Saturday, August 25, 2007

Impressing the Czar

(Still working through my Festival backlog here. Just a few more to go.)

Impressing the Czar was programmed as part of the official Edinburgh International Festival, which most people tend to just ignore. In theory, the official festival is meant to be the centrepiece, but in practice most audiences are much more interested in the Fringe. The EIF proper tends to be treated like Radio 3. It's nice to know it's there, but everyone assumes it's aimed at some uber-highbrow audience. This is actually rather unfair, but they've been struggling to shake off the image for years.

And to be honest, you don't get much more highbrow than Impressing the Czar, a ballet which was considered cutting edge when the Frankfurt Ballet first performed it in 1988. It's been lying unperformed for years, but choreographer William Forsythe allowed his longtime protege to revive it when she took over the Royal Ballet of Flanders.

Now, I don't know much about ballet, but I know what I... actually, come to think of it, I don't. So let's just stick with "I don't know much about ballet", which is much more honest. Judging from the programme notes, that probably puts me at a disadvantage, because a lot of this depends on knowing about ballet, or at least recognising that Forsythe is screwing around with the conventions.

It's a downright weird show. Act 1 starts off looking, superficially, like a typical story ballet. There are people in period dress, there are characters who seem to be leads. There's also a soundtrack that can only be described as a chop-up remix of Beethoven, a couple of people dismantling the set, a skewed chessboard, and a schoolgirl called Agnes providing a running commentary on the utterly impenetrable events. "I'm in the top right hand corner of the composition, surrounded by colourfully costumed characters..." Some of the dancers seem to think that they're in completely different shows from the other ones. Basically, it's a pile-up of elements that look as though they ought to amount to a story, but don't. It's absolutely demented and somehow hangs together as sheer absurdist spectacle.

Act 2, which is sometimes performed as a show in its own right, is the direct opposite. It's got no set, no pretence of a plot, no overt emotion, and a score that would have been modern electronica back in 1988, complete with that "orchestra hit" preset that everyone was using back then. What you're supposed to recognise - and what I need the programme to tell me - is that the dancers are performing a completely abstract routine made up entirely of moves from classical ballet that are normally used to tell stories.
If you don't get that reference, then it's still pretty entertaining as a purely physical exercise, but to be honest it could stand to lose five minutes.

Act 3 opens with Agnes attempting to auction off the dancers. That soon leads into a remarkable finale, as the entire company take the stage dressed as Catholic schoolgirls and embark on a wardance which is both elaborately choreographed but relatively straightforward at the level of the individual steps. It's a sort of nonsensical back-to-basics ending.

Apparently, Impressing the Czar is regarded as one of Forsythe's more accessible works, which makes one wonder what on earth the others must be like. And yet, incomprehensible though it may be, it's unexpectedly good fun. It doesn't make any sense at all, but then it's not meant to. On some level Forsythe seems to be engaging in a car-crash history of ballet, throwing everything up in the air and seeing where it lands. But even if you don't get any of that, the sheer bravado nonsense of it can't help but be entertaining.