August Bournonville: "La Conservatoire" directed by Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter
Johan Kobborg: Alumnus (Les Lutins & Salute)
Royal Danish Ballet
April 30 2010
When two thirds of a programme consists of classical signature pieces like "La Conservatoire" and "Etudes" one knows that it will be an evening in a somewhat historical mood. But even though I have never formulated my expectations of Johan Kobborg as a choreographer, I was never the less gobsmacked when seeing that his take on his old company reminded more of "Graduation Ball" than any other work from the last 80 years or so.
And then company superstar Alban Lendorf was finally made principal, just turned 22 after two glorious seasons. That was expected but much of what I expected of the evening did not come true.
"The Dancing School from "La Conservatoire" is one of the most important pieces in the Bournonville heritage. Not only as documentation of Bournonville's syllabus but as an outstanding piece of choreography in itself. It includes some of Bournonville most breathtaking solos especially for the female dancers and has probably the most elegant male Bounonville role, Alexis the Ballet master. Simply annd brilliantly staged as a daily school in a Parisian dancing school. is is as Nikolaj Hübbe phased it "Bournonville aesthetics in 20 minutes".
"The Dancing School" is originally part of a longer ballet also known as "A proposal by Advertisement". The whole ballet was lost for generations but was reconstructed in 1995 and is more of a comedy piece, but "The Dancing School" is where we check the temperature of the company's Bournonville levels.
Based of the premiere performance, the patient could do better. The patient could and should do much better. With "Napoli" and "A Folk's Tale" in the repertoire as well as several more Bournonville prepared for the US Tour, the company should by now be in excellent Bournonville form, but last night's performance was somewhat tepid. I expect from the following reasons. The production has probably been under prioritized in relation to the rest of the challenging programme. For example Thomas Lund, our premier Bournonville expect and co-creator of the brilliant "Bournonville Variations" last season was not in charge of the production, probably because he was tied up with "Etudes". Instead Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter was the director. Vessel Schlüter has build her career around Bournonville and is a spoke person and strong ambassadour for the heritage. Never the less when given full responsibility for a production one often, like with her Bournonville festival production of "The Life Guards on Amager," gets the impression that she does not totally believe in the strenght of the core material, and I pick up the same vibes here. Like in "The Life Guards" she keeps adding unnecessary stuff in the case she has played long with a prologue originally tried on and abandoned several production ago by Hans Brenaa. The proloque picked up some of the original story lines from the full ballet, which proved superfluous, especially now that the full ballet is available, but Vessel Schüter goes further than Brenaa and ads not only more stock pieces in the form of unneccesary mime bits but also once the school get started cannot help herselfs to put in small character vignets, particularly around the silent violinist, played for generations by Poul Erik Hesselkilde. It is the wrong take on a Bournonville signature piece, especially at the core material is treated as something that should be done and over with in the shortest possible time. The dancing is hurried and there seems not to be much focus on getting the core steps and sequences to shine.
Castwise the ballet seemed downgraded, probably due to demand of the other works and due to the curse of the missing ballerinas that has marred Hübbe's season. A high number of ballerinas are missing due to injuries and maternity leave. It gives changes to other talents, but this programme and "La Conservatoire" in particular really misses Gudrun Bojesen, who has had some ill-timed smaller injuries making her miss several key premieres. That the loss of Bojesen, who luckily managed a smaller part in a Kobborg piece, was so heart felt in "La Conservatoire", was due to the fact we not get an inspired choice in recasting. Susanne Grinder, who had worked hard the whole season and literary carried the season was an ok but somewhat worned out Eliza, one of the two ballerinas but Kizzy Matiakis as the teacher's favorite Victorine was a great disappointment. It seems strange that Matiakis who did so well as Birthe in "A Folk's Tale" recently and also created a great character in the minor role as Giovanina in "Napoli" would fail the charming Victorine, but her Bournonville technique were stressed her torso espicially not controlled and her balances shakey.
For the key male role, the good Bournonville dancer Nikolaj Hansen showed his flair for the style, but remained a somewhat muted ballet master, certainly not a master to fear. The role needs a bit more glamour and leadership than what Hansen provides. In short the whole production looks unambitious and unnecessarily hurried. The later could partly be attributed to the choice of a conductor with no previous record inBournonville or RDB. Especially the tempo for the last male variation, danced by good Bournonville dancer, Alexander Stæger was far to fast conducted. The role as leading male student is small but pivotal. In former years it was owned by Ib Andersen who danced it as a star in the company. It ought to be danced by Alban Lendorf, but apparently he has outgrown the ballet before he got cast in it. That is one of the casualties of a fast moving career.
Instead of choreographing a work based on the Danish school as requested, RDB alumni and Royal Ballet star Johan Kobborg instead presented two separate works, whereas one of them "Les Lutins" is not really new, as it was choreographed for a Royal Ballet workshop in 2009. I will not argue this point at it was far the better of the two. The work is a battle between two virtuoso men on who can outdance each other and win the gamine ballerina and it is done with a defininive French twist.It is a definitive crowd pleaser and with a starring cast led by Alban Lendorf, who owned the stage and literary kicked Tim Matiakis' bottom and with Gudrun Bojesen in the smaller charming female role it rocks. "Les Lutins" may probably win a comptetion of being the ballet with most turns and jumps per minute. But it is done with humour and flair and could be a mainstay on summer events and outreach programmes.
The piece choreographed on RDB is set to music of the Danish Johan Strauss, H.C. Lumbye, whos works is known from several of the lighter Bournonville works, like "Life Guards at Amager", "Napoli" and "La Ventana" and bears a cunning likeness to David Lichine's "Graduation Ball" which had been danced with great success i Denmark from the early 1950ties up to mid-70ties with its casts of cadets, generals and bubbly young girls.
In this work Kobborg shows a surprising gift for light and humorous entertainment, but though well timed and well danced it does not really present much substance and I am surprised that Kobborg could not be inspired to more by his parent company and its talented dancers. I know that he may be a candidate for the Royal Ballet leadership, but seeing this work Wienna seems a more appropriate destination and this piece could win him the job of choreographing the annual New Years telecast.
That said it is good entertainment of the sorts you would include in a gala celebration but as a serious work it did not deliver.
But the real key piece of this evening was definitely Nikolaj Hübbe and Thomas Lund's restored version of Harald Lander's "Etudes". The work has been in almost continual performance in RDB since Lander's reestablishment in the early 60ties, but as Lander died in 1971, and his former wife Toni Lander, the ballerina, who is most identified with the work became ill and died in 1984, it was difficult to find a director who could assist Lander's widow Lise Lander, who was not a dancer herself, in keeping the ballet in style and shape. Lise Lander has now supported Hübbe and Lund and they have had access to Harald Lander's writings and notes.
Lander was the dominating Danish choreographer and ballet mater from the 1932 to 1951, the year of the infamous Lander scandale, which depending on which angle you favour either was a big sexual harassement case or a youth revolution. In short the dancers was tired of Lander's stronghold on the company, his Massine-inspired choreography and his treatment of staff and he was reported to the authorities for giving preferable treatment to young female dancers who in their turn gave him preferable treatment. But before the case was investigated Lander flied to Paris and his very young and very talented fourth wife Toni Lander found occupation with London Festival Ballet and later ABT. Harald Lander took up a post with The Paris Opera and all though he choreographed several later pieces, none of which bore any resembles to "Etudes" which became an European classic, performed worldwide, he does not leave a repertoire.
The reason might well be that "Etudes" is not a typical Lander ballet.It is really the brain child of its composer Knudaage Riisager who got the brilliant idea of building a ballet on Cherny's etudes for piano students, a great conceptual idea.
Lander, trained in the Bournonville tradition was clearly inspired by Ballet Russe but did not have the benefit himself of a Russian training and it shows in the work, which is attempting to pass itself as pure Russian technique. Arlene Croce described it once a smashing non-ballet.
But can Hübbe and Lund work their magic on a non-ballet, especially after treating the Danish audience to a strong suite of masterpiece choreography? What they do is to chase Lander's original version and to restore the ballet casts to 1 ballerina, two solo danseurs, a partner and a corps of 12 white ladies, 12 black ladies, 3 sylphs and 12 men. Over the years RDB have had problems in keeping the numbers both up and down. Sometimes as many as five men have shared the solos or one male star has danced both as soloist and partner. And it has sometimes been necessary to pimp the corps with solo dancers or reduce the number of dancers in certain segments. This time the math fits, primarily because the corps now includes enough dancers in the various categories. The greatest benefit is the black ladies who now are really homogeneous and if makes a greater difference than one would think.
Hübbe and Lund has removed all the varnish put on by various French and Danish directors over the years but though it is nice to see the raw Lader version, it is in parts still clear that Lander's understanding of Russian style is limited. Much is saved by the outstanding dancing by the corps and principals Amy Watson, a real ballerina, but not always a very precise ballerina, Ulrik Birkkjær in one of his best performances fully matched Alban Lendorf who was created principal on the evening.
Alban Lendorf is more than any other dancer the poster boy for the positive development over the last seasons. Carefully groomed by Hübbe he has grown rapidly to cover a large repertoire from Bournonville, Balanchine, Petipa, Neumeier, Martins and modern choreographers. He has the gift to develop the classical steps into new territory and has proven a strong dramatical force as well. He is also on the verge of being a household name. He can be the drawing card to bring in a younger audience and as well the dancer who can push the limits for classical dancing. In a way it was great that Ulrik Birkkjær totally matched him in "Etudes" because it does make a even stronger case for RDB by not being a one star company. Lendorf will probably be the face of his generation, but there will be a full generation and a very strong one.
Based on this evening we can see that RDB given the present absentees levels can have difficulties in stretching the talents to serve all works satisfactory, but there is strenghs in numbers and once again the strenghs of the corpse and a handful of very talented principals and soloist makes this an interesting and vibrant company to follow. The great news is that the further we look into the future the stronger the lineup seems to be.