August 22 2010
Prism and Chaconne
In the Golden Hour
Royal Danish Ballet
Peter Martins: Swan Lake
September 15 & 18
San Francisco Ballet was this season's international guest company in TIVOLI Gardens Concert Hall. In a way SFB is a more natural choice than many other companies. Helgi Tomasson had his professional debut in the small TIVOLI Ballet company performing pantomimes and small ballet at the old Peacock Theatre. And Helgi Tomasson was indeed also the candidate of choice to follow Henning Kronstam as ballet master in 1984 at the RDB but ended up in San Francisco instead.
Peter Martins likewise left Copenhagen for an international career and like Helgi Tomasson, following a brilliant career at NYCB, ended up as Ballet Master of a leading US company. Both have choreographed a string of works for their companies. And both have produced works for the Royal Danish Ballet, Tomassons "Sleeping Beauty" will now give way for a new production by Christopher Wheeldon, while Peter Martins "Swan Lake" gets another turn this season. But if we for a moment forgets their achievements as ballet masters in keeping these big institutions running, how do they score as choreographers?
In the two ballets I saw from Tomasson himself I saw typical ballet master choreography: a lot of roles for a lot of dancers, but little choreographic value. "Prism" consist of segments for a soloist, pair and a trio but does not really create a choreographic principle. Dancers and groups wander in and out of the stage but you cannot pin down a key moment. "Chaconne" also comes across as a weak version of a Balanchine work. The rest of the programme consisted of a Wheeldon Asiatic inspired work and a crowdpleaser by Jorma Elo. Both choreographers are well-known in Copenhagen as well.
San Francisco Ballet comes across as a likable solid company that can do a bit of everything, but does not have a company essence as such. The principals are a mix of international dancers but looking down the rooster it is positive that more alumnie from the company school are moving up though the ranks. SFB may be the oldest ballet company in the US, but it needs to develop a unique identity and not just a history to really come alive.
Choreographing by proxy
In 1995 Peter Martins created his "Swan Lake" for his parent company with a decor by famed Danish artist Per Kirkeby. In the programme Martins lists Petipa, Ivanov and Balanchine as his "contributing" choreographers, and he certainly tries to pull the Balanchine way resulting in an almost abstract, no frills version of the classic. But there is Balanchine abstract and there is Martins abstract, and the latter unfortunately means that he does not play the ace cards of the Royal Danish Ballet, the strong dramatic company skills. So instead of a version with full drama and strong character acting, we end up with a bare frame that needs strong and individual dancers to fill in the blanks. The two casts I have seen so far in this run (consisting of five casts) created vastly different impacts in the ballet,depending on what they could bring to the table.
First team out was a pairing of experienced, romantic ballerina Gudrun Bojesen with shooting star sturdy pyrotechnic Alban Lendorf, both definately not the standard type for this ballet, but because of the talents, understanding of classical style and abilities to communicate through movement they both defied the standard and created magic. Both dancers have a cunning understanding on how to phase purely and yet personally filling out the blanks in Martins' choreography. They did not overact, actually one could say they acted very little, but they were able to create a feeling and a poetry in the pas the deux that was touching.
One is used to Bojesen keeping the audience in full attendance, but it was so rewarding to see that Lendorf could be so poignant and tender and really defy the type. At the moment it looks like there is no boundary or category he cannot conquer, and it must expected that he will become solo dancer before the ink dries on his appointment to soloist. With a pairing like this it is easy to overlook the shortcomings of Martins' choreography.
Susanne Grinder and Marcin Kupinsky are safely within the standard types for "Swan Lake" and as such did a fine job going through the motions. But neither has the strong stage personality and is therefore hurt by Martins' skeletal concept. There is nothing they can lean upon and they cannot enhance it like Bojesen and Lendorf can.
Grinder is in many ways a perfect ballet dancer, pretty, lean, elegant with a strong enough technique to cover the full scale from ingenue to stellar Russian style. Classical but edgy for modern works. Her only deficit is an inability to stand out and to own signature moves. She is so much the company ideal that she seems to disappear in the company when dancing with a corps behind her.
That may be the main reason why she has not been promoted to principal status before yesterday, for she has certainly proved her versatility and has danced a broader range of starring roles than most ballerinas. And she has carried the female wing practically alone for the last six months where injuries, international assignments and maternity leave reduced the female front line to a two person defense line.
One may hope that the well earned promotion will give her the confidence to show more personality on stage and allow her to focus on key roles instead of participating in every pas de trois and small scale work. She will be a key dancer in the upcoming American tour and I hope that by then she will have folded out her full potential.
Scores of new talents
Grinder is the first Danish women to be appointed principal status in nine years (in between, American Amy Watson and Chinese Yao Wei became principals).With this promotion we now list five female principals which is still too few (especially as Gitte Lindstrøm and Yao Wei are still out, as is leading soloist Christina Michanek). But on Tueday young Hilary Gusviler will be Odette/Odile with less than four primarily minor roles in the bag. The buzz is high regarding Gusviler, a lovely long and lean dancer, who together with Alban Lendorf seems to lead a new strong generation of Danish educated dancers. For this season no foreign dancers have been hired and the aspirant class also includes a record number of dancers. (See this blog for an early review on Tuesday night).
This is important, not from a nationalistic view, but for keeping the RDB style intact. A great company's DNA is in the school and without a strong school it is difficult to maintain a company style.
Regarding the Martins production it is good that we see the younger generation in the variety of roles created in the divertissements, but the blandness of the choreography means that lots of it comes across as a waste of time. And Martins underusing the characters of the jester and von Rothbart is a capital offence considering the dramatic talent pool available. This season's cast for Rothbart includes capacities like Mads Blangstrup and Morten Eggert, left to do almost nothing.
Martins has since included his "Swan Lake" in the NYCB repertoire where it might be a better fit, but one cannot help complain of the opportunity he missed to create a "Swan Lake" that truly used the heritage of his parent company. The NYCB production will as I understand be the frame of a new motion picture alled especially as he had the company who could deliver.