In Reshaping An Early Masterpiece, Choreographer William Forsythe Keeps Ballet On Its Toes

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Choreographer William Forsythe, center, guides dancers through a rehearsal for "Artifact," which has its Boston premiere on Feb. 23, 2017, at the Boston Opera House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Sixty-seven-year-old William Forsythe doesn’t look like a ballet superstar — he’s slightly built and he wears glasses. But the former dancer is completely at home in Boston Ballet’s rehearsal studio, wearing socks as he shows the dancers how to move.

He is known for deconstructing a dance tradition that goes back five centuries. There are times when he gets very theoretical about it. Describing ballet movements, he’ll say, “You have to vector it into space with very differentiated dynamics.” Other times he sounds very down to earth, saying, “It’s theater, we’re in show biz!”

Forsythe created “Artifact” in 1984 when he had some free time.

“‘Artifact’ was the first ballet I made for the Frankfurt Ballet and I had three weeks to make it,” he says. “And I’ve been fixing it ever since.”

He’s been fixing it so much that for Boston Ballet, he’s calling this production “Artifact 2017.”

“Artifact” epitomizes what is groundbreaking about Forsythe’s work. It’s a two-hour spectacle, with 68 dancers onstage. There are two speaking parts, which is unusual for a ballet: The Woman in Historical Dress, who looks like Marie Antoinette, and The Man With The Megaphone.

He concludes the entire ballet with the words “step outside.” It’s a riddle of sorts, because in ballet a pirouette is a step that can turn to the outside. But his words also hold deeper meaning, which Forsythe leaves up to the audience to interpret.

And there are other surprises in “Artifact 2017”: Stage lights turn off, and the curtain drops down repeatedly, in the middle of a scene.

For all these breaks with tradition, Forsythe calls “Artifact” his ode to classical ballet.

“I wanted something that was like a story ballet,” he says.

Think “Swan Lake,” but without the plot. Those kinds of twists have enraged some critics. They say Forsythe took the “ballet” out of Frankfurt Ballet when he ran it. One even called him the “antichrist of ballet,” which makes Forsythe chuckle and say, “We all love the same things. Those same critics love exactly what I love. Everyone wants to love it their own way.”

And his dancers love him.

“Working with Forsythe is really an experience like no other,” Boston Ballet second soloist Lauren Herfindahl says. “This ballet is everything from classical to extreme. You’re just pushing yourself to your extreme and extreme limits of our technique.”

Two of Herfindahl’s fellow dancers, Matthew Slattery and Ji Young Chae, were also challenged by Forsythe’s technique. They struggled with a moment in a duet where Ji Young does a pirouette while holding one leg to her ear.

Dana Caspersen helped them. She’s married to Forsythe. And in this show, she plays the Woman in Historical Dress.

Asked how important it is for the dancers to work out these types of moves, Caspersen says, “It’s everything. It’s the heart of ballet. What is this kind of gorgeous geometric relationship of dynamic that happens between people? And if you don’t have that kind of connection, then all you have is a bunch of steps, and nobody cares.”

For Caspersen and Forsythe, dance is an expression beyond words. That’s clear when he works with his dancers. He tells them, “You don’t want to be good, you don’t want to be even great. You want to have people be at a loss for language… That’s when dance is really working, when it kind of actually makes language not useful.”

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