Saturday 25 August 2007

A Mesmerising Evening of Modern Ballet

I am not a balletomane. I usually find myself at the ballet, either because I’m being typically over-obsessive with regards to sampling the International Festival, or because my better half has insisted its time for our annual visit together. I went to the William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar (performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders) without especially high expectations. Its quality is best indicated by the fact that for I think the first time in my life I found myself bravoing a piece of modern dance.

The programme note is fascinating but enough to fill one with slight dread since it describes what sounds like an extreme case of postmodernist art, where there is not to be a connecting narrative, but rather “there is resonance.” (This was actually useful to me for research purposes as it clarified a post-modern history text I’d been wrestling with at work which is clearly based on this idea of resonance between texts but which is not written in as plain English as this programme (it is in fact written in the worst sort of lit-critese but that’s another story)). To get back to the show. What we have is four episodes, with the vaguely connected theme of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. Scene One, “Potemkin’s Signature” is the most deconstructed of the four. We see fragmented scenes from a Spanish painting (women in full skirts and corsets) mingling with a corps de ballet, two school girls who seem to be overseeing and reporting on the whole project and in various poses all over the stage, St Sebastian. Forsythe makes clear his intentions from the outset. Where, in classical ballet, one tends to have a lot of stop/start dancing, and plenty of people wandering off and wandering back on, here the movement is fluid with exits and entrances as closely observed as the ‘dances’ themselves. The result is that the eye is constantly being drawn all across the stage, as groups move through full-scale numbers in the centre, while to the side the next group is sliding into position, and odd figures are scurrying around, or posing in the rest of the space. These multi-performances are perhaps the key to Forsythe’s brilliance – which only really becomes apparent when the whole ensemble for any scene is in action. Where most ballets have the corps in unison here you have at least five or six groups, closely entangled with each other yet moving completely differently. It is mesmeric.

This technique reaches its extraordinary culmination in Scene Two, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” The cluttered stage is swept clean and the opulent costumes are stripped off. Usually this kind of ensemble performance palls on me but not this time. Moving from solos to duos to ensembles, this was fluid, graceful yet sharp, high octane yet capable of slowing to a remarkable tenderness. It was exciting, moving and beautiful.

Scene Three, “The House of Mezzo-Prezzo,” changes the mood again. We are at an auctioning off of the various dancers, now all in gold painted suits. At the climax, the auctioneer having been trying to get money off us for the last ten minutes, makes a marvellous joke. You may be wondering, she suggests rhetorically, if this is all some ridiculous joke? Or an anticipation of future trends? I sincerely hope not, is the response. We are permitted to have fun. We don’t have to worry about the meaning. We can take from it what we want, and the main thing I took from it was the extraordinary virtuosity of these performers, the sheer excitement of watching them.

Scene Four, “Bongo Bongo Nageela” draws it all together. The stage is swept bare again and the entire company appear dressed something like St Trinians’ school girls. We have a repetition of the complexities of movement from the opening scene – and the sight of two concentric circles swirling round the stage was unforgettable.

Perhaps it was the tone of this that really made the difference. I could appreciate the moments of great artistry (especially in Scene 2). I could laugh at the man trying to cut a limb off with enormous gold scissors in Scene 1 and, most importantly of all, I didn’t spend the whole evening wondering what it all meant. It was allusive, suggestive, but not irritating. Above all the dancing remained at its heart, and the dancing was spell-binding. This contrasted sharply with the poor acting characteristic of both Poppea and Mabou Mines Dollhouse. Those other practitioners of deconstruction could learn much from this.

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