"The Lesson," "Bournonville Variations," "Lost on Slow," "Napoli - Act III"
The Royal Danish Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
June 14, 2011
Copyright 2011 by Michael Popkin
If you want to see dance express pure high spirits and lift the soul, there's nothing better than the Royal Danish Ballet in "Napoli." Who needs anti-depressants when you can see a sparkling pas de six, followed by a tarantella that's rhythm itself and has all of Naples onstage beating tambourines and, if this wasn't already enough, ending with a gallop for the entire cast? On the opening night of the Danes' first visit to the city in twenty-three years, "Napoli" had New Yorkers out of their seats, winding up a program that was otherwise inconsistent.
Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson" is a major work and got a strong performance, although it was certainly an odd choice to open an evening meant to re-introduce the company to New York. Based originally on Eugene Ionesco's absurdist comedy lampooning the fascism of Vichy France during the war, in Flindt's adaptation it became a psycho-sexual drama in the vein of Strindberg's "Miss Julie" (only more twisted and violent), the story of a private ballet lesson from hell, ending with the male teacher strangling his female student. As it's a work where the grotesque school of Scandinavian expressionism (represented earlier in painting by Edward Munch) meets the psychological realism of Strindberg and later Bergman, and also strongly identified with the company historically, its choice as a kind of Danish signature piece was nonetheless justified, with the company here saying in effect: "This also is our heritage, the kind of thing we and nobody else can do."
The performance it got from Johan Kobborg as the ballet master, supported by Alexandra Lo Sardo as the student and Mette Bodtcher as the pianist, also made it well worth seeing. Kobborg, originally trained in Copenhagen, has become an international star of the first water (especially in London) and brilliantly characterized the teacher. He was at first anxious and agitated, then aggressively sadistic, and finally ecstatically frenzied during the murder. His use of every dramatic and mime resource at his disposal in creating this character - facial expressions, posture, movement and physical mannerisms - showed him a disciple of the Danish school. It was old fashioned physical acting that I've seen nowhere else these days except possibly in a more stylized form at the Comedie Francaise. The moment when he first violently threw Lo Sardo to the floor, suddenly, almost casually but with brutal force at the end of their pas with the chair, was shocking, an almost obscene moment that made her danger very immediate and real.
Bodtcher's pianist was herself nearly psychotic, not only an enabler but almost an accomplice. Lo Sardo who appears young, is a small, well proportioned and very striking dancer who portrayed the student as innocent (not provoking the murder with her vanity and fatuity as much as Ida Praetorius, the following night's student did) and showed great dance strength in the difficult and violent series of lifts immediately before the denouement, where she remained at once pliable and balletic.
It's part of the twisted quality of this work that after the murder, the student remains sensual - a bizarre item of attraction - draped over the barre. Watching all this, I couldn't help feel that Flindt was riffing on Bournonille's "Konservatoriet" (which is also set in a ballet class) in this work, turning the quaint charm and prettiness of the Danish school inside out; expressing ambivalence, if not outright resentment and hostility by implication and indirect statement rather than direct declaration. That is the culturally Danish way from Hans Christian Andersen through Peter Martins and Frank Andersen: the social cohesion of the tribe remains intact; dissent and aggression are sublimated and come out through symbols, jokes and double entendres, such as paying tribute to George Balanchine's centenary by commissioning a ballet about his life from Boris Eifman.
The company's implicit ambivalence with its Danish heritage was on full view during the weak middle portion of the program. In "Bournonville Variations" the company first posited its style. The ballet was pasted together by company director Nikolaj Hubbe and leading dancer Thomas Lund by taking a selection from the weekly cycle of the choreographer's legendary class exercises (The Bournonville "Schools"), and then adding lighting (bold colors and the use of spots); orchestration (muddy string quartet and piano effects); and finally varying the blocking by deploying dancers in ensembles instead of the masses that take part in a class. It didn't cohere as an independent composition. Both the music and dance continued to read more as academic exercises than a ballet in its own right.
Jorma Elo's "Lost on Slow" followed immediately after and is the kind of work that undermines the very classical values Bournonville epitomizes. Where classical dance's raison d'etre is the harmonious presentation of the human form moving freely and nobly in space, Elo's method (well known to New York audiences who have seen his work at both NYCB and ABT) is to posit a little classical stuff but then introduce spastic, convulsive movements that contrast with ballet's flow; or freeze the body in robot-like poses that contradict its freedom of movement; or introduce disharmony by making parts of the body (arms, neck, head) move independently of the whole - all in the name of modernity. "We can do this too," the Danes seemed to say in dancing this. Yes; but why would you really want to? Or if you do, why not find a good example of the genre?
Then there was "Napoli" restoring order: an ageless, perennial masterpiece, what the company truly does best and what no one else can do as well. It also proved quite resilient to a number of production problems on this particular night that one hopes will be limited to opening night mishaps: notably the poor cohesion of the New York City Opera orchestra (pressed into service for the week) abysmally conducted by City Opera's Henrik Vagn Christensen (Danish and partly trained at the Royal Theater, and one presumes on this account expressly tapped for the occasion) whose tempi could not have been more inappropriate and inconsistent. The dances in Act Three of "Napoli" need clear and special rhythms: the pas de six should be taken slightly fast and the tarantella correspondingly slow in order to read legibly and generate maximum excitement; Christensen in general did just the opposite but at times actually neither as he flip-flopped back and forth without warning even within dance passages.
Likewise the production looked constricted on the unfamiliar stage, which was cut very shallow to adapt the set. The tarantella would have read more clearly had there been more physical space between the alternating couples and the surrounding cast as they emerged from and disappeared back into the crowd. I have never seen the old stage in Copenhagen's Royal Theater but it is said to be a small one; the adaptation of the piece to the David H. Koch theater in any event seems somehow to have made the performance space uncomfortably shallow. It's testimony to the enduring dance power and appeal of "Napoli" that it survived problems like these more or less intact; they would have sunk many a lesser work.
Photo of the pas de six in Act Three of "Napoli" by Costin Radu, courtesy of the Royal Danish ballet.