William Forsythe and the Experience of Self-Discovery

by Madeline Smith

"Think of the body polyphonically, as though you're an orchestra." -- William Forsythe

It took some dancers a few minutes to loosen up in the presence of world-famous dancer William Forsythe on Monday--and you can hardly blame them. Forsythe has accrued credits in multiple genres of dance as an artistic director, choreographer and dancer across the globe. This week, he hosted a master class and Q&A at the Harvard Dance Center, focusing on improvisation and self-discovery.

Hesitation quickly evaporated. Forsythe's soft-spoken and dry sense of humor set a light-hearted atmosphere in the studio, often leading to collective laughter. Soon each dancer was moving independently in his or her own space, activating imagination to execute the tasks quietly presented by Forsythe, who walked among the dancers throughout.

Although Forsythe guided the session, he constantly challenged the dancers to focus on the individual experiences they were having. Even when explaining how to perform a certain movement, Forsythe was quick to conclude with: "It's not a thought … I'm trying to give it language, but I want it to remain a sensation."

Forsythe's teaching style is humble and unassuming, often asking questions such as "What would that look like for you?" or "What happened for you?" Perhaps most remarkably, Forsythe seemed to be engaging in his own self-discovery as he taught. He was not merely bequeathing his expertise on the younger dancers before him--he was watching, listening and constantly experimenting himself.

After 90 minutes of intense personal creativity, Forsythe fielded questions from his admiring class, maintaining the same thoughtfulness and humility he demonstrated while teaching. When asked about his innovative perspective on ballet, which has led him to deconstruct the form to its most basic components and infuse it with new technique, Forsythe remarked, "Performance of a practice is not so possessed by its own history that there can be no alternative future to that practice." He added, with a grin, "There was a point when imaginary numbers didn't exist."

Another student wanted to know what has kept Forsythe grounded in the face of critique, while granting him the courage to question the very fundamentals of his art form. "I simply didn't understand the rules … I try not to assume I 'know,'" he responded. "If I assume I 'know,' the project is finished." When reflecting on his journey, Forsythe admits to often being unsure of his next step. "You have to doubt all the time. All I feel is doubt. You have to doubt your doubt."

Forsythe's answer to his final question encapsulates his artistic philosophy and legacy. In reference to the content of the master class, a dancer asked "What should we understand about all this?" And Forsythe responded, "You already understood by doing. What dancers sense is what they know."