Royal Danish Ballet
'The Lesson', 'Bournonville Variations', 'Lost on Slow', 'Napoli: Ac III'
'The Lesson' and 'La Sylphide'
by Jerry Hochman
June 14 and 19, 2011 -- Koch Theater, New York, NY
The Royal Danish Ballet returned to New York last week for the first time since 1988. Aside from programming issues, based on the opening and closing nights’ performances, the week-long run was a rousing success, and provided New York balletgoers with the opportunity to see RDB’s current crop of extraordinary dancers – including one who is only a company apprentice.
Arguably the oldest continuously performing ballet company in the world (it was founded in 1771), RDB is the company of August Bournonville. That’s both a good and a bad thing. The ‘good’ is that RDB ‘owns’ Bournonville the way New York City Ballet ‘owns’ Balanchine – other companies dance his pieces, but none dances it quite the same way, or quite as well. For RDB, Bournonville is in the blood. The ‘bad’ is that audiences want to see the RDB dance Bournonville, and Bournonville died in 1879. Obviously, RDB needs to walk a scheduling tightrope between providing the Bournonville legacy repertoire to its audiences and showing the same audiences that it is more than a guardian of the Bournonville style or a repository for Bournonville ballets.
I recall vividly first seeing RDB in the mid-1970s, when visits to New York by foreign ballet companies were routine - thanks in large part to an impresario named Sol Hurok, whose tombstone ads announcing upcoming ballet company visits I used to look forward to like birthday presents. [Impresarios like Mr. Hurok, sadly, no longer exist, and I no longer look forward to birthdays. So it goes.] Even then it was clear that RDB was trying to strike a balance between its Bournonville heritage and the need for it to present new material by contemporary choreographers in order both to stimulate and to showcase its dancers. Under Flemming Flindt’s artistic direction until 1978, RDB’s New York presentations included John Neumeier’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and Mr. Flindt’s “The Triumph of Death” (which, as I recall, quickly sold out the Metropolitan Opera House at least in part because it was performed without the benefit of costumes), in addition to Bournonville classics (or excerpts from them) like “La Sylphide,” the pas de deux from “Flower Festival at Genzano,” and “Napoli – Act III.”
The programming for this engagement, however, was problematic. Admittedly RDB’s scheduling was hampered by the smaller performance space at the DHK Theater – RDB was unable to bring any of its full lengths, including its new full-length “Napoli,” which it had performed the previous week at the Kennedy Center. But the breadth of its week-long repertoire was limited – the eight performances consisted of scheduling permutations of five pieces: a 1964 ballet by Mr. Flindt, a contemporary ballet by Jorma Elo, a glorified ‘tutorial’ on Bournonville technique, “La Sylphide” and “Napoli – Act III.” Surely RDB could have offered more programming variety, and better choices. But even with the programming it brought, the order of presentation – at least with respect to opening and closing nights – made little sense. It would have been more appropriate for opening night to begin with a Bournonville piece (e.g., “La Sylphide”) rather than “The Lesson,” and it would have made more sense to close the engagement with “Napoli – Act III,” which leaves the audience dancing in the aisles, rather than “La Sylphide,” which, though a great ballet, leaves the audience somewhat uncomfortable because of its unhappy ending. I don’t know if this would have been doable logistically, but it would have made more sense logically.
And even if, for whatever reason, it couldn’t begin the opening night program with a Bournonville piece, surely RDB could have found a more appropriate vehicle for the opening ballet on the opening night of its first New York engagement in 22 years with something other than “The Lesson,” which, although an excellent piece, is about as dismal and vicious and anger-provoking a ballet as could have been found. It was the equivalent of starting a beach vacation with a rainy day. As good as the performances of it were (and they were very good), “The Lesson” did not belong as the opening piece on opening night. And regardless of where it was inserted in any evening’s program, it should have come with the equivalent of a warning label – at both the opening and closing night performances, I saw parents who obviously had been unfamiliar with “The Lesson” (and perhaps thought it would have been similar to “Etudes”) quickly ushering their children out of the auditorium to avoid exposing them to what they recognized would be the violence to come.
That having been said, RDB’s brief NYC season provided the opportunity to see some extraordinary dancing by extraordinary dancers.
RDB has been known to ballet cognoscenti as a breeding ground for wonderful dancers – both dancers who danced with the company as well as those who became familiar names after leaving the RDB for more expansive opportunities. They include Erik Bruhn, Toni Lander, Kirsten Simone, Stanley Williams, Sorella Englund, Lis Jeppesen, Dinna Bjorn, Eva Kloborg, Annemarie Dybdal, Anne Marie Vessel, Heidi Ryom, Linda Hindberg, Niels Kehlet, Ib Andersen, Peter Martins, Frank Andersen, Peter Schaufuss, Flemming Flindt, Johnny Eliasen, Arne Villumsen, Adam Luders, Nicholaj Hubbe, and Johan Kobborg, among others. RDB’s current ‘crop’ of dancers, based on the two performances I saw (and particularly on “La Sylphide” and “The Lesson”) carries on this tradition of performing excellence.
As lovely as “La Sylphide” was to watch (and I’ll discuss that performance in detail below), “The Lesson” was ghastly. But aside from its questionable choice to open this RDB engagement (or, for that matter, to open any evening’s programming), it is a superbly crafted ballet, and a vehicle for extraordinary performances
Choreographed by Mr. Flindt in 1963, “The Lesson” (originally titled “The Private Lesson” – which is a somewhat less misleading title), is a stylized and graphic portrayal of a serial killer who happens to be a ballet teacher, his enabling pianist/associate (spouse, mother, friend – the relationship is uncertain), and a young female dancer who is one of his students, and one of his victims (we deduce that another student/victim preceded the student on stage, and another will shortly follow). The ballet movement is fractured and angular, with an inherent quality of repressed violence that is kept bottled up until it explodes the way the teacher’s psychosis simmers under the surface until it can be controlled no longer. A little “Miss Julie”; a little “Sweeney Todd.” [The piece was based on a story by Eugene Ionesco, whose plays were considered to be examples of the Theater of the Absurd. Knowing that Ionesco’s works had a propensity for irony and metaphoric meaning, as well as absurdity, it is conceivable that “The Lesson” is intended to be a metaphoric depiction of what really happens in a ballet class between an overbearing teacher and a necessarily submissive student. But nothing in the ballet as choreographed and presented would support such an interpretation.]
Despite its unrelenting darkness, or perhaps because of it, the piece nevertheless allows for and requires superb dancing and characterization, which both of the RDB casts that I saw delivered.
At the opening performance, Johan Kobborg was the ballet master/teacher, Mette Bodtcher the pianist, and Alexandra Lo Sardo the student. Mr. Kobborg’s teacher was a deranged and evil man from the outset, who had long before given up any real attempt to keep his violent nature under control. Ms. Bodtcher, his domineering, controlling, but ultimately powerless and complicit pianist/associate, was as striking in this role as she would be at closing night as Madge in “La Sylphide.” And Ms. Lo Sardo, a company soloist who looked like she was eighteen going on sixteen, played the effervescent girl as the equal to Mr. Kobborg’s monster, until he overpowered her. I thought all three performances were superb.
But the closing night’s cast blew me away. As the pianist, Gudrun Bojesen was the performing equal of Ms. Bodtcher, but she gave her character what appeared to be a sharper edge – although that ‘edge’ may have been the result of being played off the performances of Thomas Lund as the ballet master and Ida Praetorius as the student.
Mr. Lund’s ballet teacher was a repressed, milquetoasty man who, though a little strange, was so timid he wouldn’t harm a fly (a la Norman Bates). He first appeared overwhelmed by the thought of having to emerge from his back room and interact with another human being, much less a young female student, which made his clearly visible metamorphosis from just being strange to being a homicidal psychopath all the more shocking. And Mr. Lund’s performance included the subtle but significant sexual arousal and assault aspect of the story, which was not as apparent in Mr. Kobborg’s performance.
But as extraordinary as Mr. Lund’s performance was on its own, it was complemented, and enhanced, by Ms. Praetorius, who is only an RDB apprentice. At the risk of sounding too cute, Ms. Praetorius was glorious.
Ms. Praetorius has a sweet, child-like face, and a child-like body to match – narrow as a pencil and 99% legs. Although, like most dancers, she’s probably older than she looks, she played the student as if she were, maybe, fourteen or fifteen. But her performance in this piece was as much a product of her outstanding acting and dancing as it was of her appearance. Indeed, as good as Mr. Lund and Ms. Bojesen were, it was Ms. Praetorius’s inherent radiance and Bambi-in-toeshoes innocence that transformed the piece from a horrible story that the audience was forced to watch to a horrible story that the audience had the guilty pleasure of watching. While crystal balls are notoriously cloudy at this early stage, Ms. Praetorius clearly has the potential to become a significant presence with RDB or any other company.
RDB’s other non-Bournonville presentation, Jorma Elo’s “Lost On Slow” (choreographed to excerpts from various Vivaldi compositions), is interesting, and was well-performed by RDB dancers J’aime Crandall, Alba Nada, Amy Watson, Jean-Lucien Massot, Tim Matiakis, and Fernando Mora, but ultimately is forgettable. The choreography, which at times brought to mind Twyla Tharp, is a culture-clash of ballet and contemporary styles, with a randomness (which Mr. Elo indicates, in the program notes, is part of his methodology) that translates more into a lack of coherence than an abundance of ingenuity.
For its Bournonville offerings during this NYC engagement, RDB offered “Bournonville Variations,” “Napoli – Act III,” and “La Sylphide.”
Bournonville style is like no other. It is buoyant and explosive, and constantly dynamic (and featuring rapid footwork and changes in direction), with the apparent boundless energy of its dancers occupying a more narrow stage focus (as if the choreography was designed to spotlight an individual dancer within a circumscribed space) than, for example, choreography by Petipa (which appears designed to be more expansive, and frequently has the dancer gobbling up the entire stage). But to this viewer the quality transmitted by Bournonville choreography to an audience as a consequence of the style is at least equally important as the nuts and bolts of the steps themselves. For want of a better descriptive work, it is “welcoming” – the dancer’s act of springing up from the floor toward the audience, arms appearing to open up to the audience during the course of the step, epitomizes this ‘welcoming’ feeling. The choreography is not ‘just’ leaps and tricks and balletic acrobatics – it is designed to bring the audience into the performance by the quality of the movement as much as the talent and charisma of the dancer. And it does.
The Bournonville style also, by its nature, elevates male dancing to a level equal to, if not superior to, the dancing by ballerinas. Indeed, because of their Bournonville training, RDB male dancers are particularly valued additions to companies outside of Denmark. [That the RDB performed at the David H. Koch Theater, the home of the New York City Ballet, is particularly appropriate. RDB and NYCB have had an unusually close relationship – George Balanchine was a ballet master for RDB in the 1930s and reportedly was influenced and inspired by Bournonville’s work; and NYCB has been a pipeline for RDB dancers for many decades, including RDB dancers who joined NYCB and dancers who were imported as guest artists.]
“Bournonville Variations,” which premiered a year ago, is a collection of excerpts from Bournonville dances and from Bournonville classes, assembled by Mr. Lund and Mr. Hubbe, RDB’s Artistic Director, that showcases the Bournonville technique solely as it is applied to and executed by male dancers. But while the presentation is interesting and the execution by the 12 male dancers impeccable, the piece overall comes across less as a ballet than as a class demonstration.
As indicated, RDB was unable to bring its new version of “Napoli” to this New York visit. Instead, it performed Act III – as it has done in prior engagements. The piece is as ebullient as ever, and well-performed as ever, but the scene suffered from both the smaller space and the efforts to ‘update’ it. The set was squeezed onto the DHK Theater stage, making the actual performance space also look compressed, and which resulted in a significant loss of the power and explosive quality of the Bournonville choreography. And the ‘updates’ in the current production (staged by Mr. Hubbe and Ms. Englund) seemed to this viewer to be unnecessary, and somewhat silly. For example, having the lovers, Teresina and Gennaro (danced by Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer), arrive on stage at the end of the Act by motor-scooter was ludicrous. Nevertheless, it would take a monstrous restructuring of this scene to reduce the level of joy that the performance brings, and it remains a jewel of Bournonville choreography and a tonic to raise the spirit of anyone fortunate enough to see it. The dancing of soloists Alban Lendorf, Ms. Bojesen, Mr. Kopinski, Jon Axel Fransson, Lena-Maria Gruber, Mr. Crandall, and Hilary Guswiler merit special recognition, as does the Tarantella danced by Laure Doughy and Charles Andersen.
But the highlight of the closing night performance, as well as the RDB engagement as a whole, was “La Sylphide.”
I’ve reviewed American Ballet Theatre’s production of “La Sylphide” previously. The story of course is the same in the RDB version – except this new production (staged in 2003), to this viewer, is particularly extraordinary. As expected, the execution of the Bournonville choreography by the RDB dancers I saw was outstanding (and, more than that, seeing it performed as it is intended to be is a thrilling experience for the audience as well). What was extraordinary, however, was what appeared (at least based on the performance I saw) to be a subtle but distinctive change in the ballet’s message.
In the closing night’s performance, the Sylphide was danced by Ms. Grinder, one of RDB’s principal dancers, who is a little taller and more experienced than other dancers I’ve seen in the role. But this was not a hindrance – it was a difference. Ms. Grinder brings an expansive quality to her dancing, and a level of sophistication that I do not recall in any other portrayal. Her Sylphide is not a naïve little girl, she’s an adult sylph who knows what she’s doing, and her ‘come hither’ look, expressed in her eyes as well as her movement, is an irresistible force (similar, in a less obvious – and less obviously destructive – way, to Odile’s pull on Siegfried). This approach is perfectly appropriate for Ms. Grinder – and perhaps for the piece as a whole – but, to me, it changes the dynamics.
In other “La Sylphide” performances, the Sylphide is a cute innocent-looking young girl/sylph, and James appears to be attracted to her just because she is a cute, innocent-looking young girl/sylph. James’s inability to resist temptation causes his downfall. In the RDB performance I saw, however, the Sylphide is an active part of the process of James’s initial attraction to her: She entices him, and her own actions (not just her presence) precipitate James’s downfall. Consequently, instead of James’s eventual misfortune being a product of his own personality flaw (losing himself to a fantasy young girl from a different neighborhood, and a sylph no less) – it is caused by the Sylphide’s intentional effort to tempt him. From this point of view, James’s downfall can be considered more of a tragedy than a morality tale, and the message is no longer ‘see what happens when you stray outside your class’ to ‘stay away from sylphs bearing gifts’.
Whether this subtle change of focus is as apparent to most viewers as it was to a viewer who tends to over-analyze, frankly, is unlikely. Rather, what is more likely to dominate the audience’s memory of “La Sylphide” is the quality of the performances and of the RDB production, and the indelible mark of the Bournonville style.
Ms. Grinder’s portrayal was memorable – in addition to acting the role as indicated above, she dances with a unusual clarity and grace, with a beautiful line to her arabesques and penchees. Marcin Kupinski and Alexander Staeger, as James and Gurn, respectively, did a superb job with the Bournonville choreography, and Mr. Staeger was such an engaging nice-guy Gurn (as opposed to the usual ‘eager/opportunist’/with-a-friend-like-that-who-needs-enemies’ portrayals) that perhaps it was best after all that Effie (energetically portrayed by Louise Ostergaard) ended up marrying him rather than the befuddled (and bewitched) James. And Mette Bodcher’s Madge was a witch of a different color. Her Madge was a real person, not a bizarre creature from another planet (or another place in the forest) -- a woman who’s been around the block a few times, unkempt but still beautiful, who does really nasty things when she’s been wronged – and who also happens to be a witch. To this viewer, Ms. Bodcher’s portrayal was a stunning tour de force.
The RDB production itself may be the definitive “La Sylphide.” The set design (by Mikael Melbye, who also designed the wonderful costumes) is dazzling (in an understated way) – and like the Bournonville choreography, the set invites the audience into the action. And the lighting design by Jorn Melin is an equally significant presence. For example, at one point the Sylphide appears to James as a vision framed by an outsized window (a window large and significant enough for a Spectre to leap through) – but she wasn’t just a vision in a window – she was illuminated as if she carried the light of the moon with her.
One final comment: During the opening night performance of “Napoli – Act III,” I thought I recognized Eva Kloborg as one of the celebrating villagers (not all the dancers on stage were identified). I was right – Ms. Kloborg appeared again on closing night as James’s mother in “La Sylphide.” It was good to see her again on stage – and, had I known, I would have made an extra effort to have seen Sorella Englund and Lis Jeppesen, who both appeared as Madge in other performances of “La Sylphide” (and perhaps also populated the Napoli village, but I didn’t recognize them). Dancers like Ms. Kloborg, Ms. Englund, and Ms. Jeppesen are treasures at any age and in any role, and RDB’s failure to list them in the public casting announcement is, at the least, unfortunate.
I’ve gone on at considerable length to discuss the RDB performances because, to this viewer, RDB is a particularly important company, with extraordinary dancers, Although not without its flaws, RDB’s visit demonstrates that it is a company that should be present in New York (at a larger venue) on a regular basis, for a longer period of time, and more frequently than once in 22 years.
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