Dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet
Ted Shawn Theater
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Becket, MA
July 12, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter

In case it wasn’t clear that a full generation has passed since a contingent from the Royal Danish Ballet last performed at Jacob’s Pillow (1986), on this occasion the group’s co-leader is Sebastian Kloborg, who was born in that year. The generational aspect is further confirmed by the fact that he is the son of RDB director Frank Andersen (who frequently led similar groups in the 1970s and 1980s) and veteran leading ballerina Eva Kloborg. The Danes have had a close connection with the Pillow since the 1950s, so it is fitting that the long-overdue return of RDB dancers is part of the Festival’s 75th anniversary festivities.

Aside from principal dancers — and exemplary Bournonville stylists — Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund (last seen in these parts performing as guests with New York City Ballet in January 2004), and soloist Diana Cuni, seen in leading roles when the RDB performed at the Kennedy Center that same month, this ensemble of 12 showcased some of the company’s most recent recruits, who have been in the company for four years or less.

The inevitable question is: how are they dancing the choreography of August Bournonville these days? The program, which Kloborg and his fellow organizer and dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer, offered a generous sampling of the great choreographer’s celebrated works, framing two contemporary pieces and a fascinating Harald Lander pas de deux. Overall, there was a lack of full-bodied buoyancy in the women’s dancing; one sensed they understood, conceptually, how Bournonville should be danced, but had not yet had enough experience to inhabit it completely. Upper bodies seemed stiff and arms opened with precision but without the enveloping warmth that makes Bournonville choreography so unique and engaging.

The missing aspect was suddenly made clear when the three lead (and in this case, only) sylphs opened the excerpt from the second act of “La Sylphide.” Louise Østergaard, on stage left, radiated a captivating warmth, and her every gesture conjured the magical woodland that was left to our imaginations (a tree stump provided the sole bit of scenery). From her first moment on stage, one felt that Østergaard (who joined the company in 2004) understands Bournonville dancing, from the inside out. Without ever looking precious or stilted, she shaped her steps with the appropriate effervescent musicality and imbued them with old-world charm.

Østergaard was scheduled to perform the pas de deux from “Flower Festival in Genzano” later in the week, with Kloborg, and it would be fascinating to see her in a more prominent Bournonville role. At this performance (the second of six), of that celebrated duet, which opened the program and set just the right tone of engaging warmth, was danced by Kizzy Howard and Lund. Howard, a British-trained dancer who danced with the Royal Swedish Ballet before joining RDB in 2003, has a crisp, contemporary edge to her dancing, and some of the requisite Bournonville effects felt flattened out. But her verve and precision were admirable, as was the way she made this woman confident, even a bit sassy, rather than overly demure and coy. Lund brought his buoyant attack and powerful jumps to the role, which he now dances with a definite mature authority. One sequence of double tours ended less than cleanly, but his ability to deliver the demanding Bournonville choreography with such vibrancy and personality overshadowed that slight miscue. More than anyone else on stage, one sensed Lund was restrained by the small stage.

Mads Eriksen and Alexander Staeger’s interpretation of the Jockey Dance (originally part of the full-length “From Siberia to Moscow”) brought lots of mock-angry competitive edge to that charming character trifle. They danced it with plenty of snap and brio, but missed the sweetly humorous glow the duet has had the past.

The miniature “Sylphide” second act, which included the mime sequence of James first entering the Sylph’s realm as well as all the major dancing (minus a full ensemble of sylphs) felt rushed in places (taped music, necessarily, accompanied the entire program) and Diana Cuni, as the Sylph, sometimes appeared tense, Tim Matiakis, also a soloist, made a strong impression with the overall sweep and vigor of his dancing, but again his double tours were somewhat sloppy.

Still, everyone on stage communicated the upbeat spirit and, for the most part, the outward-reaching quality of Bournonville dancing that can so engage an audience. The familiar pas de six and Tarantella from “Napoli,” which closed the program, expanded beautifully from the meticulous intimacy of the clam pas de six, through the increasingly vibrant solos that cumulatively create a portrait of a joyful celebration, to the festive outpouring of the Tarantella. Cuni had a warmer presence in Teresina’s solo, and Matiakis, as Gennaro, exemplified crisp Bournonville technique but lacked the presence to convey a central, focus-of-all-the-celebration character. But these roles are virtually non-existent without the complete context of the ballet, and each dancer who performed a solo, duet or trio projected that sense of familiarity and belief in a tradition that makes “Napoli” such a unique and lovable world unto itself — even if one has seen these solos (especially the bravura male variations) performed more excitingly in the past.

Neither of the contemporary ballets on the program made much of an impression, other than confirming that choreographers, though working with ballet dancers, seemed to feel compelled to stay away from anything (such as toe shoes) that reeks of the classical. Louise Midjord’s “My Knees Are Cold” (a world premiere) and Tim Rushton’s “Triplex” gave the dancers a vigorous, athletically-flavored workout. Midjord’s work presented Kloborg, Staeger, Chrstina Olsen and Elisabeth Dam as rambunctious kids in dark trunks, white polo shirts and dark knee socks. Its opening section, marked by much lifting and spinning, was at least carried along by its rhythmic, upbeat brass-band-meets-klezmer music, but two subsequent sections ventured into moodier territory, with little logical follow-through. The dancers repeatedly hinged their arms at right angles, elbows jutting out, and gamely joined in shrugs and other busy movement that began to feel like aimless filler.

Cuni, Kloborg and Staeger were kept similarly busy, to similarly minor effect, in “Triplex,” one of those attempts ot make Bach seem like a hip, cool choice for a dance. It was twice as annoyingly quirky as Stanton Welch’s “Clear,” which at least is a showcase for beauteous male dancing and finds its own distinct heartbeat in its Bach scores. Rushton resorted to repeated, exaggerated hip swiveling; Jerome Robbins used this in “Interplay” with a jazzy naughtiness that fit into its innocent 1940s kids-at-play context, but here it just looked lame. Cuni had a nice relaxed presence, and showcased some eye-catchingly bold leaps, but however engagingly the dancers delivered the choreography, its shapelessness (including a silly, last ending) negated their efforts.

Lander’s “Festival Polonaise” pas de deux, a purely-classical tutu-and tights piece to music by Johan Svendsen, was intriguing, at least to one who knows none of this influential Danish choreographer and director’s work aside from his evergreen “Etudes.” The program gives its dates as 1942/1963 so apparently we were seeing a revised version of an earlier work. During the charming and informative post-performance discussion (in which Kloborg, Birkkjaer and Bojesen spoke with moderator Suzanne Carbonneau, it was mentioned that the 1963 version was for a television program, and that it was for Flemming Flindt. (The Dance Colleciton catalog includes a 1963 videotape of a rehearsal for a 1963 London gala, in which Toni Lander and Royes Fernandez perform excerpts from Lander’s “Fest Polonaise” — presumably this same work — to Svendsen music.)

It was a continuous, and demanding, little work, chock full of complex classical steps, rather heavy-handedly set to Svendsen’s serviceable 1873 music. As with “Etudes,” Lander seems to delight in stringing together intricate classical enchainements but have little imagination about how he presents them. Bojesen danced with luminous graciousness — though one missed having the opportunity to see her in much Bournonville (she only appeared in the “Napoli” Pas de Six). Birkkjaer displayed impressive technical fluency but a somewhat unfocused stage presence. There was something endearing about this mid-20th-century homage to a traditional 19th-century showpiece, but of course Balanchine wrote the book (and then some) on how to filter that tradition through a contemporary sensibility and create something transcendent in the process. Here the result was ultimately leaden, and one sympathized with the dancers (who mostly traded off, resting offstage between their tricky passages) while admiring their perseverance.

Volume 5, No. 29
July 23, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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