It was probably lost on most of the audience at the opening performance of The Royal Danish Ballet just how difficult Bournonville conversation is for the feet to speak. When, in the Bournonville Variations – a collection of dances for men based on the famous Bournonville syllabus – a dancer descended into a slow grand plie in first position and then executed a simple pirouette while rising out of that plie, the audience probably didn't realize just how un-simple that exercise was. The most accomplished dancers can complete it without a bobble perhaps 75% of the time. (Haglund, <.001% of the time.) So, it's a high-risk element to include in choreography and doesn't really win many extra points even when done exceedingly well. The same holds true for the tortuous rond de jambe en l'air performed while rotating on the supporting leg.
The idea, arrangement, and staging of Bournonville Variations was credited to Thomas Lund and Artistic Director Nikolaj Hubbe and was intended to acquaint the audience with the steps used in training the male dancer with the technique required to succeed in Bournonville's famous ballets. Bournonville devised a legendary set of progressive classes for each day of the week – and one can occasionally see a ballet student wandering around the Upper West Side in a Bournonville red tee shirt that says, "I survived Friday's class." It's meaningful, it really is. Another famous Danish choreographer, Harald Lander, devised his well-known ballet Etudes around the same training exercise concept but incorporated women into his stunning piece as well as more dramatic lighting and classical costumes.
The dancers performed all of the choreography reasonably well. There were some extra hops while closing en dedans pirouettes to rather opened fifth positions and occasional musical uniformity issues among the men but it was a pleasure to be reminded of how the technical constitution of a Bournonville specialist is developed, and then at the end of the evening's program, see it all fully in force during Act III of Bournonville's festive Napoli.
Hubbe and Sorella Englund did a little restaging and updating of Napoli with the idea of hopefully attracting a new audience. That whole, popular concept of modernizing classical works to attract audiences unfamiliar with ballet is so overrated and an example of the failure to understand marketing. The only thing one has to do to get people to a bonafide fabulous classical production is to modernize the marketing, not modernize the production.
Hubbe and Englund didn't harm Napoli with the addition of cigarettes hanging out of the locals' mouths or the sudden intrusion of a motorbike during the finale - but in neither instance did the changes enhance the production, and it is doubtful whether the use of cigarettes and a motorbike would ever be a deal-maker for someone to go to the ballet for the first time.
The dancing, on the other hand, was out-of-this-world wonderful – everything one expects to see from the Danes in Napoli. The women have soft, pliable, expressive feet. Quiet feet. The men's are just as articulate and execute their battarie effortlessly. The most treasured aspects of the Bournonville artistry are the calm and collected upper bodies, the soft curve of the arms, wrists, and hands, and the joy in the faces of the dancers while their feet and legs – no other way to say it – go crazy. No need for extreme extensions or gross gymnastic stunts by these folks. Their "basics" are, quite simply, beautiful enough. Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer as Tersina and Gennaro were superb as the happy couple leading the Tarantella.
The evening's program included Jorma Elo's Lost on Slow, a bad expenditure of time, effort and money. The mechanical-like movements of the women in tutus and the men in pants was more of the same boring, music video inspired, gobbledygook that Elo has been producing for years.
The opener on the program was a fascinating performance of Flemming Flindt's classic The Lesson. Johan Kobborg was especially convincing as the creepy ballet master who molests (or just considers molesting) and murders his young female student, portrayed by Alexandra Lo Sardo. Mette Bodtche gave a persuasive performance of the pianist who admonishes the ballet master for his crimes, but then accepts them and helps him cover them up. At the conclusion of the ballet, a male voice in an upper ring of the theater began bellowing loudly, and it was hard to ascertain whether it was some type of protest or pain but it surely didn't sound like any expression of appreciation that Haglund has heard in a theater. It just added to the overall creepiness of this controversial piece of dance theater.
This was the first time that Haglund has seen the Danes since the "Stars of the Royal Danish Ballet" with Flemming Flint descended on Cincinnati more than a half century ago. It seems he's been missing quite a lot. The company is outstanding and dances with a freshness and energy that re-invigorates the Bournonville choreography. If you don't believe Haglund, ask Kevin McKenzie or Martine van Hamel, both of whom were there last night.
Haglund bestows this lovely leather and lace Prada peep-toed Pump Bump Award on Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer for their joyous presentation of Napoli, Act III.