When I saw William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar in 1989 at SUNY Purchase, I thought my eyes might never recover. It was like staring into a gazing ball being whirled until its mirrored surface fragmented the surrounding garden. This five-part extravaganza, part of the Lincoln Center Festival, was revived for the Royal Ballet of Flanders at the behest of Kathryn Bennetts, the company’s director and former ballet mistress for Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt. In Part I, “Potemkin’s Unterschrift,” Forsythe sweeps images from art history on and off the stage. Like the false-front villages that Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin supposedly had constructed in the Crimea in order to present Catherine the Great with the illusion of successful Russian colonization, they’re only façades. Mr. Pnut (Jim De Block), a baroque-ballet Cupid, periodically draws his bow, but above his short skirt his chest is bare so he can also assume the languishing poses of the arrow-riddled St. Sebastian. Women in ruffled period gowns (costumes by Férial Münnich) give way to spiky dancers in leotards and tights; mysterious figures prowl. Sébastien Tassin, bespectacled and in modern attire, wrenches his arms behind his back to imitate a small trussed-up statue of the Venus de Milo. Golden arrows abound—many rammed through the birdcage that covers a screaming woman’s head. Amid music by Beethoven, Leslie Stuck, and Thom Willems, Agnes (Helen Pickett), uniformed like a schoolgirl, bemoans the loss of a favorite television character and converses frenetically with Roger Wilcot (Craig Davidson), who responds with pilot-to-control-tower information.
In Part III, “La Maison de Mezzo-Prezzo,” Agnes, undermined by her doppelgänger Rosa (Karina Jäger-von Stülpnagel) and Mr. Pnut (only his boxed-in head visible atop a table), attempts to auction off living golden works of art, larding her spiel with contemporary allusions and jokes. In Part IV, “Bongo Bongo Nageela,” the entire large cast appears garbed like Agnes in navy-blue skirts, white shirts, and neckties. To Willems’s pounding score, they slog through a fabulously bizarre ritual dance around the supine Mr. Pnut.
Part II, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” has been performed as a separate work by many companies. Without narrative trappings, it reinforces Forsythe’s position as the father of extreme ballet. Nine superb dancers led by Aki Saito, Claire Pascal, and Wim Vanlessen wrench themselves into moves that shatter classical harmony and proportion. Their casual manner and the way they join and walk away from patterns contrasts with their severity of attack and a virtuosity that burns like dry ice. The Czar would definitely be amazed.
Flamenco tells its stories without subterfuge. They thread through the jangling of the guitars and the singers’ cries; they erupt in the brilliant rhythmic chatter of the dancers’ feet. The wonderful little Noche Flamenca, now in its 11th season at Theatre 80, never lets you forget the themes of death and sorrow that tinge even the lighter numbers. Performing the rapid, intricate footwork of his Soléa por Bulerías, Antonio Jiménez grasps his open jacket with both hands and wrenches the fabric from side to side, as if trying to constrain his passion. Alejandro Granados begins his soléa conferring casually with guitarists Salva de María and Jose Valle “Chuscales” and singers Manuel Gago and Emilio Florido. “So, what’ll we do next?” he seems to be asking. But once he rises from the semi-circle of chairs, he prowls the darkening stage like a man in quest of his demons. Jiménez holds himself taut and narrow; Granados opens his body to the space and destiny. Soledad Barrio dances her siguiriya backed by the musicians’ shadows, but her shadows are internal. Her opening heel trills ponder troubling questions and presage the tornadoes of grief to come, even as her weaving arms seduce the air.
The overall rhythmic structure of these introspective solos creates many pauses and new beginnings. After a fusillade of heelwork or a challenging pose, the performer may back away exhausted, or walk to cool down and brood before beginning another pattern. Barrio keeps finding new subjects deep inside herself.
Martin Santangelo, the company’s director and principal choreographer, has set himself a new challenge: narrative. The heroine of his La Dama del Mar, inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s play The Lady From the Sea, is not just a woman forced to choose between a somewhat sinister sailor she once loved and her husband, but rather a sea-fevered creature who will ultimately reject both. Wearing a loose, pale silk gown, Barrio seems in her opening solo as much mermaid as woman. Jiménez plays her lover as both a memory and a demanding presence, while Granados is her noble, patient husband, and Sol La Argentinita and Rebeca Tomás represent the stepdaughters who confine her wildness in the gray dress she ultimately discards. This tasteful, succinct piece is not without flaws, but the magnificent dancers make it grip the heart.