Dancing Together. An analysis of William Forsythe's choreography "Duo"

Left: "Duo" performed by Allison Brown and Jill Johnson in 2003. Photograph © Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. Right: "DUO2015" performed by Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in 2015. Photograph © Bill Cooper.


Prof. Dr. Christina Thurner, University of Bern
Prof. Dr. Priska Gisler, University of the Arts Bern
Dr. des. Elizabeth Waterhouse, SINTA/Graduate School of the Arts, University of Bern/HKB


Bringing together a dance scholar, a dancer and a sociologist, the SNF-funded project Dancing Together (2016-2020) explored the insides and outsides of one of 21st century dance history’s milestone works: William Forsythe’s Duo Project.

Project Description

The SNF-funded project “Dancing Together” examined the oeuvre of American choreographer William Forsythe (b. 1949), arguably one of the most important and controversial choreographers of the 21st century in the fields of ballet and contemporary dance. The focus was twofold: on one hand, the concrete point of departure of learning about the dancers’ labor within Forsythe’s Duo project (1996-2018); on the other, the reflective layer of analyzing how a practice-oriented reconstruction of the dancers’ activities in Duo might enable new understanding of this dance genre, its historiography, and creative labor more generally. Incorporating the ‘practice turn’ to look at Duo empirically and longitudinally, the study innovatively draws a dance studies analysis into the folds of practice theory, process philosophy and the realities of Duo itself. The outcomes of the project included publications, public lectures, and an international workshop for dancers and emerging scholars on the topic of ‘dancing together.’

Duo, as suggested in the photos above, is a sparse duet in which dancing synchronously becomes a process of renewed fascination and challenge for the dancers. The piece was created in 1996 for two female dancers in the context of the Ballett Frankfurt, premiering at the Frankfurt Opera House on the evening Six Counter Points. Since this time the duet has been performed over 148 times in 19 countries by 11 dancers both male and female. While understood by the choreographer as ‘one’ project, the performances vary in their theatrical elements, interpreters, title, and length. Despite this, the project coheres aesthetically and emerges historically owing to a practice of ‘dancing together’ passed down from pair to pair. Spanning performances in the institutions of Ballett Frankfurt and The Forsythe Company, and still performed live at the time of research, the chosen example provided the opportunity to look at the present and reconstruct the recent past, and to examine the processual and relational components of choreographic practice known to be important within Forsythe’s genre.

This research project was launched by team member Elizabeth Waterhouse, a former dancer with The Forsythe Company and Doctoral student in the Graduate School of the Arts/SINTA at the University of Bern/ University of the Arts Bern. The challenge to articulate what has been unspoken, invisible and disregarded in dancers’ practice brought together Prof. Dr. Christina Thurner (ITW, University of Bern) and Prof. Dr. Priska Gisler (Institute of Practices and Theories of the Arts, University of the Arts Bern), with expertise across dance studies and the social sciences respectively. Our aim was to forge an interdisciplinary approach for a practice-informed, longitudinal research of the Duo project, interweaving theoretical and methodological aspects of dance studies and the social sciences. Our process involved negotiation of disciplinary knowledge and research methods, made concrete through the case study of Duo and Waterhouse’s research questions.

What is the choreography of Duo? How is dancing together produced and shared between dancers? How does a choreography emerge over time, and what constitutes its flexibility and order? By focusing on how a choreography becomes structured through the dancers’ shared practice over time, the study produced unprecedented insight of the dancers’ process (i.e. making, learning, passing-on, rehearsing, and performing the piece), taking a praxiological approach to reconstructing how these creative practices became interwoven and generative. The research developed understanding of the distinct creative cooperation and institutionalized processes within the ensembles of Ballett Frankfurt and The Forsythe Company as well as the concrete organizational framework of Duo—arguing for choreography as a nexus of people, im/material practices, contexts, and relations.

In parallel to developing these claims, the project critically reflected upon how knowledge of dancers’ practice becomes written: especially the evidence and sources available to scholars for learning about dancers’ labor. The sources for this study included unprecedentedly rich and previously unconsidered material (i.e. live performances, over 50 archival videos of performances by different pairs, archival videos of rehearsals including the rehearsals where the piece was choreographed, and interviews conducted with the performers, musicians, composer and choreographer). The methodology constituted an innovative dance studies approach to reconstructive ethnography—embedding the ethnographic tools of participant observation, interviews, elicitation, and writing field notes, within phases of movement and performance analysis, and novel techniques of digital video annotation. Duo dancers were invited into the project as both ‘informants’ and research colleagues, leading to a long-term, ethical, and critical research conversation, as well as its public manifestation in scholarly form.

The principal outcome of the project was Waterhouse’s dissertation [“Processing Choreography: A Longitudinal Study of William Forsythe’s Choreography Duo (1996-2018)”], defended in Feb. 2020. A revised version of the manuscript will be published with open-access by Transcript Verlag in 2021. Highlighting the dancers’ multiple perspectives within the complex world of Duo, the writing foregrounds the dancers’ testimony and produces a written trace of their memories. The manuscript also articulates and interweaves Waterhouse’s special vantage point as a former Forsythe dancer becoming a dance scholar—engaging productively with how artistic competences and ‘native’ understanding could fruitfully contribute to theoretical knowledge of choreographic practice and position this perspective within the existing scholarship upon Forsythe’s work.

Project Duration

1. Aug. 2016 –  31. Jul. 2020

Research Partners

  • Prof. Dr. Gabriele Brandstetter, Free University of Berlin (dance studies)
  • Cyril Baldy, freelance artist (Forsythe dancer)
  • Prof. Allison Brown, Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln (Duo dancer)
  • Dr. Monika Hager, University of Bern (computation/modeling)
  • Prof. Florian Jenett, Hochschule Mainz, University of Applies Sciences (computation/video annotation)
  • Jill Johnson, Harvard University (Duo dancer)
  • Prof. Dr. James Leach, Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l'Océanie Aix-Marseille Université and The University of Western Australia (anthropology)
  • Riley Watts, freelance artist (DUO2015 dancer)

Selected Publications

Waterhouse, E. (2021, Forthcoming). Processing Choreography: Thinking with William Forsythe’s Duo. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.

Waterhouse, E., Florian Jenett, Monika Hager and Mark Coniglio. (2021, Forthcoming). “‘I gave that cue.’
Integrating Dance Studies, Praxeology, and Computational Perspectives to Model ‘Change’ in the Case Study of William Forsythe’s Duo.” International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media.

Waterhouse, E. (2020, Forthcoming). “As Duo: Thinking with Dance.” In B. Herzogenrath (Ed.), A Practical Aesthetics (pp.183-194). London: Bloomsbury.

Waterhouse, E. (2019). “Choreographic Re-Mix: William Forsythe`s Trio (1996) & Beethoven`s String Quartet Nr. 15 in A-Minor Op. 132.” In T. Gartmann und D. Allenbach (Eds.), Rund um Beethoven. Interpretationsforschung heute, Musikforschung der Hochschule der Künste Bern, Bd. 14 (pp. 487-504). Schliengen: Argus.

Waterhouse, E. (2018). “In Sync: Entrainment in Dance.” In B. Bläsing, M. Puttke and T. Schack (Eds.), The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills (pp. 55 - 75). London: Routledge.

Waterhouse, E. (2017). “Entrainment und das zeitgenössische Ballett von William Forsythe” (“Entrainment and the Contemporary Ballets of William Forsythe”). Trans. Christoph Nöthlings. In G. Brandstetter, K. Eikels and A. Schuh (Eds.), DE/SYNCHRONISIEREN? Leben im Plural (pp. 197 - 219). Hannover: Wehrhahn Verlag.