THR Web Features   /   February 1, 2024

Beyond the Exaltation of the Individual Dancer

How Thomas Forster reminds us of the social dimension of dance.

Alice Courtright

( A recent production of Alonzo King’s Single Eye with ABT principal dancers (from left) Thomas Forster, Isabella Boylston, Calvin Royal III, and Skylar Brandt; photograph by Marty Sohl.)

“Communicating with an art form means being vulnerable. Being imperfect. And most of the time this is much more interesting.”—Mikhail Baryshnikov

In Alice Robb’s 2023 memoir, On Loving and Leaving Ballet, she asks why elite dancers embrace the pain that ballet training requires and “suffer in silence.” Why did she? Robb writes, “We learned to dissociate the look on our face from the ache in our feet, to always keep our expression regal, serene.” She goes to a performance at the New York City Ballet and watches some young dancers in the audience, enrapt. She recognizes the desire “in their eyes—the yearning to be just like the women on stage.” To be, as one dancer put it, “one of the chosen ones.” The promise of individual glory, Robb suggests, among other pressures, keeps dancers yoked to the ballet barre, and the often unrealistic, sometimes cruel, expectations of “aesthetic perfection.” The few dancers who ascend are revered as goddesses. The many rejected never get over it.

Contemporary film portrayals of ballet echo these illustrations of harsh competition. Think of the popular 2010 movie Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky builds a Hobbesian world in which every ballerina is a threat and order is maintained by submission to a sadistic director. When Nina, played by Natalie Portman, lands the lead, a principal dancer is forced into retirement. There’s only room for one at the top. The dethroned principal screams at her replacement: “I’m nothing!!!” In the film, worth is doled out meagerly in the ballet company. A dancer only has it if she’s climbing the ladder up from the corps. She must maintain her position for as long as she can before she reverts to her original state: total insignificance.

Is it possible to imagine the ballet world without a primary teleology of aesthetic perfectionism and a baseline of low self-worth? Is it possible for our culture at large to stop conceiving of art and fame in this way? The seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza argued that life was made up of competing individuals. “Every man takes care of his own advantage, according to his own disposition,” he writes in Part IV of Ethics. Ballet memoirs from Gelsey Kirkland and many others reiterate the very real challenges of surviving inside such a toxic environment. “Often,” Kirkland says, “When you’ve reached a very high level of achievement, you almost become paralyzed by the idea that anything you might do might be imperfect.”

In his 1945 address, “Membership,” C.S. Lewis described the perils of “the exaltation of the individual.” On our own, he writes, “as mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder.” What is an individual without a purpose and a nurturing community to complement her? Where does this ever-present cultural ideal of self-promotion and independence get us?

My daughter, Margaret, longed to start ballet classes when she was four, and I signed her up. The studio is great, and the teachers are excellent. But, still, I wonder what I’m getting her into. I want my daughter to love being in her body. I want her to move with joy and freedom. I want her to appreciate what art can do for her life—how it can lift her and speak to her soul. If she continues on and takes the art form seriously, will she become cross-fodder in an unforgiving world that only values, as Alan Jacobs put it, “ultimate celebrity and ultimate power”? Or are there other ways to engage the art of ballet? Could my children learn to see their participation in art as having another end? Could they see themselves as servants of beauty and truth, servants and shapers of society?

Individual dancers across time have performed critical social functions. Contemplate, as the historian Walter Clemens did, the emigrant “path of Sergei Diaghilev whose Ballets Russes transformed dance theatres from Paris to New York to San Francisco and Australia with world-class choreography by Michel Fokine and George Balanchine, the costumes and sets of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Léon Bakst, and Natalya Goncharova, the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova—all done to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky.” Diaghilev was an impresario whose feats of gesamtkunstwerk, or unified, totalizing projects, lifted up many different artists and made stars. He also stood against the Soviet Union’s narrow claims on artists and remained outside the country for the last decade of his life, refusing to be a cog in a homogenizing and brutal collectivism.

Or, consider the impact of Misty Copeland, whose bestselling memoir, Life in Motion, revealed her relentless struggle to become the first black principal with the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland was interviewed last spring on Sixty Minutes. Her resolve and purpose widened as she became aware of the racial frontier she was crossing and the way she was revolutionizing dance. “I was representing an entire community, and I had a big responsibility,” she said. My daughter Margaret recently learned about Copeland at school. She asks me to show her videos on my phone of Copeland dancing. She’s riveted by her determination, beauty, and what she’s accomplished.

Individual dancers have the power to use their art to speak into, critique, and shape the world around them. Some have used this power to shift the attention of the audience and even the wider society. Some have had a generational impact.

Many dancers with smaller followings are making their own contributions to the work of tending to culture through dance. Thomas Forster is a lesser-known principal with the American Ballet Theatre, but watching him for the first time at Lincoln Center last summer, I found him both magnetic and transcendent. When Forster let loose into a series of thrilling leaps in a wide circle around the stage—coupés jetés en tournant—it reminded me of an otherworldly description by Gia Kourlas in the New York Times: “To witness such unforced abandon is one of ballet’s greatest gifts. It’s almost as if the mind and body conjoin in a spiritual melding that manifests as a feeling: sensation woven into silken motion. Dancers, in such moments, are celestial beings.”

The dance critic, Marina Harss, wrote that Forster combines “simplicity and pathos.” There is something so reliable and understated about his movement, mixed with technical excellence and incredible strength. Bringing vulnerability to the stage, he is, as Kourlas put it, like a moving feeling. I had to know what was behind his art. What and who had shaped him? What did he value?

I interviewed Forster recently and learned some of the details of his life. He was born in 1986, in Southeast London. His mother is an art therapist, and his father was a sculptor who created many works, including the Chindit Memorial. He has two sisters, Rachel and Louise. Louise is also a dancer and was born with Down Syndrome.  

Forster began ballet as a boy in order to train for his first love, karate, and his parents saw his dance training, funded by the British government, as a way to get a better education than was possible where they lived. Forster finally fell in love with the beauty of dance while training with the Royal Ballet feeder school. He struggled with dyslexia and anxiety, but there he gradually learned to manage both. At eighteen, he was scouted by American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and joined the company. Working and living in New York for twenty years, he was promoted to principal dancer quite late in his career.

I asked him about how it felt to finally ascend to the top of ABT and to be recognized at last. “It’s almost luck that you get promoted,” he gently corrected me. “There are so many incredible dancers in the corps de ballet and they could have easily been principals and done so much. For me, a lot of my career was in the corps and as a soloist. It was only toward the end of my career I started to get some of the bigger roles, and it really drove home to me, wow, so many people can do this. It’s just whether they’ve been given the opportunity. And,” he added, “it must be tough for the people in charge to choose, because there are only so many shows.”

In Christopher Wheeldon’s new production of Like Water for Chocolate last summer, Forster’s character was the heroic Dr. John, who ends up rejected by the woman he tried to save. His performance was subtle and restrained. I wondered why he wasn’t tempted to put his considerable gifts on more obvious display. “My number one goal is to support and be there for my partner,” he explained. “I’ll be happier if she’s had a really good show and I know I’ve done well by her—or by him sometimes, but mostly her—rather than if I nail my solo.” Forster is not concerned with his own virtuosity but with playing off the artists and even the atmosphere around him. His dancing left space for my mind to wander, like it might in the silent spaces of a Christian Petzold film. Watching Forster perform, I was drawn into even deeper appreciation of the complicated lace backdrops of the set and of the heroine’s tragic story. I wanted to read Laura Esquivel’s novel and learn more about Wheeldon’s oeuvre.

Forster’s approach is not accidental. He sees himself playing just one part in what C.S. Lewis would call “the mystic body,” where every member gathered is important, like organs serving particular, needed roles. No one can be discounted. Everyone has a specific place, but each dancer and member of a production stands synecdochally for the whole. At ABT, everyone in the building is important to Forster—the cleaners, the principals, the choreographers, the person who helps him get the “lift.” “You never know who you’re going to need,” he says.

Forster also extends this ethic of humility beyond the ballet stage. Not only is each part of the production essential, but also each individual in the audience. “Life is tough,” he says, “and if there’s anyone who can come to the ballet and feel any kind of emotion with the incredible music, and hopefully the incredible dancing—sometimes that’s questionable when I’m on stage,” he laughs, “it can be very moving, especially in this day and age when movies and life are so quick and overstimulating. If you can really digest your experiences and get lost in the ballet, emotionally it can bring so much healing to you.”

Forster unselfconsciously adopts the edifying social role of the dancer. When he came on stage in Alexei Ratmansky’s “On the Dnipro” this fall, he brought the Ukrainian romance to life. Choreographed in 2004, Ratmansky’s contemporary ballet is a heartbreaking love story. A soldier, played by Forster, comes home to his village, and falls in love not with his long-suffering fiancée but with another man’s betrothed. Forster led the program with his evocative, even poetic performance. His grace and control directed my attention to what he gestured toward: both the wrenching emotional movement of SunMi Park, who played the rejected fiancée, and the elegant lines of Catherine Hurlin, who was cast as the new lover. As it always does, his dancing brings out the many elements and aspects of the work. Settling into the story, I thought about Ukraine under Russian invasion. What of the human lives interrupted there? What has happened to all the small communities there, where ordinary stories of birth, lust, love, and betrayal have been happening every day? What ever happened to all those women and children sheltering in the subway tunnels?

“Art literally feeds us through beauty in the hardest, darkest hours,” writes the painter Makoto Fujimura. Ballet can be understood through tropes of competition and individual ascendance, but it can also be understood as a medium that, like any art form, can move individuals and society toward a unity that the artwork’s own harmonized elements embody and depict. The principles of culture care, Fujimura writes, “can be embraced universally. They depend only on developing skills in listening to the wider culture, and thereby becoming a loving servant toward culture rather than treating it as a territory to be won.”

Dancers like Thomas Forster remind me of what Alice Robb suggests might be the true purpose of ballet: movement as “physical prayer,” an offering of self to something greater. In the space Forster leaves open in his dancing, there is place and time for catharsis and healing. As the poet T.S. Eliot put it so exactly, “Except for the point, the still point, /  There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”