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David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
June 14–19, 2011
Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli. Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy RDB.
The Royal Danish Ballet's recent performances in New York provided a rare, intriguing glimpse at the world's third oldest ballet company. The repertoire presented a snapshot of the current artistic direction under ex-NYCB principal Nikolaj Hübbe. Like other companies, RDB necessarily combines cherished older works with newer, risk-taking choreography, revealing both strengths and weaknesses. The highlights were La Sylphide and Act III from Napoli (the entirety was too big to stage in New York), an exhilarating display of why August Bournonville, born over two centuries ago, remains a titan of ballet.
Bournonville's style is known for its elegant lines—low-held, gently curved arms, and high leading legs in arcing grand jetés, for example. But the complex patterns, darting chassées with rapid direction shifts, and elaborate, crystalline footwork were an epiphany in the celebratory Napoli, modernized with some Fellini-esque characters and a Vespa. There was nothing revolutionary about the vocabulary, though in variation after variation, it conjured a profound dimensionality and fluency, particularly when danced by Alban Lendorf, whose plush muscularity befits the style.
La Sylphide (1834) captures the quintessential elements of Romantic ballet: pageantry and tradition (here, Scottish clans), the supernatural, and unrequited love. A highland castle provides a darkly exotic setting, which in Act II moves to the forest. Susanne Grinder was an ideal sylph, luminous and light until the tragic moment when her wings fall off; and Marcin Kupinski was properly petulant as the sylph-besotted unfaithful groom-to-be. Bournonville mixed orderly group dances with freely-flowing phrases by the sylph, contrasting the manmade with the wild.
Bournonville Variations (2010), drawing on classroom exercises and combinations, showcases the style as well as the mens’ skills. However, the cast I saw on June 14, while periodically sparkling, often faltered in the test steps, notably the many double tours en l’air. This step is difficult even for technical wizards, begging the question of its prominence in this work. Another signature of the style is to neatly end turns and phrases in a closed fifth position; in this step, too, messiness is difficult to disguise.
Jorma Elo’s Lost on Slow (2008) exemplifies this Finnish choreographer's penchant for frenetic phrasing, broken lines, and propulsive moves. Despite the jarring contrast in style to Bournonville’s, it showcased some of the men well, in particular Jean-Lucien Massot and Tim Matiakis. The biggest programming mystery was The Lesson (1964), by Flemming Flindt, based on an Ionesco story, which was performed in New York a few years ago in the star vehicle “Kings of the Dance.” This psychological ballet showcases three dancers, including Johan Kobborg, but its theme (ballet master as killer) has limited, lurid appeal. It displayed the dark side of the Scandinavian mindset, but it felt like an odd duck.
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