celebration of August Bournonville”
Of A Kind”
We’ve been having plenty of contrast in the London dance scene. In successive weeks Sadler’s Wells offered two of Europe’s most celebrated choreographers from, respectively, the 20th and the 19th centuries, while the Barbican brought (as in most recent years) Merce Cunningham with his company from America, this time for a week of Events. Well, I don’t need to describe these latter for American readers (I trust) so I’ll simply record that such varying assemblies of Cunningham dances from different sources have for quite a while given me more pleasure than his recent ballets.
When it comes to August Bournonville’s choreography, however, even the most exciting or beautiful extracts almost always lose something when shown outside the dramatic context for which he made them. However, that would be no reason for spurning the programme of six short pieces brought to the Wells by a group of nineteen members of the Royal Danish Ballet assembled and directed by Thomas Lund. Simply to be reminded, in his bicentenary year, what varied styles Bournonville accomplished, and at what a consistently high level, is bound to be a pleasure. But after watching his ballets for slightly more than half a century, I have to record sadly that I have seen all but one of these dances better done on previous occasions—and not only by Danish casts, since Ballet Rambert, both of the Royal Ballet companies, London Festival (now English National) Ballet and, prolifically, Scottish Ballet have all presented them over the years, often surprisingly well. Let me mention that Peter Darrell, the Scottish troupe’s former director, told me of his conviction that Bournonville’s classics were better suited to British dancers than the old Russian standards.
The one unfamiliar (and therefore incomparable) number in this programme was the English Jockey Dance created in “From Siberia to Moscow”, and since it was made as a divertissement it didn’t suffer from being given out of context. Its jokey steps and amusing characterisation were admirably brought off by Morten Eggert with Nicolai Hansen and, in an alternative cast, pretty well by Dawid Kupinski and Jean-Lucien Massot. Incidentally, more than two-thirds of this group were Danish-born and trained at the Royal Theatre; the Paris Opéra would have a higher proportion of locals but none of the English companies can manage that nowadays, and I think few if any of the German troupes. This says something for the continuing standards of the Danish school.
On the other hand, the general proficiency was not accompanied by any great brilliance, nor by such strong personalities as the RDB formerly accustomed us to. The fact that the men were better than the women came as no surprise—they always were. But there used to be some female principals who stood out, whereas now the two of them we saw in the “Sylphide” extracts, and two more in the “Conservatoire” dancing class, were decidedly unimpressive, and not too strong on Bournonville style anyway, while the lower-ranking solo women did not exactly seem to be pressing on their heels.
So what about the men? Well, everyone keeps telling me that Lund is the outstanding Bournonville stylist, and by today’s standards that’s probably true, and I suppose it’s long enough since the company’s great days for most spectators here (and that includes most critics) not to remember them. But even Lund looks to me, on this showing, good rather than great in technique, and he camped up his “Flower Festival” pas de deux too much for my liking. I’d like to see him feel able to be more relaxed. Likewise the Ballet Master in “Conservatoire” seemed over-keen on giving corrections (Jean-Lucien Massot in the first cast more than Mads Blangstrup in the second), while both Blangstrup and Lund as James suffered for lack of scenery (even a tree-trunk to sit on would have helped), reduced supporting ensemble, and the omission from Nikolai Hubbe’s production of his should-be brilliant exit with brisés—if you had seen Erik Bruhn do them when the RDB first visited London, you would never forgive their omission. Blangstrup in fact looked at his best (happiest, liveliest) when playing just one of the group men in the showpiece finale from “Napoli”. The comparatively younger Kristoffer Sakurai did quite well in “Flower Festival” and Tim Matiakis in the “Ventana” pas de trios—a pity, however, about the latter’s short legs.
One thing that deserves more mention than it often gets is the benefit Bournonville derived from having Messrs Gade, Helsted, Lumbye, Løvenskjold and Paulli to write the music for his ballets: so lively, so melodious, so danceable and so expressive. With Peter Ernst Lassen conducting the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (borrowed from Birmingham, not Copenhagen) the scores sounded as good as they deserve.
Which recent choreographers are likely still to be danced when they are 200 years old? Ashton, I believe and deeply hope, but how many others, especially given the way such one-time greats as Fokine and Massine are already neglected. Come to that, quite a few commentators are already going off Jiri Kylián, and he’s not yet 60! I was glad to see his 1998 two-hour three-act ballet “One Of A Kind” brought to London by the main Netherlands Dance Theatre under its new artistic director Anders Hellstroem. Sadler’s Wells was for many years, from the 1960s, one of NDT’s regular homes, but before its recent rebuilding the stage could not have accommodated Atsushi Kitagawara’s three successive architectural settings for this work, nor the expansive way Kylián manipulates his 18-strong cast within them. (That would also have been the case back home before NDT built its present splendid theatre in The Hague and got the use of the new opera house in Amsterdam.) The dances consist mostly of solos, duets, trios and quartets, and an impression of greater animation is achieved by having larger groups on stage before the ballet starts and during the intermissions.
One woman is on stage throughout, the svelte, supple Natasa Novótna the night I went. Starting the show by clambering from a front-row stalls seat across a plank over the empty orchestra pit, she continues right until the ending which has her climbing a flight of stairs at the back. There is no plot but the action suggests relationships and reactions, besides offering dance patterns that intrigue and fascinate. The cellist Matthew Barley plays Brett Dean’s specially written score from different vantage points—orchestra pit in Act 1, then side-stage, finally raised back-stage—with contrasting recorded interruptions, ranging from Gesualdo to Cage. The company looks in good condition; welcome back.