When you think about dance, various images are likely to spring to mind: ballerinas in gauzy tutus, Fred Astaire tapping his way down vertiginous stairs, the pared-down clarity of Merce Cunningham, the drama of a hip-hop dance-off. However different these mental pictures are, they are all more conventional than the dance works the choreographer William Forsythe has been presenting in London over the past couple of weeks in the Focus on Forsythe season organised by Sadler's Wells.
The 60-year-old American comes from a traditional ballet background, training in New York and then dancing with the Joffrey and Stuggart companies. In 1984, after a spell as choreographer in Stuggart, he became director of Ballet Frankfurt where, over 20 years, he created works that propelled ballet into a new age. These pieces took the basics of classical choreography and wrenched them into thrillingly modern, highly articulated new shapes. Balances were skewed, pelvises tilted, pointe shoes extended into outer space. Such brutal post-modernism seemed shocking at the time, but now works such as The Vertiginious Thrill of Exactitude and In the Middle Somewhat Elevated are prized possessions in the repertories of the world's biggest ballet companies, the Royal, Paris Opera Ballet and the Mariinsky among them.
At the same time, Forsythe started to push the boundaries of what dance could be about. His works weren't fairy stories or abstractions; Impressing the Czar deals with nothing less than the story of civilisation itself; Decreation (just shown in London) is a complex study of love. Eventually, Forsythe's constant grappling with the constraints of traditional dance proved too radical for the funders of Frankfurt, and Ballet Frankfurt closed in 2004. Almost immediately, he founded his own smaller company - The Forsythe Company - and with them has walked down different, equally exciting, but less quantifiable roads.
His new work infuriates some critics, partly because he continues to shatter the divide between dance and other art forms. His current pieces are part-installation, part-dance, part-theatre. The dance content is also different; Forsythe and his talented dancers have devised a form of movement that is seamless, distorted, internalised. Their steps seem to be drawn from the innermost core of their being. How they move affects the sounds they make, the emotions they portray.
His subject matter is more challenging than ever. Of the pieces seen in London, You Made Me a Monster asks the audience to make grotesque models of the human skeleton and examines illness and xenophobia; Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time requires its dancers to interact with 200 pendulums in a study of gravity; Additive Inverse presents a solo dancer with a proposition that he must solve. The work is complicated but also beautiful and leavened with shafts of humour. Its richness springs from the wide-ranging, free-associating mind of the choreographer himself, a man who loves pure maths and YouTube with equal passion. One piece he has brought to London is an installation that morphs passers-by into strange, elongated versions of themselves, floating through the landscape; another is a loft full of drifting balloons.
Both are inspired by his belief that choreography is not just an arid term for things you see in a theatre, but intrinsic to every aspect of life. It is this insistence on the importance of movement that, I think, makes him such a unique figure; he asserts over and over again that dance is capable of dealing with ideas and concepts, as well as with emotion. And he does this at a time when so much modern dance has become lost in abstract doodling and ballet companies just repeat their greatest hits. Almost alone he stands for the intellectual possibility of an art form that is too easily sidelined and undermined. "Dance is a good field, it shouldn't be relegated to the status of children's books," he said. There's no danger of that while he is around. email@example.com