Finding Inspiration From William Forsythe

By Dana Genshaft

Dana Genshaft danced at SF Ballet for 15 years. She was named apprentice in 2000, joined the corps de ballet in 2001, and was promoted to soloist in 2008. She retired from SF Ballet in 2015 and joined the faculty of SF Ballet School where she currently holds the titles contemporary dance teacher and conditioning teacher.

I was first introduced to Bill’s work during my days in the corps de ballet when we performed his Artifact Suite. Learning that ballet took many weeks. It was like an endless exploration of learning how to approach the same steps but from a different point of view. A simple dégagé became an endless line that forever expanded past the boundaries of the body.

His process is an art form in itself. His choreographic style is unique in that he asks his dancers to consider leading movement with different parts of the body, such as the torque of a wrist, an elbow, or the hips. To dance from the back and the floor rather than the front of the body, or the relationship between the elbows and knees, the wrists and the feet. Bill is a generous person who gave us a lot to think about, and simply asked us to reciprocate by dancing with passion and joy, or “fierce joy” as he would call it. I’ll never forget him telling us, “Show me everything you know about dance. Teach me.”

This is like food for a dancer, and certainly planted a seed in me for years to come. I recently transitioned into the role of contemporary teacher for SF Ballet School, and now I too am dabbling in choreography, coaching, and teaching. Bill has been a huge inspiration in my own process. When Bill was in town last spring, I asked him to work with the SF Ballet School Trainees. Watching him in the studio allowed me to better understand his perspective on how to tap into the natural movement quality of a young dancer. I observed his delivery and the simple yet effective exercises he used to get the students to move in new ways.

Dana Genshaft leads SF Ballet School students in class. (© Erik Tomasson)

One way to practice this “un-training” is to give a dancer certain rules or boundaries to work within, but allow the person to essentially improvise or create the details of the actual steps. As a teacher or choreographer, you then guide the development of how the movement unfolds. This type of work is closely connected to visualization. While the students were shy at first, it was fascinating to see them become more comfortable with the concepts.

My work with the students is greatly inspired by that experience with Bill, matched with my own investigation and gut feeling. Through this work I’ve found that I love working with young dancers. Each person is different, and there is no one formula for success. My goal is to use all I know to inspire them to grow as dancers and people.

Today, I incorporate improvisation in my class as a tool, but always balance it with choreography. The students have to practice both free form and structure. The ultimate goal is to dance choreography as if the steps are being created spontaneously and in the moment. There is a delicate balance of precision coupled with abandon.

Every dancer dreams to work with Bill because he has, and always will be, at the forefront of contemporary dance—a direct lineage that started with Mr. Balanchine. What makes a choreographer great is someone who takes the steps we learn in the classroom and creates something new with them. Bill is a master at deconstruction, taking the elements of ballet and rearranging them. The effect is something familiar, yet shocking and tantalizing.

Every dancer dreams to work with Bill because he has, and always will be, at the forefront of contemporary dance—a direct lineage that started with Mr. Balanchine.

Dana Genshaft, SF Ballet School faculty member