Royal Danish Ballet
Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
6th November and
9th November 2007 (Flemming Ryberg’s 50th Jubilee)
Copenhagen is very cold in November with an icy wind blowing from across the Baltic Sea chilling you to the bone, but once seated inside the Royal Theatre for August Bournonville’s Napoli you quickly thaw in the Italianate sunlight that floods the stage. Most of us are familiar with the dances from Napoli’s final act, but to see the ballet in its complete form is rarely possible outside of Denmark.
The story, for those that haven’t seen the work in its entirety, concerns a young Neapolitan woman called Teresina, much courted by the local men but in love with a handsome young fisherman, Gennaro. The lovers go for a romantic moonlit trip across the bay in Gennaro’s boat, but a sudden storm casts the pair into the sea; Gennaro struggles home but Teresina is lost at sea. In the second act we discover that Teresina has been rescued by a group of naiads that present her to their master, Golfo, who is severely smitten by her. Golfo seeks to turn Teresina into a naiad, but she is saved in the nick of time by Gennaro and the familiar third act is the celebration of her rescue coinciding with a local festival
I saw the same cast at both performances: Teresina danced by Tina Højlund, and Gennaro by Thomas Lund. Højlund was less feisty in the role than I expected, making the heroine a rather submissive character though her dancing was very attractive. Thomas Lund was just perfect as hot-blooded Gennaro, fighting off local Lotharios and amorous sea-gods alike to assure a happy ever after with his girl. His dancing was sublime with his trademark combination of virtuosity and control and he led the dancers into the exhilarating swirl of the final act with a sense of joy that communicated itself to everyone present – both on stage and off.
In the role of Golfo Fernando Mora was initially impassive, an austere being who isn’t given to showing emotions but eventually allowing his icy heart to warm with love for Teresina; his eyes alone betraying the tragedy of her loss. The middle act with Golfo and the naiads isn’t pure Bournonville and therefore weaker choreographically from the rest, but there are still such enjoyable production details as Gennaro’s entrance rowing his boat through the mist and the two magical transformations of Teresina from human to naiad and back again with her costume changing in the blink of an eye.
The first act concerns itself with Teresina and her mother; with Mum sizing up all her daughter’s would-be suitors, the two pushiest being Giacomo the macaroni seller and Peppio the Lemonade seller. This brings me neatly to Friday’s man of the hour, Flemming Ryberg, officially celebrating his 50th jubilee and appearing as the scheming Peppio. At the performance on the 6th he had played Pascarillo the street singer who gets into a ruckus with a down at heel puppeteer who dares to take over his pitch. As Mr Ryberg is screamingly funny in both roles I think I’ll opt out of deciding which role he does best.
It had been a very busy week for Flemming Ryberg as apart from his two roles in Napoli he had also appeared in a pas de deux specially created for him in Jiri Kylian’s Silk and Knife, ably demonstrating that a dancer in his sixties can still inspire a choreographer. In addition to these three evening performances he was also hard at work rehearsing for the new production of Nutcracker that the company will be dancing next month: to paraphrase Shakespeare; age is neither withering him nor dulling his infinite variety. Flemming Ryberg was my introduction to both Bournonville and the Royal Danish Ballet and was the first James I ever saw; even after a significant passage in time, he still remains in my memory as one of the finest exponents of the role and indeed one of the finest exponents of Bournonville technique in general.
The Royal Theatre marked the big day with pictures of Ryberg in many of his greatest roles pinned up in the rear foyer above a table laid out with champagne for the audience to drink his health, the theatre also provided beautifully produced free brochures with yet more pictures of this remarkable dancer. When Mr Ryberg stepped forward at the end of what had been a fantastic performance, the audience went berserk while a stream of friends and colleagues came on stage with gifts and tributes for this outstanding performer.
For those of us lucky enough to attend the lively after show party there was a special treat: filmed footage of Ryberg in his prime. All eyes were riveted to the screen as we watched in awed silence that perfect blend of grace and virtuosity that made Flemming Ryberg special. I imagine this may have been the first time many of the young dancers present had seen just what Ryberg was capable of doing in his youth and they responded with loud and heartfelt applause. Afterwards the ‘cabaret’ included a special address from one of Denmark’s leading actresses, a trio of very fine singers from the Opera Company, and Thomas Lund in his James costume, asleep in his chair whilst a parade of Sylphs both current and veteran attempted and failed to waken him from his slumbers.
The party continued into the small hours with the younger dancers demonstrating very different moves from Bournonville on the dance floor, and before leaving I managed to have a couple of words with the guest of honour who told me that he was very happy that so many of his admirers had made the trip to Denmark for this special occasion. It may have been a late night but the following evening Mr Ryberg was due to appear on stage once again in Silk and Knife, in a role that illustrates what a superb actor he is. I’ve always though of Flemming Ryberg as one of the glories of Danish Ballet and felt privileged to have been present at his 50th jubilee. It was very much a night to remember.