For dance fans around the world, he’s William Forsythe, one of the most visionary and influential choreographers on the planet. But walk into a rehearsal studio at Boston Ballet, and he’s just Bill: warm, direct, down-to-earth, open, and remarkably spry for 69. (To put the dancers at ease, he sometimes playfully refers to himself as Opa — German for Grampa.)
But Forsythe is no less impressive for being personally accessible, with a raft of international awards to his credit and groundbreaking works in the repertoires of major companies around the globe. And midway into a five-year partnership with Boston Ballet, he’s breaking ground in Boston. The company’s “Full on Forsythe” program March 7-17, its first full-evening mixed bill dedicated to the choreographer’s work, features his first world premiere created for an American company since 1992.
The new “Playlist (EP)” trips ballet down the path of popular music, from hip-hop, house, and funk to Barry White and Natalie Cole. The program also includes a repeat performance of last season’s strikingly edgy “Pas/Parts 2018” and the North American premiere of “Blake Works I,” a joyous, rigorous work for 21 dancers that Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen calls “a tour de force celebration of ballet as an art form,” set to songs by the popular British singer-songwriter James Blake.
For Boston Ballet’s dancers, the Forsythe program offers the opportunity to deepen their relationship with the master choreographer, whose works are often whimsical yet intense and highly sophisticated. “It’s very personalized to the dancers he’s working with,” says principal dancer Patrick Yocum. “He wants to pull everybody to the fullest expression of what they’re capable of, and I love that. There’s very little ego. . . . Working with him changes you as a dancer, gives you new impressions of how to hear music and interact with other dancers. You can see the emotional impact in how we relate to one another.”
The dancers also have begun fully embodying Forsythe’s distinctive vocabulary. Movement built on a solid classical foundation is innovatively shaped, with syncopated rhythms and complicated formations dense with small detailed steps and gestures.
“He works with very fundamental elements of line, curve, balance,” Yocum says. “The inter-relationships between limbs is very geometric and simple. He starts the choreographic process from those simple points, but I’m amazed how far he can take it. And he wants it to look effortless — very energetic, light as a feather, no sound on the landing. It’s an enormous amount of work.”
But it’s also empowering, says Nissinen. “They literally grow in front of your eyes when they work with him — more expansive, the range, the ease, the details. . . . It’s important to get to work with a master directly. How lucky we are!”
Forsythe says he’s the lucky one. Boston Ballet offers the American choreographer, after four decades working in Europe, an artistic home base (Forsythe has a house in Vermont) and a sense of continuity. (Driven by curiosity, his parallel practice in visual arts is also flourishing, with the first comprehensive American exhibit of his choreographic objects, interactive sculptures, and video works having just closed Feb. 21 at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art.) For now, he’s forgoing choreographing new work for any other companies, saying “I’m really committed to these dancers. They’re just the highest caliber, and I want them to feel they have a partnership with me.”
During a full-company rehearsal in early February for the new “Playlist (EP),” that collaborative spirit is readily apparent. Even before rehearsal starts, dancers in Studio 7 gather in small groups, clarifying movement details with one another. Forsythe meanders — chatting, joking, singing accompaniment as phrases are practiced. When Natalie Cole’s rendition of “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)” energizes the room with an infectious groove, the dancers explode into eye-popping chains of intricate footwork.
Forsythe stops and starts, tweaking, refining, encouraging the dancers to contribute ideas on how best to execute a move. “What’s gonna make everything stop entirely. Fifth [position]?,” he asks. Dancers nod. “Sheer will?,” he adds playfully? Dancers laugh. It’s a lovely give and take, a blend of jovial camaraderie and intense focus.
The soft-spoken Forsythe believes it’s important to keep the mood light in rehearsal, creating what Haley Schwan, a member of the corps (termed “artists” by Boston Ballet), calls “a safe, fun space in which we as dancers can explore our limits and bring our best authentic selves. . . . My favorite thing about Bill’s work and his process is how much he values the dancers’ interpretation of his movements.”
“Playlist (EP)” builds off of “Playlist (Track 1, 2),” a 10-minute work premiered in April 2018 by the English National Ballet. The “extended play” is being expanded to 30 minutes and seven movements (if, he says, he can get this last section done in time!). Forsythe, who caught dance fever “way back when” as a club dancer, says using popular music for ballet not only offers a range of rhythmical variations and contrapuntal facets, it also helps impart a sense of cultural relevance to a very traditional art form. “Ballet when it’s framed by popular music somehow resonates in a different way because the music is more familiar,” he says. “It has cognitive pop, so people can let that go and really see the movement.”
Choreographically, however, Forsythe calls “Playlist (EP)” a return to classicism. (As often as possible, he tries to spend a little time each day watching choreography by George Balanchine, which he says is “like looking into the face of God.”) “Before, I was extending ideas into unrecognizable territory,” he explains. “Now I’m using my native skill set of classical ballet.”
As for Boston Ballet, he calls it “absolutely one of the best companies in the world.” He lauds the dancers’ innate musicality, capacity to learn, responsive ensemble sense, and a can-do mentality. “They’re ready, willing, and able to work at the molecular level,” he says. “It’s not just a question of learning steps. I can design work for their capacities and they can read my mind a little bit now. They’re familiar with what I demand and they are already there. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Full on Forsythe
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, March 7-17. Tickets $37-$169. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org