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Royal Danish Ballet

'Napoli'

by Kate Snedeker

December 20, 2006 -- The Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, Denmark

There are few things more special in ballet than watching the Royal Danish Ballet perform "Napoli".  It's a ballet that defines a company, cherished by all involved and blessed with an infectiously joyous ending.  On this evening, the Royal Theatre audiences had the added pleasure of seeing outstanding debuts in most of the major roles.  In particular Tim Matiakis and Diana Cuni stepped in the lead roles of Gennaro and Teresina, whilst Morten Eggert was a debutant as Golfo.

"Napoli" is the story of Gennaro, a poor fisherman, and his beloved, Teresina.  She is washed away in a great storm only to be rescued by sea nymphs (naiads) ruled by the sea spirit Golfo.  After finding her in Golfo's grotto, Gennaro, with the power of Christianity in the form of an amulet of the Madonna, saves Teresina from life as a naiad. The lovers are reunited and the village rejoices in a festive display of traditional dancing.

From the beginning, "Napoli" is awash with colour and life.  The opening scene on the harbourside of Naples is one that I consider to be the benchmark of crowd scenes, a tableau of human life that no other company can yet reproduce.  The combined efforts of the company members, character dancers, ballet school children and experienced Royal Theatre extras create a splash of Neapolitan life teeming with action, detail and layers.  One can get happily distracted watching all the little goings-on, and my current bit of fun is during Pascarillo's "song".  Sitting over on stage right by the bumbling drummer, Elisabeth Dam, Dawid Kupinski and Henriette Brøndsholm have developed, and played around with, a wonderful series of mime reacting to and helping the unfortunate musician.  It's this kind of lush detail that make "Napoli" so rich and timeless, for each generation of dancers can add their own stamp to the story.

Major debuts in any Bournonville ballet are a rarity, for only a handful of dancers per generation are given the honor of taking on such roles. Tonight, Tim Matiakis became the 27th Gennaro and only the third non-Dane ever to dance the role premiered by August Bournonville himself.  Of this performance, Bournonville - who like Matiakis had a Swedish mother - I think would have been proud.  Matiakis is an intelligent dancer, gifted with natural talent tempered with maturity.  He clearly had put much thought into the character of Gennaro, giving the Neapolitan fisherman a fiery, roguish edge softened by intense passion for his beloved Teresina.  Diana Cuni, who seemingly should have had a chance in the role long before tonight, was perfect as Teresina to Matiakis' Gennaro.  Her petite but powerful figure was a perfect match in colouring and size for the short Matiakis.  While other dancers have been in the spotlight, Cuni has quietly developed into a superb Bournonville dancer.  Her mime is clear, her dance delicate, yet crisply powerful.  She was superb in her solos, and particularly affecting in her interaction with Golfo in the second act. 

Especially for a dancer not brought up in the Bournonville tradition (though he was introduced to Bournonville as a student at the Royal Swedish Ballet school by Frank Andersen, who then was director of the Royal Swedish Ballet), and in just his third season with the company, Matiakis was impressive in his solos.  His strengths are in his ballon and fast pirouettes, his slightly stiff epaulment hinting that his journey into Bournonville is still underway.  In Matiakis' penultimate third act solo, debut night nerves seemed to surface just a bit in the form of a very slight rush in the steps.  Also in what is perhaps a sign of his inexperience in the role, he seemed to rely a bit much on covering his face with his hands to convey his anguish at the apprent loss of Teresina.  First time jitters aside, however, it was a delightful, passionaate debut, and the company has found a jewel in this pairing and casting.

The other major debut was that of soloist Morten Eggert as Golfo.  The second act of "Napoli", set in Golfo's grotto, is the newest, last reset and rechoreographed by Dinna Bjørn in 1992.  Perhaps because it is farthest from the original, Act 2 lacks some of the vibrancy of the surrounding acts, and the character of Golfo can be very much a cipher.  Eggert, however, breathes fresh life into Golfo, bringing a much-needed sense of drama back to the Grotto scene.  An extremely valuable dancer, for he combines great dramatic skills with a medium height and solid muscularity that allows him a wide repertoire, Eggert is the type of dancer who can be counted on to get the most out of a role.  Here he was a muscular Golfo, whose powerful presence was conveyed in slow, purposeful movements countered by explosive dancing.  More so than other recent interpreters of the role, Eggert gave the role a bit of otherworldly sex appeal, which made sense in the context of Teresina's slight hesitation before leaving with Gennaro.  Clearly there was something slightly seductive about life as a naiad.

In the cascade of dances, including the pas de six and sensational tarantellas, which form the core of Act 3, there were also a number of debuts.  Sebastian Kloborg's first solo is still a work in progress, for whilst he is blessed with breathtakingly long limbs, the steps seemed a bit rushed and unfinished, his limbs not quite entirely under control. Yet it was indeed a solid performance with much to recommend it.  He was followed by Ulrik Birkkjær, another of the long limbed young Danish men and also making his debut.  Birkkjær showed the control that Kloborg hasn't quite mastered, matched with elegant epaulment.  Mads Eriksen, the other debutant, was equally as impressive in the first Tarantella.  However, the very tall, solid Eriksen was jarringly mismatched with the tiny, petite Claire Ratcliffe. 

The pas de six and tarantella women had many years of experience behind them, with Lesley Culver, Susanne Grinder and Amy Watson putting in a good effort, and Caroline Cavallo sparkling above them all. Finally, continuing his flawless transtion to character dancer, Peter Bo Bendixen has progressed from Gennaro, to Golfo and now for the first time, Friar Ambrosio.   If still a bit young looking, he most certainly has the gravitas and stage presence for the role.  Though much of his time will now certainly be taken up with his directorshop at the Tivoli Pantomime Theatre, one hopes Bendixen will continue to be seen in such character roles.

"Napoli" made for a festive and uplifting evening, showing off emerging and existing talent and celebrating the most Danish of ballets.  It was a bit deflating to see a fair number of empty seats, for it detracts from the atmosphere and an enthusiastic crowd can add a vital spark to any performance, especially a debut.  Unsold seats seem almost inexplicable because Copenhageners have the benefit of relatively inexpensive tickets, excellent public transportation and one of the finest ballet companies in the world. 

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