Royal Danish Ballet: Principals and Soloists
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
January 13, 2015
“A Folk Tale” (Pas de sept), The Flower Festival in Genzano (Pas de deux), Jockey Dance from “From Siberia to Mosow,” “La Sylphide” Act II, “Conservatoire (Pas de trois); “Napoli” Act III
-- by Jerry Hochman
It was a frigid night last night in Manhattan, but you wouldn’t know it from the warmth inside the Joyce Theater as the touring Royal Danish Ballet: Principals and Soloists program began its week long run. New Yorkers have always had a warm spot in their hearts for the Danes, as have I since I first saw the Royal Danish Ballet at the Met more years ago than I care to remember. And although this program was not by the company as a whole, that same fondness was evident again last night – not only for the dancers, but also for the style of August Bournonville and for the memory of ballet performances where athleticism was subservient to artistry.
I am not usually a fan of an evening of excerpts from larger ballets, but this program was wonderful. I’ve seen all but two of these dances previously, but seeing even familiar ones within the more intimate parameters of The Joyce, and seeing Bournonville ‘unplugged’ (that is, without sets) was revelatory. Comparisons between Bournonville and Balanchine have often been made – frequently within the context of explaining why Danish dancers have succeeded so well transitioning from one to the other. But seen stripped down to its essential choreography, similarities between nineteenth century Bournonville and twentieth century Balanchine (who was a ballet master for RDB in the 1930s and reportedly was influenced and inspired by Bournonville’s work)are particularly evident in terms of speed, precision, clarity, non-stop action, and the sense of an overriding style. And it helps explain why so many RDB dancers found a home at NYCB.
That being said, Bournonville style is like no other. It is buoyant and explosive, and constantly dynamic, 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 more expansive, and frequently has the dancer gobbling up the entire stage. The choreography is not punctuated by 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 and obvious athleticism of the dancer. And the emotional quality transmitted as an inevitable and intentional consequence of the Bournonville style is at as 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 spreading open during the course of the step, epitomizes this ‘welcoming’, feeling, and the sense of joy it communicates just by the skillful execution of the choreography itself is unmatched.
Even though, by its last visit, RDB is obviously and necessarily attempting to diversify and modernize its repertory, Bournonvile is its bread and butter, and as no one does Balanchine as well as NYCB, no one does Bournonville as well as the Danes. Last night they put on a Bournonville clinic.
RDB has been a fertile ground for extraordinary dancers for a long time. The Bournonville style tends to make the male dancers more exciting to watch than the women, and perhaps for that reason many of its male dancers have earned international reputations. But over the years frequent balletgoers know that contemporary Danish ballerinas have been outstanding as well, and have earned stellar international reputations. They include Toni Lander, Kirsten Simone, Sorella Englund, Lis Jeppesen, Dinna Bjorn, Eva Kloborg, Annemarie Dybdal, Anne Marie Vessel, Heidi Ryom, and Linda Hindberg among them. As I wrote following its first New York performance in June, 2011, after a 22 year hiatus, RDB’s current ‘crop’ of dancers, based on the two performances I saw then, carries on this tradition of performing excellence.
In my review of its 2011 program, I highlighted the performance of one unheralded young ballerina, then still an apprentice: Ida Praetorius. I wrote then that Ms. Praetorius had a sweet, child-like face, and a child-like body to match – narrow as a pencil and 99% legs, displaying inherent radiance and Bambi-in-toeshoes innocence, and I wrote then that she clearly had the potential to become a significant presence with RDB or any other company. She’s more grown up-looking now, a company soloist, and has achieved well-deserved recognition in other critical venues. But she’s still as sweet-looking and radiant as she was then (and as pencil thin), and her presence brightened the stage in all three pieces in which she appeared.
I commented favorably on Principal Dancers Gudrun Bojesen and Suzanne Grinder when they appeared in 2011, and their quality showed again last night: Ms. Bojesen as The Sylph in “La Sylphide,” and Ms. Grinder prominent in “Napoli.” Ms. Bojesen had a particularly difficult assignment, since her role requires considerable acting as well as dancing prowess (more than the occasional displays of coquettishness that were built into other pieces), and was necessarily restricted in the absence of context or sets. But she delivered.
However, when one thinks of Bournonville style, visions of male dancers necessarily dominate. It may be an illusion created by size and relative strength, but what the male dancers are required to do comes across as more explosive and expansive, and more technically intricate. And the male dancers in last night’s program were dominant – but not at all dominating, or preening, or acting like bulls, and their bodies don’t display overdeveloped muscular thickness. One can quibble that tours did not always finish in perfect fifth, or that partnering may not have been as secure as I remembered, but delivering the essential style is paramount, and in this respect their performances, collectively, were exemplary.
Andreas Kaas, a member of the RDB corps with a thick shock of hair and a youthfully vigorous appearance (to me he resembles Jamie, the male love interest in the TV series, “Outlander”), was a well-suited partner to Ms. Praetorius in “The Flower Festival in Genzano” pas de deux. While his partnering will grow more secure over time, his technique is spot on and his stage appearance is particularly engaging. Their stage qualities complemented each other well. I tend to think in broad terms, and as I watched Mr. Kaas and Ms. Praetorius, I saw them as a particularly youthful and innocent-looking Romeo and Juliet.
Sebastian Haynes, another member of RDB’s corps, and Marcin Kupinski, a Principal Dancer, excelled in their appearances also, but particularly in the Jockey Dance, which I had not previously seen.
“From Siberia to Moscow,” created in 1876, is Bournonville’s last ballet. It was performed for the last time in Copenhagen in 1904, and was reconstructed in 2009. But according to the program notes, the Jockey Dance from that ballet was preserved on film, and the current version represents the dance the way it actually was choreographed. Reportedly the conclusion of the ballet in its entirety featured a celebration of a victory in war, and within this celebration dances representing European rivers were included, presumably as divertissements. The Jockey Dance, supposedly, symbolized the English – though I didn’t sense any connection to any ‘river’, English or otherwise. [I haven’t researched the issue of whether there was cross-pollination between Bournonville and Petipa (maybe others already have), but their careers overlapped somewhat, and perhaps Petipa character dances/ethnic divertissements were inspired by, or evolved from, Bournonville.]
Regardless of whether the dance somehow suggested a river, or whether Bournonville influenced Petipa , the Jockey Dance is a rousing male duet, a competition of sorts between the two jockeys requiring split second timing, that Mr. Haynes and Mr. Kupinski executed flawlessly and with exquisite flourish and pseudo-aristocratic panache.
The performances of both Gregory Dean and Ulrik Birkkjaer, both RDB Principal Dancers, were flat out fabulous. Mr. Birkkjaer had more to do in this program (as James in “La Sylphide” Act II and in the “Conservatoire” pas de trois), and displayed lightning fast footwork (if you blinked you missed the entrechats, even though they went sky high), but both he and Mr. Dean, who excelled in “A Folk Tale” pas de sept and “Napoli” Act III, left vivid impressions. It would be impossible for any of the current cast to erase the memories I have of the first “Napoli” Act III performance I saw, which included, as I recall, Arne Villumsen, Johnny Eliassen, Frank Anderson, and the particularly explosive Niels Kehlet (strange, particularly for me, but I recall the men in that piece more than the women), but last night’s cast performed exceptionally well.
Femke Slot, Kizzy Matiakis, Diana Cuni, and Caroline Baldwin (replacing the injured Amy Watson), each of whom did exemplary work, completed the cast of dancers.
Finally, when RDB was in NY three years ago and danced “La Sylphide,” I was terribly disappointed that the company did not publically indicate the casting for Madge, and I missed performances in that role by Sorella Englund, Lis Jeppesen, and Eva Kloborg. Last night, Ms. Englund performed Madge, and was brilliant. Although many years have gone by, the characteristics that made her a remarkably beautiful and expressive dancer are still apparent. Her return to the New York stage is cause for recognition, and celebration.
edited 1/19 to correct the performance date to 2015, and then a second time to correct name misspellings
Last edited by balletomaniac on Mon Jan 19, 2015 6:08 pm, edited 2 times in total.