What is Choreographic Style?
- Forsythe as an Example
In trying to come to some definition of choreographic style this study will consider both how it imposes identity on a work and the relationship between it and the other constituent aspects of ballet. By addressing these issues the importance of stylistic elements may become more apparent, allowing some exposition to be reached that encompasses the multi-faceted nature of the concept of style.
The discussion, though fundamentally philosophical, does require a degree of empirical support. By looking at how a particular choreographer makes use of the diverse stylistic possibilities of the media critical analysis can be used to supplement logical deduction. For the purpose of this study the choreographer whose ballets will be central to the analysis is William Forsythe.
Style and Interpretation
From the outset it seems evident that any analysis of choreographic style must be concerned with the work in performance and will as a consequence have to consider the intent of more than just one individual. Because intent is important it will be looked at later in this analysis of function. Whatever it may be, style requires a medium through which it can be presented. It is here that far more than the choreographer’s agenda becomes apparent.
In any ballet the dancers
will have different physiques with different proprioceptive responses.
They will come from different social backgrounds and exhibit individual
psychological responses. In addition they may have had a wide diversity
of dance educations, having trained at various schools and in various
genres of dance. These result in stylistic qualities innate to the way
each dancer moves that, to a greater or lesser degree, give individual
identity to their dancing. Even the choreographer who performs in his
or her own work will find that their own body has a distinct style of
movement that defines the way it will respond. This can place limits on
how far even the choreographer is able to fulfil his or her own intention.
Clearly the dancer is not inanimate, as is the case with the media used in the plastic arts. As a consequence of being portrayed through an independent interpreter, a dance is bound to have stylistic elements impinged upon it other than those of the choreographer, a common characteristic of all the performing arts.
Here the problem of to what
extent interpretation may be destructive of choreographic style arises.
In other performing arts the fragility of the stylistic elements tend
to be far less pronounced. An actor portraying Hamlet may deliver the
famous soliloquy in a variety of ways, but the text will retain much of
its Shakespearean style. Similarly, a musical score will generally contain
enough information to allow the musicians to reproduce the original intent
of the composer with a fair degree of stylistic accuracy.
As a result it has become increasingly common for the choreographer to take on a group of dancers to act as principal interpreters of their work. Consequently one aspect of style is exercised in the choice of performers. This involves the choreographer in the selection of dancers who can both inspire and fulfil their choreographic intention. In this way the issue of identity, which is a primary function of style, becomes apparent at the corporate level. The choreographer creates an institution that acts as a dedicated instrument for the interpretation of his or her own works. The degree to which they then become identified with the company marks out a level of stylistic commitment on both the part of the choreographer and of his or her dancers. Since he became director of the Ballett Frankfurt, in 1984, Forsythe has fashioned the company into one intimately associated with him and his ballets. He has also been able to use the resources of the institution to develop a style of performance that is characteristically his own.
Following on from this it
is necessary to look at how style functions at a more individual level
to give identity to a choreographers work.
Style and Identity
Style is not a quality of
conformity, rather an aspect that distinguishes one work from another.
For this reason it and identity are fundamentally bound together. Stylistic
qualities allow for varying levels of categorisation, from broad artistic
movement down to the individual choreographer’s characteristic style.
An example of both occurs in one of Forsythe’s early ballets "Love Songs", created for the Stuttgart Ballett in 1979. Its use of songs from the 1960s and a contemporary bar setting may seem prosaic, but its merging of the idioms of ballet and pop culture is illustrative of the stylistic eclecticism that features so strongly in post-modern choreography. There is also an irony in the use of a ballet company, which is frequently regarded as hierarchical in structure, to illustrate a social order in disintegration. In ‘Always something there to remind me’ the male partner grips the ballerina by her shoulders and violently shakes her. In response she throws him to the ground, walking over him on pointe with stabbing like steps. These give the pas de deux the quality of an Apache Dance.
Such eclecticism is not without its critics. Part of the problem of style is that it can be viewed as acting as a façade or an insubstantial entity, added to a ballet more for effect then for substantive reasons. (This is an issue that recurs through out this study.) By merging pop culture into ballet, choreographers such as Forsythe are open to the charge that they are merely being reflective, rather than analytical, of fashionable trends. Arlene Croce, writing of the Joffery Ballet production of "Love Songs", condemns such works as acting merely to “…inform people that the attitudes circulating throughout our culture can also be found at the ballet…” (1981, 148).
This critical reaction, that such works are inherently superficial, has to be interpreted within the seeming triviality of the post-modern cultural environment. As Susan Sontag has pointed out in her essay "On Style", contemporary styles do not retain their qualities for long enough to become identifiable but “…instead succeed one another so rapidly as to seem to give their audiences no breathing space to prepare” (Sontag, 1965, 35), resulting in them being unintelligible.
Though "Love Songs" is not highly regarded critically, Senta Driver having described it as the “least interesting of Forsythe’s works” (Driver, 1991b, 83), it has remained in the repertoire of several ballet companies. As most ballets have something of a short shelf life, normally falling from the performance schedule after a single season, it would be reasonable to conclude that there was something about this work that explained its longevity. The piece in some way transcends the changes that have occurred in the cultural environment. This cannot be because of its reference to 60s fashion because, even allowing for some level of retro-chic, it is caricature of a period piece. However the characters are still manifestly recognisable, involved in a subtext which Forsythe himself has described, in his introduction to the filmed version of the Joffery Ballet’s production, as figures acting in an absurd fashion, whilst being unaware of their own absurdity (Kinberg, 1989). In this sense it has an element of pastiche. The situation and how the characters react are probably intelligible to anyone who has ever drunk too much and made a fool of themselves. What is different is that it is being expressed through the medium of ballet, a form of dance that has accepted aesthetic conventions that the piece seems to break. The challenge therefore is not in understanding what is being said, but in understanding the way it is being said. This concords with a further obsession of post-modernism with the sign system analysis of semiotics.
Integrating this into the function of choreographic style what becomes apparent is the way the language of dance works to create a sense of identity. The use of vocabulary and syntax will be discussed later, but it is clear that there is also a manner of articulating dance that distinguishes the individual choreographers’ style.
Following on from the symbolic
function of style and the post-modern eclecticism it is necessary to analyse
how the stylistic elements of Classicism pervade contemporary balletic
The acceptance of this requires the acceptance of the stylistic features of Classicism with which ballet is imbued. Amongst these are the appearance of proportion, balance and symmetry. Appearance is in this sense important because the qualities must exist at a perceptual rather than just a mathematical level if something is to be categorised as being classical.
The problem that such stylistic features raise is to what extent they define the work of the choreographer and how far he or she is able to reject them. Forsythe’s identification with the work of the French writer and semiologist Roland Barthes (1915-1980) is a case in point.
Barthes approach to classicism, in his essay "Is There Any Poetic Writing", is coloured by his rejection of what he describes as the “…attributes of language, which are useless but decorative” (Barthes, 1953, 53). This accords with the notion of style as an unnecessary encumbrance on the work. It also presupposes the possible existence of a work of art that has no style. This seems unlikely, as such a work would possess no sense of identity. As Sontag makes clear “there are no style-less works of art, only works of art belonging to different, more or less complex stylistic traditions and conventions” (Sontag, 1965,22).
In describing classical poetry Barthes terms it as “…the fruit of an art” (1953, 53), using the term art as a synonym of technique. On this basis it would appear that Forsythe’s identification with Barthes presupposes his own rejection of Classicism and consequently a rejection of the form of dance most closely associated with it. On a superficial level the appearance of some of his works may suggest that he has created a movement genre that does leave behind the accepted notions of ballet. However, on closer examination, it becomes apparent that there is a more complex dynamic within the style of the dance form.
The eclectic nature of post-modern works has allowed an expansion of both the vocabulary and the syntax of ballet through a series of fusions with other techniques, such as contemporary and jazz. As a result other cultural movements, both artistic and ethnic, have augmented those elements of Classicism that are innate to ballet. This has had noticeable effects on the stylistic nature of ballet and on those choreographers working within its idiomatic forms.
Thus post-modern choreographic works present an amalgamation of artistic styles that, by their respective prominence, give identity to the choreographers work. A notable example occurs in Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure, which he choreographed for the Frankfurt Ballett in 1989. Here there is a seeming reference to one of the stylistic forms of the Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivist, movement that emerged in Germany in the 1920’s. In particular to the work of Oscar Schlemmer (1888-1943), a painter and choreographer who worked at the Bauhaus in Weimar during this period.
Schlemmer’s conceptual realisation of the relationship between figures in movement and the space they inhabit bares some accord to Forsythe’s dancers moving within “…an environment bathed in technology” (Sulcas, 1998, 12). Both choreographers being responsible for their own designs also costumed their dancers in a way that fundamentally altered their body shape.
In other ways the styles
diverge considerably. Some contemporaries regarded Schlemmer’s best-known
work, the "Triadische Ballett" (1922), as not according with
any recognisable dance genre. Conversely Enemy in the Figure is clearly
balletic, despite the disturbing imagery that overlays its text. At one
point, the dancers who are costumed so abstractly perform a series of
very rapid posés tours. The result is startling, for the classical
step actually serves to enhance the modernist costume and vice versa.
Style and Understanding
An appreciation of the varying ways style makes identification possible allows some understanding of a work to be achieved. The degree to which meaning, both obvious and hidden, can be revealed within a piece is an aspect of its decipherability. Within the non-discursive medium of dance the complexity of this issue requires some examination.
Human beings are natural
born communicators. At its most basic level this is illustrated by the
way an infant uses sound and gesture to convey its needs. However higher
levels of communication are far more complex and require degrees of learning
before the messenger is able to utilise the requisite signs to generate
the intended meaning. These complex constructs are used by the individual
both to define their relationship to the world about them and to interpret
what they witness. Thus decipherability will have an existential component
that is dependent upon the individual's appreciation of any given signal
interpreted through their own levels of experience and learning. The use
of any language, discursive or otherwise, presupposes at least a partial
mastery of its idiomatic forms, both on the part of the teller and the
Considering the spectral
nature of style and how it allows some understanding of the work to be
achieved Forsythe has provided two descriptive analyses for the placement
of his works. In speaking of his appreciation of classical ballet he describes
his reaction as the “…joy of the evident”, whilst saying
that he does “…enjoy watching things emerge that require a
quick eye” (Gardiner, 1996). In either case comprehension requires
a pre-existing knowledge of the salient form.
Style and Intention
Intention as an aspect of style is problematic. The logic of intentionallity is that whilst it might not fully circumscribe the choreographic process it does initiate it. Also to view a ballet in the abstract, as it would be from this point of origin, would be senseless for it exists to be performed. Whatever the function of choreographic style it manifests itself in performance.
In order to understand how it influences style it is important to view it within the total dynamics of the creation of a ballet. The following shows how process act as a bridge between the initial intention of a work and its final realisation.
These lists, whilst not definitive, serve to illustrate some of the complexities involved in the creation of a dance work and the problem of determining at what point choreographic style can be said to emerge. It is also apparent that the intention may change as a result of both process and realisation. The (original) diagram illustrates this by the presence of dashed arrows, which give it the quality of a feedback loop. As a result of the systems circulatory nature it can become increasingly difficult to see where, after a period of time has elapsed, the genesis of a work lay.
At this point the relevance of intent and even its very existence can come into question. It would be more reasonable however to assume that this problem arises because the initial definition was too limited. Intentionality is not just a single thought that sparks off the process, but a process of its own, altering with events and taking on an organic quality.
As a consequence of this
process it has to be asked to what extent the choreographer can be said
to retain authorship of a ballet that has been influenced by external
events and the work of other people. Already recognition has been made
of the presence of corporate stylistic identity as seen in performance,
but here it takes on a deeper level of significance. If the relevance
of the choreographer to the final form of the work is lost then so to
is the stylistic identification with him or her. Consequently the possibility
of coming to some kind of understanding diminishes. As Barthes comments
in his essay "The Death of the Author", “Once the author
is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes futile” (Barthes,
Seán Burke’s analysis of the theory of the death of the author is that it attests “…to a departure of belief in authority, presence, intention, omniscience and creativity” (Burke, 1992, 22). From this point of view Forsythe seems to be rejecting much of his own responsibility, both as a creative artist and as the company’s director. As an example he has described the initial process in the creation of the ballet "Sleepers Guts" (1996) as involving no scheduling nor casting, but with the dancers of the Ballett Frankfurt working singly or in groups on their own movement material. His own contribution to the work he describes as principally editorial (Sulcas, 1997, 35).
Taken to its logical conclusion this form of process would result in authorship having a wholly corporate identity. As a consequence choreographic style would only exist within the company that had developed the work and, even more specifically, with those persons involved in its genesis. Any change in its original casting would result in the ballets total loss of identity. Also the lack of some overriding imperative able to make artistic as well as editorial decisions would radically effect the coherence of the piece. It would be a collage of all the stylistic qualities of each of its contributors.
The existence of coherent
works, able to be presented by different groups of dancers, logically
defies the rejection of authorship. According to Burke “A massive
disjunction opens up between the theoretical statement of authorial disappearance
and the project of reading without the author (Burke, 1992, 154). The
ballets of Forsythe possess characteristics that identify him as their
choreographer. In crediting his dancers he may be giving them due recognition
for their work within the process, but he cannot assign them authorship.
Style and Technique
Having recognised the importance of choreographic style in giving identity to a work it is now necessary to define its relationship to the other constituent aspects of a ballet.
That style is an integral part of content is a prerequisite for any rational that regards it as having a substantive character. If a duality exists between style and content the former would serve a merely decorative function.
The content of a dance work encompasses a wide spectrum of possible variables. The way a dancers’ body is used to shape space in both movement and stillness. The individual movements themselves and the way they are sequenced into phrases of varying dynamic qualities. The spatial relationship between the dancers and within the dance space. All of these are relevant to any work, whether or not it has a narrative.
Much of this falls within the scope of technique. Janet Adshead describes technique as being manifest in the different genres that exist as a “selection” of all the possible ranges of movement. This equates to a core vocabulary, though not necessarily to syntax. The latter is constructed by the choreographers’ use of “distinctive ranges” within the initial selection, resulting in what Adshead describes as “dance styles”. By the use of these styles the choreographer creates their own choreographic style (Adshead, 1988, 22). This rationale, that technique is a prerequisite of choreographic style is also supported by Graham McFee (McFee, 1992, 201).
Clearly dance styles are not immutable for, as McFee makes clear, the process of choreography can bring about new techniques (McFee, 1992, 205). This can be seen in the emergence of the post-modern fusion of ballet with other genres. However this should not be regarded simply as a process of assimilation into a uniform technique. There is within modern balletic choreography still a general weighting towards the classical form, which has already been described in the discussion of identity. At the same time it has created a level of redundancy in both the vocabulary and syntax. Many of the steps of elevation, such as terre à terre work and in particular batterie, have fallen out of use. Such subtle movements seem to have become regarded as ornamental. Instead greater prominence has been given to extending the amplitude of certain movement, resulting in a dynamic shift towards a higher level of athleticism in the technique of ballet.
This is seen in works such
as "In The Middle Somewhat Elevated" which Forsythe choreographed
for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987. In it the technical aspects of ballet,
the use of balance, flexibility, agility and co-ordination are pushed
almost to their possible extremes (Sulcas, 1995, 57). Because of this
the emphasis is on the technique, as it is that aspect of the ballet that
is central to its focus. As a result technique and style become a unity
within a dance form that is essentially commenting upon itself.
Because technique exists
in a state of flux this is unlikely to happen. It evolves in a dynamic
way across the work of succeeding generations of choreographers. Like
any language it not only shapes the user and the way he or she makes use
of it but is shaped by them. Where it can no longer give symbolic expression
to what is trying to be said it will be changed in order to do so. That
is not to say that the new forms that develop will be in any sense better
or worse, only that they will be different.
The role of style in imparting identity to a ballet is not its only function. If the scope of this study were extended it would take in the sense to which style acts to preserve works. By establishing characteristic patterns that help retain the work’s place in the public consciousness it has what Sontag refers as a “mnemonic function” (1965, 34). Specific analysis of this within the context of Forsythe’s work, or that of any choreographer, would have to take into account to what extent he was interested in the survivability of his own work (Baudoin and Gilpin, http://www.frankfurt-ballett..de/ ).
What choreographic style does is to communicate the existence of a ballet as a work of artistic endeavour. At the same time as answering the question of where the work has come from, the identity factor, it asks how and why it has been brought into existence and what meaning can be deciphered from it.
Style exists as a consequence of the choices a choreographer makes, of movement genre, performers, designers and accompaniment. These both define the work and are defined by it. The one option that is not available to the choreographer is the denial of the existence of style.
Non-Printed Sources (Videos)
Non-Printed Sources (Internet Sites)
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.