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| mr.ápnut goes toáthe bolshoi: impressing the czar |

Mr.áPnut Goes toáthe Bolshoi:Impressing the Czar

By Brendan Shea

Mr.áPnut Goes toáthe Bolshoi:Impressing the Czar

Royal Ballet ofáFlanders

ByáBrendan Shea

Aámob ofáschoolgirls ináPrince Valiant wigs are performing aábizarre dance: the dance ofáballerinas oná'shrooms doing aáBritney Spears impression atáaáhigh school semi-formal. The girls — well, some are male dancers inádrag — take turns furiously voguing center-stage asáthe rest ofáthe class stomp anáabstract war dance around the perimeter. Three schoolgirls rap over aácandy-coated electro thump: “I'm telling you! And this isátrue! The Pnut dance isáHARD! TO! DO!“ Even with its bubblegum pop flavor, there's something alienating, even martial about the composition. Itácould beáthe harsh white light, oráthe cryptic spoken text, oráthat every schoolgirl looks exactly the same. It's less MTV jam than psychedelic Masonic ritual. Jenny, aádance critic, turns toáus: “Iácan't believe I'm seeing this atáthe Bolshoi.”

What we're seeing, „Bongo Bongo Nageela,” isáthe final section ofáWilliam Forsythe's Impressing the Czar; here danced byáthe Royal Ballet ofáFlanders asápart ofáthe Golden Mask Festival's źLegendary Performances ofáthe 20th Century.╗ The Belgian company isáone ofáthe only troupes allowed toáperform the ballet, and for good reason — Kathryn Bennett, artistic director atáFlanders, was Forsythe's ballet mistress for fifteen years. Noáone knows his work better. Even so, remounting Forsythe's postmodern masterpiece requires more than the simple dictation ofásteps, lifts and twirls, because Impressing the Czar isánot merely aáballetůit's aádemented theatrical spectacle.

Impressing the czar was the single goal ofá19th century Russian ballet. Here, Forsythe examines the commodification ofádance — impressing the czars ofáart funding, for starters — asásymptomatic ofáWestern consumer culture. The first ofáImpressing the Czar's five parts, “Potemkin's Signature,“ isáanáacid-laced school trip toáclassic Petersburg ballet. Stage right, aábevy ofácourtiers dance ináelegant chaos before aádrop painted inácheesy Renaissance perspective. Stage left, aáheavily raked chessboard isálittered with symbolic props: golden cones, aágolden dumbbell, aáquiver ofágolden arrows. Atáthe head ofáthe board sits aáschoolgirl, Agnes, ináaágolden throne. AáTVácasts ghostly blue light onáher face. She describes what she sees: “I'm near the top ofáthe composition, surrounded byáaágroup ofácolorfully costumed performers.”

Three ofáher classmates can beáspotted among the dozens ofádancing nobles; they manipulate the living art history lesson like private school gremlins let loose ináthe Louvre. With the kids' help, the inscrutable bedlam that isá„Potemkin” becomes aádeconstructed portrait ofáSt.áSebastian — duets with aágiant bow; golden arrows flung skyward; and aábare-chested, leather skirted dancer twisting ináand out ofábeatific contraposto. Aáset ofánerdy twins, the “Brothers Grimm,“ punch, kick and stick arrows into dancers while Agnes calls cryptic reports back toáaámysterious “Roger“: “Though Iáthought Iáwas approaching truth and understanding, Iánow find myself ináthe lower left ofáthe composition,“ she says between languid twirls, „and Mr.áPnut isánowhere toábeáfound.”

Mr.áPnut, represented iná„Potemkin” asáSebastian, isáindeed nowhere toábeáfound ináthe second part ofáImpressing the Czar: Forsythe's legendary pure dance composition, „Ináthe Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” Originally commissioned byáthe Paris Opera Ballet iná1988, “Middle“ isáaápropulsive, athletic piece ofámodern ballet danced like gangbusters byáBennett's young company. Iáwas shocked toásee such aástraight-forward composition after “Potemkin's“ carnival ofásymbols.

“Middle,” however, isáasátheatrical asá„Potemkin” oráany other movement. Aki Saito, ináaápart originally choreographed for ballet wunderkind Silvie Guillem, snaps into arabesques ináperfect time with the crash-boom electronic score. The dancers oscillate between mechanical precision and blithe coolness, waiting with hands onáhip, walking casually ináand out ofáimpossible moves. With the harsh white light and matching metallic green leotards, „Middle” gives the impression ofáaárehearsal onáthe moon. Aápair ofágolden cherries hang enigmatically ináthe middle, somewhat elevated — anáobscure reference toáthe Miracle ofáSt.áSebastian and the tentative link between “Middle“ and the rest ofáCzar.

Part three, “The House ofáMezzo-Prezzo“ isáaátongue-in-cheek, ifáobvious, jab atáWestern consumer culture. Agnes and her classmate Gwendolyn auction off dancers, literally selling ballet toáthe highest bidder. “This one comes with aáfabulous pair ofá'golden cherries!'“ shrieks Agnes, suggestively dangling aábunch ofátwigs and berries before aágilded danseur. Mr.áPnut, here represented asáaátalking head ináaábox, isátoo distracted byáhis own image onáaánearby TVátoábid coherently. Finally, heáwins the last dancer atáthe price ofá„one fatal moment.” Pnut emerges from the television ináfull evening wear, dances aásinuous duet with the golden ballerina, and drops dead. Mr.áPnut: martyred saint ofáconsumer culture.

Enter schoolgirls. Their ecstatic circle dance, like aáprayer toáthe TVágods, resurrects Mr.áPnut from the grave. The final minute, inscrutably titled „Mr.áPnut Goes toáthe Big Top,” has the schoolgirls repeating St.áSebastian's dance from „Potemkin” asáMr.áPnut lazily honks onáaáNew Years' party favor. It's strangely evocative; aákind ofáominous, demonic trance dance. Forsythe's masterpiece isáaárich, ifáarcane, comment onáart-making in postmodern society. Like Potemkin's famous villages, facades built toáimpress Czarina Catherine onáher provincial tour, contemporary art isáaácomplex front pressed byáthe desire toáadulate the powers that be. Asárepresented ináImpressing the Czar, the commodification ofáart, ofáeverything, isálike aánew religion — maddeningly chaotic, occasionally beautiful, somewhat elevated.