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Royal Danish Ballet: Harald Lander 100 Years Gala

by Kate Snedeker

February 25, 2005 -- Royal Theatre, Gamle Scene, Copenhagen

On what would have been his 100th birthday, the Royal Danish Ballet celebrated the legacy of dancer, artistic director and choreographer, Harald Lander.  Lasting from 1932 to 1951, Lander’s tenure as artistic director was not without controversy, but he left the company with many memories and a classic ballet, "Etudes".  The evening’s performances celebrated this legacy, showcasing the current and future talent of the Royal Danish Ballet.

Opening the program was the complete version of August Bournonville’s "Konservatoriet, or A Marriage Proposal by Advertisement", the charming story of ballet school director and his attempts to find a wife, set to a score by H.S. Paulli.  Ironically, it was Lander who excised the second act from the ballet, leaving the first act, set in the ballet school, to stand alone. 

Though the second act, restored to the production by Dinna Bjørn and Eva Kloborg, has little significant dancing, the mime is quintessential Bournonville and is a welcome addition.  The story is light comedy – though having already having promised his hand to his faithful housekeeper, the ballet school director places an ad to find a wife.   The ad is spotted by the school’s teacher and senior ballerinas, who disguise themselves in order to trick the director into realizing the error of his ways.

The two contrasting acts – one mostly mime, the other mostly dance - showcased three generations of Danish dancers, all exquisitely schooled in both dance and mime.  As the dancing school director, Monsieur Dufour, and his faithful housekeeper, Madamoiselle Bonjour, the company’s senior character dancers, Flemming Ryberg and Kirsten Simone, delivered perfectly nuanced comic performances.  Though now purely character dancers, their years of ballet training are present in every move: it is mime that dances. 

In the first act the company’s current Bournonville star, Thomas Lund, was in his element as Alexis, bringing to his solos control, power and elegance.   Lund brought the house down when disguised as widow, complete with black dress and bright red pout, he elicited a proposal of marriage from Monsieur Dufour.  Notable performances also came from Kristoffer Sakurai, fast proving himself as a worthy interpreter of classic Bournonville roles, and Gitte Lindstrøm, Gudrun Bojeson and Morten Eggert.  The newest generation of dancers, the students of the ballet school, were charming and natural in dance and mime.  In the elegant patio of the restaurant where the second act takes place, one of the choicest treats came in the form of Tim Matiakis’ bounding jockey solo.

The middle section of the gala contained the real treats of the night, two Lander pas de deuxs, which served as bookends to a series of movie clips of Hal Landers.  The black and white images revealed Landers, the choreographer, coaching a young Erik Bruhn in ‘Etudes’ while an exhausted pianist pounds out the music; Landers, the dancer, dancing a very Spanish pas de deux he choreographed in a beauty cream commercial, and Landers the man, walking on a beach in his final years.

The performance of Lander’s ‘Grand Pas de Deux’, a very rare treat indeed, was the highlight of the evening.  The pas de deux, set to Dvorak music, was filmed for Danish television in 1966, and until the gala, had never been performed again.  So, more than twenty years after Lander’s death, one of his ballets finally received its stage premiere.  And with Caroline Cavallo and Mads Blangstrup dancing, this premiere of sorts was nothing less than sensational. 

Created nearly two decades after ‘Etudes’, ‘Grand Pas de Deux’ is infused with the same choreographic motifs, in particular the edgy, powerful folk-dance inspired steps.  In both ballets one sees the same bent wrists, the angular movements and the high fifth port de bras shifted with a flick of the wrists so the palms are facing upwards.

In each and every step, Cavallo and Blangstrup were sheer perfection, achieving the ideal of power mixed with snap and flow.  Though the steps were fiendishly difficult, they danced with a fearless, but regal ease and confidence.  For Blangstrup this was all the more impressive, as it was his first performance since being sidelined with an injury for over a month.  Anne Holm-Jensen set the pas de deux.

Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund’s performance of Lander’s "Festpolonaise", was no less impressive.  "Festpolonaise" has more Bournonville flavor to it, and so was well suited to the talents of Bojesen and Lund.  The two have formed one of the most impressive and natural onstage partnerships in the company, allowing them to push farther in their performances.  And faced with a battery of beats, Lund put on a textbook display of ballet technique.

The nearly four hour-long gala came to a conclusion with a performance of Lander’s classic ballet, "Etudes", set to Knudåge Riisager’s orchestration of Carl Czerny’s piano etudes.   Though ‘Etudes’ was originally choreographed for the Royal Danish Ballet, Landers re-choreographed and set it on the Paris Opera Ballet while he was director of that company.  To honor that connection, three Paris Opera Ballet etoiles were invited to perform the principal roles for the gala.  Agnes Letestu, along with Jean-Guillame Bart in the pas de deux and Jose Martinez, in the turning solos, offered clean, elegant performances.  Martinez’s pirouettes and fouettes deserve special mention for their speed and control.

Yet, it became clear that "Etudes" is a different entity in Paris and Copenhagen.  The versions that Lander choreographed drew on the individual strengths of the two companies – the precision and crisp elegance of the Paris Opera Ballet and the energy, spirit and Bournonville heritage of the Royal Danish Ballet.  And though the current Danish version was set by Paris Opera Ballet veteran, Josette Amiel, it has a uniquely Danish feel. Thus, the regal and clean principal performances did not always seem to match the spirit of the corps.  This was particularly evident in the later mazurka sections, where Martinez, though an outstanding turner, lacked the weight and power seen in earlier performances by Kenneth Greve.  Also though Letestu and Bart were very polished and flowing, they lacked the snap and accent that gives the ballet, at least in the Danish production, an exhilarating energy. 

Nonetheless, it was a treat to see the guest dancers and it would be of interest to the Paris Opera Ballet production.  The guest performers were very respectful, stepping to the side after the first couple of curtain calls to let the Royal Danish Ballet corps take center stage, in this a celebration of a Dane.  And with the final fall of the curtain (accompanied by a great cheer of joy and relief at putting this difficult ballet to bed for the season), the dancers now shift their focus to celebrations of other great Danes, with “The Little Mermaid" and the Bournonville Festival now the centers of attention.


Edited by Staff.

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