The Korea Herald


William Forsythe on Foucault’s ’space of otherness’

Celebrated American choreographer makes Korean stage debut with ‘Heterotopia’

By Claire Lee

Published : April 10, 2013 - 19:51

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The “space of otherness” is what iconoclastic choreographer William Forsythe is bringing to Korea this week with the Korean stage debut of his 2006 work “Heterotopia.”

A site-specific dance which requires the audience to move between two rooms on stage, “Heterotopia” explores the theme of language and its interpretation, as well as the meaning of theater as a space.

The title of Forsythe’s work is derived from French philosopher Michel Foucalt’s essay “Des Espaces Autres,” which uses the term “Heterotopia” to describe “spaces of otherness” that are “neither here nor there,” such as the moment one sees himself in the mirror. There is also a raucous soundtrack performed in incomprehensible yet intelligible languages, blurring the boundary between music and the human spoken language. 
A scene from William Forsythe’s “Heterotopia.” (Seongnam Arts Center) A scene from William Forsythe’s “Heterotopia.” (Seongnam Arts Center)

“Heterotopia” has been initially staged in “properties without seats,” and this week’s Korean runs, being held at Seongnam Arts Center from Wednesday to Sunday, are a rare opportunity to experience the work in a conventional theater.

Only 300 audience members will be admitted to each show at the theater venue, which is normally capable of holding more than 1,800 viewers. All audience members will be asked to ascend onto the stage to see the work.

The American choreographer met with local reporters on Tuesday in Seoul and shared his thoughts on a number of subjects, including “Heterotopia,” his musical upbringing, Foucault’s influence in his works, and the “crisis” in the world of classical ballet today.

Q: “Heterotopia” requires the audience to move between two rooms. Tell us more.

A: “Heterotopia” is a work which is hard to see, but it’s easy to hear. It is slightly deceptive. In one room, what looks like a dance is actually a concert that looks like a play. And this concert is actually the music for a different work that takes place in another room. So dancers, when they move, are not “dancing,” per se. They are conducting like an orchestra. But sometimes the conductors follow the musicians. So there are many overlapping structures of responsibility and initiation. I hope the public will take the initiative to change rooms because if you stay in one room, you don’t understand anything.
American dancer and choreographer William Forsythe speaks during a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap News) American dancer and choreographer William Forsythe speaks during a press conference in Seoul, Tuesday. (Yonhap News)

Q: What was your childhood like?

A: I grew up in a musical family. My grandfather was a concert violist. He was a child prodigy; he had his first premiere in Vienna when he was 12. He taught me violin but explained to me that I would not be a great violin player and said I would be a better conductor. And I went on to learn bassoon and flute. So I played three instruments and then I sang in a chorus. My father was a piano player also, so there was a lot of classical music at home.

At the same time, I had a normal, American ’50s, ’60s upbringing, where I had a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. Motown was very important and funk eventually came in. So I was sort of between two worlds, pretty much. And I feel very comfortable. In other words, I can hear the funk in Bach.

Q: Tell us about your use of music in your works. How do you balance the two?

A: I think, after the model of Balanchine in ballet, that it was difficult to take on the project of interpreting music. So I have pretty much abandoned that project. Not entirely, but pretty much. And I’ve moved on to finding structures that allow the inheritance of musicality of dancers to be the guiding musical structure of the piece.

Musicality does not reside exclusively within the domain of professional musicians. Dancers are highly musical individuals. Most of them have a lot of musical training. And to ascribe an hierarchy out of tradition is, I think, a mistake. Just in my own practice I try not to put too much value in received notions of order in creation. So it should not necessarily be music first, dance second.

Q: What message are you trying to convey with this work?

A: I don’t give messages. I try not to. I hope not. Why did I create this piece? Oh God, I have no idea. I am not a scientist. I am not trying to solve a scientific problem. I’m curious about what could possibly function in the environment of performance. I am more like a medium, or a shaman reading the cards.

Q: The title of the piece, “Heterotopia,” comes from Foucault’s essay “Des Espaces Autres.” How did his “structuralist” philosophy influence your works?

A: Philosophy can be a very useful tool. But it doesn’t have to demand or function as an imperative. Foucault was useful to start something. But I don’t know if he was useful to finish it. I’ve used Foucault on a number of occasions. And I find that he is very suggestive in terms of procedurals.

Q: You have been creating unconventional, modern dance works away from classical ballet.

A: I did not stop ballet. Three weeks ago I was in Russia at the Mariinsky and was in Paris Opera (theater) in December. With my own company, though, I have a different instrument. I don’t have classical ballet dancers. I have dancers who have studied ballet but we are not interested in the project of classical ballet. Right now I think the problem lies in institutions of classical ballet, not the dancers. Institutions ― how they conduct themselves ― are questionable for me.

I like ballet very much ― very, very much. But I think that within the world of ballet, which is different than mine ― I move between both ― I think they are having a sort of crisis.

Q: What do you exactly mean by the “crisis?”

A: The crisis is very complicated. It has to do with the economics of the real estate and bureaucracies. It has to do with individuals. The history is very complex. And to write a history of anything, you have to look at all the structures underneath them, like the cost of renting a building and the cost of an orchestra.

For example, look at Mariinsky Ballet. Their director is a conductor ― Gergiev. Gergiev does not understand how ballet works but he is the director. He thinks it is okay to rehearse 11 hours a day. He thinks it is okay to give 350 performances a year. It’s not a football team. Football teams can’t do that either. He finds ballet very useful to earn money for the orchestra. How do you earn money? You play “Sleeping Beauty” over and over again. You do “Swan Lake” over and over again ― the classics that do very well in Russia. But if there is going to be any change, then there has got to be a desire for change. It’s got to accept that it is not 1875 and the conditions are different. You can’t make an authentic classical ballet anymore. It would be very inauthentic, actually.

“Heterotopia” runs from April 10-14 at Seongnam Arts Center in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province. All tickets cost 110,000 won. For more information, call (031) 783-8000.

By Claire Lee (