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Royal Danish Ballet

'The Lesson' and 'La Sylphide'

by Colleen Boresta

June 19, 2011 matinee -- Koch Theater, New York, NY

The Royal Danish Ballet is one of the oldest ballet companies in the world. Best known for their Bournonville ballets, the Danes also dance more modern works. One of these is Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson, which was first performed in 1964.

The Lesson begins with the pianist cleaning up the ballet studio. A young girl arrives, excited to be receiving dance instruction. The teacher then comes into the studio. He is an awkward man, shy almost to the point of backwardness.

The session begins with easy steps and the teacher is happy with the student’s progress. As the class goes on, however, the instructor becomes more and more demanding. The pianist objects when the ballet master tells the student to put on her toe shoes. The instructor shoves the pianist out the door and the lesson becomes even more tasking. The girl protests that she is in pain, but the ballet master pays no attention to her. The teacher continues to push the student until he strangles her. The pianist returns, and she and the ballet master carry the body out of the studio, goose stepping all the way. Then the pianist comes back and cleans up the studio again. The bell rings. Another student has arrived. It begins again.

The Lesson is a disturbing, but very interesting ballet, a 20th century version of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Red Shoes”. Thomas Lund’s ballet master is creepy right from the beginning of the class. Why doesn’t the student run out the door when she sees how “off” he is? Or maybe she’s so eager for the chance to learn ballet that she doesn’t want to see how odd the teacher is. What is the pianist’s role in all this? Why does she enable the instructor to continue his student killing spree? I also find the Nazi symbolism fascinating. The pianist is dressed like a matron in a SS concentration camp. As already mentioned, both the teacher and the pianist goose step as they carry the dead girl out of the studio. I would love to see this ballet again, and try to find answers to my questions. All the performers are wonderful – Thomas Lund as the ballet master, Ida Praetorius as the student and Gudrun Bojeson as the pianist.

The second ballet on the program was La Sylphide, the oldest ballet still danced today. It is choreographed by the Danish master, August Bournonville. The current Royal Danish Ballet production is staged by Nikolaj Hubbe and Anne Marie Vessel Schluter.

La Sylphide is the story of James, a Scottish landowner living in the early 19th century. On his wedding day he dreams of a sylph or fairy. Even after awakening, James still sees the sylph (La Sylphide) who entices him to follow her to her woodland kingdom. James’ cousin, Gurn, is in love with Effie, James’ fiancée. Effie, however, is only interested in James. Gurn is kind to Madge, an old witch/fortune teller, whom James has kicked out of his house. Hating James for his ill treatment, Madge sees to it that James kills La Sylphide with a poisoned scarf. (Of course James does not know the scarf is poisoned.) Madge also engineers the wedding of Effie and James. La Sylphide dies and James is a broken man.

The Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide is a total delight. I found myself as lost in the mists of Scotland as the hero James. All the performers are perfect, both as actors and dancers. Their mime is the clearest and most precise I have ever seen. The Danes clearly show their mastery of petit allegro footwork, small jumping movements performed at a quick tempo. The whole company dances with incredible buoyancy and ease of movement.

Susanne Grinder’s Sylphide is sweet and mischievous, a child in her wants and desires. She seems to live in the air, floating across the stage with almost unbearable lightness. But the Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide is a Bournonville ballet, and the male danseur is challenged as much, if not more, than the ballerina. Marcin Kupinski is a very strong James, but his ballon does not equal that of David Hallberg. I saw Hallberg dance James in American Ballet Theatre’s production of La Sylphide in 2009. Kupinski’s jumps are still first-rate and his landings are soft and plush. His leg beats are quick and crisp. Kupinski’s acting is also wonderful. He is the quintessential dreamer chasing after ideal love, and in the process losing both his love and his life.

As Gurn, Alexander Staeger’s ballon is amazing. His jumps are also clean and precise. Louise Ostergaard is very effective as Effie, James’ fiancée. As James’ mother, Eva Kloborg is natural and real. Mette Bodtcher is an incredibly powerful and frightening Madge. She never overdoes it, which makes her portrayal even scarier.

The Royal Danish Ballet’s La Sylphide is a perfect production of a landmark ballet. The gorgeous score by Lovenskjold is played faultlessly by the New York City Ballet orchestra. I hope it does not take another 23 years for this fantastic ballet company to return to New York.

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