The Royal Danish Ballet
November 10, 2009
Nikolaj Hübbe is presenting his own version of Napoli. The decor is updated to a Fellini inspired 1950s environment. He has choreographed a new second act to new music and he has thrown out religion from the piece. The result is a production which is strong where the original is weak and weak where it used to be strong.
Nikolaj Hübbe has a great appreciation for August Bournonville as a choreographer, He often cites the divertissement from "La Sylphide" as the finest ballet divertissement ever and his appreciation was visible when he at a recent performance presented the ballabile from "Napoli" and the reel from "La Sylphide" as independent dancing numbers. He is absolutely right. Bournonville is an outstanding choreographer.
However as this production of "Napoli" demonstrates and his earlier successful production of "La Sylphide" hinted, Hübbe has a major problem with the philosophical and religious foundation of August Bournonville's ballets. Removing the religious motives from "Napoli" does more than removing a few ave marias, It destroys the dramatic base of the ballet and reduces "Napoli" to an incoherent story with no dramatic core or reason. Much more than the staging in 1950s style, this is what minimize the impact of this production.
August Bournonville was a creator of romantic ballets, but he was not a romantic himself. He used the media of the romantic ballets to good storytelling and to emphasize his own beliefs in democracy, humanity and christianity. Works like "A Folktale" and "Napoli" uses Christian motives and the protagonists Hilda and Gennaro are defined by their christian action in environments which are heathen or materialistic.
Like Bournonville, Nikolaj Hübbe is also a man of strong convictions and he published his agnostic views on the introduction performance to his production of "Napoli" set in a Fellini imsprired 1950s decor and frame. In his own words, he wanted to tone down the religion and make love the dominant factor. At that point I did not quite understood how this would diminish the work. I too was more interested in experiencing how the move to a newer time frame would influence the impact of a well tested masterpiece, and based on the appetizer it looked like it could work. The costumes looked nice and the new music for Act two was pleasing.
Hübbe, here in collaboration with Sorella Englund and dramaturgist Camilla Hübbe, is not the first to modernize Bournonville or Napoli. Choreographer Tim Rushton made his own version a few years ago and Elsa Marianne von Rosen and Alan Fredericia produced a less pretty and more muddy production decades ago and Thomas Lund has choreographed a short ballet based on act 2.
Hübbe's great idea is to force a connection with the Fellini universe as known from early Fellini film. Hübbe argues that his production will make Teresina into a sassy sexy girl and also imply an erotic attraction between her and Golfo. I would argue that Teresina has always been a sexy and sassy girl and the Golfo attraction have been evident at least from the days when Margot Lander was Teresina. Likewise Lloyd Riggins once described the entree of the great Danish Gennaro Arne Villumsen as creating the impression that the entered the stage driving a motorbike, whereas he in realty jump sover a pile of fish. In short what Hübbe wants to create is already in the ballet.
Change at Hamburg
How does the time travel work? Quite frankly, in the first minutes of the production I did not feel I was in Naples in any specific time period. I felt more like I was in Hamburg or rather in Neumeierland. The decor and the action mimics the opening of Neumeier's "Romeo and Juliet", where young men return from interludes with prostitutes while a religious parade takes place. Even the Madonna picture on a high wall is placed exactly on the same stop where the patron saint is placed in Neumeier's ballet. A few minutes later Gennaro mimics one of Romeo's signature moves and glides down the wall. There is no doubt that "Romeo and Juliet" is loved as much by the dancers as by the audience, but please must it be quoted so much?
Hübbe has also borrows another detail from Neumeier in trying to turn corps to characters, so the number of corps members are diminished. For example the same six girls are Teresina's friends and dance the ballabile and although there is a group of dashing sailors on stage it is Gennaro's friends who dance the balabile. I can understand these decisions, but dancing the ballabile in shorts and tank tops does not really become the outstanding choreography and the ballabile also looked somewhat boxed in by the new decor that takes up a significant amount of room.
Hübbe and Englund have added a few more characters, but neither has really any thing to add. Eva Kloborg and Jette Buchwald is cast as two feisty mature donnas, but all they do is overshadow Teresina's mother Veronica, who is rather demure in this production.
Characters on the Strada
Gitte Lindstrøm, a veteran Teresina and a recent hit as Anita in West Side Story, has no problem creating the sexy and sassy Teresina. Hübbe has chosen very young and soft dancers (Ulrik Birkkjær and Alexander Stæger) for Gennaro, who is portrayed younger and more naive than the usual hunky approach to the part. On the character side, Morten Eggert as dashing lemonade seller Peppo is the strong card in act one supported by Tim Matiakis as the pasta seller. The role as the street singer is done in drag by Poul Erik Hesselkilde, but that number does not seem to be timed well and the controversy with marionette play Mogens Boesen is a turkey that will not fold.
I suppose the best thing you can say about act one is that the time change does not really matter. But what limits the work is the removal of the religious content. Although Hübbe more or less dispenses with the representative of religion, Fra Ambrosio, he has not adjusted the plot to do without the monk. Instead the dancers do what they used to do. For instance the scene where Gennaro distributes the fishes, he still makes a portion for the church and when, as usual, he is asked why he had made a special portion, he has no answer, whereas in the original he would point at the Madonna and everybody would make the sign of the cross. In that scene Bournonville shows the tradesmen as hypocrites, but here we are left with an awkward pause. But Hübbe cannot totally dispense with the good friar. Instead he has created a figure called the Wanderer who performs the functions normally carried out by the friar, blesses the amulet and helps Gennoro through the crisis when Teresina is supposed drowned. It is Gudrun Bojesen who has to struggle with this impossible character, but as the rest of the evening showed, the removal of the Christian context harms more than the intro act.
Blue ocean strategy
In Napoli act two the plot moved to the famed Blue Grotto near Naples where the Sea King Golfo reigns and where the drowning Teresina is brought by his corps of water fairies, najades. This has always been the problematic part of Napoli, and is often referred to as the Brønnum Act, as patrons often escaped to the nearby restaurant, Brønnum, only to return to enjoy the lively Third Act. Since Harald Lander several directors have messed with the choreography trying to make the act work better, but all have kept the original music. Hübbe is more radical and has ordered new music and a decor that really emphasizes that we are under water. Although he has issues with the Christian faith he obviously has no problem with a mythical sea king living in an alternative universe, so Golfo, danced superbly by Jean Lucien Massot, is a diabolic sea monster. The idea to make a classic cinema noir villain in the 50s style has obviously not attracted Hübbe.
But this is where Hübbe presents his best work in the dances for Golfo, Teresina and the Naiades and where one gets the notion that he could make the move from director to choreographer. However, the fatal decision to abolish the Christian content also banishes the finale, where Gennaro and Teresina reunite (in the original when she remembers the Church's bells and with the christian amulet diminishes the heathen power of Golfo and saves Gennaro's life). Instead the act just fizzles out and Teresina and Gennaro leave without Golfo's treasures.
Back to the past
If the first act took us to Fellini, the second to a futuristic vision of the ocean, the third act is where Hübbe is trying to play it safe and humor the traditionalists. He uses little more than five minutes for a rushed and severely amputated opening to launch directly into an almost traditional rendering of the famous dance suite. Save the character dancers all dancers are back in their traditional Napoli gear and even Teresina and Gennaro, who in the intro wear respectively a 50s summer dress and jeans and leather jacket, show up after the pas the six and solo (where they do not dance) in traditional Napoli costumes to dance an inter-poled pas de deux.
I have some difficulty in believing that Hübbe has run out of guts and am more inclined to believe that he had run out of time and ideas to crack the final challenge of having his cake and eating it. Everything in this act destroys whatever he has managed to build up in the first two acts. The dancers in the pas de six are not characters, but dancers. They have not been represented in the first act, nor is there any explanation for a group of eight dancers dressed severely out of period. If he wanted to keep the original style costumes, why not simply claim the group to be the Inge Sand Group who toured the world with Bournonville in the fifties? A walk through act one with suitcases and a poster would have made the connection.
As it was, the dances failed to bring the house down, not because it was badly danced, but probably the audience was confused. The final moment of the ballet unfortunately once more highlighted the main problem that when you change something it influences other things as well, so in the finale the four divertissement girls entered the stage with large flower offering that the had to place on the floor as there was no wagon with a happy couple on to celebrate. Instead the leading couple was pushed in on a scooter, Gennaro, now attired with the leather jacket over his divertissement costume -- a telling picture of the production's trouble to renew Napoli and not succeeding 100%.
My conclusion is that Hübbe either should have stayed within the tradition or have followed through on his radical approach and pushed the classic even further. As it was it demonstrated the problems in updating and it also showed that trying to remove a fundamental piece of a work is fatal. The good thing is that the evening showed that Hübbe may have potential as a dramatic choreographer, but he will need to find a subject whose morality he can accept.
I will not call the production a 100% failure because it did show that Bournonville is strong enough to be tampered with and it may help to lighten up the notions of what you can do or not do with Bournonville. However, I would not recommend the RDB to tour this ballet, especially before it has been given a serious work over and found some coherence between it various segments.
The evening concluded when 24 year old Ulrik Birkkjær was appointed principal dancer. Birkkjær has, more than any dancer, filled the gap in the male repertoire as Romeo, Albrecht and Gennaro as well as several other ballets. He is technically strong and has been in constant development under Hübbe's tutoring.
copyright 2009 by Eva Kistrup
1. Morten Eggert, Eva Kloborg, Tim Matiakis, Jette Buchwald and Christina Michaanek in Act three.
2 -3. Gitte Lindstrøm and Ulrik Birkkjær
4. Thomas Lund (Second casts street singer)
5. Act two
6. Gitte Lindstrøm and Ulrik Birkkjær
7. Ulrik Birkkjær celebration his appointment to principal dancer in a time divided costume.
Photo Copyright: Royal Danish Ballet