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William Forsythe's Radical Idea: Combine Classical Ballet With Pop And Make The Audience Dance

Lia Cirio and Boston Ballet in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe. (Courtesy Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)
Lia Cirio and Boston Ballet in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe. (Courtesy Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)
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At a recent rehearsal, 69-year-old choreographer William Forsythe spryly hopped and sprinted, modeling elaborate footwork for dancer Lia Cirio. The choreographer, one of the most influential in the world, furrowed his brows, muttered split-second vowel sounds — "Dah," "Dee," "Ooh" — as he demonstrated the precise steps he wanted from Cirio.

Sometimes, if he gained inspiration from Cirio's own rhythm — "Dang girl, that's good!" he exclaimed once — he'd modify the steps based on her movement.

He was creating a daring piece, on the spot, called "Playlist (EP)" — a joyful fusion of classical ballet and pop music — for its world premiere as part of Boston Ballet's "Full On Forsythe" program, which runs from March 7 to 17 at the Boston Opera House. The program is an eclectic showcase of Forsythe's talent, including a performance of last season’s singular and rigorous “Pas/Parts 2018,” and the North American premiere of “Blake Works I,” a 21-dancer, ambitious piece set to songs by the popular singer-songwriter James Blake that's like a love letter to ballet.

Boston Ballet in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe (Courtesy Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)
Members of the Boston Ballet in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe. (Courtesy Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)

For a world-renown choreographer, Forsythe's demeanor remains rather egoless. "I joke with the dancers, and I said I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing because I've never made this ballet before," he told me later.

But of course Forsythe knows what he's doing. To say that "Playlist (EP)" is one of the most important pieces of choreography in ballet's modern history is not hyperbolic.

Forsythe's decades-long career has been spent conceiving pieces for top ballet companies in Europe, including the Paris Opera Ballet, and directing the Frankfurt Ballet and his own company. "Playlist (EP)" is his first world premiere for an American company since 1992. The premiere marks the midpoint of a five-year partnership with Boston Ballet, one that has brought the choreographer back to the United States for a more permanent stay.

"The fact that Bill has chosen this as his new home base is like the envy of the industry," said Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet's artistic director.

Isaac Akiba in rehearsal of Playlist (EP) with William Forsythe (Courtesy by Liza Voll / Boston Ballet)
Isaac Akiba in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe. (Courtesy by Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)

Forsythe, known for inventive pieces that utilize the classical bodily language of ballet in exacting, innovative combinations, has created what he calls a "neo-classical ballet" for "Playlist (EP)." He presents strict, classical ballet moves in the context of top-charting popular music.

"It's quite classical and that's kind of the key to the piece — is that it's moving in two directions. It's moving historically. It's pointing back. But it's also pointing forward at the same time," he said. The music varies from Khalid's pop R&B, to hip-hop and house club anthems to classic Barry White and Natalie Cole's ever-loveable "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)." Nissinen said it's a "very groovy" ballet.

Forsythe wants classical ballet to not only survive, but to capture the attention of a wider audience. The way to do so is to innovate without compromising the rigor of the classic moves.

"Ballet is always about recombination. If you'd just rigorously recombine, you'll have all the funk you need," he said. "... I'm thinking about the art form, and I love it so much I want it to survive in some capacity, and I think all this is an interesting survival mode."

Boston Ballet in rehearsal of Playlist (EP) with William Forsythe (Courtesy Liza Voll / Boston Ballet)
Boston Ballet in rehearsal of "Playlist (EP)" with William Forsythe. (Courtesy Liza Voll/Boston Ballet)

But "Playlist (EP)" is doing more than surviving. It's moving the art form forward, said Nissinen.

"I would say it's like what William Burroughs did with his sentences or poetry. He took scissors and cut in pieces and rearranged it," he said. "Then there was this sort of abstract association of the words that was so much stronger than reality."

Forsythe seeks musicality from the dancers, for them to almost embody the music and also syncopation — the unexpected emphasis on certain beats.

"Bill Forsythe, that's a big, big name and having him in front of the room can be daunting, but he doesn't make you feel like that," said dancer Lia Cirio, who will perform a solo for "Playlist (EP)." Cirio will be performing in all three of the pieces that make up "Full On Forsythe."

Watching them work together — Cirio so tenacious and agile — made me think of something Nissinen told me earlier. "Our basic motto in the organization is that I want you to be so strong that you can be vulnerable, because only a vulnerable artist is interesting."

There is a vulnerability in presenting this audacious new context for classical ballet. But all Forsythe wants is for the audience to dance in their seats.

Boston Ballet's "Full on Forsythe" runs at the Boston Opera House until March 17. Click here to listen to some of the music from "Playlist (EP)."

This segment aired on March 7, 2019.


Maria Garcia Managing Editor
Maria Garcia was WBUR's Managing Editor and the creator of "Anything for Selena."



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