Royal Danish Ballet
by Kate Snedeker
March 26, 2008 -- Gamle Scene, Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
The key to enjoying the ballet "Don Quixote" is not to worry about the storyline—it’s the dancing that counts. On Wednesday evening, the Royal Danish Ballet was more than satisfactory in that regard.
The Royal Danish Ballet has performed "Don Quixote" in past seasons, but for 2008, the company has acquired Alicia Alonso's version of the classic ballet. Jens-Jacob Worsaae's sets have, however, been retained from a previous incarnation in 1989. Unfortunately, the spare sets do not serve the production well. The somber faux-brick wings are more highway-overpass than Spanish village, and the paucity of decoration between the backdrop and the front of the stage makes it difficult to create the illusion of a bustling village. Even the colorful costumes and superb mime skills of the dancers couldn't quite create warmth out of the cold sets.
This production is similar to that of Petipa and Gorsky—Kitri loves the poor Basil, but her father wishes her to marry the rich, foppish Gamache. The young lovers run away to prevent the marriage, and take shelter with a band of gypsies. Along the way, the Don becomes involved and mistakes Kitri for Dulcinea, his ideal love. While the young lovers dance with gypsies, the Don sleeps and dreams of Kitri as his Dulcinea, in a dream sequence full of dryads. Eventually, \Gamache's soldiers catch up with the lovers, but the day is saved when the Don intervenes, Basil fakes his suicide, and Kitri convinces the priest to marry her to her 'dying' lover. All well, the lovers, villagers, gypsies et al dance away the wedding night.
Leading the cast were the opening night Kitri, Diani Cuni, and Tim Matiakis. Cuni is one of the gems of the company, a dancer who has long deserved—along with Tina Højlund—a promotion to principal. She's a strong, if deceptively delicate seeming dancer, but her wiry power is tempered with a rare, refined musicality. In her solos she showed off that special connection with the music, dancing with panache, yet always in harmony with Henrik Vagn Christensen's tempos.
On the other hand, Basil is perhaps not the best showpiece for Matiakis' talents as a dancer. He's got the swagger down pat, but the choreography for Basil places more of an emphasis on jumps than turns. And it is in turns where Matiakis is sensational. I would certainly disagree with comments elsewhere than he's not a jumper—from what I've seen, his amplitude and height are at a level with any other dancer in the company. He does, however, have a very compact physique, so his jumps don't always have the appearance of being as stretched or sleek in line. But that's not to say that he can't be very elegant—in his solos there were a couple of gorgeous, soaring assembles and tour jetés that seemed to come from nowhere, and landed very softly. And, while his ménage of grand jetés was not outstanding in terms of height, there was no loss of amplitude at the end and a careful attention to pointed feet.
The partnership had some shaky moments. Cuni clearly was not confident about the balances (for whatever reason), with much trembling of supporting arms. In the end, she omitted almost all of the unsupported balances. There were also a couple of other slight uncertainties in the partnering including a press lift that went up shakily and came down too soon. Other moments were memorable including a spectacular split to catch to fish dive to end the wedding pas de deux. I think that Cuni is probably not an ideal match for Matiakis—she’s just a bit too tall to make the partnering work perfectly.
In the secondary roles of Espada and Mercedes, Mads Blangstrup and Amy Watson were also a bit hot and cold. Watson is not the most musical of dancers, but the role of Mercedes suits her power and panache to a T. Blangstrup on the other hand, has a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde quality to his performances. There are times—in particular in his signature role as James in "La Sylphide"—where he's utterly stunning in dance and acting. He's got the looks, the refinement, the gorgeous technique, superb acting stills and elegant lines. On a good day in the right role, he's one of the best in the world.
Yet, much like New York City Ballet's Damian Woetzel a few years ago, there are days when Blangstrup seems to be barely there, just 'phoning in' his performance. Back in the last Bournonville Festival, his performance in the Spanish-flavoured 'La Ventana' was frustratingly bland. His final scene as James can rip a heart in half with the intensity of the emotion, but he could barely raise a pulse as a flashy matador.
To be fair, part of the issue may be the Jekyll and Hyde act Blangstrup's back has been doing—he’s had two extended absences in the last few years due to back problems. However, I think it also takes the right role to get the best out of Blangstrup, and Espada lies somewhere in the middle.
As Espada, he started out on a high. The cape-twirling choreography is not one of the strengths of the production, but Blangstrup dove into the role with flair. We got to the best of his long lines combined with crisp steps, but then he seemed to flame out. His 3rd act solo was not overly impressive, even though he attacked it with a focused intensity. My dislike had more to do with the choreography and the hideous costume. Blangstrup was coated from chin to toe in black, the overly ornamented, sparkly bolero top most unflattering as it made his legs look short (and they are not!). Black jacket and tights are fine, but it needs a contrasting colored shirt and a much lower cut neck. Strangling a dancer isn't conducive to a high quality performance!
The corps had a few loose moments, but the overall quality of the performance suggested that a lot of rehearsal time had been put into the production. The women, especially, have a pleasing unity in line and motion. Compared to many top companies where the corps often seem to be a patchwork of styles, the RDB is a rarity in having a corps that is cohesive.
There were a few more timing glitches in the male corps, though Morten Eggert continues to shine in every role, and out of the corps Eliabe D'Abadia and Alban Lendorf caught my eye. D'Abadia, a Brazilian import, is a gifted actor and can sell a performance. Lendorf, who I remember back as a student in the school, appears to have grown both in height and artistic maturity. Marcin Kupinski also blasted out a couple of jaw-dropping high grand jetés.
Alexander Stæger's gypsy solo was very impressive, given that he's probably half a foot taller than most dancers who perform the role in other countries. He might not be as fast as some, but getting well over 6ft of body through some of the bravura moves, and doing it with little apparent effort, is impressive enough! Opposite him, Alba Nadal added spice and solid turns as Graciosa.
And finally, the ballet would not be complete without the Don himself, played with utter dignity by Mogens Boesen. As with most versions of the ballet, the Don has little to do, but the story would not exist without his journey. This production opens with a scene of the Don upon a wire horse, an image that Boesen--easily the tallest dancer in the company - made powerful and poignant by his ramrod straight posture and intense presence. In the dream sequence, the Don partners Kitri, and despite the massive height difference between himself and Cuni, Boesen handled the lifts and shoulder sit without a hitch. His combination of character skills and still solid technique are an illustration of why the RDB's character dancers are so valuable to the company.