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| mr.pnut goes tothe bolshoi: impressing the czar |

Mr.Pnut Goes tothe Bolshoi:Impressing the Czar

By Brendan Shea

Mr.Pnut Goes tothe Bolshoi:Impressing the Czar

Royal Ballet ofFlanders

ByBrendan Shea

Amob ofschoolgirls inPrince Valiant wigs are performing abizarre dance: the dance ofballerinas on'shrooms doing aBritney Spears impression atahigh school semi-formal. The girls — well, some are male dancers indrag — take turns furiously voguing center-stage asthe rest ofthe class stomp anabstract war dance around the perimeter. Three schoolgirls rap over acandy-coated electro thump: “I'm telling you! And this istrue! The Pnut dance isHARD! TO! DO!“ Even with its bubblegum pop flavor, there's something alienating, even martial about the composition. Itcould bethe harsh white light, orthe cryptic spoken text, orthat every schoolgirl looks exactly the same. It's less MTV jam than psychedelic Masonic ritual. Jenny, adance critic, turns tous: “Ican't believe I'm seeing this atthe Bolshoi.”

What we're seeing, „Bongo Bongo Nageela,” isthe final section ofWilliam Forsythe's Impressing the Czar; here danced bythe Royal Ballet ofFlanders aspart ofthe Golden Mask Festival's Legendary Performances ofthe 20th Century. The Belgian company isone ofthe only troupes allowed toperform the ballet, and for good reason — Kathryn Bennett, artistic director atFlanders, was Forsythe's ballet mistress for fifteen years. Noone knows his work better. Even so, remounting Forsythe's postmodern masterpiece requires more than the simple dictation ofsteps, lifts and twirls, because Impressing the Czar isnot merely aballetit's ademented theatrical spectacle.

Impressing the czar was the single goal of19th century Russian ballet. Here, Forsythe examines the commodification ofdance — impressing the czars ofart funding, for starters — assymptomatic ofWestern consumer culture. The first ofImpressing the Czar's five parts, “Potemkin's Signature,“ isanacid-laced school trip toclassic Petersburg ballet. Stage right, abevy ofcourtiers dance inelegant chaos before adrop painted incheesy Renaissance perspective. Stage left, aheavily raked chessboard islittered with symbolic props: golden cones, agolden dumbbell, aquiver ofgolden arrows. Atthe head ofthe board sits aschoolgirl, Agnes, inagolden throne. ATVcasts ghostly blue light onher face. She describes what she sees: “I'm near the top ofthe composition, surrounded byagroup ofcolorfully costumed performers.”

Three ofher classmates can bespotted among the dozens ofdancing nobles; they manipulate the living art history lesson like private school gremlins let loose inthe Louvre. With the kids' help, the inscrutable bedlam that is„Potemkin” becomes adeconstructed portrait ofSt.Sebastian — duets with agiant bow; golden arrows flung skyward; and abare-chested, leather skirted dancer twisting inand out ofbeatific contraposto. Aset ofnerdy twins, the “Brothers Grimm,“ punch, kick and stick arrows into dancers while Agnes calls cryptic reports back toamysterious “Roger“: “Though Ithought Iwas approaching truth and understanding, Inow find myself inthe lower left ofthe composition,“ she says between languid twirls, „and Mr.Pnut isnowhere tobefound.”

Mr.Pnut, represented in„Potemkin” asSebastian, isindeed nowhere tobefound inthe second part ofImpressing the Czar: Forsythe's legendary pure dance composition, „Inthe Middle, Somewhat Elevated.” Originally commissioned bythe Paris Opera Ballet in1988, “Middle“ isapropulsive, athletic piece ofmodern ballet danced like gangbusters byBennett's young company. Iwas shocked tosee such astraight-forward composition after “Potemkin's“ carnival ofsymbols.

“Middle,” however, isastheatrical as„Potemkin” orany other movement. Aki Saito, inapart originally choreographed for ballet wunderkind Silvie Guillem, snaps into arabesques inperfect time with the crash-boom electronic score. The dancers oscillate between mechanical precision and blithe coolness, waiting with hands onhip, walking casually inand out ofimpossible moves. With the harsh white light and matching metallic green leotards, „Middle” gives the impression ofarehearsal onthe moon. Apair ofgolden cherries hang enigmatically inthe middle, somewhat elevated — anobscure reference tothe Miracle ofSt.Sebastian and the tentative link between “Middle“ and the rest ofCzar.

Part three, “The House ofMezzo-Prezzo“ isatongue-in-cheek, ifobvious, jab atWestern consumer culture. Agnes and her classmate Gwendolyn auction off dancers, literally selling ballet tothe highest bidder. “This one comes with afabulous pair of'golden cherries!'“ shrieks Agnes, suggestively dangling abunch oftwigs and berries before agilded danseur. Mr.Pnut, here represented asatalking head inabox, istoo distracted byhis own image onanearby TVtobid coherently. Finally, hewins the last dancer atthe price of„one fatal moment.” Pnut emerges from the television infull evening wear, dances asinuous duet with the golden ballerina, and drops dead. Mr.Pnut: martyred saint ofconsumer culture.

Enter schoolgirls. Their ecstatic circle dance, like aprayer tothe TVgods, resurrects Mr.Pnut from the grave. The final minute, inscrutably titled „Mr.Pnut Goes tothe Big Top,” has the schoolgirls repeating St.Sebastian's dance from „Potemkin” asMr.Pnut lazily honks onaNew Years' party favor. It's strangely evocative; akind ofominous, demonic trance dance. Forsythe's masterpiece isarich, ifarcane, comment onart-making in postmodern society. Like Potemkin's famous villages, facades built toimpress Czarina Catherine onher provincial tour, contemporary art isacomplex front pressed bythe desire toadulate the powers that be. Asrepresented inImpressing the Czar, the commodification ofart, ofeverything, islike anew religion — maddeningly chaotic, occasionally beautiful, somewhat elevated.