Much Ado About Nothing

“Impressing the Czar”
Semperoper Ballet
Dresden, Germany
May 25, 2015

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2015 by Ilona Landgraf

1. Ensemble, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “Potemkin's Signature”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015William Forsythe’s “Impressing the Czar” is the Semperoper Ballet’s second premiere this season. It testifies to the company’s strong ties with the choreographer, reinforcing the relationship. After the closure of Forsythe’s own company, Ballet Frankfurt, in 2004, where “Impressing the Czar” had received its premiere in January 1988, only the Royal Ballet of Flanders and now the Semperoper Ballet are allowed to perform it. In the program notes Forsythe emphasized his intense, confidence-building collaboration with the Dresden company. At the moment it is the only one dancing his earlier works in a true and faithful manner.

Hence the prospects were bright that the evening would be exceptional and, as the title implies, really impressive.

2. R.Coumes-Marquet and V.Lamparter, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “Potemkin's Signature”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015“Impressing the Czar”, as a full-length ballet, grew out of a smaller work “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, an abstract piece Forsythe created for The Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 which has now become its second part. What became typical of his style – fast-paced, dynamic movements often pulling away from ballet’s vertical axis, and a sleek aesthetic, yet blatantly strong physicality, such as athletic leg extensions and off-center lifts – was combined in “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” for the first time. It became his most successful work. The title refers to Forsythe’s instruction for the stage hands to hang the only set element, a pair of of golden cherries, “in the middle, somewhat elevated”. When commissioned to do a full-length story ballet, the small budget prompted Forsythe to reuse “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”. Surrounded by additional acts it became the core of “Impressing the Czar”. Forsythe, however, is not one to indulge in telling stories. Consequently “Impressing the Czar” has none, but terming it a story ballet promotes sales figures, back then as well as today.

It consists of four acts: “Potemkin’s Signature” (I) – which is followed by “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” (II) – “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo” (III), “Bongo, Bongo Nageela” (IV) and “Mr. Pnut goes to the Big Top” (V). Reportedly Czar Nicholas II’s lukewarm reception of Marius Petipa’s opulent “The Sleeping Beauty” was the reason for the ballet’s overall title.

“Potemkin’s Signature” is a fast-paced spoof on the history of ballet and art since the Renaissance period. To Beethoven’s String Quartet No.14 the stage brims over with hurly-burly. Women in gold brocade dresses dance next to sleek ballerinas in modern, skintight tricots. Two men – Christian Bauch and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet – depict the Grimm Brothers as fiercely 3. R.Coumes-Marquet, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “Potemkin's Signature”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015grimacing fools, wearing dark pants and white shirts, one of them has an open fly through which his shirt’s tail peeps out, the other’s metal-rimmed glasses are fixed with tape. Mr. Pnut (Julian Amir Lacey), wearing a white plaid skirt with huge, black dots, barefooted and bare chested, seems to play Cupid, if only his bow wasn’t so large. Later he resembles a San Sebastian-like figure instead, complete with a golden arrow impaled in his chest. Other set elements are an oversized shell game, painted cloths, a golden eagle, a trident, multitudes of arrows which sometimes theatrically end in a victim’s upper body or almost bore through a woman’s head (portrayed by Václav Lamparter en travesti). Understandably he screams like a banshee. On the stage’s left side, a woman beats the floor in a frenzy with a golden hammer around a man, who lies motionless – dead? – there, while another man shows off skillfully twirling two batons on the right side. Courtney Richardson and István Simon have a beautiful pas de deux, but one of the Grimm Brothers stands at the forestage, grimacing like mad which draws attention away from them. Meanwhile the Grimm Brother’s female companion pouts terribly. One hollow, crazy action follows another. Better not to search for a deeper meaning, there is none. Only facade. Agnes (Helen Pickett), though her gray plaid skirt, white blouse and the pageboy haircut reminds one of a school girl, is apparently designated as the main organizer, assisted by Rosa (Ana Presta). She keeps an eye on the ruckus, but she scarcely has things under control. Everyone seems to want to do things their own way. Regularly she phones her boss and laments about the chaos. The Sistine Madonna, she lets us know, could have been sold at the Striezelmarkt. Well, presumably draped between Christmas stollen!

5. E.Vostrotina and R.Coumes-Marquet, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 20154. L.Guilbaud and S.Gileva, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015Even worse helter-skelter reigns in the third part “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo”. The leftovers of cultural history – depicted by dancers in gold lamé costumes wrapped round by tape – come under the auctioneer’s hammer. “Mezzo-prezzo” – at half price. Agnes heads the auction, her voice getting increasingly shrill as the deafening 6. S.Gileva and J.Bubeníček, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015hubbub becomes rampant.

In the fourth section, “Bongo, Bongo Nageela” around forty male and female dancers crowd the stage, all uniformly clad like school girls – gray skirts, white blouses with black ribbons at the collars, and white ankle socks – all wearing pageboy wigs. They kick their legs, stomp their feet, run in a circle, beat on the floor and move like crazy as if exercising in a tribal dance manner to Thom Willems’s rhythmic sounds. Forsythe mentioned MTV clips as source of inspiration. At one point three singers whisper sexy background vocals into their microphones. Mr. Pnut, who has been lying all this time on the center stage floor after being shot down by an arrow, suddenly rises from the dead and “goes to the Big Top”. That is he tries to impress two men by blowing a golden party horn.

“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” stands out like a monolith amid a clutter of weird humor. Its six ballerinas and three male dancers, clad in iridescent turquoise-green tricots, the men additionally wearing tights of the same color, present pure dance. Group sizes vary, there are several pas de deux (Elena Vostrotina and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, Sangeun Lee and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, Svetlana Gileva and Jiří Bubeníček, Anna Merkulova and Johannes Schmidt, plus other constellations), but also larger groups. Sometimes a dancer is singled out for a solo. Thom Willems’s pulsating electronic music underlines the movements’ sharpness and at times aggressiveness. Dance seems to occur on the spur of the moment, casual walking suddenly turning into daring, speedy moves, clear and precise. In the first scene of “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” Forsythe might have once depicted a competition between two ballerinas, carried off with telling glances and postures – if so, 7. H.Pickett, J.A.Lacey and ensemble, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015Sylvie Guillem would have scored back in Paris in 1987 – but there is no further hint about that. The Dresden cast seems to relish its performance. Though everyone mostly keeps a straight face the women’s eyes sparkle. They had looked forward to be in “In the Middle”. All dance crisply throughout, keeping fresh and with forceful attacks.

Especially, Jiří Bubeníček is in peak form, smoothly shifting gears from laid-back to sharp. His solo displays his masterful skills.

Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, a bold actor in the piece’s other parts, here again proves to be a smart, reliable partner. The company will lose an elegant, versatile expert when he retires from stage this July.

“Impressing the Czar” was a hit with Frankfurt Ballet. Among fans of Forsythe’s work it has attained cult status. In terms of his criticism of the cultural establishment, Forsythe states in the program notes that time would catch up to the piece. But hasn’t time already passed it? What was once acerbic, reckless, brazen, almost thirty years ago, has now became dull. In a TV spot shortly before the Dresden premiere Forsythe stated that “Impressing the Czar” aims to entertain. But mindless jokes, laid on thickly, and punching noises are poor entertainment, even when accompanied by an increasing tempo. In presenting strange characters, Pina Bausch was superior. Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16”, also in the company’s repertory, easily outstrips “Bongo, Bongo Nageela”. Besides, “Minus 16” shows the dancers’ power while “Bongo, Bongo Nageela” ridicules them.

By dismantling the history of art and ballet and mocking traditional cliches, Forsythe himself sticks a spike into the wheel of “Impressing the Czar”. Because, aside from “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, what is left? Stale air advertised as a jewel of Forsythe’s oeuvre.

8. Ensemble, “Impressing the Czar” by W.Forsythe: “Bongo, Bongo Nageela”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden © I.Whalen 2015

Links: Homepage of Semperoper Ballet
Photos: 1. Ensemble, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “Potemkin’s Signature”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
2. Raphaël Coumes-Marquet (The Grimm Brothers) and Václav Lamparter, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “Potemkin’s Signature”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
3. Raphaël Coumes-Marquet (The Grimm Brothers), “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “Potemkin’s Signature”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
4. Laurent Guilbaud and Svetlana Gileva, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
5. Elena Vostrotina and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
6. Svetlana Gileva and Jiří Bubeníček, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
7. Helen Pickett (Agnes), Julian Amir Lacey (Mr. Pnut) and ensemble, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
8. Ensemble, “Impressing the Czar” by William Forsythe: “Bongo, Bongo Nageela”, Semperoper Ballet Dresden 2015
all photos © Ian Whalen 2015
Editing: Laurence Smelser