Evenings of beauty and bemusement

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Feared lost (by whom I ask?), William Forsythe’s Impressing the Czar has been revived by the Royal Ballet of Flanders under their director Kathryn Bennetts, an ex-Forsythe dancer, and proudly presented at Edinburgh to a largely bemused audience. I am not sure it was worth the effort. It is a five-section full evening’s work (alarm bells should be ringing) the first of which, “Potemkin’s Signature” trots out every hackneyed technique of audience alienation so beloved the length and breadth of continental Europe: shouting, gurning, switching lights on and off, having several unrelated things going on simultaneously and mangling some great composer’s music (here poor old Ludwig van B). All is meant, I suspect, to be meaningless, which it is.

That a Saint Sebastian figure (here called Mister Pnut) should feature is apt given Forsythe’s status if not in the communion of choreographic saints, then certainly as beatified. The reason for this becomes clear in the second section, the well-known “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, which demonstrates that when he isn’t tempted into Euro-schlock, he can be very good indeed. The Flanders troupe, committed and well schooled as they are, are neither as sharp nor as sassy as their Paris and London predecessors in the work; and I missed the playfulness that Guillem, Bussell, Bull and Bolle brought to it, all showing that you need to be a supreme classicist in order to turn yourself and your technique inside out. But the dance world has moved on since 1984 and the edge that now cuts is Wayne McGregor; it now seems very 1980s in its harsh brashness.

The third section takes the form of an auction of all the items seen in the first (just take them) but its anarcho-anti-commercialist message would be better suited to cabaret time at the Heathrow eco-camp than in a theatre where people pay taxed income to see it. It all ends in sections four and five with the entire company dressed as schoolgirl Britneys, and while there is admittedly something mesmerising about dozens of dancers doing the same thing, Forsythe is no Nijinska and “Bongo Bongo Nageela” (the fourth section) is no Les noces. The effect rapidly palls and we are left with Thom Willems’ dustbin-lid composition and men in pleated skirts showing their white knickers. Some see it all as a deliciously sophisticated commentary on dance in the modern world, but maybe because I am no czar I wasn’t impressed.

Scottish Ballet’s resurgence as a company of worth under Ashley Page is further confirmed by a new triple bill, the most inconsistent element of which was Stephen Petronio’s new commission Ride the Beast, energetically set to a selection of Radiohead songs. There were moments when I felt that choreographic leitmotifs were becoming over-repetitious, but Petronio then produced vignettes of real beauty and interest, notably the trio for two “angels” and a “creep” – in which Benjamin Cho’s ravishing yet simple costumes contributed, as everywhere, to the effect – and that for three men in a muscular and intricate section.

Trisha Brown’s For MG: The Movie explores the essence of dance: the contrast between stasis and movement, and for much of it I was entranced: one dancer stands, back to the audience like an Antony Gormley bronze, as the rest move generally very slowly about him – it shows you what sculptures get up to when we are all a-bed. It was superbly performed by the entire company but could be shorn of the first and last five minutes and of the tape of Alvin Curran’s tin-can and foghorn soundscape; silence would be a far better accompaniment.

Fearful Symmetries, to John Adams’ powerful score (admirably played live), was more familiar territory and sent the good Edinburghers out with a spring in their step. It is Page’s one true success for The Royal Ballet simply because it is good, and while the insouciant classicism and technical strength of that company are not something the Scots can match, their performances were enthusiastic and engaging, Erik Cavallari manfully trying to step into Irek Mukhamedov’s role and very nearly succeeding. In all an evening of which they and Page can be proud.

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