Actually in the middle; somewhat better

(Photos by Stephanie Berger)

This will by no means be a full-throttle review, but, between seeing the final performance of William Forsythe’s 1988 work, “Impressing the Czar,” at the Lincoln Center Festival, and then reading Gia Kourlas’s review of it in The Times, some interesting things come to mind.

I was first exposed to the center section–or second movement–of this dance when the Kirov performed it at the end of a rather long evening. You might recall that it inspired a post of mine outing the biggest culprits of never-ending dance-making.

Well, Sunday, I enjoyed this particular section a lot more than my first viewing. Largely, I think, because the ensemble of the Royal Ballet of Flanders is simply better than the Kirov. If there weren’t as many individual jewels in this troupe, there was at least a higher mean of talent.

Second, and I will no doubt receive some flack for this, I will admit to having had a beer, or two, during the night at the Kirov: It was necessary; don’t ask me why. And I think the mild alcoholic buzz exacerbated my patience, and chiefly, Forsythe’s musical choices really inhibited me from giving that dance a chance.

Well, the Flanders’ performance was on a Sunday afternoon, and it isn’t really my style to drink during the daytime, so I was able to view the work with stone cold sobriety. And, oddly, it made the dance–and even the unnecessarily loud and garish music–somewhat better.

(Now, before y’all go off your rocker about the beer thing, keep in mind that a large portion of any audience will also be drinking it up out there, so if you’re making art and you expect that it can only be appreciated by sober minds, then you’re wasting your time. Performances are social events. People drink when they’re being social. They should be able to enjoy your art and have a glass of wine.)

After the first section–the Baroque-ish menagerie of activity that dizzies more than anything else–“In the middle, Somewhat elevated” comes across as a calculated, shrewdly composed dance, both a comment on the inner-world of ballet dancers and a titillating tour de form.

From the opening measures of the music, I recalled my hatred of the Kirov performance. A steady ticking of a brush against a high-hat punctuated by brash chords: All of it electronic. And to me, that’s the most dated thing about this work. The electronic sounds are stock and standard of the 1980’s synthesizer lexicon, only applied to a more “artsy” endeavor.

And speaking of dated. That is the criticism Gia Kourlas leveled at this dance work in her review, although she focuses on the final two movements for this criticism, both against the spoken text and the final dance itself.

But I think Ms. Kourlas misplaced this particular reaction.

Mr. Pnut Dance
Mr. Pnut Dance

I found the penultimate section, a faux auctioning off of gilded dancers to the opulent Lincoln Center crowd (at one point, Helen Pickett as “Agnes” announces “There’s more gold out there than there is up here!”) to be on the mark, and hilarious. As a technique, maybe self-conscious narration was popular in the 80s, but here, and updated (with comments about our economy; “We’ll take anything except American dollars”), and site-specific (“We’ll make it easy for you: You’re in a mall. Let’s go shopping, New York!”), it proved, at least to me, of the moment.

And the final final movement, “Mr. Pnut Goes to the Big Top”, I actually found to be entirely timeless, in the way that certain modernist strokes in Beethoven’s music are timeless; that is, they will probably always inspire shock, awkwardness, and admiration.

The image alone of forty or fifty people all dressed like unruly school girls is just so striking. Instantly it felt fresh. I don’t know when this will ever not be an audacious image: The apotheosis of adults imposing order on life (uniforms for young girls) delving into anarchy. But anarchy is never better than when it’s fiercely controlled as it is here in Forsythe’s hands.

Yes, there is a bit of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” here; I thought that myself, before reading Kourlas’s review. But this dance anticipates the grunge movement by a few years. And today, the look seems just as vibrant, despite the fact that the school girl look has been a kind of default bad-girl-chic for the past few years (thinking particularly of Chiaki Kuriyama in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Volume 1”, as well as, naturally, Britney Spears’ falsely provocative debut video).

Plus, the visceral movement that the dancers create simply leaves you energized and breathless.

Any datedness can definitely be attributed to the music, although, even there, I found myself appreciating Leslie Stuck and Thom Willems’s riff on the Beethoven string quartet, first taking a cross section and then just having it repeat forever, then allowing the electronic sounds to re-orchestrate and, ultimately, consume and digest the original. It’s smart, if at times, annoying.

All this said, if when I die, the only thing the gods care to ask me is if I ever saw “Impressing the Czar,” I will be elated and relieved that yes, the opportunity presented itself. Big thanks to RBF Artistic Director Kathryn Bennetts for convincing Forsythe to bring this one back to the future.



  1. I have been studying William Forsythe for a long time from the perspective of an architect. The last play I ahve seen was ‘Yes – We can’t’ and on my blog you can listen to my reaction to it. It is an extraordinary COMMUNICATIVE play.
    Drop by and leave me your ideas about it

  2. Thanks for this. I unfortunately missed it (though I saw In the Middle by the Kirov and liked it), but I loved reading your review of the whole anyway. Funny, I always have a glass of wine at the Met :) Didn’t know there was anything wrong with it! I think it helps me get through some of those fairy tales better…

  3. Hey Tonya-

    I just thought people would generally assume that “a critic” wouldn’t allow alcohol to cloud their judgement. Although, since I’m technically The Counter Critic, I can probably do whatever the hell I want. ; )

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