A Folk Tale (pas de sept), The Flower Festival in Genzano (pas de deux), From Siberia to Moscow (Jockey Dance), La Sylphide (Act II), Le Conservatoire (pas de trois), Napoli (pas de six and tarantella)
Joyce Theater, New York, NY; January 13, 2015
It was a particularly frigid night outside, but you wouldn’t know it from the warmth inside the Joyce Theater as the touring Royal Danish Ballet: Principals and Soloists program began its week long run. New Yorkers have always had a warm spot in their hearts for the Danes and that fondness was evident again – not only for the dancers, but also for the style of August Bournonville and for the memory of ballet performances where athleticism was subservient to artistry.
I am not usually a fan of an evening of excerpts from larger ballets, but this program was wonderful, and viewing even familiar ones within the more intimate parameters of the Joyce, and seeing Bournonville ‘unplugged’ (that is, without sets) was revelatory. Comparisons between Bournonville and Balanchine have often been made – frequently within the context of explaining why Danish dancers have succeeded so well transitioning from one to the other, but seen stripped down to its essential choreography, similarities between nineteenth-century Bournonville and twentieth-century Balanchine are particularly evident in terms of speed, precision, clarity, non-stop action, and the sense of an overriding style. And it helps explain why so many Royal Danish Ballet dancers found a home at New York City Ballet.
That being said, Bournonville style is like no other. It is buoyant and explosive, and constantly dynamic, featuring rapid footwork and changes in direction, with the apparent boundless energy of its dancers occupying a more narrow stage focus (as if the choreography was designed to spotlight an individual dancer within a circumscribed space) than, for example, choreography by Petipa, which appears more expansive, and frequently has the dancer gobbling up the entire stage. The choreography is not punctuated by leaps and tricks and balletic acrobatics – it is designed to bring the audience into the performance by the quality of the movement as much as the talent and charisma and obvious athleticism of the dancers. And the emotional quality transmitted as an inevitable and intentional consequence of the Bournonville style is at as important as the nuts and bolts of the steps themselves. For want of a better description, it is ‘welcoming’. The dancer’s act of springing up from the floor toward the audience, arms spreading open during the course of the step, epitomizes this feeling, and the sense of joy it communicates just by the skillful execution of the choreography itself is unmatched.
Even though the Royal Danish Ballet is obviously and necessarily attempting to diversify and modernize its repertory, Bournonvile is its bread and butter, and as no one dances Balanchine as well as NYCB once again does, no one dances Bournonville as well as the Danes. This was a Bournonville clinic.
The Bournonville style tends to make the male dancers more exciting to watch than the women, and perhaps for that reason many of its male dancers have earned international reputations. But over the years frequent balletgoers know that contemporary Danish ballerinas have been outstanding as well, and have earned stellar international reputations.
When the full company visited New York in 2011, I highlighted the performance of a then still a company apprentice: Ida Praetorius. She had a sweet, child-like face, and a child-like body to match – narrow as a pencil and 99% legs, displaying inherent radiance and ‘Bambi-in-toe shoes’ innocence. Although more grown up-looking now, and a company soloist who has achieved well-deserved recognition in other critical venues, she’s still as sweet-looking and radiant as she was then (and as pencil thin), and her presence brightened the stage in all three pieces in which she appeared.
Principal dancers Gudrun Bojesen and Suzanne Grinder also showed their quality: Ms. Bojesen as The Sylph in “La Sylphide”, and Ms. Grinder prominent in “Napoli”. Ms. Bojesen had a particularly difficult assignment, since her role requires considerable acting as well as dancing prowess (more than the occasional displays of coquettishness that were built into other pieces), and was necessarily restricted in the absence of context or sets. But she delivered.
However, it was the male dancers who were dominant – but not at all dominating, or preening, or acting like bulls, and their bodies don’t display overdeveloped muscular thickness. One can quibble that tours did not always finish in perfect fifth, or that partnering may not have been as secure as I remembered, but delivering the essential style is paramount, and in this respect their performances, collectively, were exemplary.
Andreas Kaas, a member of the corps with a thick shock of hair and a youthfully vigorous appearance, was a well-suited partner to Ms. Praetorius in “The Flower Festival in Genzano” pas de deux. While his partnering will grow more secure over time, his technique is spot on and his stage appearance is particularly engaging. Their stage qualities complemented each other well. I tend to think in broad terms, and as I watched Mr. Kaas and Ms. Praetorius, I saw them as a particularly youthful and innocent-looking Romeo and Juliet.
“From Siberia to Moscow,” created in 1876, was Bournonville’s last ballet, largely lost after its final Copenhagen performance in 1904 until reconstructed for the State Ballet of Georgia in 2009. The Jockey Dance survived on a silent film, however, and was restaged much earlier and has been a staple of galas in Europe for some time. The ballet in its entirety features a celebration of a victory in war, with celebration dances (as divertissements) supposedly representing European rivers. The Jockey Dance symbolizes the English and particularly their love of horse racing. It is a rousing male duet, a competition of sorts between the two jockeys requiring split second timing, that Sebastian Haynes (another still a member of the corps) and Principal Dancer Marcin Kupinski executed flawlessly and with exquisite flourish and pseudo-aristocratic, stiff-upper-lip panache.
The performances of both Principal Dancers Gregory Dean and Ulrik Birkkjær were flat out fabulous. Mr. Birkkjær had more to do in this program (as James in “La Sylphide” Act II and in the “Le Conservatoire” pas de trois), and displayed lightning fast footwork (if you blinked you missed the entrechats, even though they went sky high), but both he and Mr. Dean, who excelled in “A Folk Tale” pas de sept and the pas de six and tarantella from “Napoli” Act III, left vivid impressions. It would be impossible for any of the current cast to erase the memories I have of the first “Napoli” Act III performance I saw, which included Arne Villumsen, Johnny Eliassen, Frank Anderson, and the particularly explosive Niels Kehlet, but last night’s cast performed exceptionally well.
Femke Slot, Kizzy Matiakis, Diana Cuni, and Caroline Baldwin (an engaging soloist I had not previously seen, who replaced the injured Amy Watson), each of whom did exemplary work, completed the cast of dancers.
Finally, when the Royal Danish Ballet was in New York three years ago and danced “La Sylphide”, I was terribly disappointed that they did not publically announce the casting for Madge. Consequently, I missed performances in that role by Sorella Englund, Lis Jeppesen, and Eva Kloborg. Here, Ms. Englund performed Madge, and did so brilliantly. Although many years have gone by, the characteristics that made her a remarkably beautiful and expressive dancer are still apparent. Her return to the New York stage is cause for particular recognition, and, together with the rest of the Danes, for celebration.
For Charlotte Kasner’s review of the same program in London, click here.