Women in satin evening gowns dash across the stage, a man in a patterned kilt wildly gesticulates, archers shoot golden arrows, air traffic control pronouncements waft over loud speakers, a nymph spins in pirouettes, children cry from offstage. What's going on? That's certainly the question most audiences ask after seeing William Forsythe's hit from 1988, Impressing the Czar. Certainly critics have had a field day trying to interpret the ballet since then, in one instance describing it as nothing less than a meditation on dance, civilization and the human spirit.
But Forsythe recently brushed aside questions about meaning with one recommendation. "Have fun," he says jovially on a call from his home in Frankfurt, where he directs his ensemble, The Forsythe Company. "I'm not a deadly serious person. Don't worry about what it means. It would be a shame to miss the wacky stuff. It's a feel-good ballet."
To put it mildly. If ever a work could be said to have everything, it would be this exhilarating three-act compilation of pure dance, absurdist theatrics and madcap nonsense. Set to music by Beethoven, Thom Willems, Leslie Stuck and Eva Crossman-Hecht, Impressing the Czar will be performed by the Royal Ballet of Flanders July 17-20, as part of Lincoln Center Festival 2008.
One of today's most highly regarded choreographers, 58-year-old Forsythe finds companies from all over the world eager to stage his works. However, he wasn't willing to give the complex Impressing the Czar to a troupe not fully versed in his choreographic vocabulary and familiar with his sensibility. Though he created the central, breathtakingly beautiful section, "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," for the Paris Opera Ballet and it's now in the Royal and Kirov ballets' repertories, he wouldn't give away the rights to the complete work, other than to the Ballett Frankfurt, for which he made it.
But when his former ballet mistress, Kathryn Bennetts, came to him after assuming directorship of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2005, asking if her company might perform the work, he readily agreed. "I knew Kathy would take really good care of it," he says. "She knows everything about this dance and everything about how I work."
In passing the ballet to Bennetts and seeing her troupe perform it throughout Europe, he has had a chance to reevaluate the choreography. "I've made a few changes," he says. "After all, I choreographed it a long time ago. There are things I didn't have the skills to do then. So I'll be tweaking in New York, especially the first section where there are a bunch of quintets and quartets. There's not enough counterpoint yet. If I get a chance, I tweak my works forever."
Forsythe pushes ballet far beyond the norm with movement that is often explosive, high speed, off-kilter, and perilously difficult. American-born and trained at the Joffrey Ballet School, he began developing his distinctive style when he joined the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany in 1973. He has built on it ever since with his own German troupes and other top companies like the San Francisco and New York City ballets.
His sense of humor and accessibility help ease things for dancers. "It's funny because people think Bill is so obscure," Bennetts says. "But he goes in the studio and says, 'let's try this idea,' and things evolve from there. He's very playful, inventive and collaborative. When he came to Antwerp to coach the company, he told them stories about how some of the sequences developed and he chose the music. He said that he chose the Beethoven when he had very young children. He played the music and they would have to finish their dinners before its close."
Unlike Forsythe, she offers some explanation of the meaning of Impressing the Czar. "You don't have to look very far," she says, "to find references to painting and sculpture and other arts. In the first section, you can see images from the classical ballet. In the early days of ballet, dancers were expected to have sex with wealthy patrons. That becomes a theme in the auction scene, where women are sold off. The stampeding tribal dance by the schoolgirls in the last section comments on the corps de ballet, with allusions to Giselle."
To hear dancer Aki Saito talk about the work, it sounds as if she enjoys it as much as any spectator. "What I love about it is that it's not like classical ballets," she says. "They have certain formulas, and you can't go out of that frame. That's their beauty. But Mr. Forsythe has such a different vision; he's breaking the frame all the time. And we can show our personalities in his works. We just go for broke. In `In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,' you really see his language, which is every bit as beautiful as traditional classical ballet."
While most little girls dream of dancing The Nutcracker, Saito had a different dream. "I have a very personal feeling about this dance because as a kid I watched a video of the Paris Opera performing `Somewhat Elevated' over and over," she says. "I dreamed of dancing it. So it was like a gift when I found out our company would dance the entire Impressing the Czar. He's such a historical person that when he first came to the studio, I was a little scared. But he said `I don't care about your mistakes. Just try.' That gave me courage. Now I keep discovering new things in the ballet. I always say to people seeing it for the first time: `don't try to understand; let yourself get lost. Things go non-stop. Join in. Leave yourself behind.'"
Valerie Gladstone writes frequently about the arts.