The "Master Choreographers" series sponsored by the Sarasota Ballet and Designing Women Boutique, concluded with a presentation on two heralded present-day dance makers, both of whom have assumed their forebears' mantles, though in distinctly different fashions.
William Forsythe, an American who has spent the past 30 years producing groundbreaking contemporary work in Europe, and David Bintley, a Brit schooled at the Royal who now carries on the story ballet tradition as head of the Royal Birmingham Ballet, were the subjects. Each has a personal tie to one of the presenters, Iain Webb, Sarasota Ballet's artistic director, and Jean Weidner Goldstein, founder of both the ballet and Designing Women.
Goldstein, who danced with the Stuttgart Ballet under John Cranko, was with that company when Forsythe, a New Yorker who got his first training at Jacksonville University in Florida, arrived, not long before Cranko's untimely death in 1973.
Forsythe had previously danced with the Joffrey Ballet, but Cranko gave him first professional choreographic opportunity. Two years later, Forsythe became the company's resident choreographer, but the position didn't last long.
"Cranko could see there was talent there," said Goldstein. "But Billy stayed for just two years...there was definitely an ego there."
Forsythe moved on to the government-supported Frankfurt Ballet, where he remained until its demise in 2004, producing some of the most heralded work of the era, most of which is now danced by companies around the world. His dancers were classically trained but his choreography broke creative ground with what has been called his "deconstruction" of the traditional art form, and his work both impressed and confused audiences.
Goldstein — who consistently referred to Forsythe as "Billy" and "this young man" (Cranko is 63) — showed film of the choreographer at work in the studio, having his dancers respond improvisationally to Handel music played backward or his in-the-moment re-mixing on a sound board. But most revealing was a snippet when he demonstrated what he was looking for, showing that no one does Forsythe like Forsythe.
The choreographer now directs his own smaller troupe, the Forsythe Company; in recent years, he has branched into sometimes bizarre multimedia presentations which Goldstein implied may have been "enhanced by various substances."
"But this man is a god in Europe," she confirmed, "and he is brilliant."
Webb then took the microphone for, as he justly said, "something completely different." As a former member of the Royal, he danced for Bintley after Bintley assumed the choreographic mantle of the late Royal choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton, who died in 1988.
Webb pointed out that while Forsythe had inherited the bent for innovation and improvisation from Cranko, Bintley's work shows the distinctly more traditional influence of Ashton, master creator of the clever, sometimes comic and always classically-based story ballet.
As example, Webb screened "Still Life at the Penguin Cafe," which debuted the year of Ashton's death, after Bintley had become the Royal's resident choreographer. With many of the dancers in animal masks representing endangered species, the choreography shows an uncanny facility with reverse anthropomorphism, as penguins, monkeys, and a zebra (Webb pronounces it in the English fashion, "zeb-bra") assume human movement that is still characteristic of their species. Those who had seen film of Ashton dancing as Mrs. Tiggy Winkle in "Tales of Beatrix Potter," had a distinct sense of dejá vu.
"The two of them are very different," concluded Webb of Forsythe and Bintley. "But they have each taken their influences and are trying to see how far they can push them."