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June 2011

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Juilliard Dance

Published: June 28, 2011
Category: review

A Near Century Later, Bournonville Thrives

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK – Judging from its recent, six-performance visit to the former New York State Theater, the world’s third-oldest ballet company has lost none of its famous buoyancy. Not seen in Manhattan for 23 years, the Royal Danish Ballet still jumps as if dancing on a trampoline-lined stage. Which is all to the good, for the ballet monde is watching closely with a specific question in mind: Is the dashing former New York City Ballet Star Nikolai Hübbe, at the RDB’s helm since 2008, shaking up the company known for its faithful allegiance to the conservative values of August Bournonville, the onetime artistic director (1828-1879) with whom the RDB’s choreography is so closely associated?

At the June 18 matinee performance of two signature Bournonville ballets, “La Sylphide” and the third act of “Napoli,” it appeared that Hübbe is in fact shaking things up – but just a bit. The 95-member troupe looks animated, but its core values are intact. In Hübbe and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter’s staging of “La Sylphide,” the men and women Scottish villagers still dance the same steps side-by-side, as equals. Unlike the Russian tradition, where the male dancer thrusts the ballerina above his head with one hand, the Bournonville style is marked by a minimum of partnering and lifts, a restrained vision of how the sexes interrelate. Such modesty in an age of media-enhanced sexual show-and-tell feels radical.

The provocative charm of Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” is its old-fashioned romanticism, the kind in which an atmosphere of longing, rather than physical possession, pervades. In this case, the hero (James) longs for something pure and idealistic, and so fantasizes about a spirit representing the female ideal (the Sylphide). He becomes obsessed, evading the responsibilities of reality as represented by his impending marriage to his fiancée Effie. In the end, he winds up empty-handed; his future irrevocably altered.

Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” has been continuously in the RDB’s repertoire since its 1836 premiere. It’s a good story, if not atypical: most romantic ballet librettos cast the ballerina as the unattainable object. But unlike most romantic ballet updates, where the ballerina is manipulated by her hero like a barbell with all those male-anchored lifts, or spun like a top, Hübbe and Schlüter’s’ Sylphide (vivaciously performed by Susanne Grinder) dances alone—always. She glides across the stage on pointe with arms that shoot out like sparks. When James (Marcin Kupiñski) attempts to dance with her, she looks at him as if he has committed a sin. This Sylphide wants to be longed for, not possessed.

The only character in this ballet that can possess with impunity is Madge the Witch. Danced by Mette Bødtcher with a ferocious intensity, Madge sees through James; she knows he is being untrue to his fiancé. When she reads the village girls’ palms, Madge plants herself on a stool with her legs spread wide like a lumberjack. She grabs the girls’ breasts like an animal. This Madge is the plot’s lynchpin: she is lusty, earthy, aggressive –the opposite of the Sylphide; and she is honest — the foil to James.

In the end Madge gives James a silken scarf to wrap around the Sylphide and mimes how it will cast a spell and slacken her fiercely independent will. He coils the silk around the Sylphide, believing it will make her his own. Instead, she grabs her heart, her wings fall off; she appears blind, stricken. Finally, she collapses dead in her sister Sylphs’ arms. Even in death, James can’t possess her.

The choreography clearly defines the ballet’s characters: Only the Sylphide and her sisters dance on pointe because they are spirits, creatures of the air. (In contrast the female villagers dance à terre in character shoes.) Only James can see the Sylphide bound across the stage, because she is a figment of his imagination. There are no extraneous duets or ensemble dances. The plot rolls along at a clip. At end, the Sylphide sails across the upper reaches of the stage (via invisible wires). She is truly beyond reach.

The last act of “Napoli” (1841), here restaged by Hübbe and Sorella Englund, also features ensemble folk dancing, co-opted and absorbed into ballet vocabulary, just as did the first act of “La Sylphide.” Along with the main characters Gennaro and Teresina, the ensemble performs solos, duets and sextets. The ballet compellingly demonstrates the difficulty of the Bournonville technique: the complex footwork, continuous beating of the legs in air, changing of directions, the speed! But Bournonville isn’t flamboyant. Arms are held low; the women rarely kick, and if they do you can’t see their legs under their below-the-knee length skirts. The overriding sentiment is joy, modestly expressed.

The standout in “Napoli” was Alban Lendorf, in the role of Gennaro. He not only embodies the happy ease of the Bournonville style, but he has an incredible jump. Lendorf, a Dane, is a natural – a star in the making.

Copyright © 2011, Musical America


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