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Flash Review, 8-29: In the Beginning, Middle, and End, More than Somewhat Elevated
Speed-Dialing Dance History with William Forsythe and the Royal Ballet of Flanders

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2008 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- The Royal Ballet of Flanders really gets William Forsythe's work. In its July 18 performance of his 1988 epic, "Impressing the Czar," as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, the feeling of outrageous fun was pervasive. In her first act as artistic director of the Flanders company, Kathryn Bennetts -- the former ballet mistress of Forsythe's Ballet Frankfurt -- asked for the rights to the ballet, which Forsythe had until then declined to grant. He entrusted her with exclusive permission to do the work.

Act I, "Potemkin's Unterschrift," is a kaleidoscope of action that grazes over the entire canon of Western dance from the court of Louis XIV to Balanchine and beyond. Ladies in elegant, chocolate-hued, taffeta gowns and men in frock coats rush back and forth across the vast stage of the Rose Theater in the Time Warner Building; tapestries are torn from stage flats and worn as cloaks; a character named Mr. Pnut, in a white miniskirt, shoots arrows from his golden bow; people play golf with little gold cones; contemporary ballerinas in leotards and tights intermingle with the swirling mob; an air traffic controller named Rodger Wilcox barks orders into his walkie-talkie. The frantic action overlaps way too rapidly to take it all in.

Ensconced on a throne at the center of a giant chessboard, Agnes (dancing actress Helen Pickett) and her counterpart Rosa (all-dancing Karina Jager-von Stulpnagel), in identical schoolgirl uniforms and pageboy wigs, watch TV and prance about; Agnes occasionally comments on the chaotic activity. The nonstop spectacle is conceptually audacious, choreographically brainy, and visually engrossing. As references whiz by, we note a quotation from Balanchine's "Four Temperaments": five ladies mimic the high-kick-and-pose quartet motif from that neoclassic masterpiece.

In Act III, "La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo," Pickett, now in a gown, auctions off gold-clad characters with manic, running patter that satirizes our commoditization of everything. Act IV, "Bongo Bongo Nageela," is a tribal orgy for 30-odd replicas of Agnes/Rosa -- male and female -- all in white blouses, black skirts, knee socks, and pageboys. They circle the supine figure of St. Sebastian (Mr. Pnut), who has an arrow protruding from his chest. They high kick with demented verve and do a fast run-and-hop motif, borrowed from the heart of the ballet: Section II, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." And in section V, "Mr. Pnut Goes to the Big Top," our hero is resurrected and leads the horde in a merry chase, while a trio of singers upstage rock out to Thom Willems's lively music.

In fact, "Impressing the Czar" was created incorporating "In the Middle" -- Forsythe's seminal and arguably most famous ballet -- at its heart. Backed by a percussive score by his frequent musical collaborator Willems, its nine dancers, in turquoise and black practice clothes, explore the limits of physicality to wrenching bursts of sound that pierce the atmosphere. Extensions soar, bodies contort, hips virtually dislocate, and partnering hurtles by at a perilously fast pace. The ballet is a thesis in neo-classicism that takes Balanchine's distinctive balletic distortions to new dimensions.

When the Kirov performed the ballet on its all-Forsythe program earlier this season at City Center, it was an impressive display of cool technical precision, but the Flanders troupe gives the pyrotechnic vocabulary rich patina. Rather than indulging contortionism for its own sake, the dancers -- especially the leads, Genevieve Van Quaquebeke, Joelle Auspert, Howard Quintero, and Eugeniy Kolesnik -- manage to project their humanity. They articulate the physical effort and visibly enjoy conquering the intricate, explosive rhythms and dynamics of the extreme action.

Whether "Impressing the Czar" as a whole strikes you as a masterwork or a clever theatrical manipulation depends on your tolerance for kinetic overload, but the enraptured audience seemed to appreciate its manifold kinetic glories. And the luster of "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" remains a shining jewel, even when mounted in this extravagantly gaudy setting.

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