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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 MARCH 2017 — Excluding the Berlin Opera Ballet and the German State Opera Ballet, based respectively in West and ex-East Berlin, as well as the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich, Germany boasts an amazing number of internationally acclaimed companies. After appearances in Paris of the Ballet of Stuttgart, the Ballet of Leipzig, the Ballet of Hamburg, Frankfurt Ballet, and the most beloved of all, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, the Palais Garnier hosted the Semperoper Ballet Dresden in January.

For their first appearance here, Director Aaron Watkin*, ex-member of William Forsythe’s Frankfurt troupe, chose to bring Forsythe’s 1988 award-winning piece, Impressing the Czar which entered the troupe’s repertoire in May, 2015. Hailed as a masterpiece by many Anglo-Saxon dance critics, both at its première and again at its resurrection two years ago, the work nevertheless remains true to its time and seemed much dated despite the enthusiasm with which it was danced by the vibrant young company. Forsythe’s manner of "deconstructing" classical ballet while keeping to classical vocabulary in the vaguest way has been seen too often. It thus received a mixed reception in Paris, for while the interpreters were applauded, albeit somewhat meagerly, the appearance of Forsythe himself on stage was greeted by boos and the odd hiss.

Semperoper Ballet Dresden in Impressing the Czar
Choreography: William Forsythe
Photo: Laurent Philippe

The first part of the four-act work opened upon a spectacular setting at the Imperial court of Russia which was dominated by a giant-sized chess-board. Groups of dancers, fast-moving and light on their feet, crossed and re-crossed the stage in twos, threes and fours, some dressed in beautiful period costumes designed by Férial Munnich.  Events were presided over by guest artist, the American dancer/theatre actress/choreographer, Helen Pickett, and set to a soundtrack featuring Beethoven, Leslie Stuck and Thom Willems.

Mr. Pnut, purportedly a Greek God, was interpreted with gusto by Julian Amir Lacey who danced half-naked, clutching his bow and arrow, while other characters, such as the Grimm brothers, busied themselves with re-writing dance history. But it must have been extremely difficult to make sense out of all the confusion on stage for the average dance lover who had not had the time to read the programme and, unaware of the innovative qualities inherent in Forsythe’s early works, had come with the expectancy of seeing a similar ballet to the exquisite BlakeWorks1 so recently programmed in Paris. Presumably it was the reason several people left at the interval.

However, the evening picked up in Act 2 with a commendable performance of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, Forsythe’s sensational piece alternating disequilibrium with ultra rapid movement created in 1987 for the Paris Opera, a work conceived with Sylvie Guillem in mind, and brilliantly interpreted at the time by Guillem, Isabelle Guerin, Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris. Since then, it has been trotted around the world and is currently in the repertoire of countless companies having lost its initial freshness, meaning and impact somewhere along the way.

Created a year before the rest of Impressing the Czar, it is a ballet which stands on its own despite the argument that Forsythe "put it into its proper context in 1988", but one can question the wisdom of bringing such a work to the Palais Garnier where it was created and where the interpretation has rarely, if ever, been surpassed.

Semperoper Ballet Dresden in Impressing the Czar
Choreography: William Forsythe
Photo: Laurent Philippe

Act 3 of the work showed Ms Pickett in charge again, busily and bossily auctioning off dance characters, clothed and tied up in gold to an unpleasant background score by Eva Crossman-Hecht.  The final act, entitled Bongo Bongo Nageela, reverted to music by Thom Willems and had the whole company, 60 strong, men and women alike dressed as adolescent schoolgirls in white blouses and short navy pleated skirts.

With bobbed wigs on their heads and cavorting in the most vulgar way, they ran in a pack, stampeding wildly around and around the stage. The aforementioned Mr. Pnut lay on the floor in the center with an arrow through his chest. It was by turns savage, theatrical and burlesque.

The programme underlined that the abstract piece was about the rise and fall of Western culture, a commentary on ballet from its earliest beginnings to the present day. But while some spectators cheered, reveling in the riotous excess of this 30-year-old work, many described it as "the worst thing yet seen at the Palais Garnier". Interestingly, the Forsythe fan groups were up in the auditorium, the booers in the orchestra seats.

So while one can love Forsythe or hate him, one can only comment that what passed in the 1980’s is no longer innovative, nor thrilling to watch today. The most interesting part of the evening was the discovery of a dynamic group of dancers, of diverse nationalities, full of energy and ready to give their all to whatever choreography they were given.

*Watkin also revives Forsythe’s ballets for numerous companies around the world.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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