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Jack Anderson

Forsythe's Extravaganza

ROYAL BALLET OF FLANDERS -- Ensemble of "Impressing the Czar." Photo: Stephanie Berger for Lincoln Center.

Lincoln Center Festival
Royal Ballet of Flanders: "Impressing the Czar"
Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center
July 17-20, 2008
Evenings at 8, Sunday at 3 p.m., $90-30
Tickets: (212) 721-6500 or www.LincolnCenter.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, July 20, 2008

Certain types of large-scale European ballet productions baffle, or even outrage, American balletgoers: ostentatiously serious works crammed with symbols and concepts, as well as steps. William Forsythe's "Impressing the Czar," an evening-long work from 1988 that the Royal Ballet of Flanders has revived, is such a piece. "Why the clutter?" Americans fond of Balanchine's lean creations might wonder. "Why not just let dancers dance?" Well, Forsythe's dancers do dance, sometimes spectacularly. But clutter is part of Forsythe's point, and his choreography often makes clutter funny.

Michael Simon's designs for "Potemkin's Unterschrift (Potemkin's Signature)," the first act, make the stage akin to an auction room preparing for a sale. Stuff is everywhere: bric-a-brac, a bow and arrows, a statue, Neptune's trident, and dancers, too. Some of the humans resemble auction-house employees ordered about by Agnes (Helen Pickett), a bossy woman in an English schoolgirl's uniform. We learn that someone whose name is pronounced Mr. Peanut, but spelled Pnut in the program, is searching for golden cherries. We also see people become art objects with movements and poses suggesting such things as court dances from the time of Velázquez, belligerent Amazons, the battles of Cain and Abel, and the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, as personified by Mr. Pnut (Jim De Block).

The art-world parodies abound with wild leaps and runs, and there is a sharp diamantine pas de deux for Claire Pascal and Sanny Kleef. Forysthe's extravagant choreography makes art objects seem forms of ostentation, displays of wealth, ways of impressing any society's czar. Eventually, a bunch of golden cherries rises upward like a collector's recent acquisition, a treasure put on display.

The second act is already familiar, for this is "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," a group work Forsythe completed before he did the other parts of "Impressing the Czar," and which is often presented as a separate ballet of its own. (The Kirov Ballet did that here just this spring.) The cherries hang above the middle of the stage, and beneath them an ensemble performs high-speed sequences filled with runs, determined strides, and constant shifts of balance and position. The choreography may be just as cluttered with steps as the first scene, but here the clutter implies wealth of artistic invention, rather than clutters of material objects. Yet the presence of those dangling cherries on display can still seem a reminder of cultural trophy-hunting.

Claire Pascal, Wim Vanlessen in "Impressing the Czar." Photo: Stephanie Berger for Lincoln Center.

The ballet as a whole is always theatrically insistent; little is relaxed or at ease in it. No wonder its recorded accompaniment throughout is thudding music by Leslie Stuck, Thom Willems, Eva Grossman-Hecht, and Beethoven (yes, Beethoven also seems to thud).

The last act returns to the world of auctions with an actual auction, in which Agnes auctions off dancers plated with gold, as if to suggest they are commodities to be bought and sold. The dialogue by Kathleen Fitzgerald and Forsythe is often witty and this multi-national company speaks English well.

If Forsythe has little use for the self-conscious struttings of the wealthy, he also has no illusions about noble savages or innocent children, for the auction gives way to a scary ensemble in which men and women, identically clad in wigs and schoolgirl uniforms, cavort with mounting maniacal delirium in what may be a playground version of "The Rite of Spring," with Mr. Pnut as sacrificial victim, but one who eventually rises and tries to lead them.

"Impressing the Czar" could only be the product of a choreographer familiar with what might be termed European opera-house culture. Here in America, Forsythe, John Neumeier, and Maurice Béjart are perhaps the three best known choreographers in this manner, and all three, in my opinion, have created ballets of real merit, as well as some merely pretentious ones. The fact that Béjart is the only genuine European in that trio suggests that you don't have to be European-born to create European opera-house ballets.

The Continental opera house is a temple of Culture, very much with a capital C, a home for opera, of course, but also often for ballet, and sometimes even for drama. Such theaters, variously subsidized, can dominate urban life, adding much to a city's vitality. We in America should be so lucky. But these institutions can also grow stifling, burdening theatergoers with season after season of standard repertories that can come to seem not cultural treasures, but cultural baggage. No wonder stage directors, to liven things up, conceive of absolutely bizarre reinterpretations of familiar operas: you know, notions like "This time, let's set 'Carmen' on the moon'."

Institutional theaters can also seem pillars of the Establishment. Some may still strive to attract a snob audience, although, thank goodness, this may be less common in our more egalitarian age. But the fact that most of Forsythe's cultural references, though embodied by dancers, recall visual works of art is a reminder of a sort of snobbery rampant on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, throughout the world: the snobbery of collecting and of displaying one's collections. And of displaying one's self as well, as someone with the power to bag cultural trophies.

In America, acquiring art objects (usually at astronomical prices) can involve cut-throat competition among collectors. And wealthy arrogant socialites can control the boards of American museums, symphony orchestras, opera companies, and dance troupes, and seek to mould them according to their whims. Yet are the rival political parties that may try to shape the destinies of subsidized European institutions any better? Not living in Europe, I don't really know. But I do know that all human beings are fallible and prone to folly: we are all sinners.

Forsythe knows that, too, which is one reason why "Impressing the Czar," though funny, and impressively danced, provokes thought.


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