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Is the Czar Impressed?

William Forsythe's 'Impressing the Czar' Performed by The Royal Ballet of Flanders

by Rosella Simonari

October 24, 2009 -- Teatro Valli, Reggio Emilia

You cannot be indifferent to this piece; you either love it or hate it. It is monumental and complex, funny and surprising. William Forsythe first presented it in 1988 and in 2005 Kathryn Bennets, director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders after having been Forsythe’s ballet mistress for 15 years, reconstructed it to acclaimed success. Watching the piece now, it does not look that ‘old’. In a way it has become a classic in its own terms, thanks to its deconstruction and, at the same time, celebration of ballet.

The title immediately displaces the audience; what has a czar to do with ballet? It has not and it has. It has not because the choreography is not about czars; it has because it refers to the relationship between Imperial nineteenth century Russia and dance. At that time ballet was mainly created to celebrate and impress the czar. Politics and power have often influenced and sometimes manipulated the arts. Russia was no exception. The title and the piece are a parody of not just Russian ballet, but of Western culture at large.

Divided into five parts, “Impressing the Czar” is a tour de force through Renaissance art and the postmodernist culture of consumption with an exceptional break in part two dedicated to pure dance. The first part, “Potemkin’s Unterschrift” (Potemkin’s signature), is a mix and match of many things. There is so much going on onstage that you do not really know what to follow. There is a dancer with a bow recalling the Renaissance paintings of Saint Sebastian, a fair haired dancer dressed in a schoolgirl uniform talking on the phone about a mysterious Mr Pnut (whom we find out is the guy with the bow), a group of female dancers making the parody of mime in ballet and numerous other dancers in different costumes that range from long evening dresses to adherent leotards and overalls. There are many props, like a throne on the right and a panel in the shape of two black cherries on the left. And cherries are another enigmatic fil rouge in the piece.

They appear again in the second part, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, in a different size and colour, small and golden. In this case they seem suspended centre-stage up. They are in a way connected to this part, which is a kind of break with respect to the previous part and to the other parts too. In this section, which Fosythe created as a separate entity in 1987 and which has become a kind of signature piece for his style, all the messiness the audience has seen before has disappeared. What is left is the embodied art of dance shaped by Forsythe’s radical approach to ballet. Along with the verticality of ballet, we see horizontal and diagonal lines, curves, rapid shifts of weight and of focus. The dancers wear black and green adherent costumes and perform duets as well as solo and group pieces.

After this rarefied atmosphere, the third part, “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo”, is a return to the initial absurd mood of the piece. There is an auction being conducted by Agnes, the blond dancer in the schoolgirl uniform we saw before. Her tone is emphatic and her objects include dancers dressed in shiny golden costumes. Mr Pnut’s face emerges from a box placed on a table. If he is supposed to be the ‘hero’ of this pantomime, his journey has definitely taken a dead end turn. However, we are mistaken as he appears again in the fourth section, ”Bongo Bongo Nageela” in the middle of a big circle of dancers all dressed in schoolgirl uniforms, men and women alike. Their dance is percussive and frantic, an explosion of energy after the auction parody. In the last section, “Mr Pnut Goes to the Big Top”, as Stefano Tomassini notes in the programme, “the choreography recomposes into a more precise and recognisable” structure with, in the end, Mr Pnut repeatedly blowing into his paper trumpet “as to remind us that, maybe, it has all just been a joke”.

Forsythe’s use of parody recalls that of another great protagonist of late twentieth-century dance, Mats Ek. With regards to Ek, it is inherent in his style and in his transformation of ballet and ballet dance technique, while in Forsythe it is more in the type of work he is creating. The above mentioned section, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, does not have the tones of parody. However, both their approach seems to be devised to question the authority of ballet throughout dance history, Forsythe, by breaking its verticality and cultural status, Ek, by incorporating everyday gestures and an almost Grahamian use of the back into his revision of famous ballets like “Giselle” or “Sleeping Beauty”.

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