In the auction scene from William Forsythe's Impressing the Czar, props and dancers are dragged forward and displayed to the audience. Agnes, the main speaking character, tries to keep control. As she harangued audience and dancers, I wondered if Forsythe was aiming for a Monty Python effect: absurd detail, manic action, surrealism. If so, it falls flat.
Part of the Sadler's Wells "Focus on Forsythe" season, this is one of the American choreographer's most famous works. At the heart of the ballet is In the middle, somewhat elevated, an aggressively speedy dance made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1988.
The work has been brought back by the Royal Ballet of Flanders and its director Kathryn Bennetts, a Forsythe associate. They take on their new signature work with energy, but could use more bite. So could the material.
The opening movement piles up a jumble of symbols. A slanting chess-board takes up part of the stage, with gilded objects laid out on its squares. Dancers in full skirts perform courtly steps or frantic mime scenes. Painted canvases are unrolled and draped around dancers. A man imitates the Venus de Milo's pose.
Agnes (Helen Pickett) wanders through the action, commenting on the dancers and pictures by radio link to her colleague Roger. It's meant to be random and fragmented, a collage of references, academic points and slapstick. But surely it wasn't meant to be boring? Forsythe and his dancers go on and on and on, telling the same joke forever. Pickett's delivery is hasty and slack. There are some recent additions to the script, references to the American election and the credit crunch, but they're lazy gags. Just mentioning something doesn't count as comment, whether it's Sarah Palin or the whole of western civilisation.
The strongest section is In the middle. The Flanders dancers don't match the articulation and dance contrast of the Kirov, who danced this work at Sadler's Wells last month, but they do drive through these walloping steps. Aki Saito is pugnacious and fast in the leading female role. Here, the ballet is performed on a completely bare stage – even the wings have been taken out – so that the movement is isolated in a huge empty space. The dancers look both smaller and more explosive for it.
Impressing the Czar ends with a big group dance. The whole company return, in ugly wigs and schoolgirl outfits, for a huge circle dance. Even that isn't the explosive finale Forsythe had in mind. Everything needs more drive.