The Royal Danish Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 10 and 11 (evening), 2011
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2011 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Early reports of Nikolaj Hübbe and Sorella Englund’s restaging of Bournonville’s “Napoli,” was that it would be completely updated, set in a steamier, saltier, more contemporary Naples. They could not have dreamed how steamy and salty this week’s run in Washington would be. The heat wave crested at over 100 degrees, with humidity to match, and the dancers deserve a lot of credit for just getting to the theater, much less dancing. The first performance of the New “Napoli” on Friday was a bit slack, but on Saturday night, the third act, led by the company’s new young star, Alban Lendorf, was danced at full force. Not only the pas de six, but the tarantella brought down the house, and the finale was danced with the sweet charm that has made this company so beloved.
For those who haven’t seen “Napoli” 700 times, here’s a bit of background. August Bournonville choreographed the ballet in 1842 after a trip to “Naples” (he’d insulted the King from the stage and was banned from Denmark for a time). It was the love story of the fisherman, Gennaro, and his girlfriend, Teresina, but it was also the story of a city, a danced vacation home movie, if you will, and the prime example we had of a 19th century local color ballet. The ballet was created a year after “Giselle,” at the height of ballet’s Romantic movement, and Bournonville had a scene in which Teresina falls into the clutches of a sea monster, who lives with his naiads in the Blue Grotto (major tourist attraction for non-naiads, even back then) and is enchanted by Golfo, said sea monster, and changed into a naiad. Gennaro finds her, and she returns to human form not through his love, but through her faith, which cued her sense of self. Bournonville used Catholicism in “Napoli” as part of the local color (he’d noted the religious processions, the public shrines, the very active presence of priests, et cetera, and included them in his ballet, and those scenes must have been electric in the sober, Lutheran Copenhagen of that time), but, more important, as in “A Folk Tale,” it was a metaphor for the human as opposed to the demoic, the supernatural. Poor man. If he’d only known what was in store, he would have chosen another metaphor.
The current production has been updated to the 1950s, the producers citing Fellini’s films from that period as an inspiration. The second act is completely new – new music and new choreography – and the story has been considerably changed. The priests, shrines, even a funeral, are still there (and very subtly though clearly shown in a way that totally suits the change in time) but the idea that Teresina’s faith would save her was offensive to Hübbe, who gave several interviews saying he’s an atheist and couldn’t stage the original story. One can admire Hübbe’s honesty, and it was a great way to be provocative and get attention for a new production, but good Lord. (Sorry) Taking God/religion out of “Napoli” because you’re an atheist is like taking the Minotaur out of Martha Graham’s “Errand into the Maze” because you don’t like animals. It changes not just the plot, but also the ballet’s major point and it seems very narrow-minded. If Bournonville’s ballets based on Norse mythology had survived past 1929, would a pious Christian refuse to stage them because it would be wrong to stage a pagan work? Or get away with it if he tried?
That aside, the change in time doesn’t add anything to the ballet, but it doesn’t subtract anything either. Somehow, "Napoli" remains "Napoli," although a much less bustling city, full of rich characters. the The merchants and shoppers of Bournonville’s world have been replaced by loose women, policemen taking bribes, a new character unnamed in the program (a drunken hairdresser, brilliantly danced by Jette Buchwald; watching her not take another drink was to see Danish miming at its finest). Unfortunately, several characters, including the drunken hairdresser, were not creditd in the program. Even the Street Singer (now a man in drag, deftly danced by Thomas Lund) is not listed. The major characters from long ago are still there. Teresina’s mother (Mette Bødtcher) is now glamorous, undoubtedly with boyfriends of her own, and not overly worried about her daughter’s choice of husband. Peppo and Giacomo, the two unsuitable suitors, don’t have much of a presence in this production, and Peppo’s big mime scene, now revised to try to spread gossip that Gennaro is a member of the Mafia rather than in league with the Devil, uses a newspaper turned to the word “Mafia” to make its point. There weren’t as many people on stage as there were in earlier productions. There’s still a lot going on, certainly enough to engage the eye, but I wondered if this was a change, or a touring necessity.
The Teresina on both nights I saw was Amy Watson, an American dancer who has been with the company for about a decade. She was a real spitfire in the first act, in keeping with the ballet’s atmosphere, and quite beautiful in the new second act’s underwater ballet. Teresina and Gennaro don’t dance in the solos in this production’s last act, but are given a new, rather watery pas de deux, and although Watson’s solo did not show her at her best, she danced the tarantella with true Danish-Italian spirit. Her Gennaro opening night was Alexander Stæger, bland in the mime scenes, but an excellent dancer. (Gennaro’s solo in the new duet was quite fine. Is it new choreography, or a dance by Bournonville or Hans Beck from earlier days?) Alban Lendorf was Saturday’s Gennaro, and his miming was promising, though not as sharp as his dancing. Lendorf had led the first act’s ballabile Friday, swapping roles with Stæger, who danced it Saturday, and both danced brilliantly, with clean landings and the flashing entrechats for which the Danish men are justly famous.
The second act of “Napoli” has been a problem for a long time. Much of the audience, especially the men, apparently, did not like the classical dancing (it wasn’t bad choreography; it was just too much dancing, back in a time when classical dancing was not popular to an audience primarily interested in theater) and so would leave during that act and grab a beer. During Harald Lander’s directorship in the 1930s he took out the classical dances for the naiads, but left in the mime. Subsequent productions had new corps dances, none of them distinguished enough to keep.
The current production’s second act, set to specially composed gentle, almost tinkly music by Louise Alenius, has a beautiful beginning, with Teresina seeming to fall, ever so gently, from the top of the house to the stage, as though she were falling through the water (shown by a light show as well as the designs). The naiads dances are simple, and give a sense of dancing through water. What happens during the act dramatically, however, is really not clear. Golfo the sea demon (in a very strong performance by Jean Lucien Massot) dances with Teresina. The program note says that he is Death, but this is not obvious on stage. The program note also tells us that Teresina is tempted by death. (“Though Golfo tries to destroy Gennaro, the young fisherman’s love is so strong that even Death must obey Gennaro’s will. Golfo slowly retreats to the sound of Gennaro’s love serenade, and Teresina comes to her senses and chooses love and life.”) That sounds beautiful, but there is nothing in the ballet up to that point to make it seem as though Teresina, a life loving girl if ever there was one in this production, would be tempted by death. If you don’t read the program notes, it seems as though Gennaro rolls on from the back of the stage, struggles with Golfo, gives Teresina a necklace, and they leave.
Back on land, Teresina’s friends are having a funeral for her when the two lovers return, are welcomed back, and get married. Bournonville’s pas de six and tarantella, and the solos Hans Beck added long ago (in a seamless interpolation) are still there. The solos, danced in the traditional costumes, were danced with brio. The company performs “Napoli” frequently, and even with all the cast changes and debuts made necessary by injuries, there were enough good dancers to fill the roles. I was glad to see Gudrun Bojesen (a beautiful Sylph) again, and also liked Julian Roman, a dancer new to me, and Nicolai Hansen in the solos.
Will this production replace the original “Napoli”? I have to say I hope not, and there were reports from Copenhagen shortly after the ballet's premiere that this was intended to make people see "Napoli" with new eyes, but not replace the older production permanently. I hope the dancers and the audience will be refreshed by the change, and the experiment, but I think the dancers need to come to grips with the ballet’s mime – the original mime – which was not well done here, and I miss ballet’s most famous onstage costume change, when Teresina’s dress was changed twice by magic (and trap doors). I hope that part of the tradition will be renewed. For now, I’m glad to have seen the company, and will long remember that final tarantella.