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The Royal Ballet of Flanders

Impressing the Czar

by David Mead

November 6, 2008 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Kathryn Bennetts, artistic director of The Royal Ballet of Flanders, was William Forsythe’s ballet mistress for fifteen years.  Since moving to Antwerp in 2005, she has been working to cast off the company’s safe image.  On the evidence of their London performances she is well on the way to succeeding.  Her knowledge of Forsythe’s work, her ability to communicate it and her dancers’ ability to dance it are clear from the moment the curtain rises.

“Impressing the Czar” opens with “Potemkin’s Signature” which takes place on a stage brimming with props, including what looks like a giant chess board set at an angle with objects on and around it.  It is an almost anarchic mix of references to the arts and current events.  There is so much going on you just don’t know where to look.  Canvasses are unrolled and wrapped around the dancers, who at one point take a pose, looking for all the world like a work by some Flemish master.  A commentary is provided by Agnes (Helen Pickett) and Rosa (Karina Jager-von Stuplnagel) that includes references to Sarah Palin and the credit crunch.  They seem to be trying to find their favourite piece of art, which turns out to be Mr. Pnut on TV.  Among all this, dancers perform a crazy mix of dance styles, from court dance to some impressive contemporary ballet.  The whole act is a riot of action and colour.

That ballet gives a taste of the highlight of the evening, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”.  All nine dancers performed with great verve, especially Aki Saito, the leading female, who combined explosive power, razor-sharp movement and moments of delicious melting.  The dancers got right inside the music and Forsythe’s choreography.  They were clean, sharp and technically superb.  Yet they seemed to really understand the work rather than be focusing simply on the movement.  The contrast with the Mariinsky Ballet, who performed the same work in London earlier in the season and who seemed to smooth out Forsythe’s edginess, could not have been sharper.

The third act gets steadily more manic and comic.  “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo” links back to the opening, with the props and dancers, including Mr. Pnut, dragged forward in turn, displayed to the audience and auctioned off.  Agnes tries to keep control, haranguing everyone, the front row included, in a way Basil Fawlty would have been proud of.  It’s crazy, manic, and quite brilliant.  The mass circular dance that follows in “Bongo Bongo Nageela” is like some tribal ritual, with everyone, men included, dressed in schoolgirl uniforms.  It was humorous but with a hint of menace too.  And so to the finale, “Mr Pnut goes to the Big Top”, so madcap it leaves you breathless.

“Impressing the Czar” does leave you wondering what on earth it was all about, especially if you haven’t read the programme.  Even then, I’m not sure that anyone watching it understands everything.  But you don’t need to and it doesn’t really matter anyway.  Just sit back and enjoy the madness of it all.

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