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Royal Danish Ballet - Extravaganza: 'Colour of Love', 'Polacca', 'La Stravaganza'

by Kate Snedeker

May 17, 18, 19 and 22, 2006 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

The diverse nature of human relationships was on display in ‘Extravaganza’, the Royal Danish Ballet’s final program of the 2005- 2006 season.. Composed of an eclectic trio of ballets, which included one world premiere (Yuan Yuan Wang’s “Colour of Love”), one Danish premiere (Angelin Preljocaj’s “La Stravaganza”) and one re-premiere (Anna Lærkesen’s “Polacca”), ‘Extravaganza’ was an intriguing though slightly emotionally downbeat conclusion to the year. The three ballets all explored the human psyche, each stretching the Royal Danish Ballet dancers in different emotional and technical directions. (As there were few casting changes on the second night, other than in “Polacca”, both casts will be reviewed together).

“In China you don’t display or express your emotions directly…you show [them] in action,” says choreographer Yuan Yuan Wang. And in her ballet, “Colour of Love”, Wang, working with Danish lighting designer Mikael Sylvest, Chinese set and costume designers Jiang Han and Jiani Zhong and composer Wei Du, uses dance, music and colour to convey the emotion in a passionate, but turbulent relationship. At the center of the piece is a woman, first glimpsed on a sheet-draped red velvet sofa, who seems to be looking back on past love. The woman and her lover, strikingly danced by Tina Højlund and Jean-Lucien Massot, are more restrained. Their emotion played out in the choreography for a second, younger couple, portrayed by Susanne Grinder and Dawid Kupinski, and the corps. Clips projected onto the backdrop – clasped hands, trees thrashing in the wind, a woman stretched on a bed, blurry couples dancing behind a rain streaked window, a fast-disappearing train track, and raindrops on still water - are like a collage of memories, bringing both meaning and mystery to the story.

The deep, ruby red of love is everywhere – in the costumes of the female corps, the velvet of the sofa, the crimson lighting and in the stripes that appear in the backdrop. Other vibrant colours appear in the projections on the textured backdrop and the belts of the (topless) men’s’ trousers. The boldness of the colours is reflected in Wei Du’s lush original score, with hints of Asian influence and Wang’s forceful choreography.

Though she starts her female corps off in pointe shoes, Wang draws more from the traditions of contemporary dance in ‘Colour of Lover”. In contrast to the weightless aesthetic of ballet, she roots her dancers, metaphorically, if not always literally, to the earth. The lifts are, for the most part, low, with the women stretching up, only to be quickly brought back to the stage. Sideways lunges with one hip jutting out are a frequent motif, as are bodies twisting around each other and legs sweeping out in powerful arcs.

Though Højlund, who spent a year with the contemporary Danish Dance Theatre, is superb in her solos, the pas deuxs with Massot seem disjointed, especially with the constant intrusion of the sofa/bed. Included, one assumes, to give context to the encounters, the sofa seems to intrude upon the flow of the piece, requiring awkward pauses for it to be moved, later converted to a bed, and then finally clipped into a rig and hauled up and away. The sections for the young couple, never involving the sofa, are much more effective.

The casting of soloists Dawid Kupinski and Susanne Grinder as the young couple was inspired. Long-limbed and sleek, the couple are, with their blank expressions (intentional), eerily haunting. Driven in their dancing, the sharp-edged shapes of their contorting and stretching bodies are stunningly silhouetted against the backdrop. Wang is most successful in the sections for her eight corps dancers, where she often has them stretching out into seemingly precarious angles, surging out and pulling back down to earth again.

As a whole, “Colour of Love” is striking; Wang’s choreographic palette is full of memorable images and movements that challenge her dancers to stretch themselves to their limits. Yet the piece is fragmented by uneven choreography and the cluttering combination of lighting, sets and the sofa draw the focus away from the dancing. In the finale, the lighting dim, the dancers pose and retreat in slow motion to the fading final chords of the score. Here, where the ballet depends on nothing more than the dancers, the impact is most powerful.

In former Royal Danish Ballet dancer Anna Lærkesen’s “Polacca”, the artistry comes from both the stage and the orchestra pit. A series of vignettes for three couples, the ballet is set to nearly 50 minutes of Chopin, played superbly by company pianists Julian Thurber and Ingryd Thorson.

The vignettes explore the full range of human emotion, played out individually and in the relationships between the couples. Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s dresses, in shades of delicate pink, and blue and red hued tunics and tights, hint at the 19th century, but the timing is vague enough to let the viewer fill in the details. Similarly, there is no one interpretation for the ballet – in my mind, for instance, we are seeing the reflections of a woman looking back at either herself at various ages or at people she met along the way.

The ballet opens with a man – lover? husband? – in a driving solo, his motifs being clenched fists and short, explosive steps. Like many of the solos, it plays out like a summer thunderstorm; starting with a pounding emotion that surges and quickly subsides into a gentle ending. On opening night, Andrew Bowman’s dancing was imbued with rich lushness, and there was unforced power in the jumps and turns. He partnered Rose Gad, who along with Silja Schandorff was in the original 1992 cast, like the jewel that she is in this company. Though she has clearly lost some flexibility and quickness, the emotional power remains. Her épaulement is beautiful, and the tricky partnering came off without a hitch. This is the adult couple, with emotions turbulent at times, but maturity in their quarrels and reconciliation.

As the most youthful of the three couples, Caroline Cavallo and Nicolai Hansen were sweetly endearing – young love in all its giddy joy. Cavallo nearly stole the show in what could be termed “the frustration solo”. A technically demanding solo, it’s a humorous and tender look at young woman working herself up into a frustrated frenzy, only to be comforted by her partner. In the course of the solo, she spins herself into mock dizziness, stamps her foot, pouts at the audience and an unseen spectator in the wings, and finally collapses into an exhausted heap. Cavallo’s ability to mix technical prowess in with a multitude of wonderful character details was breathtaking. The pas de deux that follows an intevening solo for Hansen, is the sweetest in the ballet. It’s a lullaby in motion, and as the ballerina’s frustration subsides, she begins to drift into dreamland, her partner cradling his exhausted lover. In the end, she goes up into arabesque, drifts off to sleep and gently topples into his arms.

However, it was Silja Schandorff, as the first woman, and her partner Kenneth Greve,  who truly commanded the stage. Well over six feet, Greve is tall enough to partner Schandorff with ease, and both dance with an effortlessness that belies their age and height. Throughout their languid, yet deeply passionate pas de deux, there was not a moment rushed or mistimed. The choreography is replete with tricky lifts, including a high press lift with the ballerina in arabesque, but Schandorff soars into the air in Greve’s hands. Schandorff has learned to blend artistry and athleticism, for though she developpés her leg high into the air, it is done which such elegant control and flow that that is does not seem in the least distortioned or out of place. Greve is panther-like in his soaring jumps, elegant stretch and crisp control. Together they are simply sumptuous, and this is truly an inspired partnership.

In the end, Schandorff finds herself alone, her companions collapsed on the stage. She tries to liedown alongside one woman, and is gently pushed away. Though her partner rises, he soon retreats into the shadows at the back of the stage. Left alone, she kneels down facing the audience, at which point her partner reappears, passing his hands over her head in silent blessing, and then collapses back beside the other couples. As the final chords of the score echo across the theatre, she steps out towards the edge of the stage, the curtain silently dropping. It is as if his blessing is releasing her from her memories, and from this life, so can step into the next.

On Thursday, a much more youthful cast gave the ballet a whole new dimension. Stepping into the role danced by Bowman the night before, Kristoffer Sakurai, in a dramatic debut, danced like a man possessed. In contrast to Bowman’s unforced power, Sakurai’s interpretation was all about raw emotion and sharp, powerful movement. He threw himself backwards into a backbend from a kneeling position with such force that one feared for the health of his back. There was no doubt that Sakurai has arrived both as a technician and as an artist. Gudrun Bojesen, as his partner, was sweet, precise and a little feisty. Her steely delicacy contrasts nicely with Sakurai’s fierce fieriness. One lift failed to achieve full lift off – nerves perhaps, but in another split lift, Bojesen seemed to hover in mid air before coming back down into Sakurai’s arms.

Martin Stauning and Yao Wei were less successful as the young couple. Yao Wei is technically capable and musically aware, but hasn’t yet grasped the emotion behind the ‘frustration solo’. She attacked the solo with an unnecessary fierceness, most of the nuance missing, and got behind the tempo. A slender dancer, Stauning struggled with the lifts, and was wild, though of jump, in his solos. As the first couple, Leslie Culver and Marcin Kupinski brought new nuances to the roles. Like his younger brother, Dawid, he is blessed with a long, lean physique, and used his elegant line to great effect in the solos. Culver, though not of the same technical caliber as Schandorff, clearly has invested great thought into the emotion of the role, and coloured her interpretation with a very human poignancy. Though lacking Greve’s sureness in the lifts, Kupinski managed all with nary a visible hitch. And there were signs of a developing artist – when his attention was not on technical matters, there were moments of tender emotion.

For all the emotion and memorable moments, “Polacca” suffers from its excessive length. The concept of couples in a series of loose vignettes is hardly original - it’s been done by Balanchine in “In the Night” and Robbins in “Dances at a Gathering”, and here, the endless succession of dances, nearly 50 minutes in all, becomes tiring. One is waiting for the piece to end, rather than the story to come to its natural conclusion, and this drains some of the emotion from the touching finale. “Polacca” also is dependant on a number of tricky lighting effects, complicated by the fact that the pianists are blind or nearly blind to the onstage action, and on the second night especially, there were several lighting glitches.

Providing a more energetic, but emotionally jarring ending to the evening was Angelin Preljocaj’s “La Stravaganza”. Originally created for the New York City Ballet as part of the 1997 Diamond Project, it’s a masterpiece from the hand of a choreographer adept at blending modern and classical. Like the previous two ballets, “La Stravaganza” is a loose story of relationships that can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. At the center are two groups – the Vivaldi dancers, so called for their music, dressed in simple, flesh colored costumes, and the Vermeer dancers, their attire inspired by that artist’s paintings. There is a clash of culture, a forbidden love and a tragic ending.

The beginning, which we find out is also the ending, is set to a delicate swirl of jungle noise – birds chirping and water trickling. His back to us, one Vivaldi man, is restrained by the linked arms of the other two couples, all slowly moving as one flowing mass. As a lone woman walks onto the stage, stepping through the other couples, and then back out again, a voice says in French “I remember”. And so we are thrust into the action.

The Vivaldi dancers – men in khaki pants and white t-shirts, the woman in flesh toned, simply cut dresses – are given glorious, limb-stretching choreography. Kizzy Howard stands out among the woman, with her deep fluid pliés and richly flowing movement. The men – Dawid Kupinski, Cedric Lambrette and Constantine Baecher (Nicolai Hansen on Thursday) – are even more impressive, skipping across the stage in series of tricky, nearly off-balance beats and jetés. But this gaiety is interrupted by a sudden transition in music, to a raspy techno beat, as the curtain rises to reveal the motionless Vermeer couples.

These Vermeer couples are the antithesis of the Vivaldi sextet – their clothing bulky, their music harsh, grating and techno, their choreography all stiffly executed angles. To the sounds of what one could imagine being a suction cup removed from a window or mud squelching underfoot, these dancers slowly proceed across the stage. The central female, Sascha Haugland executes a gorgeous, controlled grand plié in wide second, the square angles of her knees accented by the deep red ruffle of her knee-length dress.

After this initial meeting, the groups interact in a series of dances, but not before the Vivaldi are witnesses to what can only be described as the stylized rape of the Vermeer women by their men folk. Preljocaj conveys this violence through several motifs – the men balancing at an angle on one leg, the woman grasping the other, and the men hunched over, the women on their backs, bounced up and down. In this way, with visually arresting movement, Preljocaj manages to convey the rawness and brutality of the action without being too literal.

The lines begin to blur – the Vermeer and Vivaldi women eventually dancing together, and two Vermeer men casting aside their high necked black jackets. But in the course of  the mutual discovery, a Vermeer man and a Vivaldi woman are attracted to one another. She is represented by light, lively Vivaldi, he by almost machine-gun like techno, but like Romeo and Juliet, something draws them together. Camilla Ruelykke Holst and Sebastian Kloborg, two of company’s most appealing young dancers, are superb as this doomed couple.

Their pivotal pas de deux begins in complete silence, as she enters to find him hunched onstage after a pounding duo with another Vermeer man. With infinite patience, she leans down to listen to his heart, then bring his hand slowly to her head, bending in a deep backwards arch. They kneel, heads side by side, and she bring his hand down her chest, to her knee, doing the same with hers on his knee. As the Vivaldi music chimes in, they begin a poignant dance, twisting and turning, arms intertwined like two links on a chain. She bends backwards over his knee and he gently lifts her over in a seamless back flip. The faces are devoid of expression, but the cream-like flow of the steps, and the depth of motion serve to evoke the power of the emotion felt.

But the tranquility is not to last. As the steps pour out, the sinister motifs of the earlier desecration reappear. As she grasps his outstretched leg, the music suddenly changes to the Vermeer techno, and the tenderness is replaced by the same brutality – rape, desecration. The other dancers reappear, the intertwined couple roll swiftly backward as the black curtain drops to separate the two worlds. And then we are back in the jungle – a Garden of Eden perhaps – the young woman walking towards her writhing companion. And now we know what she remembers.

Preljocaj has said that his inspiration came from the immigrant experience – his parents having left Albania when he was a small baby, and from New York. It’s a story of clashing cultures, a rape – literal or figurative – from which there is no return. Having first seen this ballet when it was created on the New York City Ballet back in 1997, I see the clash as being between the new and the old world. It’s the first settlers to the new world meeting the unspoiled Native Americans; the clash of cultures wreaking permanent, painful change on the old world. But there are many ways to view the story.

For a company a year ago doing Bournonville, the success of this piece was a demonstration of the versatility of the dancers. Time should improve some of the synchronization problems in the Vermeer, but the opening night performance in particular delivered a powerful punch. Julien Ringdahl, a former New York City Ballet dancer, was domineering and menacing as the leader of the Vermeer, and David Kupinski was once again eye-catching, this time for his quicksilver footwork in the Vivaldi. The performance, in all its starkness, was a tribute to the hard work of the dancers, and Preljocaj’s tireless repetiteur, Noemie Perlov.

The non-Vivaldi music was by Evelyn Ficarra (Source of Uncertainty), Robert Normandeau (Éclats de Voix), Serge Morand (Naïves) and Äke Parmerud (Laureats). The costumes were by Hervé Pierre, while Maya Schweizer designed the sets and Mark Stanley, the original lighting.

A long night, with no clear happy ending, Extravaganza is not for the faint of heart. The audience was clearly restless by “La Stravaganza”, for which extreme quiet is often needed. Next season “La Stravaganza” and “Colour of Love” will be paired with another ballet, and hopefully this will shorten the evening, and bring a better emotional balance to the program.

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