Two choreographers having the same name can cause some confusion.

Germany may have a choreographer named William Forsythe, but so does Australia. The former is a contemporary ballet choreographer and director of the Frankfurt Ballet, whose company tours the world and whose works are performed internationally. The latter is also a choreographer, but in commercial dance, and his works also tour the world, but as the entertainment on luxury cruise ships or to millions via their TV sets.

Though the two live a long way apart, the name does cause the occasional mix-up. "I used to often get faxes wishing me luck for his opening nights," laughs the Australian Forsythe. "Last year I got his Mo Award nominations faxed to my office. When I was in New Zealand I was doing an interview for TV Week and the woman turned off the recorder and said, 'I just want to say I was in Adelaide last month, I saw what you did and I really loved it!' I had to tell her that wasn't me." It is partly because of this confusion that he has started including his middle initial A in his name.

William A Forsythe is based in Sydney. Millions have been exposed to his art, though they probably haven't known it at the time. He choreographed the "icon" section of the Olympics Closing Ceremony, which included Kylie Minogue grooving away on a surfboard, as well as her segment in the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. Minogue is one of his regular clients. Previously he choreographed her Intimate and Live tour of Australia in 1988, after working with her on the 1994 and 1998 Mardi Gras festivals. In 1999 he choreographed her performance for the Christmas concert for Australian troops in Dili, East Timor. Apart from Minogue he has choreographed for stars such as Marcia Hines, Tina Arena, Hugh Jackman and for the young Nikki Webster's recently released video, Strawberry Kisses.

But designing the dance moves of the stars is just one aspect of a career that has kept him extremely busy since he started learning to dance at the late age of twenty. As a dancer, he was never out of a job for 10 years, performing in musicals, commercials and television, the latter as one of the Gillian Fitzgerald dancers on the Midday Show with Bert Newton. He was an original in David Atkins' Electric Legs dance team (along with Singin' In The Rain's current stars Todd McKenney and Sheree daCosta) and performed in Atkins' Dancin' Man and Dynamite. He credits his success partly to the times - it being the 80s, when "there was a lot of commercial dance work" but not a lot of male dancers. "The same three boys did all the same things," he laughs. "I never stopped. I worked six days a week. At one stage I was doing Wonderland (theme park) during the day as a dancer, Dancin' Man at night, and then I'd shoot over to the Hilton and do a show with Kelley (Abbey)."

When he turned 30, however, he decided to stop dancing and "give choreography a go". He landed a job as choreographer of entertainment for P&O cruises - a happy association that still continues today. When he went for the job, he had little experience as a choreographer, but P&O decided he had the essential characteristics. "Years later (they) told me they had hired me because 'you came in, you were really nice, you seemed really together, and we know if you had to sit at the captain's table and talk to him, or deal with the managers, you would cope really well. We could tell you were really focused and would get the job done.' " These days he works for P&O through his own production company, called Grayboy, which he formed with the former entertainment manager of P&O, Graeme Gillies.

Cruise ship productions are necessarily quite small. Forsythe's current show for Pacific Sky, the latest luxury cruise ship which replaced the Fair Princess this year, has two singers and eight dancers. His show for the Norwegian Star (a Norwegian Capricorn Line ship) last year had a cast of six singer-dancers.

But Forsythe can choreograph for any occasion, big or small. He has done everything from hair shows to football finals. He was responsible for the opening extravaganza for the Cairns Reef Casino, which featured Dame Edna Everage and Judi Connelli. He has since produced four major productions for the Casino - which is one of few casinos in Australia to stage its own shows. He has been choreographer/director for Australia's Wonderland theme park in Sydney for five years, Warner Brothers Movie World for three years and the main arena events for the Royal Easter Show. But he admits that his work with Kylie Minogue probably generates the most interest.

"She's fantastic, very switched on, a lot of fun," he says. "She does have the final say, but is very trusting, and she's put good people around her as well. She's friendly but she keeps a professional distance, which I think is a good thing."

Choreographing for Dame Edna was an experience of a different kind. Forsythe says Barry Humphreys learnt the steps for Dame Edna as if she really does exist as another person.

Of his major choreographic productions, he nominates the launch of the Fox Studios in Australia and the Mushroom Concert of the Century at the MCG as significant - providing his two biggest audiences of celebrities in one room at the same time. But he says one of his most interesting experiences was a musical he choreographed for the Theatre of the Deaf. "That's had a major influence on the way I work, because they are so visual. I had to think quite differently."

Last year Forsythe consolidated the success of his Grayboy production company by opening an agency branch, Grayboy the Agency, specialising in dancers. In July he's taking himself overseas to test the interest in his work. "I'm going to see what's happening in London. I've never really looked for jobs, they just come, but this time I'm going to push myself as a choreographer - I've never really done that."

So now the overseas dance community will have to learn to distinguish between William Forsythe and William A Forsythe.

Dance Australia
August/September 2001