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Jodie Gates steps into the staging of a William Forsythe work

USC Kaufman vice dean helps to shape ‘In the Middle’ for Pennsylvania Ballet

by Katrina Bouza

During her career as a professional dancer, Jodie Gates, vice dean and director of the USC Kaufman School of Dance, developed both a personal and professional friendship with famed choreographer William Forsythe.

That relationship, which will be bolstered when Forsythe steps into his role as artistic adviser of USC Kaufman’s Choreographic Institute in fall 2015, led Gates to become one of the few stagers of Forsythe’s works — an approved dancer with intimate knowledge of the choreographer’s artistic intention and style.

Most recently, Gates returned to the Pennsylvania Ballet, where she danced from 1995 until 2000, to assist the company in the production of “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” a high-energy, frenetic Forsythe piece written for three male and six female dancers and featuring an electronic score by composer Thom Willems. The work was included in the performances of Pennsylvania Ballet’s 50th anniversary season, which ended its run this week.

“It’s been almost 30 years since Bill created this work, and it’s still pushing the boundaries of classical ballet,” Gates said of the piece’s disjointed, often chaotic style. “That, to me, really emphasizes the longevity and sustainability of his work.”

Classical ballet deconstructed

Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsal

Dancers rehearse “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” (Photo/courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet)

Originally commissioned for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, “In the Middle,” according to Gates, represents the deconstruction of classical ballet.

“Teaching a work like ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ takes a lot of time, especially if the dancers are new to Forsythe ballet,” she explained. “Ballerinas like to be en pointe and balanced. This choreography is contrary to that idea. Dancers take that balance and play with it to see how far off-balance they can go. There’s a risk factor, and it often takes a lot of trust and practice to gain the expertise needed to pull the work off successfully.”

Gates also noted that Forsythe’s tendency to stress a dancer’s épaulement — or, arrangement of the head and torso — is a quality unique to his signature style and can be difficult for dancers to immediately adopt. However, Gates believes the initial difficulties a dancer faces with a Forsythe work are integral to refining one’s craft.

“Once you dance a Forsythe ballet, it makes you a better dancer,” she said. “Neoclassical ballet enhances your traditional classical physique and the way you approach dance. It takes weeks and weeks to properly learn how to do a work like this.”

Gates was first exposed to “In the Middle” during her time as a dancer for Ballet Frankfurt, and her experience with the piece laid the groundwork for her staging techniques, which she first started exploring several years ago.

“Because I danced the ballet in Frankfurt, I had several pages of notes I made for myself,” Gates said. “I really did my homework to make sure I had the most complete and accurate version.”

Forsythe’s work recreated

That homework included spending several days in Europe with Kathryn Bennetts, a former coach with the Forsythe company and one of the choreographer’s most trusted assistants. There, Gates worked closely alongside Bennetts, filming and learning each step of the work, as well as techniques for effectively teaching the steps to dancers.

Although Gates has assembled a blueprint to recreate Forsythe’s work, these guidelines are not static. Forsythe, she explained, constantly updates and tweaks his ballets over time based upon the skills of the dancers or company with which he collaborates. As a result, Gates must often refine her notes or refer to previous incarnations of “In the Middle” to produce the most authentic staging of the piece.

“There’s different versions of solos and duets,” she said of the refinement process. “So I often have to choose the best solo suited for a particular dancer.”

Because Gates’ demanding schedule dictated that she could stay with Pennsylvania Ballet dancers for just a few days after initial rehearsals, she turned to the power of technology to assist the company with fine tuning in the days leading up to the performance.

“I asked the company to continue rehearsing it and send me videos,” Gates said. “They’ve sent me entire run-throughs, and I’ll send notes — pages and pages of notes.Of course, nothing beats being there physically. But it’s been great to be able to give the dancers feedback just by looking at a video that can be sent in a heartbeat.”

Gates hopes that Forsythe’s presence on campus will not only inspire her to explore new ways of teaching and creating dance, but also inspire USC Kaufman students to push the boundaries of their art form through new media and interdisciplinary collaboration.

“With Bill’s presence as a faculty member and mentor at USC Kaufman, we have the opportunity to explore what the next generation of dancers and thinkers will be like,” she explained. “He’s an idea man, and he will allow us to look forward while respecting our past and tradition. His influence on the students, even by walking into a room and talking to them, will be invaluable. He has a great way of empowering dancers.”

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