He is hands down one of the most influential ballet choreographers of the past half century, and for the next five years, Boston Ballet has him. When the company gives the North American company premiere of William Forsythe’s “Artifact” Feb. 23-March 5, the production kicks off a five-year partnership with the choreographer, during which Boston Ballet hopes to build the richest collection of Forsythe ballets in the United States. In addition to five ballets now in the company’s repertoire, Forsythe will work with Boston Ballet to add at least one work each year. Plans to include newly commissioned work are still in the formative stages.
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen calls the new partnership “a dream come true.”
“He is a revolutionary choreographer and a great man of theater, making art that is relevant to today’s people,” Nissinen says. “Like Balanchine, he moved the dial. For me, he is the brightest of stars.”
For Forsythe, who has lived and worked mostly abroad for more than four decades, the partnership represents a kind of homecoming. “I’ve had a house in Vermont for 25 years, but I’ve only been able to spend 2½ months a year there. Now I’ve moved in,” he says. He notes that Boston Ballet is the first American company to step up with the offer of a major ongoing relationship. “Mikko said he wants this for his dancers, because he thinks it makes them better dancers, and that’s important to me.”
“It’s always nice to have continuity, to develop work on a company that already knows what I’m talking about,” he adds. “I don’t need to correct every finger and turn of the wrist.”
Forsythe, whose award-winning work has been performed around the world, was raised in New York and trained in Florida, starting his career as a dancer. He performed with the Joffrey Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet, becoming the latter’s resident choreographer in 1976. In 1984, he became director of Ballet Frankfurt, and over the next two decades, he transformed the company with ground-breaking repertoire. He directed his own company from 2005 to 2015 and continues choreographing for companies internationally. He is currently artistic advisor for the Choreographic Institute at the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. Forsythe is also an installation artist and filmmaker, and he collaborated on the interactive computer application “Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye.”
Over the years, Boston Ballet has presented five Forsythe ballets: “Love Songs,” “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” “The Vile Parody of Address,” “The Second Detail,” and “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude.” But the four-act “Artifact” should provide an especially vivid, immersive primer on the choreographer’s cutting-edge sensibility. The New York Times hailed it as “a masterpiece, a work that definitively shows this choreographer as the most influential practitioner of the art form since Balanchine.”
Created in 1984, “Artifact” was the first full-length ballet Forsythe choreographed for Ballet Frankfurt after becoming its artistic director. It is both an ode to classical ballet and its historic roots and an upending that defies expectations, twisting and stretching the traditional vocabulary in eye-popping ways while casting it in a wildly theatrical context. “Story ballets are always in need of reinvention,” Forsythe says. “This was an attempt to start a new line of storytelling with classical ballet.”
He calls the work “a hybrid of dance and theater” that poetically maps the history of ballet. Three characters — the Woman in Historical Costume, the Man with the Megaphone, and the Woman in Gray — lead the corps through sections ranging from intimate pas de deux to large ensemble sequences of nearly 40 dancers in striking architectural patterns.
During a recent rehearsal, amid the crush of more than 60 dancers flooding Boston Ballet’s Studio 7, stagers Kathryn Bennetts and Noah Gelber directed the formation of two long lines along a diagonal, like a zipper slowly closing, with each dancer in turn joining in an elegant combination of movements. On cue, the lines dissolved as the dancers shot into brisk, intricate cross-floor sequences. Arms and legs suggested the slicing angles of semaphores, bodies deftly avoiding near collisions. The finale brought a masterstroke of contrapuntal ingenuity.
The heart of the ballet’s music is a score, partly improvised, by Eva Crossman-Hecht based on Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s monumental “Chaconne,” as well as a sound collage by Forsythe himself. He also designed the lighting, sets, and costumes, tasks engendered in part by necessity; the work was created under a brutal three-week deadline.
Given the compressed time frame, Forsythe considered the premiere a work in progress and has spent the last 30 years tweaking it at every performance opportunity. The upcoming Boston Ballet production contains a completely new section, including a reimagined dance for the men and a new fugal section for the entire female ensemble.
Forsythe says he’s enjoyed his collaboration with Boston Ballet’s dancers. “These are very, very good dancers, some real stars, and I see a lot of bright young talent,” he says. “They’re really on the ball. You don’t have to lead these horses to water.”
Nissinen says the dancers love working with Forsythe, too. “We’re incredibly excited,” confirms soloist Patrick Yocum following the rehearsal. He says “Artifact,” the third Forsythe work in which he has danced, demands intense concentration, and he calls it “wonderful, strange, shocking.”
Yocum adds, “Stylistically, he’s opening up vistas. His work is not in a box. It’s relevant to every dance we do. How he approaches movement, music, audience interaction, and how we interact with each other is really giving us new perspectives. We’re enjoying ourselves so much. I think he will make the company stronger and improve all of us.”
As he did in Frankfurt, Forsythe is committed to attending every performance of his work in Boston. “The dancers need feedback,” he attests. “That’s how you grow.”
And he is especially keen to interact with Boston’s arts lovers. In a recent letter to Boston Ballet patrons, the choreographer wrote, “Each audience member brings a lifetime of experience into the theater to uniquely engage with the irreplaceable perspective of the artists. Out of these elements something curious is born: a sense of wonder about the lives we collectively lead that bring us together to ask, ‘How is it that art, like science, renews and inspires our tenacious curiosity in the unknown?’ I would be so very pleased to welcome you into my world.”
At Boston Opera House, Feb. 23-March 5. Tickets $35-$149. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org