The Lady of the Camellias
Royal Danish Ballet
March 30 and 31 2012
There are ballets that suit specific companies as if they were made for them. And in relation to the RDB, several work by John Neumeier shares that special quality, in fact to the degree that the works he has choreographed outside RDB has proven a better fit than the major works he has done specifically on the company. His "Romeo and Juliet" and to a lesser degree "A Midsummer Night's Dream" emphasises the RDB's extraordinary qualities as a dramatic broad-reaching company and are probably performed better here than anywhere else.
"The Lady of the Camellias" places itself effortlessly in the same tradition and looks like a work that should rightfully take it place in the standard repertoire. That might not happen for the wrongest reason. As it is finance limits the run to 14 performances this spring in costumes rented from Paris Opera Ballet, and will not return for next season. The company cannot afford it, so "The Lady" will not be a long lasting relationship, but a brief spring romance, which made this love story as sad as it can be.
Compared to other Neumeier works, "The Lady..." is almost a conventional ballet and include references to international standards like MacMillan's "Manon" and Cranko's "Onegin". The scenography and costumes is by Jürgen Rose, who also is the designer for "Onegin" and several other Neumeier ballets, which also strengthens the familarity between the works.
Musically Neumeier has chosen like Cranko not to re-use music from the famous opera on the same material.The score for "The Lady .." is likewise an orchestration of a well-known composer's piano pieces, this time Chopin, which make sense, as no composer embodies the crazed romantic lifestyle as mid-1800 century like Chopin.
Neumeier stays true to the Dumas novel. He emphasizes and over-emphasizes the references to "Manon Lescaut" almost to the point that one could conclude that Armand and Marquerite's affair is based on them attending a stage version of Manon and setting out to do likewise. What he cuts is the relationship between the bourgeois lifestyle and the demimonde, which weakens the plot, as there is no representation of the consequences of Armand's actions. When only showing the demimonde, it becomes the norm and not the niche culture. And he does not include some of cruelest aspect of the life form. We do not see the consequences like clients going broke or a prostitute falling through the net and hitting the bottom. What we get is happy valley lifestyle with only Marqurite's tubercolusis as an annoying element.
Neumeier paint a very pretty picture composed of a series of pas de deux's for the main couple interchanged with ballroom blitz and smaller ensemble numbers, some of which could and should been cut. especially some of the dances in idylic summer in the country where all the supporting cast members dance and dance and dance, while our main couple is relegated to the background in typical Jürgen Rose wicker chairs, so well known from Onegin. At that point of the ballet, they may be in for a well-earned rest from the may high powered pas de deux's.
The pas de deux series are the highlights of the ballet, but I would have wished that Neumeier choreografically have varied them more. The are all based on lots of overhead works, unfortunately often creating the image of man trapped under a crinoline. The ballet suits the RDB very well and provides works for more than the main protagonists. But some of these roles are not really fleshed out as the supporting characters from the novel really have little influence on the main characters. So a character like the happy hooker/ best friend Prudence's status as second tier ballerina is not defined by actions and motivations but on the fact of her having the second largest row of costumes.
Never the less "The Lady.." proves the perfect vehicle for the RDB, as it sets the stage for the company to do what the do incredible well, to create life and characters and to weave a unbroken tapestry of life. Even-though the two major roles are so dominant, what you leave with are the picture of one dancing and acting organism, barely containable on the stage, this time cleverly broadens into the auditorium creating a seemless integration with the audience.
The ballet are shared between two casts. The premiere was danced by Susanne Grinder and Alban Lendorf, with him in the drivers seat. Lendorf is a dancer, who breaks the standard categories and he builds an engaging and totally believable Armand. He has a natural gift for reaching out and showing emotion, not often found with a dancer with his virtuoso level.
Susanne Grinder has the perfect look for Marguerite, translucent and villowy, and she is stronger dramatically than she has ever been. But her Marquerite is too far gone from the start. She is too sick already in the opening scene, so she travels too short a distance to the final and she is also shortening her development curve towards the tragic heroine final destiny. Susanne Grinder has never forced herself on the audience, so not only does she disappear when in the background at times, she leaves the initiative to Lendorf which led to the result that it become more his story than hers.
The balance is reset in the second cast, where Gudrun Bojesen presents a deeply personal and original take on Marguerite. In the beginning she is very much the professional business women and all though she is intrigued by Armand, she does not surrender totally before well into the ballet. She peels of layer after layer in her transformation and gets deeper and deeper, not only on an emotional level, but also on the exestential road toward her lonely death. Dancing wise she escapes the transportation trap by being more active in the pas de deux's creating a picture of not being being lifted but flying. She maybe downplaying the disease making a stronger case for dying for love rather than succumbing to a disease. With this outstanding and deeply touching performance she cements her well earned status as our prima ballerina. And she is the prima for the all right reasons. Her ability to communicate with the audience, her musicality that makes even the most awkward steps look beautiful and poignant and her ability to invest herself in every challenge and in this case and others managed to make a ballet better than what is really is.
Unfortunately Grinder, who has all the key ingredients to be a real ballerina, cannot deliver the same level of magic, but in this case, she dies trying. But she should try taking a bigger responsibility and gain equal custody of the work with Alban Lendorf. It may not make her a performer on Bojesen's level but it will make the performance and her future career much more interesting.
Ulrik Birkkjær, Bojesen's Armand, is also scoring a career best in this ballet. Birkkjær is blessed with a face, that should make a dramatic dancer, but so far careerwise he has struggled building believable characters and controlling his effects. Yesterday he presented a well controlled, touching Armand who's strong partnering and support formed the base for Bojesen's great achievement. It was good to see it all coming together for him in a performance that may break his image as the dancer overrun by Alban Lendorf's metoric rise. As Armand, Birkkjær fully matches Lendorf's achievements while taking the supportive approach and making his ballerina shine.
Neumeier has created a myriad of supporting roles, including a second set of tragic lovers, Manon and DeGrieux, who mirrors the key couple. One first night it allowed the audience the pleasure of revisiting Mads Blangstrup's DeGrieux, which he has danced so well in McMillan's "Manon". Compared to the film of "The Lady.." Blangstrup do take another route by being more DeGrieux than the character of the hammy actor and thereby bringing his great gift for believable tragedy into the mix ,creating a strong point. His alternate Gregory Dean stays more on canon and therefore make a lesser impression. The part of Manon is shared by J'aime Crandall, who gets the desperation right and Lena Maria Gruber, who succeed with the innocent victim part f the character.
As the pivotal part of Armand's father Nikolaj Hübbe builds a stronger impression, which probably is based on the fact that with a dominant Armand, his relationship with his father gets more poignant. Jean Lucien Massot creates a softer, more tragic figure, but as the key focus is more on Marguerite he has less focus.
Hilary Guswiler makes an intriguing portrait of the vivasious up-comer Olympia, who managed to seduce the bitter Armand. Obviously the impact benefits from the striking stage appeal of the tall willowy and lovely Ms. Guswiler, but it will be totally wrong to attribute the effect to appearances alone. Guswiler's impact is much more the result of her work with the material, her infusement of energy and her understanding of the role and her gift for timing. Her Olympia is a player, who knows the game and goes for the price. Guswiler has been labeled the next big thing for a couple of seasons now and is also the poster girl for this seasons marketing effort. It is time that she gets the roles her talent demands.
Her alternate Shelby Elsbree shows good timing, but is not a threat for Marguerite either on the personal or professional lewel.
Do not throw gold away
With "The Lady.." Nikolaj Hübbe once more shows his talent for choosing the right ballets for the company, a gift, that is crucial in times, where finances are so tight that there is literary now space for mistakes. It is therefore bitter that financial limitations hinders that this ballet can be a part of the standard repertoire in Copenhagen.
The list of good dramatic ballet are not that long and "The Lady.." is a work that do appeal, not only to the balletomanes but also have great reach out qualities. As it is the political agenda that the Royal Theatre should assure a broader audience base, it defies logic to throw away a production that managed to combine quality and broad appeal so well. May this not be the last time I can write on this production.
See a promotional video here starring Gudrun Bojesen and Ulrik Birkkjær
1. Gudrun Bojesen as Marguerite
2. Corps de ballet
3 & 5. Alban Lendorf and Susanne Grinder as Armand and Marguerite
4. Amy Watson as Prudence
6. Gudrun Bojesen and Ulrik Birkkjær as Marguerite and Armand
7. Alban Lendorf and Nikolaj Hübbe as Armand and his father
8. Gudrun Bojesen Hilary Guswiler and Ulrik Birkkjær as Marguerite, Olympia and Armand
9. Sebastian Kloborg and Nikolaj Hübbe as the count and Amand's father.