William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar

The lively discussion engendered by Forsythe’s imaginative, postmodern work has sometimes elided the dance. But Impressing the Czar – the ambitious reconstruction of his 1988 epic, performed in July by Ballet Flanders at the Lincoln Center Festival – brought the form’s thrilling speed, beauty and smarts to center stage.

The dance hurls through time and space in a five-part structure that offers a stunning polemic on the history, pleasures and failures of ballet, contrasting the excess of story ballet with the spareness of Balanchine’s creations. The original The Czar took on ballet’s authority at a moment when the larger culture was doing this, following the ballet “boom” of the 70s, the defection of Baryshnikov in 1974, and the arrival of radical new voices like Mark Morris and Bill T. Jones. But its freshness today lies in its fusion of pastiche, analysis, inside jokes, and the kind of high-speed, saturated dancing that leaves you dizzy with wonder.

Lincoln Center Festival. Impressing the Czar, Royal Ballet of Flanders. Performers: Christopher Hill, and Helen Pickett. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

With the first section, Potemkin’s Unterschrift (Potemkin’s Signature), Forsythe offers up a vision of the imperial court, where former Wooster-grouper Helen Pickett presides on a throne at left stage over a giant chess-board while at right school boys alternately unveil or wheat paste images from art history on a billboard. Small groups of dancers move across the stage, dancing robust trios, quartets and quintets in period costumes and occasionally contemporary practice gear. Pickett is pure Gossip Girl, bitchy, powerful and wise in her private school uniform; or else she is Catherine the Great, then observing Potemkin's facades as she tours the colony, now presiding over the fate of theatrical dance. Mikel Jauregui is Mr. Pnut, a bobble of desire, dancing with bow and arrow, part Cupid, part St. Sebastian. Sébastien Tassin and Christopher Hill are the Grimm Brothers, nasty school boys rewriting history as they go. Drunk with references and borrowings, the fun lies in following the fast-paced action and connecting the dots as you see fit.

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated begins without fuss after a brief intermission: an explosive and equally theatrical dance made without plot, props or any of theater’s effects, except for the expressive body. Fully exposed, lit with silver white light, the stage appears as a boxing ring, and the contest apparently was for the future of ballet. Set to Thom Willems’ driving, ecstatic score, the company dances in pale blue unitards achieving a speed, focus and extremity of line that alternates with cool disregard: stopping, walking, hands on hip, waiting to take the next phrase. It’s Balanchine meets Judson Dance Theater, but what I remember most was the attention to hands: the sudden flick of the fingers, the wrists snapping to right angles, the sense of attack and venom. These are angry birds, grounded or in flight.

Somewhat Elevated is so vigorous, so enthralling, it’s hard to return to the theater after a second intermission. Instead, the Bongo Bongo Nageela section, a title I take to be an ironic reference to the thread of primitivism that runs throughout classical dance and the avant garde, gathered the entire company onstage, men and women alike in school girl uniforms, for a ritualistic circle dance á le Sacre du printemps. The final scenes then stage the auction of a dancer, reminding us of her historic place as available for purchase backstage at the Paris Opera and today as a continuing object of desire. Then, when the Mr. Pnut dies, finally, is it the end of ballet itself, or just its commodification?

No worries. Long after the company took its bows, with Forsythe joining them onstage for the honor, audience members lingered here and there talking, muffled voices drifting upwards to the balcony where I sat, still at the edge of my seat.

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