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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Royal Danish Ballet - The Great Danes

La Sylphide and Napoli, Act III
Royal Danish Ballet
June 18, 2011

This has been a great spring season of dance. I've seen many great performances, from Chase Finlay's debut in Apollo to Alina Cojocaru and David Hallberg in Giselle to Natalia Osipova in anything. But with all due respect to those wonderful performers, the greatest overall ballet performance belongs to the one I saw this afternoon -- the Royal Danish Ballet dancing their two signature pieces, La Sylphide and Napoli, Act III. It was such a great overall performance that I could probably write about it forever, and still miss details of why it was so great.

First of all, it was my first time seeing the Royal Danish Ballet live, and I don't know what I really expected of them, but they shattered every pre-conceived notion I had of them as a quaint, charming little company. It is true that the Bournonville style can look old-fashioned, but the dancing itself was not for a minute stilted or fossilized. It was wonderfully alive, and this was true from the mime characters to the corps de ballet to the lead dancers. I've heard the Danish style called "modest" so many times it's become a cliche, but when you see them in Napoli you realize they're thankfully not as modest as you expected. For instance, in the middle of the most frenetic dances, I often saw the male soloists hang in the air, as time stopped still and one wondered how they defied gravity. The women will subtly accent a step with a small flourish of the arms that nevertheless gets the "I'm very good and I know it" point across to a 3,000 member audience. The company obviously selects for great jumpers, and it's one thing to know that La Sylphide was created as Bournonville's tribute to Marie Taglioni's legendary elevation. It's another to see the whole company fly into the air, landing without a sound, and then taking off before one even has a chance to see the landing.

The Bournonville vocabulary of jumps is seemingly inexhaustible. For one he constantly demands petit allegro jumps, and so one can look at the way the dancers have to cross their legs in lightning fast beats all day. The use of entrechats is an artform by itself -- they symbolize restlessness, love, joy, the whole gamut of emotions. I love the way his dancers will do the same jump but alternate their arm positions -- they stereotypical Bournonville jump has the dancers with their arms firmly at their hips in first position. But then the dancers will open their arms to second position, and then in the third jump, snap them triumphantly in fifth, as if to say, "I did it!" The other Bournonville jump I love is the way the dancers grande jete. Most dancers around the world nowadays do it the "Russian" way, with the forward leg shooting out like an arrow, and the backward leg pulled straight. The impression is of a dancer pushing himself upwards and forward in the air. The Danes have the trailing leg bent in a low attitude. This effect first of all makes it harder for dancers to give the illusion of having more elevation, since all the height must be achieved with the forward leg. But more importantly, it gives the impression of a dancer not pushing himself into the air, but rather effortlessly sailing through space. The dancer's body in motion makes a beautiful arc. The best dancers will hang in the air, mid-jump, to demonstrate their ballon. Their arms will rise, to make sure the audience sees the amazing feat. And the dancers will somehow always land on the downbeat of the music, to finish the musical phrase. Enchanting.

Marcin Kupinski

La Sylphide opened the program. The RDB production is absolutely beautiful to look at, very realistic in its depiction of a Scottish home in Act One and a forest for Act Two. Very often I think the State Theater stage looks shallow and prosaic, but the Danes figured out a way to give it depth and grandeur. The beautiful lighting helped, as did the proportioned sets that weren't simply one layer after another of curtain drops. Act Two's forest was particularly beautiful.

Beautiful forest scene

But one doesn't really go to the ballet to look at the sets. It was the dancing that made this very old ballet come alive. Marcin Kupinski was the James, and he doesn't really have the ballon that I saw in some of the other men, but his James was still sympathetic, stylish, and he had a strong but not flashy technique. This production telegraphed the ennui that James felt in ways I've never seen in other productions. For instance, when Effy (Louise Ostergaard) first sees her fiance, she mimes "What's wrong with you?" and then touches him on the forehead and heart. She knows that James' mind and heart are elsewhere. When James is thinking of the Sylph, he soars in the air in a series of cabrioles or entrechats, with arms in first position by the hips, then opening up into second position, and finally rising triumphantly in fifth. But when he's with Effy, he joins her in a hard, earthbound Scottish folk dance and looks glum and unhappy the whole time. The implication is clear -- ballet is an expression of the soul, of what can't exist in mundane life. La Sylphide is the first (but not last) story disguised as a valentine to ballet. It might not end happily, but there's a feeling that James' life nevertheless has been touched by a unique force and spirit.

Grinder's Sylphide

When I first saw Susanne Grinder I thought she looked too tall, too elongated, too modern, to be the Sylph. I imagine most Sylphs to be tiny, just as most Giselles to this day remain petite. But then she started dancing, and the doubts melted away. She too has that great jump and ballon, and also an innocent but aloof stage presence that really gets to the heart of this ballet. The Sylph, unlike other ballet heroines like Giselle or even Odette/Odile is never "real" -- she's a fantasy, and the trick is to make her both elusive and irresistible at the same time. Grinder's mime was clear and well-articulated, especially the final sequence where she sadly told James how he had killed her with the scarf. The only thing I wish was that her leg was a little more secure in arabesque -- in Act Two there were a couple wobbles that detracted from the ethereal image of the leg floating upwards effortlessly.

Madge is a great mime role, the grandmother of Carabosse and Mette Bodcher was a wonderful old hag. She wasn't over the top or hammy, which made her that much more frightening. When the girls lined up for their fortunes she took evident delight in miming their fates. Alexander Staeger as Gurn looked like he was auditioning for James. He, unlike Kupinski, does have that unique ability to hang in the air before landing. The corps de ballet was stunning in the Act One folk dance and in Act Two as the band of sylphs.

The score by Severin Lovenskiod is something I've never really given much thought to, but I realized its utter beauty this afternoon (especially as played by the NYCO orchestra). The rustic Scottish countryside is vividly evoked by the music, from the folk dances to the atmospheric "Sylph" motif -- it soars upwards with the jumpers, as a metaphor for the hope and joy of love. (People in love often say that they are walking on air.) When the Sylph loses her wings, the score turns funereal, as James is brutally brought back to earth. The final scene of a dying James left alone with Madge, while the lifeless Sylph flies over the stage, had the audience stunned into silence.


I thought nothing could top La Sylphide, but after a rather lengthy intermission the curtain came up on Act Three of Napoli, which until now I'd only seen on video. Video though is nothing compared to the real thing, where the vitality of the Neapolitan spirit seems perfectly captured in time by the severe and moralistic Danish ballet master. Nikolaj Hubbe's new production has been updated to the 1950s, but except for some 1950's clothes on the spectators and the final image being of Teresina and Gennaro on a scooter, this is basically the same "everybody let's dance" Napoli that people know and love. What a fun, exhilarating pure-dance spectacle it is! The three main set pieces are the pas de six, the tarantella, and the finale, in which the whole stage (including the old and the young) seems to explode together in a whirlwind of dancing. Amy Watson was the Teresina and Alban Lendorf the Gennaro, and both were absolutely delightful. Lendorf had the most ballon of anyone in the cast, and that's saying a lot. The whole cast was, really, but the real star was Bournonville's choreography. Every dance starts out simply, almost casually, before somehow exploding into a whirlwind of jumps, plies, pirouettes, the dance equivalent of a Rossini crescendo. One finally gets exhausted (but in a good way) just watching the dancers alternate between terre a terre moves and flying forwards, backwards, sideways, up, down in an endless series of jumps that are an expression of pure joy. If La Sylphide implies that ballet is a rarefied art, Napoli gives the impression that dancing is a communal experience. The finale practically makes you want to bang a tambourine and jump onstage and dance.

It's a shame the Royal Danish Ballet hardly ever tours in the United States. This one experience left me feeling like Oliver Twist. Please sir, I want some more.

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