Review – Royal Ballet of Flanders – William Forsythe’s “Impressing the Czar” – Sadler’s Wells

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Last night J and I headed up to Sadler’s Wells to see the Royal Ballet of Flanders perform William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar. The previews I’d seen beforehand were utterly bizarre, with a stage full of English schoolgirls gone Lord of the Flies and lots of funky costumes – very different from the rather pure dance I associated with “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” the middle section of this ballet, which I’ve frequently seen performed as a standalone piece. Apparently the whole thing is some kind of late eighties relic that had gone off of the performance map until RBF revived it for the Edinburgh Fringe Fest last year, where – per the program notes – it received a most enthusiastic welcome.

Well. Let me do my best to describe the show (after briefly mentioning that it started half an hour late). There are four scenes and two intermissions, the final section having two scenes. The first scene has the stage split in two, with the left side mostly consisting of dancers in a lot of eighties metallic ballgowns seemingly doing condensed bits from older ballets (the miming was especially making me laugh, as it’s almost always the worst part of any ballet) mixed in with random Western culture references (i.e. I think the woman wearing a bird cage on her head was supposed to be Papageno; no idea who the guy was carrying the golden bird). On the right there’s not much action, but there is a woman in a school girl’s uniform watching TV. After a while you hear her voice as if she’s talking to someone on a walkie talkie; she’s some sort of interloper sneaking into the ballet, apparently in search of Mr. Peanut (“PNut” per the program). She winds up making a quite funny speech with modern political references in it (“Yes, we can!” and something about Palin being sent back to Alaska on her bridge to nowhere – priceless!), and eventually sort of dancing with the other people – at one point doing something very odd with golden arrows. The ballet is described as “narrativeless,” and that’s pretty appropriate for this part – it seemed to be all spectacle and no story, even though it had words. It was quite bizarre but there was lots of interesting movement and I was kind of caught up in just watching what was going on in front of me. Boring it was not!

The center bit was “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which is fairly well a classic of modern dance and which I won’t spend too much time discussing here. RBF seemed fairly on top of the choreography, better than the limpid Mariinsky ballet, but not nearly as energetic or sharp as Pacific Northwest Ballet. The only time it was brilliant was in the final duet, in which a Japanese woman (as I recall from the program) was lifted, dropped, spun, flipped, and otherwise manipulated by her handsome partner. Their moves were so sharp they could have cut glass; they electrified the stage. My eyeballs dried out because I was trying not to blink so I didn’t lose a single motion. We cheered enthusiastically at the end, and they had several curtain calls – what a performance!

The final section had two acts, an auction and a, er circle dance. The auction, which made no sense to me, had the woman of the first act asking the audience for bids on the golden-clad, bizarrely costumed dancers, all while having brief chats with “Mr PNut,” who was a head in a box on the tv set in front of her. (Got it?) The final act had Mr. PNut laying on the stage while the entire company of dancers, all wearing schoolgirl uniforms and bobbed wigs, circled and whirled around him. It got just too, too silly – three of the dancers (male) split off into a girl group trio and sang, while three other dancers (also male) started busting some 80s era B-Girl moves. It was just freakish, a veritable circus sideshow, and also exhilirating and fun. Overall, I think this was a good evening, although the ballet itself seems dated.

(This review was for a performance that took place on Thursday November 6th, 2008. There are further performances on November 7th and 8th.)

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