When I enter the Esplanade Theatre, the sense of historic significance seems already thick in the air — there is a cluster of suited, mostly Caucasian, men (and a couple of women) standing by the inner entrance, as though waiting to greet some important person. Later on, I realise they are part of a group gathered around Prime Minister Lee and Madam Ho. I hope fervently this group discuss the meanings and confusions of the performance, even as they maintain their decorum as public figures of one kind or another. Surely, the Esplanade Team has worked years behind the scenes to bring this seminal work to Singapore. I am glad I get to simply schlep into the theatre, eager as a young child.
Impressing the Czar was created in 1988 and continues to impress upon the audience of its relevance, from the well-heeled to the casually-dressed. In Act One, everything that happens, later on, is hinted at, in a flurry of mad activity. The stage is framed for us to be able to see everything, but it is impossible — given how much is going on — unless, perhaps, one has special capacities to capture visual and auditory data. Dancers are constantly entering and exiting, moving golden objects around, walking quickly on the spot suddenly to a phrase in the magnificent music. They move a black parallelogram frame, some canvas paintings in the Renaissance style become capes or burial cloths. They do ballet mime actions, changing from hopeful to sad to angry at high speed. People are constantly stabbing themselves with imaginary swords, or throwing golden arrow props around. A chorus of women dressed in Renaissance styles creates diagonal lines and balletic tableaus, reminding us of the sense of perspective developed during that time. Four men and a woman, dressed in neoclassical ballet attire, fiercely attack their dance moves, quintessentially Forsythe, following through spirals and joint isolations to extremes. Two men in sunglasses, the Grimm Brothers, move between Bob Fosse’s style and Bill Forsythe’s vocabulary. The movement appears extreme and exploratory, yet somehow always following the logic of ballet’s physicality.
Mr Peanut, whom I only realise later is also the St. Sebastian figure, is somewhere in the midst. Agnes talks to Roger Wilco about starboards, distances, and navigation. But who is Agnes? I dig around and think she might be Agnes Heller, writer of “Renaissance Man”. Performed by a knowing and alluring Kathleen Fitzgerald, who originated the role, Agnes pronounces things like “I thought I was in the vicinity of truth, ethics and principles, but I found myself in the far right corner of a stage.” Behind her, a slew of characters from across the ages position themselves. Agnes mentions Hadrian the Seventh.
In Act Two, “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated” performed by nine majestic individuals of varying personalities and body-types, they continue the motif of posing. Bodies are connected to each other, far from each other, pulled and stretched and placed into shape. These dancers slide, their bodies sinewy and controlled. They are not abstract beings even though the composition is primarily about musical dis/order. Their feet push quickly and beat quickly, like synapses firing. Sometimes the whole stage slows down and time feels like a material being stretched. Sometimes they rush around in sliding hops, their arms painting quick curves — a motif that showed up in Act One reappears in Act Four. It is a joy to see the way bodies bring alive a high-brow, classical form; the people inhabiting these forms in a way that grabs us first with their contemporaneity. This is “hyper-musical” (Laura Graham’s words) work, restaged by Graham who checked in with Forsythe about her efforts — he told her to “recreate the ballet you wanna watch”.
Act Three is the famous auction scene. It is ludicrous, all these transactions and busyness, yet it is our reality. Agnes speaks directly to us but sells everything to her own assistant Rosa. She tells the golden item, actually a dancer, he cannot bid for himself. It is slapstick, but it also hints at the tension of archive versus repertoire — the hierarchy of art history captured and transacted in objects, over history embodied in people. Everything is gold, including a dozen or so performers, like the cherries “in the middle, somewhat elevated” on stage earlier. There is a man in a box who makes silly bids. Agnes tells us we must be wondering what the point of all this was. Rosa and the man in the box strut off for a spot of romance, mirroring a march down an imaginary aisle that took place in Act One. I feel clever for spotting the pattern.
“Bongo Bongo Nageela” is a gush of youthful rebellion, ironically harnessing the power of uniformity. In wigs, white shirts and socks, black ties and skirts, the dancers perform movements familiar from Act One, completely recontextualised now that we can see unisons and patterns. They are orderly, yet wild — a release of libidinous energy held pent up throughout the earlier portions of the show. I read people power – the dancers form waves through the space, they rush around in sliding hops, their arms painting quick curves. Fingers and hands sift invisible materials through them. The movement quotes from vogueing and a terrific trio of men rap upstage. Mr Peanut, dressed still like a Renaissance prince, performs grand leaps and swoops inside the circle of dancers, stabs himself with an arrow. An act of sacrifice, maybe for the indifferent horde of schoolgirls. Mr Peanut sits up, revived, he blows a party horn at a dancer who “battles” him. The audience titters. The lights go out.
What was the point of all this? You might ask. Agnes answered herself in Act Three: that it was all about theatrical device. Forsythe is a master of playing with our attention — we get distracted, we get drawn in, we get a chance to relax into the show, and he throws in a dramatic shift. We have to be vigilant.
After the show, I leave the theatre and read about the tragedy of the day, a shooting in Christchurch, a far-right terrorist attack on Muslims. I do not have to have my finger on the pulse constantly, I am not responsible for many lives, my actions are not constantly watched by a wide audience. But some other people must always stay on high alert, pay attention to a wide range of issues and events. All the time. I imagine this is probably true of many of the men in suits seated around me in the audience. I imagine when they watch Impressing The Czar they are reminded of how impossible it is to indeed see everything. I imagine that, like me, their minds have refocused and reorientated to the physical present, in which we might think we are “in the vicinity of truth, ethics and principles” but find ourselves standing up, leaving our chairs, filing out of the theatre with others.
Impressing The Czar is a seminal piece of dance, thick with all kinds of references, building patterns and revealing music in a new way. Gloriously irreverent towards (yet somehow respectful of) the history of arts patronage. And the Dresden Semperoper Ballett is a brilliant company of powerful, passionate individuals, carrying wildness and grace in their bodies, making sure we look at chaos and never turn away. What generosity of spirit, that a choreographer uses his vision to show us the delicate power of having different kinds of characters on stage together — and how this illuminates the power of people sitting attentively together (perhaps inspired, perhaps confounded) in the theatre, not in front of our screens, and not for the worship of our separate deities, each one of us playing our own roles — even as audience.