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William Forsythe, American dancer and choreographer extraordinaire, spent most of his time overseas in Europe for the past 50 years, working extensively first with Ballet Frankfurt and then founding his namesake dance troupe in 2015, The Forsythe Company. This fall, Boston Ballet and the Institute of Contemporary Art are partnering to welcome Forsythe back to the States for his five-year residency agreement, including a full program of Forsythe’s work in the spring season. At the ICA, “William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects” is on display from Oct. 31 to Feb. 21.
“Choreographic Objects” has previously been presented at global venues, such as London’s Tate Modern and Grande halle de la Villete in Paris. Forsythe now brings these interactive, site-responsive works to the Seaport area in Boston, marking his first comprehensive exhibition in the U.S.
As hybrids of sculpture, artwork, video, and architectural spaces, “Choreographic Objects” invites participants to stimulate and interact with the ideas and movement of choreography. The choreography is as much pieces of artwork as they are spaces for performance and movement.
“Choreography is possible anywhere, and I believe in some ways that this exhibition is the most democratic expression of choreography,” Chief Curator of the ICA Eva Respini said.
With each “choreographic object,” Forsythe included specific physical instructions for visitors to follow, creating a unique space for individualized experiences in the gallery.
In “City of Abstracts,” which consists of a video wall, camera and computer software to delay the playback movements, Forsythe plays with the natural curiosity of humans. Each small movement is converted by the software into dragged out, spiraling movements and shapes. A simple wave of the hand becomes an enthralling spiraling snake of the entire arm.
“What ends up happening is not just a call and response, but what you see on the screen is in fact a score for the piece itself,” Forsythe said at the opening.
In another room of the exhibition, “The Fact of Matter” features 600 polycarbonate gymnastic rings attached to the ceiling by polyester belts and steel rigging. Forsythe’s only instruction is simple: “Please traverse the space using only the rings.”
“The title will speak to you more clearly if you attempt to even go two feet into the work. You normally conceive of yourself as you are an integration of your self-image, of your weight, coordination, and strength,” Forsythe said. “These three aspects are not always going to have integrity under all conditions.”
It is through the struggle of traversing the room that Forsythe sees the choreographic moments.
The ICA exhibition is also premiering two new Forsythe works, including “The Differential Room,” which was made specifically for the museum. It features a series of chalkboards inscribed by Forsythe with a series of assignments, like “take five steps away from the bench then with your eyes closed, walk backwards and sit down.”
“In many of the works, it isn’t about the result, it’s about the effort,” Respini said.
In a following room, Forsythe continues this concept with a steel door titled “Aufwand” that looks like any ordinary door yet is incredibly hard to open due to spring mechanisms.
“You are employed by yourself to produce the work for yourself, not for others. The work can only be made through the work you wish to give to it,” Forsythe said. “We assume that these things are made for us, that the contemporary world of architecture is at our service. But what happens when you encounter uncooperative things? There’s a brief moment where you go ‘what?’”
Participants’ bodies naturally react to the struggle of opening the door. This is the choreography moment: when the knees bend, back arches, hips thrust back, and feet slide then grip on the ground.
“We have a variety of different choreographic objects. We have massive sculptural room size filling site responsive works but also more intimate haptic individual experiences,” Respini said.
Other pieces of Forsythe’s exhibition include a video of breakdancer Rauf “Rubberlegz” Yasit and Julliard alumnus Riley Watts, a room of 80 swinging pendulums, rubber knots, and more.
When describing Forsythe during the ICA talk, Artistic Director of Boston Ballet Mikko Nissinen places Forsythe as the Michael Jackson of the dance world — a “demigod of art.” The exhibition at the ICA shows just why Nissinen gives Forsythe these titles.
“When Bill works with the dancers, I can see them grow,” Nissinen said. “At the San Francisco Ballet, within one single hour when I was working with Bill, I changed as a dancer, I thought about dance differently, and I danced everything differently.”
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