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Sudden Flash

In 1987 an American choreographer working in Europe turned ballet on its head. Dance would never be the same.

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There was an air of excitement

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, by the choreographer William Forsythe, premiered the evening of May 30, 1987 at the Palais Garnier in Paris. The performance was brief — only 26 minutes in duration — but it struck the ballet world at its core. Onstage at the Garnier, their opulent home, were nine dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, a company in many ways the birthplace of this classical art form’s traditions.

In less than half an hour, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated decoupled the spatial-geometric tenets of ballet — that the relationships between limbs make certain positions of the body appear “classical” in nature, or not — from the established list of steps with French names in ballet’s centuries-old syllabus. The new positions unveiled in “Middle,” as it’s known, were in fact the old ones, manipulated. Where five degrees of torsion, or épaulement, once gave a basic classroom shape some cosmopolitan élan, Forsythe pushed those tensions to their theoretical and physical breaking points. Where legs used to be raised to hip-height, Middle threw them overhead.

iIn the Middle, Somewhat Elevated decoupled ballet’s geometries from its classical steps. Above: Laurent Hilaire and Sylvie Guillem. Still image courtesy Arthaus Musik

This one-act ballet was the result of a rarefied combination of circumstances, places and personalities that triggered alchemical effects in the rehearsal studio as well as onstage. The commissioning agent and director of the Paris Opera Ballet, 49-year-old Rudolf Nureyev, was in his fourth season with the company, following his politically charged defection from the Soviet Union in 1961, and two decades as a star dancer based primarily in London. Sylvie Guillem, tapped by Forsythe for one of two lead roles in his new work, was just 22 years old — then the youngest artist to be promoted to étoile, the highest rank at the strictly regimented Paris Opera Ballet. Forsythe was 37 and already well-established in Europe as the “bad boy” of contemporary ballet, with three dozen polarizing and experimental works completed since 1976.

Despite his reputation in the dance world, Forsythe’s inventions could not simply be dismissed as “outsider art.” He had already cut his teeth with the Joffrey Ballet in New York and, despite that company’s progressive leanings, Forsythe was a devoted student of Western dance history. “The important thing to remember is that Mr. Forsythe is a classical-ballet choreographer, not a modern-dance choreographer,” wrote Anna Kisselgoff in her review for The New York Times of New Sleep, a provocative work of dance-theater Forsythe created for San Francisco Ballet just four months before Middle’s auspicious debut. “His command of the academic lexicon is striking,” she explained.

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was the result of rare creative circumstances and chemistry. Above: William Forsythe in the studio with Sylvie Guillem, foreground. Still image courtesy Arthaus Musik

Forsythe conceived Middle as a strict exercise in themes and variations, with an eye toward acknowledging the ephemeral nature of the art form. “There was this idea running through my head that, if we’re not doing it, there’s no ballet,” Forsythe recalled in 2014. “The body can go from walking, which is an entirely pedestrian, normal activity, [yet] within an instant, ballet materializes, and that was interesting for me. Suddenly it appears.”

In good hands, this alchemy realized by the choreographer and the members of Middle’s original cast shines just as brightly today. Middle is the only piece premiered since 1985 as integral to the ballet canon as George Balanchine’s masterworks, the late-19th century Imperial Russian repertoire (think Swan Lake), or that high-water mark of ballet’s Romantic era, Giselle (also premiered by the Paris Opera Ballet, in 1841).

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Giselle at the Opéra le Peletier, its home prior to the construction of the Palais Garnier, in 1867 during a state visit by Tsar Alexander II. Lithograph: Collen Imerton. Public domain

The innovations of Middle and its fresh, contemporary aesthetic were recognized immediately, earning praise from, among others, English dance critic John Percival, who reviewed the ballet for The Times of London and called it “the most exciting [ballet] I have seen for a long time.” He wrote:

Imagine that Balanchine, who responded to Hindemith, Webern and late Stravinsky by inventing a new way of using the steps of classical ballet, had gone on to become similarly inspired by the dancers, music and spirit of 1987… The impact does not come merely from the thrust and aptness of the steps, which bring out all the best qualities of the dancers… Equally important is the way the structure is organized so that to watch it is as surprising and intellectually satisfying as suddenly getting the hang of a difficult crossword puzzle…. This is a ballet that ought to be shown as widely as possible.

Since its premiere, Middle has been licensed to ballet companies around the world, and imitated even more broadly, quickly becoming a new standard against which companies and dancers judge themselves — and each other. Just as architect Richard Rogers’s “inside-out” office tower for the insurer Lloyd’s of London had caused a sensation the year before, Middle moved the needle uncomfortably close to transparency about an art form often shrouded in decoration, pomp and splendor. Middle’s nakedness thrilled some and upset others; it also pushed the limits of what the classically trained body could do.

Forsythe needed to manage how he introduced new pliabilities to these carefully specialized ballet dancers. “To give it that edge, to not make it settle more squarely, took a lot of coaching and encouragement,” Elizabeth Corbett, one of Forsythe’s early collaborators, explains. “When people felt happy dancing his work, it was because they were finding their personal best, finding that clarity, timing and musicality, pushing the limits of line. I think it was Sylvie [Guillem] who once described it as ‘hard Balanchine’ — not hard as in difficult, but the way you might say, ‘hard liquor.’”

In 1987 Sylvie Guillem was the youngest dancer to have achieved the rank of Etoile (star) at the Paris Opera Ballet. Above: Guillem in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Still image courtesy Arthaus Musik

Thomas McManus, like Corbett a longtime member of Germany’s Frankfurt Ballet under Forsythe’s direction, agrees that, with Middle, Forsythe extended inquiries launched by George Balanchine. “It’s deviating from the classical, taking the classical, and shifting it elsewhere — subtly, and I think that’s what made [Middle] so popular: It wasn’t just a deconstruction of ballet — which we were exploring in other pieces around that time. It was a subtle shift away from the classical while paying homage to Balanchine as well. Even as a novice, you could see what was going on. ‘Oh, that’s ballet…but wait: There’s something else there, too — what is that?’”

[Cover image: In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe at Frankfurt Ballet with dancers Stefanie Arndt, left, and Thierry Guiderdoni. Photo: Dominik Mentzos]

Editor: Daisy Florin

Fact Checker: Nick Davidson

Copy Editor: Natalie Axton

Film courtesy of Arthaus Musik

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