Impressing the Czar
1. Potemkin’s signature
(Music by Beethoven, Leslie Stuck & Thom Willems)
2. In the middle, somewhat elevated
(Music by Thom Willems)
3. La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo
(Music by Eva Crossman-Hecht)
4. Bongo Bongo Nageela
5. Mr Pnut goes to the Big Top
(Music by Thom Willems)
Agnes – Helen Pickett
Rosa – Joëlle Auspert
Rodger Wilcot – Craig Davidson
Mr Pnut – Jim de Block
The Royal Ballet of Flanders
William Forsythe – Choreography
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 6 November, 2008
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
Like it or not, Forsythe is back again – not that he ever went away. The enfant terrible of contemporary ballet is being celebrated by Sadler’s Wells in the season-long hagiography Focus on Forsythe; the Mariinsky company performed several of his works recently and there is the great man’s own company to look forward to in April and May. The Royal Ballet of Flanders has now performed one of Forsythe’s most famous works Impressing the Czar, allowed to do so because of the choreographer’s own regard for Kathryn Bennetts, the company’s Director and his own assistant for many years. Impressive credentials perhaps, but the rub is whether you think he is any good.
Forsythe has shown himself the master of a certain brand of dance, an extreme classicism in which line and balance are pulled and exaggerated; at its best it is exciting, visceral and dangerous. That is Forsythe in pure dance mode, and it is what characterises Part 2 of the evening, the now famous ‘In the middle, somewhat elevated’ which was first created in 1987 as a piece in itself for the Paris Opéra ballet and designed to show and subvert the supreme mastery of the classical idiom that those dancers possessed.
And there is the crux of the matter: to succeed completely in this piece the dancers have to be world-class exponents of classical ballet. Its success was assured when it entered the repertoire of our own Royal Ballet, blessed at the time with such dancers as Sylvie Guillem and Darcey Bussell, who relished the challenges it presented. The Royal Ballet of Flanders, admirable though it is, is simply not in that league, and ‘In the middle’ suffers accordingly – the risks were less, the lines not so extreme, the sheer excitement lacking. One or two dancers possessed the attack and the knuckle-whitening risk taking: Principal Aki Saito and First Soloist Eugéniy Kolesnik; the others were tentative in comparison. The music (if one could call it such) is Thom Willem’s percussive (or dustbin lid if you will) soundscape.
Alas, ‘In the middle’ is not alone: Forsythe admits to having needed to create a full evening work a little later for Frankfurt Ballet (his company at the time) and incorporated this work into that concept. The other pieces which frame it are therefore composed in haste, and it shows. Some have seen the whole evening as a brilliant synthesis of the history of classical dance, the beauties of formality subverted, the treasures sold off in the third section, an auction at ‘La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo’ and ending in the trash of late twentieth century mindlessness.
Well, that is one interpretation. The first section is a bric-a-brac shop of pure-dance sections, physical comedy, silly walks, shouting, crying and gurning, wrapping dancers up in masking tape, spoken commentary and many others…you get the point: a total mish-mash from which we are, I think, supposed to take what we want. For some this proves Forsythe’s towering intellect, his profound and prolific creativity; in my book, it is lazy creation – it is like ticking all the answers in a multiple choice question and saying “well, one MUST be right”.
Forsythe’s approach contains all the clichés of European theatre; it is close to the Theatre of the Absurd (without its rigour) and that of Alienation; it contains the introspections of the over-generously subsidised arts so prevalent in many a German provincial theatre. It IS theatre, admittedly, for Forsythe understands the stage and its demands; but it is self-indulgent theatre, the product of the ultimate arrogance of a creator who will not allow the spectator – let’s be frank, the paying punter in reality – to understand what is going on, the reason behind it all.
The final two sections comprise over 50 dancers, male and female alike dressed as schoolgirls in pleated skirts and long socks. There is an undeniable force and power to a large group of people moving in unison or in counterpoint (think Les Noces, Rite of Spring, even the 32 swans of Swan Lake) and I feel Forsythe hides behind that inherent power: the effect is assured, but I am not sure whether anything is behind it – the choreography is repetitive (powerful in itself) but banal (and maybe that is the point), the music loud, insistent but vapid. Is anything being said? Is it a cruelly pertinent indictment of out modern society or is it a bunch of 50 odd dancers dressed as schoolgirls and nothing more? I know which camp I fall into.