In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated performed by the Joffrey Ballet. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.
Time defines art, both when it was made and when it is shown. This is particularly true in dance where the constants — steps, music, costume design — don’t always stabilize the variables: dancers’ technical and performative chops, audience sophistication, political climate.
Dancing in time is no guarantee that the dance will be of the time. Once out of time, a dance risks irrelevance, becoming a curio from days past, interesting for what it was but not for what it is or what it could be. Perhaps great art is great because its constants connect to any time yet stay porous enough to be redefined every time?
When May 30, 1987 rolled around, the old guard of 20th-century ballet was dead (George Balanchine, Antony Tudor) or about to die (Frederick Ashton, Robert Joffrey). The landscape for contemporary ballet looked bleak. Then, the Paris Opera Ballet premiered William Forsythe’s prowling, contentious In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, the stand-alone second act of what would become the four-act, postmodern ballet Impressing the Czar (1988). The dance world issued a collective gasp. Had the 21st century arrived, thirteen years early?
Forsythe was no new kid on the block. Born in 1949, he began his formal dance training while in college. He joined Stuttgart Ballet in 1973 and became Resident Choreographer in 1976. In 1984, he was appointed director of Ballet Frankfurt where, that year, he debuted the full-length Artifact, the rude angularity and nuanced esotericism of his aesthetic on display.
Over the years, he’s made dances that swing from classicism to experimentalism, but nothing has continued to electrify audiences like In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The ballet, with its extravagant athleticism and traditional theme-and-variations structure, is easy enough to appreciate. Yet its enduring appeal may be its telescoping of the global capitalist stage into the fraught, insular one of ballet where self-interest volatizes everything.
To read the balance of my analysis of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated in celebration of its 30th anniversary, please visit The Dance Enthusiast.