• Interview
  • Ballet


Choreographer Jermaine Maurice Spivey talks about two of his main influences: William Forsythe and Crystal Pite

Fri, Mar 17, 2023

Preview LOISEAUDEFEU Ten Duets On A Theme Of Rescue repetitie 71 A7717 c Filip Van Roe

Extant is Jermaine Maurice Spivey’s creation for Opera Ballet Vlaanderen. This new work premieres as the middle part in a triple bill shared with two of the most influential North American choreographers of the moment: American William Forsythe and Canadian Crystal Pite. That's no coincidence. With both creators Spivey has a special connection.

'I was a student when I first saw Forsythe's work live in New York: it was with Ballett Frankfurt and the piece Eidos:Telos. I had never seen anything like it before. I didn't know bodies could coordinate in such a way. I felt alienated and moved at the same time, but didn't understand why. Forsythe's work subsequently influenced my whole development, first as a spectator and then also as a dancer.

Improvisation as a technique was very important at the time for the Cullberg Ballet in Sweden, where I danced for three years under the direction of Johan Inger. As a company we improvised a lot together and that's where I really began learning how to task my dancing and how to live in the freedom of what I was actually doing and not what I thought it should be. Johan engaged Crystal Pite as choreographer during my final season with the company. Her person and her work really took a hold of me in a way that I think most dancers search for in their careers. I have worked with her and have been a member of her company Kidd Pivot ever since that initial meeting almost 14 years ago now. From day one, she has given tremendous trust, respect, genuine love and admiration for the person I am and for how I continue to grow, and she never stops challenging me. She works very diligently on her craft as a maker. She does not assume anything great will just show up. She relies on her hard work to support her when she needs that support most. Which means that greatness will and does arise. And because of that example, everyone else around her adopts the same work ethic. She truly leads by example.

I think Crystal has taken from her time with Forsythe and Ballett Frankfurt (where she danced for several years) the confidence and experience that you can really use dancing and choreography to create distinct performances. In her work there is attention to how choreography engages the dance artist and there is attention to how the collaboration between performer, choreography, lights, sound, decor/space, costume, text and any other performative element can come together in a way that gives the impression of a work with a life of its own.

Preview Jermaine Spivey Portret
Rehearsal Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue (2017). © Filip Van Roe

When I started dancing in the Forsythe Company, I had already been told many stories by Crystal and then experienced firsthand how Forsythe sees the development of a work and how he deals with distinct rhythms and timings that come from the dancers working with compositional material through a process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. He very specifically and purposefully organizes the effects of this process to manipulate your perception of time and space, and this forces you to work while you watch. And I think to avoid that work means you lose something about what is special in his work. He once told me in a rehearsal, ‘I prefer what happens to you when you think you don't know what you're doing.’ It was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment for so many reasons and I will never forget the gift he gave me that day.

Crystal Pite and William Forsythe both have developed mastery over their work. They are both skilled directors. They both love dancing and are inspired by bodies moving. I would say Crystal sees story in the world, in the body, and she chooses to shape her choreographic work around exposing the tensions, conflict, heroism and humor that could be found in stories. She's not so interested in confusion. She brings you along with her. She wants you to feel considered.

Forsythe immerses you in augmented reality and with calculated precision he tests your need to understand. I think he proposes that understanding is not a requirement but the byproduct of paying attention, and in the performing and performance are the instructions for how to pay attention. His works are unfinished and completed in the act of performing or witnessing them.

I find myself working on an approach somewhere between the strategies of the two. I like to build a score containing set material as well as improvisation that hopefully holds the piece in tact while allowing it to bend and shift slightly each time for performer and audience member. I do that by building structures where the dancers have to relate to each other in defined ways that I think leave space for the development of physicalities. The space that is intentionally left open is also filled in with real reactions and responses which trigger something in the work that feels like a story, like meaning. That way of working is important during the process with the dancers, but also in dialogue with the sound, costuming and lights.'

Discover Pite/ Spivey/ Forsythe

Photos: Jermaine Maurice Spivey already worked with the dancers of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen for the first time in 2017 when he came to rehearse Crystal Pite's Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue with them.

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