Thinking, motion and language

Denken in Bewegung 2004English
in Gerald Siegmund (ed.), William Forsythe: Denken in Bewegung, Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 2004

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Contextual note
This text was written and published in German in 2004, and first published in English on Sarma in March 2014.

Virginia Woolf used the literary technique ‘interior monologue’ to describe the movement of consciousness in a character’s mind. It seemed to me very appropriate to use Woolf’s writing as the starting point for a work, because her exploration of visual perception occurring outside the body is reflected in William Forsythe’s improvisation techniques, where the flow of thoughts produces physical action and order. In the same way that ‘stream-of-consciousness’ is often without logical sequence or syntax, the result of this ‘thinking in motion’ adheres to an inorganic movement process with an unpredictable virtuosity.

Virginia Woolf remarked that when perfected, stream-of-consciousness technique should “make us feel ourselves seated at the centre of another’s mind” (1919), and I believe we experience precisely this sensation when we observe Forsythe’s improvisation techniques by an expert performer.

 So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying “that is all” more and more ponderously untileven the heart in the body that lies in the sun on the beach says too “that is all”. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking, the dog barking, far away barking and barking.

(Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, 1925)

Woolf Phrase (2001) was inspired by language. In the above extract from Mrs Dalloway, the focalization is both external and internal; the human body’s perception of nature corresponds with the personification of nature and all physical phenomena perceived by the senses. Exemplifying the semantic repetition and harmonious alliteration of the text, Forsythe, Richard Siegal and I choreographed a phrase producing movement qualities and thinking patterns that became intrinsic to the work. Reciting the text during an improvisation enabled us to transpose the relentless rhythm of Woolf’s writing into our bodies and influence our own physical language.

During the creation of Woolf Phrase we developed a series of improvisation techniques (known in Ballett Frankfurt as modalities) that enabled us to generate movement, communicate and respond through this language of our bodies. These codes, whether interactive or solo/non-interactive, could reference and transform the original phrase material and set in motion the thinking process necessary to perform the duet. Although the piece was highly structured, these modalities allowed us to approach the movement differently each night. I found this freedom Forsythe gave us not only extremely stimulating and challenging, but it also gave me deeper satisfaction as a performer.

The first modality began with an ‘exchange’ duo whereby, generating a particular movement, we feed one another the possibility of simultaneous reading and exchange of material. ‘Telescoping’ and ‘metascoping’ were ways that Richard Siegal and I could approach and respond more precisely to each other’s movement. For instance observing his or my own arm’s motion, we attempted to focus down the line, or imaginary line, of the arm. The body then follows the gaze to the origin of the movement, rotates around this point and extrudes our line of vision in a different direction. ‘Metascoping’ required us to respond to the motion just observed on the others’ body by sliding the gaze towards, away or around these paths of motion. When achieved at a certain speed these momentary dialogues become extremely reactive and reminiscent of bees swarming. Using ‘Self-head’ we would visualize the motion of the chosen body part or parts, and while performing the phrase try to simultaneously follow this activity with our own head. The ‘Coccyx’ modality would disrupt the paths of motion inscribed by the tailbone through sudden breaks or releases in the direction of the foot causing residual movement to emanate through the body.

Whilst performing the modalities, Richard and I are in a state of not only generating our own motion, but constantly sensing the ‘flow’ and complexity of both our bodies in motion. When we become highly aware of this we can actively ‘flow match’, in which we momentarily synchronize the flow of motion without necessarily having to watch each other. In one particular solo modality I have the freedom to switch between various movement qualities and tasks. My own embodied engagement in this allows the internal split between the intellectual and instinctual to occur. When certain movement patterns and sensations have been ingrained into the body they become part of a physical memory. In this solo, I can be guided temporarily by the body’s innate pathways until they reach the mind again, and the cerebral stream takes over. The experience becomes a manifestation of my rational and creative thoughts flowing into and around the proprioceptive memories of the body. This is somewhat reflected in the scene that follows, whilst playing Mrs Dalloway I break into a spoken outburst of memories, broken up by the mounting physical action of the striking of the bells. In this sense, the frantic rhythm of the heart is being pursued by the rational concept of time, and I find myself split between the heart/emotions and the mind.

Divided dramaturgically by time and context, we oscillate between fiction and reality, producing memories and anecdotes from different situations. It is often necessary for us to switch quite dramatically from one state to another, and I find this to be a characteristic of Forsythe’s work. “100 years from now”/ “Somehow seashore”/ “All of a sudden…” This representation of points in time and space made us imagine, remember and project ourselves into, specific scenes. In the same way as Woolf tried to personify the elements, Richard and I at times attempted to de-humanize our bodies – giving them elemental, (sea) and animal (bird, dog, bee) qualities. Movement became contiguous with sound and nature – circling and squawking, barking and pattering, sounds of waves and rising and falling. Gradually and organically these choreographic metaphors for language were built into the work until the piece became for me personally, both a fascinating research into Mrs Dalloway, and coherent encounter between movement and text.


Utilizing a different approach to language and movement is Artifact (1984) in which the two speaking characters have an entirely separate role to the thirty dancers. The antithesis of Woolf Phrase, where a breadth of language is articulated in a relatively short time, Artifact plays with multiple possibilities and interpretations of the same text throughout the full-length work. In ballet, a choreographic theme is often repeated with slight variations of steps, and I think in this piece, the text functions in a similar way. As the ‘Person in historical costume’ character I opened the ballet with the following text:


Good evening,

Remember me?

Try not to forget what you are seeing and you will say what I hear

Try not to remember what I am saying and you will think what I see

Try not to forget what you are hearing and you will see what I say

Try not to remember what I am thinking and you will do what I hear

Try not to forget what you are doing and you will say what I see

Try not to forget…

Pervading the space of the silent corps de ballet, this one female voice attempts to charm the audience with her bourgeois behavior and interpretations of the text. The language created an intriguing yet absurd counterpoint to the dance, acting like some kind of bizarre narration throughout the piece. Given the freedom to rehearse alone, I experimented with the semantics and structures of these texts. I found that just as the choreography had its own refined and complex musicality, I could also approach the text like a musical score. Alternating between the interpretative tones and the musicality of the text, I found a way to color and embellish its rhythmical structures.


Every time I step outside I remember what I always see and every time I step inside I forget what I never did, and every time I step outside I remember what I always thought and every time I step inside I remember what I never heard….

Did you see what he did?  He knows what you do. Do you do what he says? He   says what you think. Did you say what he saw? He thinks what you see. Do you do what he thinks? He sees what you hear…


In Act 3 the utterly pleasant tone cracks as the schizophrenic nature of my character is revealed. Stripped of her gown, she rants and raves in bitter and hysterical tones, turning against her male counterpart in a bout of madness. The exploitation of the language is exemplified by the spiteful interpretations of the same words. My text would eventually transgress into everyday language, ending with an on-stage off-stage argument between Forsythe and I during intermittent curtain closing, even though the spectator usually only heard my part.


To deal with sudden shifts in performance I often have to develop my own dramaturgy for it/them to make sense and to enable me to produce these states instantaneously. In the complex structure of Endless House (1999), I jumped from one space to another playing a real estate agent, Kathy from Wuthering Heights, an Australian acting student and a Balinese witch in a matter of minutes/short time span, while performing the various dance modalities in between. In this case, the spectators can mirror these shifts in performance, as they are free to move throughout the performance space and dictate their own dramaturgical perception of the work. Unlike Artifact, where the fixed ballet choreography is displayed in its proscenium, Endless House lends itself to a form of anarchy. Forsythe is obliged to give over a certain amount of artistic control as it is not physically possible for him to control the motion of the spectators, nor monitor all the performers and their individual (movement and text) improvisations. The tension between restriction and freedom often creates a power struggle in Forsythe’s work. Many of his pieces demand what for me is an extreme physicality, a sharp creativity or a variety emotional states, and I find myself equally exhausted mentally as physically in the effort to find ways to take myself through the performance.


This tension, between the body and the mind brings something powerful to Forsythe’s work. Self meant to govern (1994) is an example of such a piece where I found the constant switching from a formalized ballet language to the alphabet-based improvisation, demanded an intense physical and mental concentration. In many respects I think this piece contains the essence of Forsythe’s work, as it is articulated through states of thinking, musicality, sensitivity, strict ballet vocabulary and absolute creative thinking. Forsythe often says improvisation should look like highly complex choreography, so this subsequently becomes completely dependent on the performers’ approach that night. For my performance to ‘work’ I must be in a state of heightened perception of what I am doing, what I just did, and what I am about to do – and like Woolf Phrase it is perpetuated by a state of thinking outside of the body’s usual parameters. 


In Loss (1991) we deal with another kind of state. Before the curtain opens we wait in our opening positions while the snow is let onto the stage. During these minutes I feel as if I pass into a state where the fourth wall dissolves, and from the moment the curtain opens and I begin my first text, I feel like I have been there for an eternity.


Each passing year, never able to exact its toll, keeps altering what was sublime into the stuff of comedy. Is something eaten away? If the exterior is eaten away, is it true, then, that the sublime pertains by nature only to an exterior that conceals a core of nonsense? Or does the sublime indeed pertain to the whole, but a ludicrous dust settles upon it.

(Yukio Mishima, Runaway Horses, used in Loss)


I consider the unique atmosphere created by the piece to be a sacred space in which we preserve, disrupt, fall into and unearth the multiple layers of memory and creation. Initiated by the disfocus of the eyes, our idiosyncratic ballet language is radically inverted to produce a kind of slippery, unstable physicality. This altered perception consequently transforms the body’s understanding of motion, and as strict form falls away, all that remains of the ballet vocabulary is the épaulement.

I found this to be a very absorbing state, because the loss of habitual orientation increased my sensitivity and awareness to the internal torques, subtle tensions and the residual releases through the body. While my role drew on an almost shamanistic exploration of the physical form, it created an interesting ground from which to manifest the body’s deeper knowledge and impulses. Loss was for me one of the more sophisticated co-ordinations, and perhaps because I feel closer to release technique than to ballet technique, I have great pleasure in performing this kind of movement.

Just as the paper tossed around the stage remains blank, and the dance-floor is blotted out by the snow, the physicality communicates a kind of indescribable motion and consciousness that moves/goes beyond language. Although the opening text comes again later in the piece, I feel it is less for its narration, than its representation of the cycle of consciousness. Moreover, Woolf Phrase begins and ends with the same words, the same seagull sounds and I find the text repetitions in Forsythe’s work seem to signify cycles.


These cycles of purity and madness, freedom and restriction, power and loss of control are intrinsic to his work. My own cycle brought me into the work, my creativity, my intellect and my emotions and having experienced it like learning another language that allows me to express things in certain ways, I was able to learn from and contribute back into the extraordinary Ballett Frankfurt repertoire. This unique language of motion and systems of improvisation that Forsythe has created makes him one of the most interesting and intelligent choreographers I have worked with, and his knowledge has inspired and stimulated me in my continuing search for new approaches to the body through the mind.