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By Erik Aschengreen
In May and June, the Royal Danish Ballet comes to Orange County, Berkeley, Washington, and New York—its first trip to the U.S. since 2004. The company, naturally, is dancing major Bournonville ballets such as La Sylphide, Napoli, and A Folk Tale. Under artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe, however, a 21st-century RDB performs updated, sometimes controversial, versions of these classic works.
The choreography of August Bournonville (1805–79), developed in the French tradition, is sparkling, elegant, and full of joy. Bournonville dance is harmonious, with intricate footwork and a quietly held upper body. The special mixture of mime and dance in his ballets is a characteristic seen nowhere else. RDB has performed several of his ballets in an unbroken tradition since the beginning of the 19th century. Hübbe has expanded on this tradition since taking the helm in 2008, and brings his versions of sacrosanct ballets such as Napoli (1842) and A Folk Tale (1854).
Hübbe and Sorella Englund’s staging of Napoli moves the 19th-century story to the 1950s, inspired by legendary film director Federico Fellini. Hübbe has replaced the traditional second act romantic music by Niels W. Gade with modern music by Danish composer Louise Alenius. The second-act choreography in other stagings has closely followed the Bournonville style (the original choreography for this act has been lost for more than 70 years), but Hübbe has made daring choreography with close body contact. At its premiere in 2009, the new production shocked some critics, but was generally well received.
For Hübbe, brought up with RDB in Copenhagen and until a few years ago a beloved principal dancer with New York City Ballet, this tour is very special. “To come back to the Koch Theater,” he says, “with my old friends and family—the Danes—to see my old friends in U.S.—the American audience—is fantastic. It evokes a mixture of awe, humility, and pride.”
“My vision for the Danish company,” Hübbe continues, “is to honor tradition and at the same time move the company into the 21st century. I feel it is a little the same as what has happened to Lincoln Center. It has changed but it is still Lincoln Center.” Hübbe’s charisma as a director has earned RDB plenty of attention, and the company has been well reviewed under him.
While the repertoire in Copenhagen includes ballets by Balanchine and Robbins, as well as modern European and American choreographers, this tour concentrates on Nordic choreographers. RDB will debut Bournonville Variations, a medley of steps from the Bournonville Classes, staged in 2010 by Hübbe and principal dancer Thomas Lund. Also on the program is The Lesson (1963), a horror ballet by the late Danish choreographer Flemming Flindt, based on the Ionesco play. Two Finnish choreographers are represented with Jorma Uotinen’s Earth (2005) and Jorma Elo’s Lost on Slow (2008). Dane Johan Kobborg, principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, choreographed the newest piece on the tour, Alumnus (2011), which premiered in April.
Hübbe’s goal is to shape each of his 95 dancers so they develop their personal potential. As a whole, the company looks better, and most dancers seem to thrive under his directorship. —Erik Aschengreen
Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjær in Nikolaj Hübbe’s staging of Napoli. Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy RDB