Sangeun Lee, Raphael Coumes-Marquet – Impressing the Czar – Photo Ian Whalen (IMG_1209)
Ian Whalen

What More Ballet Might Be: William Forsythe at da:ns series 2019

By Chan Sze-Wei

(687 words, four-minute read)

In 1987, William Forsythe created a ballet for the Paris Opera with a young Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire in the central duet. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated is a high-octane incarnation of neoclassical ballet. Set to a pounding score, the ensemble silhouettes deliver razor-sharp pique unisons, while the partnering work looks like combat as dancers pull each other into fiercely sliced extensions, fiery leaps and tight off-balance turns that stop on a dime. The alternating suspensions and eruptions of action bend time and thicken the air with tension.

This piece is in the repertory of many top international ballet companies and previously showed at the Esplanade as part of International Ballet Gala in 2010. (Incidentally, In the Middle was performed in 2010 by former principal dancers of the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, Yumiko Takeshima and Raphael Coumes-Marquet.) When shown alongside most contemporary ballets, In the Middle stands out even now as a feat of athleticism and dramatic choreography. In these qualities it is similar to the other Forsythe piece that has been most circulated online, One Flat Thing Reproduced (2000).


Christian Bauch and Ensemble in “Impressing the Czar”. Photo Ian Whalen


What is less known is the full length ballet that was created around In the Middle a year later. Impressing the Czar is far more than beautiful dancers and dramatic choreography – though it certainly has plenty of that. This is the treat that we’ll get to see at the Esplanade in March this year performed by the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, directed by Aaron Watkin, a former principal dancer of Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. Expect a mighty spectacle that seems to mash up the mathematical poise of Balanchine, the rich tableaux of Pina Bausch, cabaret slapstick, Renaissance marble sculpture, and a Psy video performed by an army of Catholic school girls… In a madcap, playful way, the four-act work frames Forsythe’s technical and choreographic innovations with a commentary about ballet history, the changing social context of stage performance, and the decline of Western civilization itself.

The title of the ballet refers to how Czar Alexander III was unimpressed with the lavish Sleeping Beauty staged by the iconic ballet master Petipa in 1890. Yet classical ballets were still alive and well a hundred years later in 1988, as they are today. With Impressing the Czar, Forsythe takes on those renaissance elephants: the canon of classical ballet technique and the faithful continuation of Petipa’s tradition. Why are they still here? What does our consumption of classical ballets mean in a world where society, economics, power structures, ways of thinking, aesthetics, have ostensibly changed so much in 100 years? Does the notion of a full length story ballet still make any sense?  Aristocratic patronage has been replaced by market forces and/or state institutions, yet we still lap up the romance of courtly grandeur on stage.


Ensemble in “Impressing the Czar”. Photo: Ian Whalen


Perhaps the only way to make sense of the voluntary anachronism of ballet today is through the alternative logic of choreography. Don’t bother looking for a story linking the four acts of Impressing the Czar; there is none. We can, however, mine the trove of golden arrows, cherries, bobbed wigs and other symbolic objects. We can guess at historical references, listen for topical jokes from the narrator, track the movement motifs that interweave the acts, and watch the changing sense of space and relationships between dancers and between stage and audience.

Negotiating his artistic path after the greats of ballet including Petipa, Balanchine, Macmillan, and his own mentor John Cranko, Forsythe redefined choreography itself. He developed a practice that applies not only to stage and studio, but also to a new way of approaching the body, to choreographing objects and architecture, archival projects, human relationships and philosophy. His prolific canon of stage work stands next to his Improvisation Technologies, Choreographic Objects and Motion Bank projects. This year’s Forsythe programme at the Esplanade and Dance Nucleus[1] are a treat long overdue for any dance lover in Singapore who has ever wondered what more choreography can be.

Impressing the Czar by Dresden Semperoper Ballett, choreographed by William Forsythe, will be performed at the Esplanade Theatre on 15 & 16 Mar 2019 at 8pm. It will be approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes long, including a 20-minute interval. Find out more here.

This article is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

[1] The programme also includes Forsythe’s 2016 Blake Works I (by the Paris Opera Ballet, 21-23 June 2019). Separately, the Dance Nucleus will feature a programme on Improvisation Technologies in May 2019.

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