Audiences in Singapore will get the rare chance to see not one but two works by the choreographer William Forsythe this year. The Esplanade’s da:ns series 2019 will feature two of his major works — “Impressing the Czar” (1988) and “Blake Works I” (2016).
A choreographer whose love for ballet and its proponents produces surprising, often provocative results, Forsythe is a man not bound to convention but an adventurer of rules. Described as postmodernist and deconstructivist, his choreography not only pushes the limits of the body and the limits of ballet but also creates new rules and new limits in a generative process of ongoing inquiry. With this in mind, his work warrants re-watching and re-thinking, to capture the density of his ideas; fortunately for audiences not used to cerebral experimentations in the ballet context, his flair for theatricality and decision to work with Olympian dancers means that one will at the very least, leave dazzled, if not electrified.
“Impressing the Czar”, performed by Dresden Semperoper Ballett, is titled in reference to the Czar Nicholas II’s lukewarm reception of Marius Petipa’s lavish production of The Sleeping Beauty. Of Petipa’s story ballets, The Sleeping Beauty is arguably most concerned with form and structure, rather than emotion and content — its mathematical nature perhaps the reason for the Czar’s response back then. This title signals Forsythe’s dance history geekdom but more importantly points towards the impact of patronage on artistic output.
Forsythe’s willingness and desire to point at the economics behind the production of culture is presumably tied to his identity as an American fast-tracked through the oft-elitist ballet world in Europe, and growing up in the baby boomer generation. This interest not in reproducing aesthetically-pleasing art, but constantly questioning the mechanisms which produce said art, marks Forsythe out. Indeed, Michel Foucault’s theories of power are visible in the way Forsythe encourages the agency of his dancers, yet plots them into place in his complex compositions. Beyond the stage, he speaks openly from experience about the power dynamics of working as a dancer and choreographer, not just within the context of a ballet company but in reference to the push-pull demands of the wider world — creating new narratives about the world of dance, far from the image of a docile bunhead or the crazed prima ballerina.
“Impressing the Czar” has five sections, titled: “Potemkin’s Unterschrift” (Potemkin’s Signature), “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” “La Maison de Mezzo Prezzo,” (The Half-Price House), “Bongo Bongo Nageela,” and “Mr. Pnut Goes to the Big Top.” The titles alone suggest freewheeling references, from Catherine the Great to Afro-cuban percussion. How these meanings come together can only be known to each audience member, perhaps; in going all over the map of Western civilisation, we are free to connect the dots in our own ways. Without even seeing the dance in all its intricacies and details, one might already begin to draw meaning from the outset.
At the end of “Bongo Bongo Nageela”, during which a large ensemble of male and female dancers fill the stage dressed like schoolgirls, the dancers circle ritualistically around “Mr. Pnut”, a kind of Saint Sebastian, Apollonian figure. This section has been likened to the work of Busby Berkeley, with hints of The Rite Of Spring; its title suggests a reference to the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila” (let us rejoice) although a check on Google translate says Nageela means “do not” in Somali — is Mr. Forsythe suggesting that we do not bongo bongo? What mind game is he playing? Am I overthinking all this?
Imagine how wildly your own mind can run free, if you were to see the dance, live, for yourself. The frames of references suggest an enriching, intellectual experience, but with Forsythe’s choreographic works, the immediacy and physical intensity promise to be breathtaking in and of itself.
The second section of the full ballet is his legendary piece “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”. Made in 1987 for the Paris Opera Ballet, it is a standalone ballet, around which the rest of “Impressing the Czar” was constructed. Its title refers to two cherries hanging inscrutably over the stage, as dancers throw themselves into impossible angles, teeter on edges, tease and syncopate with Thom Willems’ music. A work that captured the competitive, driven culture of the world-renowned ballet institution, this is also the piece which famously helped propel a young Sylvie Guillem to rockstardom.
In a nod to this lineage and connection, the Esplanade brings in world-renowned Paris Opera Ballet (POB) in June 2019. They will perform William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I”, which he describes as a “ballet ballet” — his first neoclassical piece after 15 years. A move away from the supercharged, rigorous, even violent, works Forsythe has come to be known for, “Blake Works I” is described as a love letter to ballet. It promises something softer, subtler, but equally meticulous, full of rapid changes in speed and direction, maintaining a playfulness underneath the structural rigour of all his work.
As a self-proclaimed “bunhead”, we might expect Forsythe’s ballet references to satisfy the balletomanes amongst us. He stretches George Balanchine’s vocabulary of freed hips, angular wrists, hyperextended lines; he relishes the courtly mannerism of POB training, embracing their precise footwork and épaulement (literally translated as “shouldering”). He re-contextualises these references in relation to songs from James Blake’s album “The Colour in Anything”. A pop score, with familiar musical structures, to put an audience at ease rather than to shock — and still, revealing new possibilities for the dancing body, and of bodies moving in complex relations.
The ballet world was born out of monarchic imaginings; none more so than the POB whose origins lay in the earlier dance institutions, traditions and practices of the court of Louis XIV. Self-titled the “Sun King” — the glorious centre around whom all of France orbited — this was a monarch who loved the ballet so much, he performed almost as often as a professional ballet dancer of his time. Today, the dancers of the company embody the heritage of this classical dance; as direct descendants of a deeply respected art form, their rehearsals may include discussions of the history and nuances of the tilt of a head or the coordination of arms and feet. More importantly though, is what we will get to witness when they travel here. They embrace the company’s reach far beyond its aristocratic roots — besides performing “Blake Works I” by Forsythe, the company will also present “In the Night” by Jerome Robbins and “The Seasons’ Canon” by Crystal Pite. The POB today seeks to push the boundaries of their glorious technical heritage, seeking new shape and new form out of the roots of ballet.
The triple bill promises to be a veritable feast. Crystal Pite is one of the most sought-after choreographers in dance today; her work The Statement was a crowd favourite when performed by Nederlands Dans Theater at Esplanade’s da:ns festival 2018. As a curatorial note, one might choose to look out for the influence of and diversion from Forsythe — a former dancer with the Frankfurt Ballet, she had danced in the work of William Forsythe. On the same ticket, we will see a unique 20th-Century American influence on the ballet. Jerome Robbins was a great American pioneer whose influence extended beyond his roles at the American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet — and onto Broadway. When the elite company of dancers performs works by these three greats, what we will get to appreciate is not merely pedigree. What is promised is an evening of rich history, delicate detail, and a powerful boost of ideas.
It is by design that the Esplanade da:ns series 2019 brings to Singapore both “Impressing the Czar” by Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and this particular triple bill by the Paris Opera Ballet. I would strongly recommend attending both, to be challenged, piqued, even romanced, by the possibilities that now exist in the ballet as a globalised dance form.
Impressing the Czar by William Forsythe with by Dresden Semperoper Ballett 15&16 March, at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
Paris Opera Ballet, 21-23 June at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.