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Dance Geometry (Forsythe)

William Forsythe’s methods of choreography are strikingly algorithmic and give rise to a
style of movement and interaction that is distinctively his own. This conversation
between Forsythe and Kaiser was recorded in 1998 and later published in Performance
Research, v4#2, Summer 1999.

I first met William Forsythe in his kitchen in Frankfurt in 1994. The first thing Bill did was to try to
explain how he goes about creating new movements. He started drawing imaginary shapes in the air, and
then running his limbs through this complicated and invisible geometry. As a non-dancer, I was
completely lost.

Later that year, I suggested that he use computer animation superimposed on videos of himself explaining
them to make this geometry visible. Together with Chris Ziegler and Volker Kuchelmeister at the Center
for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, he created a multimedia work along these lines
entitled Improvisation Technologies. Since then, he’s exhibited this extraordinary catalogue of dance
procedures in several museums, and still uses it in training new members of his dance company.

Three aspects of Bill’s approach have always struck me:

how ingeniously he uses spatial transformations to generate new dance movements.

how great a demand this places on his dancers’ minds as well as their bodies.
how intertwined are the acts of drawing and dancing for him.

In April 1998 Bill and I spent three days together, at the end of which we recorded the following
conversation. Bill had read transcripts of my Unreal Pictures and Playground dialogues with Michael
Girard and Susan Amkraut, so our conversation built on that earlier discussion.

This piece is still unfinished. Someday we intend to expand the dialogue in both directions to make a
complete book. In the meantime, we are collaborating on a dance for children and Lego Mindstorms
robots, under the auspices of the museum mak.frankfurt.

KAISER: Why did you begin using spatial concepts such as rotation, extrusion, inscription, and
refraction to create dance?

FORSYTHE: Necessity was the mother of that invention because our dance company
never had a lot of time to make the work. My basic method, developed over a period of
15 years, is to find ways to use what my dancers already know. Since I work primarily
with ballet dancers, I analyze what they know about space and their bodies from their
intensive ballet training. I’ve realized that in essence ballet dancers are taught to match
lines and forms in space.

So I began to imagine lines in space that could be bent, or tossed, or otherwise distorted.
By moving from a point to a line to a plane to a volume, I was able to visualize a
geometric space composed of points that were vastly interconnected. As these points
were all contained within the dancer’s body, there was really no transition necessary, only
a series of “foldings” and “unfoldings” that produced an infinite number of movements
and positions. From these, we started making catalogues of what the body could do. And
for every new piece that we choreographed, we would develop a new series of

Some of these procedures worked with what is already in ballet. If you analyze the basic
ballet position where the hands are held over the head, you realize that there are two
curves involved, one on the right and the other on the left. You can create innumerable
transformations from that simple position, which is a given in ballet, and can act like a
keyframe. You can extend it out into space, or by let it move through the body as a
natural continuation of the curves. You can also make dancers perceive the relationships
between any of the points on the curves and any other parts of their bodies. What it boils
down to in performance is the dancer illustrating the presence of these imagined
relationships by moving.

And in the process discover new ways of moving.

What it actually does is to make you forget how to move. You stop thinking about the
end result, and start thinking instead about performing the movement internally. That’s
what pulls your body through its “rigors,” as it were.

That approach diverges from classical ballet, where the final position is paramount, as opposed to what
goes on internally and in between.

Well, I don’t know about that.

Take the ballet position of épaulement, which is the crowning accomplishment of great
ballet dancers. It entails a tremendous number of counter-rotations determined by the
relationships among the foot, hand, and head ‘ and even of the eyes. As in Indian
classical dancing, it dictates rules of gazing past the body. For me épaulement is the key
to ballet because it demands the most complex torsion. The mechanics of épaulement
are what give ballet its inner transitions.

At the Frankfurt Ballet, we’ve created a new “paradigm of rigors,” in which the dancers
maintain very complex torsions during physically antagonistic events. This happens in
motion. For example, you can spin out of a classic position, and as this spinning undoes
the position, you look at the resulting distortions to your body and correct them. You
correct them within the aesthetic rules of ballet ‘ you never lose your balletism.

So it’s ballet under stress.

Well, all of ballet is about maintaining decorum under extreme physical stress.

What we do differently from traditional ballet is to focus on the beginning of a

movement rather than on the end.

To see what spills out from there?

Exactly. We use the reflexes that we’ve learned in classical ballet to maintain a kind of
residual coordination, which allows the body to acquire elastic surfaces that bounce off
one another. This elasticity is derived from the mechanics of torsion inherent in

In my conversation with Michael Girard, he defined “grace” as the smoothest and most efficient
transition between two positions. This is certainly the case in classical ballet, where both positions and
transitions are highly formalized. At the Frankfurt Ballet, however, your definition of grace seems to be
based on unstable, complex movements rather than smooth, simple ones. As opposed to traditional
choreography, which can be memorized and duplicated rather easily, your pieces must be much more
difficult to teach — and to learn.

The simplicity of classical ballet is precisely what enables it to be reproduced with such
ease. I sometimes think of it as an unconscious mimicry of the printing press in
Gutenberg’s time. In fact, there is something extremely alphabetical about traditional
ballet figures and positions – they resemble glyphs.

Since today’s technology is digital rather than alphabetical, why shouldn’t we go with the

Your choreography does seem to take what is spatial and fixed in ballet and make it temporal and

One of our ideas is to imitate a computer application that can wrap a different quality
around an existing event, thus altering its very nature. This is another reason why I’ve
stuck with ballet. It defines a very precise spatial environment, which I’ve through a
series of distorting operations.

A lot of what we do in our company is based on states of fold. We teach our body how
to fold and unfold again, at various rates and moving through different body parts. So we
create what I call a “many-timed body” folding and unfurling towards and against itself.

One aspect of classic ballet is the constant folding and unfurling of just the leg, which
the dancer always brings back to one of the prescribed positions. Our fold differs in that
it not just in the knee but also in the hips, thus affecting the torso as well. This means
that instead of remaining at a 90-degree angle to the floor, the torso begins to fold down
and become parallel with it. An entirely new set of mechanics then takes over, since the
body has achieved a new state of balance.

Since your dancers focus on the beginning rather than the end of a particular movement, how can they
predetermine their final position? And if they can’t, isn’t this significantly different from classic ballet?

Well, they still have all the reflexes of the traditional ballet dancer, and they have
essentially the same basic mental training, which lets them picture points in space very
precisely. They orient their positions very quickly within those points. Of course, the
mental images we use are not traditional.

You recently told me that your body happens to have a high proportion of “fast twitch” muscles, and that
you look for similar bodies in choosing new dancers. In what ways has your physical constitution affected
your choreography?

I like the physical thrill of rapid shifts, as opposed to smooth transitions, and a “fast
twitch” body allows you to do this. Our company has something in common with collies,
who can herd and change direction so quickly.

In classical ballet, in addition to adagio and grand allegro, there is something called petit
allegro, which involves small, fast movements made primarily by the feet and legs. In
applying petit allegro to the entire body, I’ve found that it’s possible to move it in
counterpoint to itself. It’s more like playing the organ than playing the clarinet: you’re
not just using one part of your body, you’re using it all.

As you know, Shelley and I originally toyed with using “Motion Alphabets” as the title for this book.
I’ve since learned from you that you yourself have invented a procedure you call “movement alphabets,”
which you use to help make new dances. How does that work?

I chose the alphabet because it’s simple, familiar, fixed, and arbitrary. We use it primarily
as an index for a database of movements. Everyone knows alphabetical order, and the
dancers can navigate through its sequence easily even if they only do so in chunks.

Again, this is not so different from traditional ballet where each motion and position has
its own name. In a similar vein, I created a non-balletic vocabulary of 135 movements,
which I then taught to my dancers until they knew it backward and forward. No matter
where or when the dancers move through the zone of one of those movements, they
immediately know its place in the sequence. It’s like rapidly scrolling through a list of
names in a computer program.

We use our alphabet in connection with the kinesphere — the total volume of a body’s
potential movement. Dancers are always conscious of their kinespheres, which exist in
the air around them. For us, it becomes a huge field for jogging memory.

Let me give you an example of how exactly how this works. When I cup the back of my
neck with my hand, it’s as if I were swatting a mosquito — and so, using this arbitrary
association, we say that I’m spelling the letter “I” for “insect.” Now suppose that while
I’m dancing, I suddenly find my hand cupped around my knee, which reminds me of the
insect element. Bearing in mind that my focus is always on the beginning of a movement
rather than on its end, I will have to fold my neck down to that point in space rather
than performing it standing up, as in the original alphabet. Now, keeping to the sequence
of the movement alphabet, I can perform the movement either directly before or after I
— that is, the movements associated with either H or J.

In this kind of dancing, I can lose my equilibrium within a dance phrase, then remember
everything from the point of that dislocation, so to speak. My body exists in the sphere
of its own memory.

In Alien Action, were you performing operations based on the elemental motions represented by each

Yes. Each letter of the alphabet, which covered as many human configurations as
possible, was then modified by the various operations that we’ve developed over the past
15 years. These modifications reminded us of more letters, which in turn recalled more
operations. It was a total immersion system.

Your description makes me think of recursive algorithms, where procedures call themselves, modify the
results, call themselves again, and so on.

In fact, Alien Action was the first time that I actually began to produce movement based
on recursive algorithms. However, they were fixed variations that we created through a
long, painstaking process, not unlike that of computer programming, where every step
has to be repeated ad infinitum.

The dancers in Alien Action face a challenge similar to that of the characters in the film
Alien. Both are trying to find their way in an unknown architecture, and both are using a
diagram. The dance diagram, however, does not depict any concrete or existing space,
but rather a potential space — as the piece forms, an architecture emerges. The goal of
the piece, actually, is to form another and smaller stage within the real stage. This is a
drastic scale shift — the whole thing suddenly has to happen on a stage one eighth the
size of the original stage, a dramatic condensation.

Dancing Alien Action is like navigating levels on the computer. You can’t just move
directly sideways to the desired destination, you have to go down to a different floor, so
to speak, and then walk a ways and cross over and move back up.

Are your methods now more advanced — in Eidos, for example?

I believe so. In Eidos I was searching for a counterpoint algorithm.

There were also certain emotions associated with Alien Action that led to extremely
idiosyncratic, almost narrative events built into the movement. Eidos, on the other hand,
is completely abstract, even though the scale of the entire structure provokes a powerful
emotional reaction.

All this supports my notion that your dancers have to think even faster than they move – and they move
very fast.

Yes, but don’t forget that visceral thinking is something that’s acquired over a long
period of time. Even so, the first act of Eidos requires an encyclopedic command of a
huge kinetic field. The dancers must be able to recover any part of the piece
instantaneously, since there is always a physical “accident.” When the force of gravity
throws them into another configuration, for example, they have to analyze themselves
and their current state in relation to the entire piece. In this sense, they are always in a
“possessed state,” whether it be Apollonian or Dionysian.

That’s quite different from a more traditional dancer, who’s simply moving through a sequence that’s well
known in advance.

On the contrary, I believe that truly great dancers, such as Gelsey Kirkland, are equally
“possessed” by the act of defining what they’re experiencing. When she performed, she
was entirely in the moment.

Still, that seems very different to me: her moment is not nearly so uncertain!
However, let’s move on to another topic. I know that you’ve spent a good deal of time creating and
manipulating drawings, processes that you’ve likened to that of choreographing for dance.

Let’s take this scene from Slingerland, for instance. What I see here is not exactly a tracing, but an
extrapolation of lines from a still photograph.

This kind of drawing is an attempt to mask origin. It does work by extrapolation. Where
it diverges from the original photograph is in its repetition of elements that get in the
way of one another, which creates an unusual kind of architectural space that emerges
entirely from itself. It’s a proliferating space, and also a space of loss: you’ve lost any
sense of the concrete, leaving you with nothing but indications of its origins.

In one of our earlier conversations, you spoke about colonizing a photograph as if you were an alien

That’s exactly what we’re attempting to do when we take one cultural event and use it as
a host in order to create something entirely different. I’m sure that the makers of the film
Alien could never have imagined how we would use it as a model for our own

In this drawing, you’re colonizing yourself. You’re taking off from a still of one of your own productions.
Whereas the photograph shows a stage space that’s fixed in the usual way, your drawing creates an
architectural space that’s precisely unfixed.

Well, I think the space was potentially there, and it was just a matter of choices. The
drawing suggests that from that space there could have been these vectors generated.

Recently I’ve also appropriated (or “colonized”) some Tiepolo drawings, which I found
in a Dover book. The figures in the ink and charcoal drawings are like knots of figures
hovering in the air, suspended and tangled in the sky. From their limbs, heads, shoulders,
arms, wrists, knees, and butts, I drew rather complex vectors.

I used this as the basis for a dance, which took the form of the following task. Given
these complex, knotted, puzzle-like configurations, the dancers were asked to “solve”
these configurations by unknotting them via the vector paths I’d drawn. Each separate
page became a key frame. Using the vectors, the dancers had to invent a transition to the
next frame they entered.

Let’s talk about the future. In your thirty years of dance-making, you’ve discouraged people from writing
books or making films about your ballets. Yet here we are exploring the possibilities for making virtual
dances. Such works are made not of flesh, not of paper, not of celluloid, but of numbers. In principle, at
least, they could last forever.

Well, you raise a number of points. Let me start by saying that up until recently I’ve
created works specifically for the stage, and not for the page or the screen. The quality of
light and of sound, not to mention the physical presence of the dancers, cannot be
reproduced, so I’ve wanted my productions to stay intact as live performances. Recently,
however, I have made two short films, Solo and Duo, with the specific aim of bringing
viewers closer to the dancing.

Now, people often ask, where is the book of photographs of the Frankfurt Ballet? Ballet
has been blessed and cursed by the profusion of coffee table books, each with ever more
beautiful pictures of graceful bodies frozen in air.

But our work is about moving between positions and passing through positions, not
maintaining positions. This is actually a fact of ballet in general, new and old: one moves
through a position with greater or lesser accuracy.

No one has ever done arabesque, they’ve passed through an approximation of it.
Arabesque will always remain primarily a prescription, an ideal. I mean, there is a good
arabesque and a bad arabesque and a phenomenal arabesque, but arabesque is about
passing through. It’s more about time than it is about position.

Now to answer your question about the future, I’d say that the virtual dance is certainly
not for posterity, it’s for now. As Balanchine once said, the dance of today will not be
the dance of tomorrow.

We’ll see about that! That certainly isn’t the case for other temporal arts like music or literature, where
reproduction is not a problem.

In any case, what interests me about your virtual dance ideas is that my thinking has
mysteriously or surprisingly coincided with developments in computer programming. In
reading your dialogue with Michael and Susan, I’ve noticed that the questions are
virtually the same. In fact, it reads like my diary — as if I’ve come across messages I
wrote to myself. When you talk about phases of movement shifting through parts of the
body, and about their visible duration and rates of decay ‘ that’s dance. That’s exactly
what we talk about at the Frankfurt Ballet. All of us seem to be posing the same kinds of
questions about how to organize kinetic events.

Some choreographers create dance from emotional impulses, while others, like
Balanchine, work from a strictly musical standpoint. My own dances reflect the body’s
experiences in space, which I try to connect through algorithms. So there’s this
fascinating overlap with computer programming.

For Eidos, I gave my dancers ‘ and myself ‘ the following general instruction: “Take an
equation, solve it; take the result and fold it back into the equation and then solve it
again. Keep doing this a million times.”

Recursion again! Where is all this heading?

If you look back over the last couple of centuries, the dominant paradigm for what I call
the temple arts — music and dance — has been counterpoint.

Now once you begin to analyze the nature of an event carefully, as we did with ballet,
you begin to see completely new possibilities for counterpoint. We looked at ballet and
asked, what makes this function? We looked at something classical, Symphony in C by
Balanchine, for example, and the logic of its functions began to emerge. This logic is
simply about creating ways to connect.

Now we find that these ways to connect can be algorithmically redefined — infinitely.
Since we’re no longer restricted to the prescribed classical methods of connection, we’re
open to an extraordinary leap in connection, which is just a matter of defining connective

That’s where your focus on spatial procedures and the architecture of movement maps so well onto
computer algorithms and virtual spaces. As you said before, it’s as if we’re all on the same quest.

How do you define that quest?

Shelley and I have spoken about it as the search for a new art form, which seems about to emerge from
this odd confluence of the dance, visual art, and computer worlds. I imagine that in this new form,
performance and recording and notation ‘ three strands of the performing arts that have always been
separate ‘ will be fused. So that you can have the notation shaping the performance, the performance
shaping the recording, the recording shaping the notation, and so on. Perhaps this new process, which
builds on itself, can bootstrap a new way of making art.

Where I’d start is with the score. What’s been missing so far is an intelligent kind of
notation, one that would let us generate dances from a vast number of varied inputs. Not
traditional notation, but a new kind mediated by the computer.

(Retrieved on 25/01/2010)