Impressing the Czar

This article is from 2007.

Impressing the Czar

Wild at heart

Aki Saito talks to Donald Hutera about the Royal Ballet of Flanders revival of William Forsythe’s violent, crazy masterwork Impressing the Czar

‘You’re going to get really lost,’ predicts Aki Saito, principal dancer with the Royal Ballet of Flanders. She’s talking about the average person’s reaction to William Forsythe’s three-act extravaganza, Impressing the Czar. ‘You won’t know what to expect or where to look – but,’ she adds with an air of mischievous conviction, ‘it’s a great thing!’

Forsythe, the maverick darling of contemporary ballet, has done more than anyone to push and prod the artform to extremes. Originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1988, Czar is often acknowledged as a milestone in the American choreographer’s career. The Royal Ballet of Flanders is the only company, other than Forsyth’s own, that has the right to perform it.

The reason is Kathryn Bennetts. For 15 years she was Forsythe’s ballet mistress and, as such, his right hand. She knows the man’s work inside-out. When Bennetts took over the artistic directorship of Flanders two years ago, it was only natural that she’d bring some nice chunks of Forsythe’s challenging oeuvre with her. It is, Saito observes, part of a plan to overhaul the company’s safe image.

Staging Czar was both a coup and a gamble. The piece begins in a state of deceptively chaotic overdrive, as scores of dancers in flashy, courtly costumes run amok on a stage that is half chessboard, half Roman amphitheatre. In between bouts of virtuosic movement they spout text about torture, or try to pierce each other with giant arrows. What does it all mean? Not to worry, Saito says, because ‘everything is connected. That’s the genius of Forsythe.’

Act One could be deemed a fragmented homage to dance history and Western culture. All this is wiped away in Act Two, a whiplash suite of solos, duets and trios for nine sleek dancers called In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. This is where Saito comes into her own, taking on a role originally created for the supersonic ballerina, Sylvie Guillem.

‘I’m not trying to make it look easy or difficult,’ she says. ‘I just think about technical things, and energy. When it starts we’re just people walking and hanging around – not like robots, but human beings. Then we start dancing like crazy. It looks violent, but it can’t be messy. You have to do everything clean. It’s pure technique and that is the beauty of it.’

Saito’s entire professional life has been bound up with Flanders. She arrived from Japan at 16, graduating into the company in 1994 after studying at its school for three years. Of the many artistic opportunities she’s since had, working with Forsythe ranks at the top. ‘I didn’t know how he would be,’ she says. ‘I was scared to meet him but he was so sweet. He’d say things like: “Do much more, take a risk, I know you can”. His words gave me power and confidence.’

Saito sits out the final act of Czar, but knows it well. First there’s a frenzied auction that links back to the opening scene, then a tribal knees-up entitled Bongo Bongo Nageela, in which 40 dancers caper fiendishly in identical schoolgirl uniforms and Prince Valiant wigs. One critic dubbed it ‘Britney Spears in the jungle’. According to Saito: ‘the energy is so big you feel like you’re on a drug, or drunk.’

As for the audience watching it, Saito has some good advice: ‘I say, don’t try to understand. Just enjoy it.’

Impressing The Czar, Festival Theatre, 473 2000, 18–20 Aug, 7.30pm, £9.50–£40.

Impressing the Czar

An ambitious look at the history of Western civilisation, presented by the Royal Ballet of Flanders and guided by choreographer William Forsythe. 'Part of the Edinburgh International Festival'

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