Hit Play: The Music and Movement of Blake Works I


Maria Alvarez and Roddy Doble

Photo credit: Angela Sterling

Four Company dancers share what it’s like to dance to the unique soundtrack of Blake Works I and rehearse with Bill Forsythe.

William Forsythe and Emily Entingh

Photo credit: Angela Sterling

James Blake

Courtesy of Universal Music

A musician praised by ROLLING STONE for “his ability to mix downtempo dubstep textures with gospel-leaning piano balladry” isn’t who you might expect to hear during a night at the ballet. Choreographer William Forsythe is flipping that script with Blake Works I. The ballet pulls seven tracks from James Blake’s 2016 album The Colour in Anything, chock full of evocative lyrics, syncopated percussion, and gripping instrumentals.

Before the North American premiere of Blake Works I, part of the FULL ON FORSYTHE program, we sat down with four Company dancers to talk about how they approach this music in the studio and what it’s like to work closely with William (Bill) Forsythe.

You were rehearsing Blake Works I during the run of The Nutcracker. There’s quite a contrast between James Blake and Tchaikovsky. What’s it like to shift from dancing to classical music to something you’d likely hear on the radio?

Chyrstyn Fentroy: It is quite fun for the dancers and gives me a sense of relaxation. I lose this idea that sometimes comes with classical ballet, that perfection is the goal, and I become a little more human. There are so many layers to the music—lyrics, down beats, up beats, instruments—that even my mistakes become something I can enjoy because my mistakes allow me to listen for new musicality and find a new way to be playful.

Daniel Cooper: Shifting from classical music like Tchaikovsky to something less conventional at this point is quite refreshing. Especially with The Nutcracker, a score most dancers are so familiar with and have heard since they were young, it breaks things up and even helps you appreciate the beauty of Tchaikovsky.

Roddy Doble: I think the music allows for great accentuation of the classical ballet style. The dancers’ form is still suspended by the years of strict adherence to the firm guidelines of classical ballet, but updated and authenticated by the kind of nuance and playful exaggeration that is quintessential to Bill’s work. There is potential too that modern music enables greater honesty from a modern-day dancer. Regardless, I can report far more dancing in the wings from my coworkers to this contemporary soundtrack!

Aside from the musical style, there’s also the fact that the Blake Works I music has words. Do you listen to the lyrics? Have they affected the way you approach the choreography?

Lia Cirio: When we first started learning the choreography, I did not listen closely to the lyrics. I caught little words here and there and we also learned cues for choreography within the lyrics. After I knew the choreography well enough, I looked up the lyrics to one of the pas de deux that I do in Blake Works I. We dance to “F.O.R.E.V.E.R.” and wow, those lyrics are devastating. It was hard not to get emotional after knowing what James Blake is actually singing.

RD: I think it’s important to listen to the lyrics and consider what story is trying to be told through them, but the singer vocalizes a message that is best sung, while we are there to communicate what can only be danced. There should be no competition between the two mediums, because it is their relationship that ultimately elevates the piece.

Do you spend time listening to the music outside of the studio? 

DC: Particularly with Bill’s work because the musicality is so important, most of us do. He and his ballet masters encourage it and make sure we have access to it. For Blake Works I, a lot of us were already familiar with the James Blake album, as it was one of the big electronic pop releases a few years ago.

RD: There’s a lot to be gleaned by listening without moving. When you allow the music to take center stage in your mind, you begin to hear the choreography within it.

LC: Yes, what’s awesome about Blake Works I is that I never tire of hearing the songs. I actually miss hearing them when we are not rehearsing the ballet. Literally, James Blake’s album is “heavily rotated” on my iTunes!

John Lam and William Forsythe

Photo credit: Liza Voll

You’ve worked with William Forsythe now on a number of his pieces. What was it like to work with him in the studio? How does he help you connect the choreography and the music?

CF: I think it would be any dancer’s dream to work with Bill. He is one of the rare human beings who really knows how to articulate what he is asking of you and in a way that is never demeaning. He finds a way to bring a sense of community to an environment that can easily be competitive because of nerves and everyone’s desire to do well. I find the way that he hears things and visualizes movement to be really unique and it always allows me to broaden my perception of what dance can be. His choice of movement with the different kinds of music he chooses allows me to feel like I am accomplishing a goal in the ballet, while also finding a personal voice and touch.

DC: One thing that is constant, he’s always shifting or adapting something for the dancers that are in front of him. Within the structure and his vocabulary of the ballet, the steps evolve based on the dancers. It could be something as small as a change of port de bras, but it enhances how his choreography will feel or look on that dancer. He’s super generous in this way and gives you permission to really take ownership of the steps. You can’t help but want to return that generosity to him and the audience. In that way, his ballets feel very empowering as a dancer.

RD: I think his real joy is with tinkering over creating, emphasizing the “how” over the “what.” In that vein, he is always open to our own unique solutions, interpretations, and musicality, while remaining ever-present to direct us in ways that will help us achieve greater clarity or excitement. I think these upcoming pieces further humanize ballet, and will offer access to a much wider audience.