work we learned from a stager is not settled — he makes it current, makes it yours, present in 2022, and he wants to show off the dancers doing it now. We’re still working on [the new work]. It’s going to be a surprise for all of us opening night. We will know what it is when the curtain goes up.”
Presented by the Boston Ballet. Nov. 3-13, Citizens Bank Opera House. www.bostonballet.org
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.