The evening of June 14th 2011 was unseasonably wet and chilly in New York City but the ebullient goings-on inside the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center chased away the gloom for the appreciative balletomanes in the audience. The occasion was the opening night of the Tuesday to Sunday run of mixed bills by the Royal Danish Ballet in its first New York appearance since 1998. Nikolaj Hübbe, a long-time and well-loved New York City Ballet principal dancer, has been Artistic Director of the Danish troupe since 2008 when he went home to Copenhagen after retiring from the stage on February 10th of that year. Hübbe (pronounced HEW-ba), concluded his welcome message in the Lincoln Center "Playbill" with this sentiment: "I hope you will enjoy this evening with this legendary and entirely contemporary company."
Well put. The technique and tradition of Auguste Bournonville dating from the company's founding in the 1770s have been painstaking preserved but the works of 20th and 21st Century choreographers are also repertory staples with new ballets added all the time. I have often pointed out that although history's most important examples of visual art can be hung in museums to be seen by generations to come, dance history must constantly be brought to life by newly-minted young dancers. Not only that, but those same dancers need to master the fresh physical and aesthetic demands of their own time. Kudos to the artists of the Royal Danish with Hübbe at the helm for accomplishing exactly that.
The program began with "The Lesson," a 1964 dark comedy by former Royal Danish Director Fleming Flindt set to the music of Georges Deleure. Although the ballet was masterfully performed and intriguing in its plot twists, I found this to be an odd choice as an opener. With only three performers –- a student, an accompanist, and a ballet master -- plus a fair amount of melodrama and stylized movement, the piece would have served better later in the program. I'll refrain from being a spoiler by telling you the ending because you might catch this work later during the week but I'll say that I treasured some details such as the student's surreptitious inhaling of the scent of her new pointe shoes, her girlish delight at seeing her image in the mirror, and her purposely over-acted pain while stretching at the barre or dancing in those treasured but tyrannical shoes.
The second offering, which I wish had come first, was "Bournonville Variations," a selection of the daily exercises that have made the Danish men so polished and so distinct. American Ballet Theatre's men turn better than the Danes do these days, but no dancers execute brilliant multiple beats with the same airiness and precision as the Copenhagen contingent does. If you get a chance to see them, take note of the way their arms are almost always held "en bas" – in a low circle – rather than detracting from the footwork. This is a Bournonville trademark that has thankfully survived.
"Lost on Slow" by the groundbreaking choreographer Jorna Elo came next in stark contrast to the measured classroom correctness of the Bournonville selections. Elo set his piece to Vivaldi with a clear passion and understanding for the composer's structure and yet a startling talent for juxtaposing that very structure with unexpected movement. The dancers pulled off the rigorous steps and lifts with deceptive ease and, aided by terrific lighting effects, at times seemed either robotic or as Hübbe put it in an interview with Robert Johnson for The Star Ledger, "buggy."
The closer was act three of "Napoli," a joyous celebration of ballet at its most infectiously uplifting. When the curtain rose halfway to reveal the full cast posed in colorful costumes against a charming set, the audience broke into applause just for the tableau. Then when the curtain went all the way up to let us see a row of children gazing down on the scene from a wall above the village square, an audible and collective "Aww!" moment ensued. At last the festivities began, ably accompanied by the New York City Opera Orchestra playing the music of Helsted, Paulli, and Lumbye. Overall, the dancing was fine and the enthusiasm was abundant. We left the theater and opened our umbrellas but the continuing rain had no chance of dampening our spirits. If you possibly can, go see The Royal Danish. All of the ballets I saw will be repeated tonight at 7:30. The roster for June 17th and 19th will be "The Lesson" and "La Sylphide." Both the matinee and evening on the 18th will feature "La Sylphide" and Napoli III." Here's the link: http://tinyurl.com/4y6ey7t
If you can't go in person, you can get an iPhone app with wonderful pictures here: http://tinyurl.com/3vtpfrs