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Edinburgh International Festival - Royal Ballet of Flanders

'Impressing the Czar'

by Kate Snedeker

August 18, 2007 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland

The best approach to William Forsythe's "Impressing the Czar" is one with absolutely no preconceptions at all. If you think you've seen it all in ballet, think again. A three-act compilation of dance, drama and controlled chaos set to music that ranges from classical to computerised, "Impressing the Czar" defies categorisation and easy description. One just has to sit back and enjoy the spectacle. And what a spectacle it was! The evening's performance, marking both the UK premiere of the full ballet and the Edinburgh International Festival debut of the Royal Ballet of Flanders (?), was one to remember.  The ballet was danced to non-sensical perfection by the company, which displayed a technical command un-matched in recent Festivals.

'Impressing the Czar" was built around the iconic second act, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated".  Most frequently performed on its own "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" refers to the sole stage decoration, a pair of golden cherries which hang in the middle of the stage, somewhat elevated above the dancers.  Thom Willems electronic score is fascinating, providing a driving beat, an almost plaintive moan and a sensual shiver.   The choreography – Forsythe at his finest - is striking, powerful, angular, off balance, but classical to the core.  The traditional underpinnings are no surprise since the piece was choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet in order to show off the company's classical dancers in more contemporary context. The dance itself is full of shapes created by technically fiendish sequences that require headlong entrances into suddenly static positions and duets with limb stretching poses. Férial Simon's costumes – blue-green leotards with black tights for the women and green unitards on the men are among the most simple, but yet most recognizable in ballet.

The piece unfolds on a bare stage. For all three acts Forsythe opens up the full expanse of the large Festival Theatre stage, giving the audience a rare chance to grasp it's enormity.  Even the first set of wings are removed, leaving the dancers to stand, walk and run around the edge of the stage, watching the action or posing from the sides and back of the stage.  This excess of action, a competition for the audience's attention, is something Forsythe uses multiple times in the full ballet.  In this, the most athletic of the sections, the company was electric, in particular Claire Pascal and Wim Vanlessen.  Though lithe and impeccably controlled, the tiny Aki Saito seemed a bit overwhelmed by the vastness of the large stage.

The opening and closing acts, which combine dance, theatre and spoken word, were born from the 'somewhat elevated' cherries of the second act.  When the cherries were chosen for Act 2, Forsythe looked for instances of cherries in works of art in order to find inspiration for the rest of the ballet.  In the end, it was a portrait of St. Sebastian with the requisite cherries, which drove the creation of Act 1, "Potemkin's Signature" and the three-section concluding act.  Sebastian (Jim De Block) himself appears as the central figure in these acts, looking almost like Nijinsky's faun in a black and white patterned, pleated skirt.

"Potemkin's Signature" is best described as controlled chaos of the most inexplicable, non-sequitor kind.  Bits and pieces of different eras and stories collide to fill the stage with an utterly implausible, but totally fascinating clash of action.  A tilted tiled floor takes up half the stage and provides a backdrop for various characters and St. Sebastian to pose.  Two men in 1950s fifties black suits (the outstanding pair of Rob Fordeyn and Sebastian Tassin) twist and turn in synchrony, while a cluster of women in Renaissance era dresses bustle around the stage, dancing at intervals to the score of mixed Beethoven, Leslie Stuck and Thom Willems. The costumes, all deep metallic colours – dark bronzes, golds and coppers – give the piece a feeling of age. Weaving in and out of the other characters are a couple (Altea Nuñez and Sanny Kleef) whose unitard costumes and edgy but frequently interrupted pas de deux hint at "In the Middle" to come. In the midst of all this action, there are two Catholic schoolgirls, one of whom is involved in a phone call of sorts with the mysterious Rodger Wilcot.  The conversation, carried out to perfection between Helen Pickett, a former dancer turned actress serving as a guest artist with the company, and Craig Davidson, seems to mix elements of an air-traffic control tower and a Jasper Fforde book-hopping adventure. With references to kilts, tartan and Edinburgh, it has clearly been edited for the Festival performances.  It's all highly improbable and intentionally too much for the eye to take in at once.  So as Forthyse intends, each person focuses on a different series of dancers and actions, creating their own story.  The ending of the section is impressinve, with full cast twisting and turning – schoolgirls, suited men and Renaissance women alike, and special note should be made of the male trio who were absolutely spot on in the repeating series of pirouettes.

The final act begins with the hyperactive auction of Act 1 characters, now gilded in gaudy gold, in "The House Mezzo-Prezzo".  It's mostly a chance for Helen Pickett to shine, with Jim DeBlock's disembodied head appearing in a box on her desk to offer his bid.  [Presuming this was indeed DeBlock and his voice, his English was impressively unaccented].  It's Forsythe gleeful jab at the commercialism that has consumed the modern world – what kind of a world is it where history is for sale?

The penultimate sections "Bongo Bongo Nageela" and "Mr Pnut Goes to the Big Top" are the "Oops I Did it Again" of the ballet world, only Forsythe beat Brittany Spears to the idea by more than a decade. In one of the best spoofs of classic ballet to ever prance across a stage, 40 be-wigged Catholic schoolgirls – male and female – take to the stage, surrounding St. Sebastian in a hip-hop take-off of "Giselle".  Through the years saints have found many a way to die, but Sebastian must be the only one to have faced death and resurrection by Catholic schoolgirls.  There's even a rapping trio (one assumes talented dancers since no singing credits were provided), though unfortunately their lyrics were rendered unintelligible by the over-amped sound system.  The dancing was powerful and energetic, but perhaps the section dragged on too long because the ending seemed sudden and un-rewarding.  The audience seemed a bit confused, as if they were expecting a final return to the land where it all began.  It's unfortunate because it appeared to cost the dancers the rousing applause that they rightly deserved.

The Royal Ballet of Flanders has a hit in this revival of "Impressing the Czar" and if I've totally confused you by now, the only answer is to go an experience it all yourself!

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