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Frankfurt, Germany

The art of subtraction

William Forsythe's minimalism shaped Frankfurt Ballet for 20 years. Then the budget 'minimalists' appeared.

June 06, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

A stripped stage, sparse light and dancers creating metaphor and beauty with unbridled movement define the work of choreographer William Forsythe, who reveres classical ballet even as he deconstructs it with mesmerizing defiance.

Forsythe's celebrated Frankfurt Ballet will present four of his works at the Orange Country Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday. The dances are explorations of time, space and synchronized thought that exemplify the revolutionary style Forsythe has been refining for two decades. He's a minimalist, peeling away the trappings of theater until, as he puts it, there are just bodies.

"Ballet appears to be grammatical and is much more grammatically flexible than what the classical era ever imagined," says Forsythe, 54, the American-born artistic director who trained with the Joffrey Ballet and is a leading voice in contemporary dance. "I'd like to be like [playwright] Samuel Beckett. We see language already transformed as it's being spoken."

Wiebke Huester, a prominent German dance critic, says Forsythe's choreography invites the audience into a game in which it can linger among the "strange movements" he gives the human soul. "Sometimes he likes to be a little mysterious," said Huester, a reviewer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "He tries to empty the theater of all connotations. It's extinguishing a memory and then refilling it. He's a student of dance. He knows classical ballet. He knows what he demolishes."

Forsythe's vision has resonated in Europe, which, when he moved to this west German city in 1984, was more receptive to new dance interpretation. But last year, he found himself at an unenviable confluence of politics, money and a battle between the classical and the avant-garde. Now, after 20 years with the Frankfurt Ballet, he is leaving the company this summer to head a private, nonprofit dance group. The decision was prompted when Frankfurt -- facing financial difficulties like many German cities -- threatened to cut its nearly $6-million subsidy to his 37-member troupe.

Questions over funding led to matters of aesthetics. Some in the Frankfurt government, which has the highest per capita arts spending of any German city, had grown less enamored with Forsythe's work and sought a return to the classical forms and elaborate scenery of the tutu set. The artistic dust-up attracted Mikhail Baryshnikov and other dancers in support of Forsythe. The city relented and agreed to extend his funding, but Forsythe decided it was time to find something new.

The debate underscored not only Forsythe's uncompromising determination to take ballet to new levels but also how shortages in public funding are beginning to shrink cultural budgets across an economically struggling Germany. This atmosphere has led to questions about what type of art can survive in times of financial austerity, especially when most audiences favor conventional music and dance over experimental programs.

When compared with the situation in the United States and much of Europe, German public funding for culture -- mainly through city governments -- is generous. Reverence for dance troupes, orchestras and opera is as ingrained in the German character as the passion for nature articulated by the 19th century Romantics. National per capita spending on arts programs last year was about 99 euros, or roughly $120 at the current rate of exchange, down from 101.50 euros in 2001. In the U.S., the per capita average in 2003 was $1.10.

"Culture is not an event to decorate everyday life," Hans Joachim Meyer, a former arts minister for the state of Saxony, said last year. "It is a basic need of mankind that keeps memory alive and makes creativity possible."

Still, many cities -- notably Berlin, all but bankrupt from the east-west reunification that began in 1990 -- are facing financial peril. Their predicament coincides with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's attempts to overhaul the welfare state, a move Germans fear will undercut the social pillars their government was founded on after World War II. (The forerunner of the Frankfurt Ballet was started in 1948.) In the land of Marx and Beethoven, public funding is eroding for everything from doctor visits to orchestra subsidies.

The climate has resulted in some wacky sideshows. Violinists in the Bonn Symphony Orchestra were met with chuckles and derision recently when they filed a lawsuit to increase their salaries, claiming that since their ranks were thinned from 23 to 17 two years ago, they now work harder than the percussionists and harpists.

But there have also been some serious consequences for the arts. In Berlin, cultural funding has fallen from 500 million euros in 1995 to 370 million euros this year.

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