William Forsythe’s Enemy in the Figure returns to the Ballet BC stage this November. We spoke with stager Thomas McManus about the original creation and inspiration behind the work, some of the artistic elements that make it so unique, and what his experience in the studio with Ballet BC dancers has been like.
Ballet BC: Tell us about your relationship to William Forsythe and the journey that led you to become a stager of his ballets.
Thomas McManus: I have been a rehearsal director for William Forsythe since 1992. I started teaching this ballet (Enemy in the Figure) and other ballets when I was still with the Frankfurt Ballet, until 1999. And that was when I quit dancing and became a freelancer. So I was teaching, choreographing, and I had my own company for five years. I was still living in Europe, I lived over there for 28 years. Then I went back to school and got my Masters Degree in America. At the same time, William Forsythe was asked by Jodie Gates to be part of the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance out in Los Angeles. It was a brand new school and he asked me to be a full-time professor there. I said yes because I thought having a “job” could be interesting. I think we were super successful as a school. And in fact, four of my students are here in the company now and I’m super excited to be working with them. It’s so fun to see them again. And I meet students around the world in different companies too, so that’s great.
You’ve been staging this ballet for a long time on many companies with very different approaches and training. How does the experience change for you each time?
Working with different companies that have different emphasis in their repertories takes me to a place where I am either allowed or able—within the time period that I have—elicit their response to the work and their input into the work. Because Enemy in the Figure has probably, if you look at the whole piece as a whole, between 20% and 30% improvisation. That is usually a very new thing for the companies that have much more classical repertory because that just is not asked so much of those dancers. A company like Ballet BC is just so ready for that and used to it. One of our improvisational tasks is called universal writing. Universal writing is very energetic, and it asks a lot of the dancer to have that kind of freedom, to have that kind of focus. The Ballet BC dancers, they get that right away, they take what I ask them to do, and they just run with it. So that’s like a whole part of my job that I don’t have to do anymore. They make my job a lot easier and fun. It’s really really enjoyable.
Being part of the original cast of Enemy in the Figure, can you share what the impetus of the work was? What were the early ‘a-ha’ moments of the creation process like?
Following our work on The Questioning of Robert Scott (a 1986 Forsythe ballet), it was about inventing improvisational modes, seeing how we could analyze movement, analyze form. And I think at the same time, we were beginning to read the philosophical texts of Daniel Libeskind, the architect, who was talking about what architecture can be, and how it can possibly just expand and explode in space. So it was really cool stuff. And very parallel with the way we were thinking about movements and lines, drawing lines. He was doing something that was kind of similar in his realm. Our process was just getting in these different spaces and improvising, discussing, seeing if following some form became an interesting movement. We were all editing, self-editing. And just these things started conglomerating and becoming stuff. Over a three week period, we came up with this incredible amount of material. Will, as the person more on the outside of it, started to edit things together, like he always does. He’s excellent at that.
From the Libeskind ideas, Will got the idea for a wall that was in an S-curve kind of wavy thing. He loved lighting—he was a lighting nerd. He said, “Okay, we’re gonna have this five kilowatt light on wheels that we can wheel around the stage and create all these different effects.” And then I don’t know where the rope came from, but there’s a rope involved—I’d have to ask him. So rope, wall, light, but also a cable that is attached to the light. Those four things plus the music. Those are like the five other characters, plus the 11 dancers. It was just very exciting. Lots of exchange between all of us.
And then the premiere came and it was a big success. And with a lot of Will’s ballets, he immediately starts to change and morph things because he’s just antsy. He’s that kind of artist that likes to keep perfecting things. But with Enemy in the Figure, he didn’t need to for quite some years. We have changed some things now. But it was many, many years that it was just good the way it was.
Part of what makes this work so unique is because of the agency that dancers with moving the elements on stage themselves without a crew. What was the inspiration behind this decision?
Well, it evolved out of the fact that he had done other ballets that had other elements like that, and the agency of the dancer on stage was really important. The rules of what a tech person is allowed to do on stage and what a performer is allowed to do in stage varies from country to country. And, it’s more interesting, and perhaps aesthetically more interesting or cohesive, to have the dancer doing something rather than a technician coming in and doing it because that kind of breaks that fourth wall a little bit, breaks the illusion. The dancers know exactly where the shadow needs to be.
You have all the responsibility of being the dancer and being really physically out there taking risks at 100%. At the limit of your stamina as well—it’s a killer ballet that way. On top of that, you are the technician with all of these moving parts. And it all has to be precise and if it’s not precise, it’s dangerous. There have been times where unfortunately things have happened. But we’ve certainly learned from that.
How has it been being back in Vancouver for the second time and working with a new group of dancers this time round?
I feel them knitting together and coming together. They haven’t been dancing together for a very long time but this feeling of cohesiveness in the company is really strong right now. I think that’s also to do with Medhi Walerski, because of the culture that he creates. So there is a continuation of the feeling in the company but it’s a different company now. That’s exciting to me, I’m so happy that it’s continuing because it’s so important to have in the world. And just the fact that we have raced through teaching this material. It’s been a week and a day! We’ve taught a lot, not all, but a lot of the set material. They’re so fast here at the end of the season. I know they’re exhausted mentally and physically but they rallied. They have the stamina to make it through. I really appreciate that, seeing it through to the end.
What’s the most gratifying thing about the work that you do?
It has not become easy. It’s not something I can roll out of bed and do. I still have to work at it. I turned 60 this year – yay! The work itself is not boring to me, I find new stuff all the time. It’s how my body is changing, how I warm up, and how I focus that changes. The work is big enough and kind of universal enough that you can see it from all these different angles. I really appreciate that the work is still fresh to me as a stager. I’m hoping, and I do believe, that audiences also still find it fresh even though it was made more than 30 years ago. And I think that it does, I think there’s this excitement that we feel from the Ballet BC dancers. They’re really looking forward to performing this and growing in it.