George Balanchine: Serenade
Jerome Robbins: The Cage
Mikhail Fokin: The Dying Swan
Sir Frederick Ashton:
Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan
Kim Brandstrup: Eid♀lon
Danseur Noble M/K
A Suite of Dances
Royal Danish Ballet
May June 2010
Nikolaj Hübbe finished his second season with a double bill consisting of a night focusing on the ladies and one on the gentlemen. The result is a flood of good ballets and outstanding dancing, mixed with a few less successful efforts, including the new Brandstrup ballet, danced in a male and female variation. The surprise winner is a suite of Bournonville etudes, presented in an imaginary and breathtaking production by Nikolaj Hübbe and Thomas Lund.
On paper it looks like a great idea. Separate the company and let the sexes battle with separate programs. And ask a leading Danish choreographer to create a new work that can be danced by both the male and female teams. But when bringing the idea into reality there is a price to pay. Firstly one has to sacrifice the best selling argument for ballet: the pas de deux. Secondly the repertoire for all women/all men ballets are limited. On the women's night Hübbe has to cheat a bit by including "The Cage" and "Serenade" which includes a few men.
But asking a choreographer to create a ballet that will function as well for men as for women is a tall order, because it seriously limits the choreographer's options stepwise. It is almost a no-win situation. I am not certain whether Kim Brandstrup' s Eidolon could have been a better ballet if not forced into this concept, but it would likely have been less bland. It is a parallel to the experience with Tim Rushton's "Cinderella" last season, where the contest was a merger between the classical Royal dancers and Rushton's company. It became a case of lowest common denominator. The steps that can be done by modern and classical dancers alike are few, and likewise with male and female dancers. The men get robbed of their forceful jumps and the females of not only the pointe work but also the flexibility. And in this case it is the women who lose the most. A contributing factor could be that while the men's version is cast from the top, the women are cast from the middle level. Brandstrup uses some of his trademarks, like the forced perspective dividing the stage, and the decor is breathtaking, if one can overlook the fact that almost half of the stage is out of balance. The frame is a ballet studio with a large mirror, and there is the expected references to "Afternoon of a Faun", "Etudes" and maybe the Hans Christian Andersen tale " The shadow", but it does not really come together in an interesting way.
A fresh look at Bournonville
It is well-known that the Bournonville curriculum preserved in the six daily school is a treasure chest, but several try-outs over the years to bring the material to a theatrical format have failed and left the audience with the experience of watching class on stage.
Nikolaj Hübbe is a representative for a very common course of dancers and directors who want to give Bournonville a kick into the present, illustrated by his updated "Napoli" in Fellini decor which was presented last year with a mixed reception. Here together with the great Bournonville dancer Thomas Lund they managed not only to show the treasures but to create a theatrically appealing frame around the steps that makes it seem temporary and respectful simultaneously.
The cast consists of twelve men, who arrive in boots and overcoats to transfer themselves into four scots, four spaniards and four "le conservatorie" dancers., the later four doing the duty of the corps. The two other groups led each by a soloist, Alban Lendorf for the scots and Ulrik Birkkjær for the spaniards, take care of the more advanced choreography starting with Lendorf and Alexander Stæger leading the famed and feared "Pas de Vestale", an exhibition of adagio in the extreme. Later the two appear in kilts and show their allegro skills.
The selections are carefully chosen and presented imaginary-like when a series of intricate footwork is done with the light low and a spot of the feetsof the dancers simultaneously with the ever present Lendorf doing tours en air in a corner of the stage. Inspiration clearly comes from "Etudes" but it is so cleverly crafted and staged to build a poetic yet modern take on the heritage. This oeuvre should be part of the standard repertoire and toured. This is how Bournonville can be reviewed and presented to new audiences.
The rest of the men's program consisted of José Limón's indian tribute "Unsung," Peter Martins' "les Gentilhommes," and Jerome Robbins' "Suite of Dances" created for Mikhail Baryshnikov. I suppose if Balanchine had made an all male ballet that would have been chosen instead of these three rather weak works. Especially "Les Gentilhommes" fades in comparison with the Bournonville piece, and it only held up by the masterful dancing of Alban Lendorf who takes the lead in three of the five ballets and is rewarded with a promotion to soloist. In his motivation Hübbe states that Lendorf has an extraordinary understanding of classical ballet and a highly developed skill set. In addition he has a talent for comedy and acting as well. He is well on the way to a very big career, but the best thing is that the evening shows that although the company is still hard hit by injuries to the leading solo dancers, there is a new and strong generation forming. Dancers like Alexander Stæger and Gregory Dean are candidates for soloist appointments, and if Lendorf continues to develop with lightning speed he would soon become a principal. As it is, he is the dominant figure in this production and is actually missed in the two ballets "Unsung" and "Suite" he is not in.
"Unsung" looks dated and "Suite...." is cast with skilled dancers: Nehemiah Kish, who is set to be joining British Royal Ballet and Tim Matiakis, who joined RDB from Royal Ballet a few seasons back, but neither has the stage personality to really fill out this rather sketchy work.
I would have preferred that one of these ballets were substituted with with "Earth" created for he RDB a few years back and a stunning modern work for a male ensemble. It will appear next year, but it would have given the male program a strong dose of testosterone and rhythm.
For the ladies program Balanchine proved more helpful and provided "Serenade".
The ballet has a long tradition in Denmark, but it has usually been the soloists compensating for the corps. This time around it is the corps who is the revelation. Strong, precise and using all the extra space of the greater Opera stage. This spring the company is missing a lot of the female principals for various reasons. In fact only Amy Watson and Caroline Cavallo (who had only danced snippets this year) are the only ones performing at present and with soloists Tina Højlund and Christina Michanek missing as well, the line up is thin for an enterprise like this. But with young newcomer Hilary Gusviler (a Danish girl with an international name) and veteran Diana Cuni in second cast the balance was beautifully restored.
For a choreographer so well suited to the Royal Danish Ballet, Jerome Robbins has been almost absent from the repertoire for decades. One must certainly credit Hübbe for in his first seasons to correct the oversight by the former ballet masters of the fifties and sixties. This program include a strong revival of "The Cage". It may be a dated ballet, but it suits the RDB perfectly and both teams make a strong case. Alessandra Lo Sardo in second cast once again showed her potential.
The program also includes " The Dying Swan" and Ashton's Isadora Duncan ballet, staged by Lynn Seymour. The first solo is almost impossible to perform in a pure manner and second one seemed twisted in a focus on a mentally unstable Isadora rather than a groundbreaking dancer. The dancers Susanne Grinder, Caroline Cavallo, Maria Bernholdt and Amy Watson clearly invest themselves in the parts but as neither solo really makes a case for itself, this seems an unnecessary addition to the otherwise fine program.
Getting most right
With the two programs Hübbe shows his talent to chose the right challenges for his dancers, but his choice of format also limits the choices available. One must also conclude that the Brandstrup ballet was a missed opportunity, but whether the blame was the format or the lack of a good concept from the choreographer is an open question. I think one must conclude that the best road to getting good ballets created for the company is by finding a house choreographer who can commit to working with the company over a longer period.
Photos Copyright The Royal Theatre.