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Royal Ballet of Flanders, "Impressing the Czar" by William Forsythe

by Lori Ortiz
July 17, 2008
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
Rose Theater
Columbus Circle
Through July 20th
July is the month of black cherries on Native American calendars. William Forsythe used a pair as a sort of mascot for his "Impressing the Czar," seen July 17th at the Rose Theater. A red rose is another hanging prop in the show, albeit brief. The larger-than-life flower appears, full of red majesty, when it's suddenly spotlighted.

In Forsythe's 1998 three act "Impressing the Czar" the impressive central nougat is the world renown, pure dance, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." It looks incredibly technically demanding in the Royal Ballet of Flanders's striking, steely performance. The two theatrical bookend acts parody ballet by infiltrating it with examples of other movement traditions. He makes a laughing stock of the gilded royalty that supported ballet in its early days. In the final act, he pokes fun at consumerism, and begs for money for dance with a simulated TV game show. The full evening dance is part of the Lincoln Center Festival, which is sponsored by Altria and American Express.

Forsythe railed at American consumerism and brashness in "Kammer/Kammer," a 2000 full evening dance seen at BAM in 2006. It came across as a bashing. Thought provoking as it is, there are ways to point out hard to swallow truths without reinvesting in them. He ridicules the sorry state of our funding for the arts. Forsythe was born in New York City and studied at the Joffrey School. He's been based in Germany and his present company enjoys residencies in several municipalities there.

In the first act, called Potemkin's Unterschrift (signature,) the right side of the stage is a raised chessboard platform studded with movable, gold, cone-shaped pieces that later become hats. Agnes (Helen Pickett) sits on a throne with what looks like a TV in front of her. We see the back of it. She carries on a spoken, amplified conversation with Roger Wilcot, who is dressed like a ballet master from long ago. He is on the left side and beautifully, balletically danced by Craig Davidson. Perhaps his movement is the true comedy as he gets tangled in masking tape and rolls around the floor. There are two Grimm Brothers in suit and tie (one dances with a classical, draped figurine.) Groups of dancers in period dress are later joined by uber neoclassical dancers in leotards and tights (with silver toe shoes.) Finally the ladies in the longish, poufed skirts dance the frug and it's a raucous collage of movement and costumes from different eras and dance genre.

The jokes and dances in the first and third acts relate to pop culture ca. late twentieth century and are dated now. The music, trance-inducing and repetitious, likewise turns pop when necessary.

Precise timing and off-kilter balances seem to demand full attention from nine in Act II, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." The beat is eight count with a strong, pounding accent on the first. The dancing is on-the-mark. The three principals' perfectly flowing musicality awesomely animates Thom Willem's droning, beating score. Aki Saito's line is gorgeously fluid. She and Claire Pascal create forceful energy and the pure dance narrative looks inevitable. Both are partnered by Wim Vanlesson. The dancing provides all the tempo changes and complexity, let's say the melody. The music doesn't help there; nor does it offer any emotion. The dancers don't help there.

The single prop/décor for "In the Middle" is a pair of black cut-out cherries, indeed centered and hanging a safe distance overhead. Forsythe took pains to explain them in the program notes, and the story is interesting but anecdotal. The cherries are visually insignificant as a symbol for royal lavishness, even if they do adorn the czar's art and furniture. As a symbol for sexuality, the cherries are likeable. They help give "Impressing" dance's aftereffect of heightened well-being and spiritual nourishment.

Of the incredible dancers in leotards, Eva Dewaele, Brooke Widdison, Virginia Hendrickson, and Craig Davidson stood out in Act I and II duets and quartets.

In Act III, a final dig at schoolgirls and American expansionism, Jim De Block, the St. Sebastian figure "Mr. Pnut," lies centerstage in the ballet master costume with an arrow having pierced his heart. The company of 40 or so circles around the perimeter. Its called Bongo Bongo Nageela. And yes, it does recall the Israeli folk dance Hava Nagila. It also suggests Native American dances performed by uniformed schoolgirls (some of them are male). Acts I and III bolster the wonderful "In the Middle," a changing of the guard.

I hope the Royal Ballet of Flanders will visit again with a range of their classical and modern ballet repertory. Despite his off-color, uber PC sense of humor, I still marvel at the way Forsythe has expanded the ballet vocabulary with his singular technique. The body reels around activating the full 360 degrees around it. He masterfully employs classical ballet technique, creating a new dialog. It may not have impressed the czar, but it's a must see if you've questioned ballet's future. And if you haven't thought much about it, you're in for an awesome experience.
Members of Royal Ballet of Flanders

Members of Royal Ballet of Flanders

Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger

Claire Pascal, Wim Vanlessen

Claire Pascal, Wim Vanlessen

Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger

Mikel Jauregui, Craig Davidson, Claire Pascal, Géraldine Guyot

Mikel Jauregui, Craig Davidson, Claire Pascal, Géraldine Guyot

Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger

Karina Jäger-von Stülpnagel, Sébastien Tassin, Christopher Hill, Kevin Durwael (cage on head)

Karina Jäger-von Stülpnagel, Sébastien Tassin, Christopher Hill,
Kevin Durwael (cage on head)

Photo © & courtesy of Stephanie Berger

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