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January 11, 2012 5:41 pm
Where ballet is concerned, things haven’t exactly been rosy in the state of Denmark recently. So it seemed at least in Paris where the Royal Danish Ballet showed its latest production of August Bournonville’s 1842 work Napoli amid rumours of looming budget cuts and lay-offs. Its unique calling card has always been the Bournonville repertoire, but director Nikolaj Hübbe, who spent most of his dancing career with New York City Ballet before returning to head his alma mater in 2008, made the choice to rejuvenate it completely, with muddled results.
It’s not a bad idea per se: the ballet world loves modernity breathing new life into its warhorses, and while Napoli’s beloved Act III is a national treasure in Denmark, the rest of the ballet has always been problematic. In the process, however, Hübbe has turned Napoli into a triple bill of sorts, where every act comes with its own wildly different period setting and aesthetics.
Act I has been updated to accommodate a Fellinian cinematic vision of 1950s Italy, complete with streetwise young people, cigarette-puffing prostitutes and a good deal of mimed swearing. It works surprisingly well for some scenes and shows how ballet mime can be adapted beyond its usual contexts, but no sooner have we adjusted to this mode than Act II introduces a different kind of modernity altogether: a new score by Louise Alenius (whereas Act I and III retain the usual music) and new choreography by Hübbe.
This reworking has a number of virtues, not least its eerie atmosphere, and Teresina’s initiation as a naiad is clearly delineated through choreographic motifs. Stylistically and musically, however, it is much more anachronistic than Act I, with steps and off-balance accents reminiscent of Balanchine or Neumeier. After this, Act III is almost disorienting: the famous pas de six and tarantella are mostly intact, down to the traditional costumes, but nothing thus far has prepared us for this sudden return to the modest, sweetly classical Bournonville style.
In keeping with the production, the finest Bournonville stylists in the company, including the remarkable Gudrun Bojesen and Diana Cuni, were to be found only in the pas de six, but Amy Watson’s sassy, expressive Teresina was a good match for Alban Lendorf’s vigorous Gennaro in Act I. Ulrik Birkkjær also shone in the role the next day: the men outdance the women in this company, a rare occurrence in ballet, and one of the great pleasures of the evening was watching them demonstrate the airy ballon they are rightly famous for.
The company’s time-honoured family feel persists, too, with dancers from generations past featured in character roles, and seeing the great former ballerina Lis Jeppesen play Teresina’s mother and take part in the final tarantella was a unique treat in Paris. If only the whole felt like more than the sum of its parts in this version of Napoli.
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