Review: Royal Ballet of Flanders in William Forsythe's Impressing the Czar at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 6 - 8 Nov 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 7 November 2008

A Czar (or Tsar) is either the Emperor of Russia or ‘a person with great authority’. Whilst the former is extinct, the latter seem to grow inexorably. We have Transport Czars, a Drugs Czar and even a Construction Czar amongst many others. I’m no Czar but I was seriously impressed by the outrageous vitality of William Forsythe’s four-part, full-length work and this brilliant ensemble of performers that blew such a refreshing blast of novelty through Sadler’s Wells.

The curtain-up was delayed by 45 minutes due to a technical hitch; normally a surefire cause for general grumpiness in the audience; but, by the first interval, there was a general buzz of excitement and anticipation. Artistic brilliance, both in design and execution, had triumphed over any worries about the last bus home.

This is a strangely constructed ballet with outer layers peeling away to reveal a heart of pure dance ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ – a work that predates the rest, having been made for the Paris Opera Ballet, in 1987. Nowadays it is much more often performed on its own, either wholly or just through its concluding pas de deux and the title has long ago lost its significance. The whole ballet followed, a few months later, and remained in Ballett Frankfurt’s repertory for seven years. Excepting its middle section, ‘Impressing the Csar’ joined the mass ranks of ‘lost’ ballets until being resurrected (with Forsythe’s blessing) by his former assistant, Kathryn Bennetts, as one of her first acts on becoming Director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

There is little point in trying to make much narrative sense of it. The leading character and narrator (played with brilliant comedic timing by guest artist, Helen Pickett) runs through – and dismisses – numerous possible theories for it all, which should preclude the need to consider them further. We need not worry about the significance of the mysterious TV character, Mr Pnut; or why one of the characters seeks to underscore the Venus de Milo by attempting to chop off his legs with an enormous bent pair of scissors; or even question the motive for 40 St Trinians-style “schoolgirls” in crisp white blouses and pleated, navy skirts dancing a ritualistic rite over the body of the aforementioned Pnut: a long sequence that erupts into a hi-octane, high-kicking, euphoric finale.

We can deduce the significance of a pair of golden cherries, which are launched high into the air to conclude the raucous, effervescent first part and remain, suspended in the middle, somewhat elevated (hence the title’s intent) as the only set accoutrement for the central section. Forsythe’s search of art works depicting cherries led to many of the other images, such as St Sebastian and his bow, layering the unending vigour of the opening section. Entitled ‘Potemkin’s Signature’ this incredible, short journey in dance seems to deconstruct the whole cultural history of the west with diverse golden threads of theatre and ballet cascading across the stage, all sumptuously costumed by Férial Münnich; the whole affair resonating with the same Flemish/Renaissance art influences of a Peter Greenaway film.

The only fault I can find is that there is simply far too much brilliance to absorb in a single session.

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