Noah Gelber: Working for William Forsythe is a dream come true

Noah Gelber rehearsing with Prague National Ballet
Noah Gelber rehearsing with Prague National Ballet

by Zuzana Rafajová

In October Czech National Ballet premiered The Second Detail by choreographer William Forsythe. The company was rehearsed by Noah Gelber, former dancer of Forsythe’s company and one of his choreographic assistants and stagers. I therefore decided to ask him few questions about his job, that he answered with the same painstaking accuracy he used while rehearsing Forsythe’s repertoir. 

Can you remember your first encounter with William Forsythe?
When I was a 17-year-old advanced student at the School of American Ballet in New York, William Forsythe came to create a ballet for the New York City Ballet. Due to the injury of a principal dancer from the cast, a friend from my ballet class was “borrowed” by the company to work with William Forsythe. It was a humungous honor. When this ballet ‘Behind China Dogs’ premiered that year, my friend danced alongside principals and soloists from the company. This fact alone endeared Bill in my eyes, his willingness to collaborate with a very special and talented student, not even a company member, yet alongside some of the finest dancers in the company. It showed an openness and flexibility I had yet to encounter. I never dreamed I’d work with Bill someday, it just seemed like an unattainable dream.

But in the end it wasn’t as unattainable as you thought. How did this happen?
About 1 year later as a fledgeling member of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Antwerp, Belgium, I lived together with a Parisian girl who had VHS videos (remember those?) she had recorded from TV programs. Among those was a video of Sylvie Guillem working together in the studio with William Forsythe during the creation of ‘In The Middle Somewhat Elevated’. Always a curious learner, I spent many an evening dancing in front of the TV trying to coordinate and memorize the choreography. At that early stage of my choreographic development, my experience was mostly based on the recognition of established, easily identifiable steps. Until that point in my career I had yet to be overly challenged or pushed beyond habitually established dance canons. Although I had lots of diverse training, from ballet to contemporary and modern, jazz and flamenco, those disciplines nonetheless had a syllabus which could be set to memory. When trying to decipher William Forsythe’s choreography from video, I remember there were certain transitions between familiar movements that were simply too complex for my understanding of the dance lexicon.

Noah Gelber, Impar, choreography by Cayetano Soto (foto Alexander Neff)

So you decided to go directly to the source?
Honestly, the prospect of actually collaborating with William Forsythe still seemed like some distant fantasy. This was not helped by the arrival of the Frankfurt Ballet, his company, on tour in Antwerp. I went to see them perform and simply could not understand how the dancers could ever learn, coordinate, retain and reproduce such unbelievably complex choreography.
Years later when I finally had the unexpected possibility to take class with the Frankfurt Ballet on tour in Paris, I was positively impressed by how friendly the dancers were, supportive and accepting of my presence. And Bill was warm and generous in his approach. . I was emerging from a traumatizing period, frazzled and disillusioned by a former tyrannical artistic director who relentlessly oppressed and demoralized his dancers. Confused about where my love of dance ended and this awful individual’s terrorizing began, I had decided I would quit ballet and go to university. And here I was, sitting in a café, eating croissants with William Forsythe, talking, laughing and feeling totally at ease. And that was it, the beginning of a long collaboration which I feel privileged to say continues to this very day.

You were a part of Forsythe’s company for many years. What made you interested in being an assistant to William Forsythe and stage his ballets?
It simply was a natural propensity I had towards accurately remembering and then proliferating choreography, which made me suitable. Two things for which I was complemented throughout my career everywhere I went, were musicality and the clarity with which I execute movement. I knew what the choreography was, and also what it wasn’t. This was sometimes a curse of sorts, because a lot of dancers simply can’t grasp when they are being inaccurate.
But I was interested in staging ballets since my years at ballet school. There’s even a funny anecdote about it.

Tell us more!
I was about 14, arriving at the School of American Ballet following my academic studies. Passing the first studio upon entering, I found the door open and all the advanced men’s division students just standing around. The teacher seemed worried, slightly upset. On her way out the door, she commented to someone behind me that they were waiting for a principal dancer from New York City Ballet to arrive. He was late, he should have been teaching this class the lead male variation from Balanchine’s ‘Cortége Hongrois’. And it just so happened, that I had learned this very variation from another New York City Ballet principal dancer, Sean Lavery, that summer. Knowing my place, I said nothing at first. But when the teacher returned, she seemed more nervous than before. After she told the guys that nobody knew where this principal dancer was, there was a moment of silence in which I heard myself say, “I know this variation.” The look of shock on the teacher’s face was notable. Here was a short, skinny 14 year old, wearing jeans and sneakers with a backpack full of books, saying he knew the variation they needed precisely in that moment. So I put down my backpack, removed my sneakers and wearing jeans and sports socks, walked towards these tall, physically mature advanced students. They were all 3-5 years my senior. And I did it, I taught the variation. There was no shadow of a doubt in my mind, I knew what I was doing. And that was perhaps the first indication of my future professional path.

So you were not worried years after, when you were starting staging Forsythe’s pieces?
I guess when Bill asked me for the first time if I felt I could set a whole ballet by myself on another company, it was only logical that I answered, “yes”. Of course the ballet in question, ‘The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude’, was a ballet created on me and I had been present for nearly every single rehearsal. I even used to sometimes dance other people’s solos in the back of the studio, to amuse myself. So my transition from dancer to dancer/ stager, then full time stager, was thankfully a smooth one. And I remain ever thankful to be so well suited for this sometimes super-challenging, tiring, stressful, ever-evolving job, which I sincerely love to do.

Noah Gelber, Two Part Invention, choreography by William Forsythe (foto Vladimir Lupovsky)

William Forsythe is considered one of the most influential choreographers of 20th century who revolutionized classical technique. How would you describe his approach to this technique, what makes it unique?
William Forsythe’s work is known to emerge from within and then extend far beyond the ordinary canons of classical ballet, stretching its’ limits and in many ways redefining them. The positions of ballet become a point of departure, a mere catalyst for each individual dancer to explore their art more profoundly and develop their own opinions, ideas and commentary about their own approach to movement. Learning a Forsythe ballet opens a whole new process of discovery which then usually continues even when dancing classical ballets or ballets from other contemporary repertoire.

What would you say is the most inspiring (or fascinating) thing about classical technique?
The classical technique certainly provides a strong and solid base, enabling dancers to then incorporate other levels of complexity on top of the daily technique they practice in class. William Forsythe loves working with classical dancers who excel in their field, elite athletes of a rare artistic breed. But in Forsythe’s works these dancers must be prepared to let go of their habitual balletic constraints and delve into the realms of pure vector and arc, infinite lines in space and expansive movement well beyond the confines of their own finite bodies.

With Czech National Ballet you rehearsed The Second Detail, ballet that was first performed 30 years ago.How do you feel about watching Mr. Forsythe’s older choreographies which have been re-staged again and again?
The Second Detail, despite being 30 years old, still looks remarkably contemporary by today’s standards. Many viewers and participants alike, have come to me expressing their shock that this this piece has been in existence for so long. It looks as if it could have been choreographed yesterday.
As to pieces being restaged again and again, it is up to the stager of the work to ensure that the dancers are doing more than merely executing their “obligatos”, arriving in certain poses on pre-determined counts. That would come across as flat, lifeless. And anyone who assumes that my contribution to the staging of Forsythe’s works is limited to solely that aspect, is very much mistaken. Personally, I view my role as a Forsythe stager as a far more exploratory role.

That means there is a room for personal interpretation?
Of course. There is definitely room for personal interpretation and sometimes there are multiple versions of the same choreography. William Forsythe liked to tailor his choreography towards different dancers’ bodies and I strive to do the same. If something really isn’t working from a technical perspective, then the steps may need tweaking or a different image must be invoked, aiding the dancers to alter their approach to any given element of their movements. Usually with a bit of imagination, or by inventing coordination exercises that the dancers can experiment on their own, solutions are developed.

So William Forsythe himself changes his older works, is it correct?
Exactly. And quite often. It makes the teaching and archiving of his ballets a very much living, breathing process. Always evolving and never dull for those who stage, notate and propagate his work.

Did something like this happened with The Second Detail?
Yes, It was created for the National Ballet of Canada. The following season when The Second Detail was then brought to the Frankfurt Ballet (where William Forsythe was artistic director) he greatly changed the production. I remember seeing the Frankfurt Ballet perform The Second Detail in Paris, about 1991 when I was visiting and they were there on tour. It was considerably different from the original version from Canada, which also ended up being quite different from the version which I began dancing in 1992, as a young member of the Frankfurt Ballet. The version which I have been setting on companies around the world during the last decade is more or less the same as the version I danced. But it has also been altered and continues to receive regular updates.

Let’s speak about music. How important of a role does music play in Forsythe’s ballets?
This will differ, depending upon which ballet is under consideration. The Second Detail has a vibrant electronic score by Thom Willems. There is a veritable plethora of both familiar and unfamiliar sounds, interwoven with complex tympani to maintain the dancers’ velocity. I personally find it difficult to imagine The Second Detail ensemble scenes, pas de deux and numerous solos, minus the musical score. Each and every element of the choreographic structure is inherently attached to the music, as if the sounds are emanating from the dancer’s bodies themselves. The cast of Second Detail should be doing more than just executing steps to the music. They must sing the melodies from inside, they should be able to fully embody the richness of what the audience hears as much as they will represent the visual element of the performance.

Noah Gelber, Katherina Markowskaya, Slingerland pas de deux, choreography by William Forsythe (foto Maxim Franke)

What do you consider the most challenging aspect of William Forsythe’s choreographies?

I have noticed, over years or setting choreographies on dancers from more than 50 different international companies, how challenging it is for some dancers to let go of well established unspoken “rules” which they have acquired from their classical training. Certain movements always beginning with a certain foot front or back, steps traditionally appearing in a certain prescribed order, canonized port de bras accompanying certain steps only at precise moments in a precise construction which took years for them to coordinate and commit to memory. These tendencies are challenged by William Forsythe’s choreography in many inventive ways. His new, contrapuntal variations are difficult to coordinate for those who have relied too heavily on automatic muscle memory from purely academic, classical genre. The 2 are integrally connected, yet vastly different. One must almost exit completely from the perspective of a ballet dancer at moments, re-entering as a master drafts-person or architect.

Last question. What do you consider the key features of a great choreorgapher?

A good choreographer knows how to grasp the essence of their chosen choreographic parameters (a story, a piece of music, a particular subject or commentary about a subject) and combine the most genuine conglomeration of the dancers at their disposal, those dancers’ fortes, and their choreographic vision. And yet so much depends on having favorable conditions conducive of good work. Very little can be accomplished within a framework that inhibits creative freedom or with unwilling participants who don’t respect their participation in a creative process. Having experienced the latter rather acutely in the past, I learned this the hard way.

Noah Gelber, American dancer and choreographer Noah Gelber garnered critical acclaim as a guest soloist of the American Ballet Company, before leaving the USA to pursue a career in Europe. While a soloist of the Royal Ballet of Flanders, William Forsythe invited him to join Ballett Frankfurt. Gelber studied at the School of American Ballet. After arriving in Frankfurt, he was featured in Forsythe’s repertoire, appearing all over the world. Well versed in the complex improvisation techniques Forsythe utilises, he was chosen to demonstrate examples of these for the William Forsythe Improvisation Technologies CD-ROM.
Moreover, Gelber has created his own choreographies, one of which, The Overcoat created for the Mariinsky Theatre after N. Golgol short story, earned him a Golden Mask, Russia’s most prestigious theatre award. He has also conceived ballets for The Royal Ballet in London and various solos performed in international galas. Since 1997, he has been choreographic assistant to Forsythe, responsible for setting and coaching 12 of his ballets. The long list of companies he has worked with includes The Royal Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, San Francisco Ballet, Opéra national de Paris, Wiener Staatsballett, New York City Ballet and Teatro alla Scala.

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