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Steps in Time

William Forsythe’s new program for La Scala provides an opportunity to reflect on the direction taken by “contemporary ballet” over several decades. The American choreographer made a name for himself in the 1980s with titles such as “Steptext,” “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” “Herman Schmermann,” “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude”—each of them able to excite not only fans of contemporary dance but also lovers of classical ballet because Forsythe founded a new idiom based on the grammar of the danse d’école. In Italy we call this style “post-classical:” a definition that insists on the classical balance while in search of other axes in the kinetics of torso and limbs, risky, unstable and for this very reason so contemporary. An aesthetic and functional element helps to recognize this language: the pointe shoes worn by the female dancers, no longer instruments of romantic elevation, nor of imperial virtuosity or composed neoclassicism, but pivots of lightning and almost aggressive dynamics. While his language spread, Forsythe trod along parallel paths, including in his own artistic cosmogony contemporary dances finely décontractés or objects d’art installed in museum spaces.

Performance

La Scala Ballet: “Blake Works V” by William Forsythe

Place

La Scala, Milan, Italy, May 2023

Words

Valentina Bonelli

La Scala Ballet in “Blake Works V” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano ļTeatro alla Scala

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Forsythe’s return to the classical idiom is recent: in 2016, at the Paris Opéra, he launched his “Blake Works” project, staged this season at La Scala as the fifth chapter. Reworked for our corps de ballet after other companies, “Blake Works V” includes a prologue in the form of a frame especially created for La Scala, the live variant of “The Barre Project,” born as an online format for dancers in lockdown and “Blake Works I” already staged for the French dancers. The choreographic composition is algebraic yet attractive: a sharp delight of accelerations and syncopations suspended by delicate phrasing of everyday life, for solo dancer or duets, trios, quartets, small and large ensembles.

The classic base is more important than ever for Forsythe, who reminds us of his having studied many academic methods: Imperial Russian with a French pupil of Mathilda Kschessinskaya, Bournonville, Cecchetti, Vaganova. In Paris, when creating “Blake Works I,” he focused on the French school, working with the company’s maîtres de ballets, while at La Scala he drew attention to tours and pirouettes, heritage of the Italian school. 

Benedetta Montefiore and Claudio Coviello in “Blake Works V” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano ļTeatro alla Scala

Forsythe worked personally at La Scala over a six-week period and certainly the company was thrilled and motivated also because he was able to bring out the most talented (and musical) young dancers. A very demanding work, as the choreographer asked the dancers to be like watches and strictly observe the musical rhythm, also during the silent pauses. A dictat obviously reminiscent of Balanchines’s saying “See the music, hear the dance.” 

As the title of the cycle indicates, all the pieces are composed on scores by James Blake, a thirty-five-year-old British composer much in vogue, whose music ranges between electronic, contemporary r & b, grime, and ambient house. Forsythe stated that he chose Blake’s music for its counterpointed structure and for his nods to classical composers such as Tchaikovsky, even certain motifs from “Swan Lake.” “Blake holds Bach’s sheet music on his piano, not Beyonce, who he also wrote songs for,” the choreographer informed us.

Giulia Lunardi and Navrin Turnbull in the prologue to “Blake Works V” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano ļTeatro alla Scala

Musically omnivorous, Forsythe had accustomed us to incursions into Thom Willems’s electronic music as well as into the classical scores by Bach or Schubert. Certainly, a program that for years has been entirely focused on Blake's “elite pop” raises questions and authorizes deductions. Why does one of the greatest choreographers of our time choose such a light music?

The answer could be found in a statement by Forsythe himself about the desirable outcome of his new program: “We will be educated and hopefully entertained.” Where the word “entertainment,” central to today’s cultural industry, lets us understand the place of contemporary ballet, whether seen in a theater like La Scala or on a contemporary stage or online on a screen.

Rinaldo Venuti in “The Barre Project” by William Forsythe. Photograph by Brescia e Amisano ļTeatro alla Scala

Valentina Bonelli


Valentina Bonelli is a dance journalist and critic based in Milan, and a longtime contributor to Vogue Italia and Amadeus. She is a correspondent from Italy for international dance magazines such as Dance Europe and Dance Magazine Japan. As a scholar her main interest lies in the XIX century Russian ballet, in its connections with the Italian ballet school. She has translated and edited Marius Petipa’s Memoirs (2010) and Diaries (2018) into Italian, and she is currently writing essays and biographies about La Scala ballerinas dancing at Russian Imperial theatres.

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