Bolshoi Ballet Academy, The Royal Danish Ballet School,
New National Theatre's Tokyo Young Artists Training Program,
and the Julio Bocca Foundation Ballet Argentino School
of the Arts
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 25, 2011
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2011 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The Protégés program, a showcase of young dancers from the world's great ballet schools, is one of Michael Kaiser's most imaginative and important contributions to dance. Watching students of the major academies is a way to keep one's finger on the pulse of ballet, and the first two Protégés programs in 2006 and 2008 did include mostly major schools (academies of The Royal, Paris Opera, Royal Danish, and Bolshoi Ballets, and, the first year, St. Petersburg's Vaganova Academy represented by a pas de deux). It's a risky business, as schools aren't factories and each class is not brimming with stars, but, as much fun as it is to try to spot future luminaries, it's more important to be able to keep an eye on the state of classical training.
Students of the Royal Danish Ballet School opened the program, as they had at the first Protégés showing five years ago. The top students at the RDBS are usually 15 to 16 (as opposed to 17 and 18 or, it seemed, even older at other schools) and so are always at a bit of a disadvantage in comparison with older students. They're also perennially charged with dancing Bournonville, and Bournonville was made for stars in their prime; hard fare for young teens. This time, the company tried a new twist, chopping up famous pas de deux and ensembles and shuffling the parts around, doubling or trebling a bit of a solo, so that the spotlight was seldom on one dancer and technical weaknesses were less exposed.
What we saw was certainly a new take on Bournonville. "B is for Bournonville," arranged by Ann Crosset, an American modern dance choreographer, "and the dancers of Kompagni B," the schools' performance outlet, has no mime. no costumes. It's Bournonville out of context. The boys are dressed in practice clothes a bit reminiscent of what they would have worn 100 years ago, the girls in white dresses. Is it a rehearsal from long ago? Each segment (danced before a changing backdrop of a colorful design, unspecific of time or place) begins with the music played very softly, in hurdy-gurdy style -- a distant memory that calls them to rehearse? Without mime or appropriate costumes, some of the selections seemed odd. For example, bits of the pas de deux from "Wilhelm Tell" (which many say is not Bournonville's) are usually danced in Tyrolean costumes, the dancers hooking their fingers in their suspenders. There are no suspenders here, but the dancers hook those fingers anyway. What is an audience unfamiliar with the work to make of that?
The company and its school have been through a lot in the past 20 years, and the school may not have quite recovered, although the appointment of Niels Balle, by all accounts an excellent teacher, as Director gave much hope. It may be too early to tell the state of training in Copenhagen, but the dancing did raise questions. As one friend put it, "Are they trying to dance Bournonville, or are they trying to modernize it?" Or both? Most obvious were the girls' high extensions (Bournonville is on record about those) which were often shaky and strained, but, much more important, drew attention to the leg at the expense of harmony of the body which is why Bournonville wouldn't allow them. Arm positions were, at times, most charitably described as imaginative modern additions -- wildly waving windmill arms? Some ports de bras in group excerpts were just raggedy, which may have been a result of opening night jitters, but I kept thinking of an older ballerina pointing out, back in the early 1990s as we watched a rehearsal of four couples doing the "Flower Festival" pas de deux, "Look at them. Each one of them doing something a little bit different."
Is the point of this new look at Bournonville that only the steps matter? That everything else is uninteresting, or too old-fashioned to sustain? Yet the mime has always been considered a part of the choreography, the steps, if you will. But now, as another example, the famous flirtatious glances in "Flower Festival" are abruptly executed turns of the head, without eye contact. In this staging, there was no way to tell that the pas de deux from "Kermesse" was a flirtation, or the one from "Flower Festival" was a reunion after the girl had been captured by pirates and returned to her village. The ballets, the roles, the characters, seemed interchangeable, just one sweet, happy couple after another, as though Jantelov (the Danish equivalent of the Japanese "the nail that sticks up is hammered down") has taken over the repertory. I saw no rising stars here, but that may well have been the way the dancers were presented. At the very end, when they danced a few moments from Bournonville's classroom ballet "Konservatoriet" and took their final bows, they were utterly charming, and I wish I'd seen more of that side of them.
The dancers of Tokyo's New National Theatre Ballet School are trained to look like each other; it seems to be their schooling. They're good dancers, but with a generic technique. When they dance, they are as regimented as the Rockettes, although the regimentation is lyrical rather than military, and it seems to be the school's signature (they also appeared on the 2006 program). They danced a piece choreographed by the school's Director, Asami Maki, called "Triptyque," with three movements representing hope, joy and sorrow. These young dancers are obviously very hard-working and well-rehearsed, and an audience favorite.
Neither the Tokyo School nor the Julio Bocca Foundation School of the Arts are major schools, and they seemed out of place on this program. One could easily do a festival of ballet schools from around the world, and many have suggested that a program of major U.S. schools would be interesting, but if a program is billed as one that "showcases rising stars from some of the world's greatest ballet academies" then one has a right, I think, to take them literally. The New National Theatre Ballet School is, at least, a ballet school with well-trained and well-rehearsed dancers. The Bocca school danced four brief numbers, more modern dance than classical ballet, and seemed an odd choice.
I forgot to say that the Bolshoi, with its purely danced, classical piece complete with tutus and torches, got the most applause of the evening -- a full standing ovation, and I hope there will be a Protégés IV, with students from the major academies. If ballet is to survive in this century, then it's not only good for us to have a look at the schools, but for the schools to have a chance to show what they do.