When Boston Ballet announced its partnership with choreographer William Forsythe last year, it named his full-length Artifact as its first new acquisition. Created in 1984, Artifact is considered by many to be Forsythe's greatest masterpiece, yet it has never been performed in its entirety by a U.S. company. Simultaneously abstract and theatrical (two characters—a Person in Historical Costume and a Person with Megaphone—have speaking roles), this large-scale “ballet about ballet" is reverential to the past while taking the boundaries of classical technique into the future.
Boston Ballet dancers have been working closely with Forsythe in preparation for the February 23 premiere. Artistic director Mikko Nissinen talked to me about the production, and why it's so groundbreaking.
This is the first step in Boston Ballet's five-year partnership with Forsythe. Why begin with Artifact?
It's his absolute masterpiece, and it's never been done by a North American company. The work premiered 30 years ago, so Bill is very excited to show it to American audiences. It's huge, it's in four acts, and he's re-choreographing the third act completely and changing the finale. We both felt it was the perfect place to start. The other great thing is that he lived away for 40 years. It's a homecoming for a major American artist.
Several companies in the U.S. have performed the abbreviated version, Artifact Suite. What's different about the full-length piece?
It's mind-bending. So many people have said to me, “This ballet changed my life, it changed how I look at art." I've even heard many dancers say that after dancing it, they were a different human being. I think it has that transformative power that fantastic art can have.
Is Artifact an homage to ballet's history?
I don't know if I would use the word “homage"—actually, I think it might be. Bill has tremendous reverence for the art form. All the principals of classical ballet are there, he's just taking it further with the musicality and making sure it's alive and extended. He has this intellectual approach to it and the end result is fascinating. Some people think it's just bang, bang, bang, but that's really far from the truth. [His work] has to be so sensitive and detailed for the qualities to come out of it.
Why is he re-choreographing certain sections?
I'm paraphrasing here, but he said he's a different person than he was 30 years ago. Bill did a lot of theatrical work and for the last 20 years didn't choreograph much ballet. But now he's super-excited about it again and we're so damn lucky with the timing.
So much of the Artifact's power rests in the sheer number of dancers onstage, in unison. I imagine that this is the type of ballet where you wouldn't be disappointed to be cast in the corps.
When I look at some of these en masse sections, the kind of detail and breath he asks for, you usually see a ballerina do that. But when you see the whole ensemble accenting and exaggerating the movement, it's just gorgeous.
You've said that Forsythe changed you as an artist when you were a dancer with San Francisco Ballet. In what way?
I was working on In the middle, somewhat elevated. One day Bill was flying from Japan to Frankfurt and had a five-hour layover at the San Francisco airport, so he came to our rehearsal. Suddenly there was Bill! I found the work fascinating—and hard—but after just one hour with him he opened it up to me in such ways that it became even more fun, and so much easier. He helped me find a different approach, and guess what? It carried over to all my other dancing.
What are your plans for the partnership going forward?
It's sort of evolving. Next year we're doing Pas/Parts, but it's so spontaneous when we talk about the future. I would like to take some of these works and show them to a wider audience in the United States and beyond. We'll do some fun new stuff as well. I'm not saying no to anything!
Boston Ballet performs Artifact February 23–March 5 at the Boston opera House.