A Brief History of the Contemporary Ballet, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”

Written By Robyn Jutsum:

So you’ve heard us hype up this month’s theme and introducing clients to contemporary ballet. And The Ballet Spot team is so thrilled that the month of September has been inspired by the fierce hallmark of William Forsythe’s choreographic resume, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.

But as much as we love dancing with all of you, we also wanted to share some context for this ballet, its roots, and trajectory from inception to today.

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
was choreographed by William Forsythe and premiered in 1987 with the Paris Opera Ballet. The original cast was comprised of the étoiles, the stars, of the company, hand-picked by Rudolf Nureyev. These dancers were selected for their collective ability to release their inhibitions and push themselves to their limits as athletes and dancers. Among the original cast was Sylvie Guillem, who rose to the top of the ranks at Paris Opera Ballet, later becoming a principal guest artist with the Royal Ballet in London and is still today recognized as an icon of not only the ballet world but the dance community at large. Alongside Guillem were dancers Isabel Guérin, Laurent Ilère, and Manuel Legris. The variations and pas de deuxs of this ballet are named after its original cast. Since its premiere, dancers who perform this piece will dance, for instance, the Sylvie part or the Isabel part.

With music by Dutch composer, Thom Willems, this ballet has stood the test of time and is considered a powerhouse piece. It requires athleticism, incredible stamina, and attention to detail not only in choreography but musical phrasing and relationship to the other dancers on stage. It is seen as a contemporary masterpiece that transcends the traditions of classical ballet and is performed by companies around the world.

On the ballet, Forsythe has written, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is a theme and variations in the strictest sense. Exploiting the vestiges of academic virtuosity that still signify “the Classical,” it extends and accelerates these traditional figures of ballet. By shifting the alignment and emphasis of essentially vertical transitions, the affected enchaînements receive an unexpected force and drive that makes them appear foreign to their own origins.”

Described in the notes of Doug Fullington for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Forsythe’s choreography is “athletic…a union of classical ballet and modern dance—a bold regeneration of the academic dance vocabulary.”

In the ballet, dancers pull off their supporting leg, manipulating and pushing their extensions, making quick and almost instantaneous directional changes. This is not to mention their interactions with the other dancers. The use, and specific use, of the hands, is paramount and intentional not just in this particular ballet but in Forsythe’s choreographic vocabulary as a whole.

In further understanding of Forsythe’s perspective on choreography, his following words speak volumes, “Choreography is a language. It is like an alphabet, and you do not need to spell words that you already know. The meaning of a language is determined by the context in which it appears. The most important is how you speak this language, and not what you say ” 

Wendy Perron of Dance Magazine writes on Forsythe as a choreographer, “Forsythe’s choreography is a layered experience, both kinetic and intellectual.”

Something perhaps less known about In the Middle is that while it stands on its own, it is also the second act of a larger four-act ballet, Impressing the Czar, choreographed by Forsythe. Impressing the Czar had its premiere the year following In the Middle, in 1988, by Ballet Frankfurt and is considered a postmodern ballet. For those unfamiliar with typical dance programs, a company may do a “mixed bill” in which In the Middle may be performed among other pieces. Alternately, a company may present a storybook (i.e. Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty) or full-length ballet in which the audience will see one larger piece unfold rather than multiple.

William Forsythe is recognized for his work with Ballet Frankfurt (1976-2004) and the Forsythe Company (2005-2015). He trained at the Joffrey Ballet School and later went on to join the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. In 1976, Forsythe became the Stuttgart Ballet’s resident choreographer and in 1984, he became the director of Ballet Frankfurt. Today, he is known for his more recent work with Boston Ballet and English National Ballet as well as Paris Opera Ballet. He is also a professor of dance (ballet and choreography) at the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.

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