Friday, June 03, 2011

The Royal Danish Ballet

Ulrik Birkkajer of The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo by Henrik Stenberg

Gitte Lindstrom, Morten Eggert and Izabela Sokolowska of The Royal Danish Ballet.
Photo by Martin Mydtskov Ronne

Presented by Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
June 1, 2011

For any dance history scholar, a chance to see The Royal Danish Ballet in person is something special.  This company and the Bournonville legacy dominate the historical ballet literature with their significant contributions.  Ballet, as we know it today, exists in part because of Bournonville.  There are steps that he created; teaching techniques that he developed; and an aesthetic that he carefully and diligently fostered still present in today's classical and contemporary repertoire.  We all owe a great deal to this artistic master.  And, the Bay Area was fortunate and blessed to see his beloved company, The Royal Danish Ballet, as presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall.

Lightness of movement coupled with darkness of theme was the major takeaway from Program A (Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson" & August Bournonville's "La Sylphide").  The Royal Danish Ballet's floating, airy quality was apparent in all aspects of the dancing and as a viewer, one could clearly see that this is the company's physical history; the lightness of movement is part of them, deeply embedded in their souls.  Gudrun Bojesen's interpretation of La Sylphide perfectly transmitted the famous Bournonville petit allegro, allowing the quick, intricate steps to literally sing from the stage.  Her silent boureés, exquisite entre chat trois and sissone crescendo were the expression of otherworldly.  Other stunning moments for Bojesen included her pirouette on demi-pointe and the treatment of her hands.  With one simple open-palmed gesture, she seemed to just float away.  Another standout performance was Louise Østergaard as Effy.  In her first solo (particularly the glissade sequence), she was still able to translate Bournonville's light, airy ballon despite dancing in heeled character shoes.  This sophisticated choreography was so much more interesting than the typical thirty-two fouettés and grand jumps.

While the beauty of Bournonville movement showed in both "La Sylphide" and "The Lesson", the narrative themes of each spoke of bleak foreboding.  During a very educational and compelling talk-back, one of The Royal Danish Ballet's dancers reflected on the different guesses as to what "La Sylphide" is trying to teach us.  As he told us, some argue that the piece reveals the trepidation one can feel before marriage; still others suggest that it is a man versus nature ballet.  I can definitely see those analyses in the piece, though other thoughts came to mind as well.  James' story as explored through Bournonville's gorgeous choreography is also an observation of dream versus obligation, and a very sad statement on how some fail to articulate what they want out of life.

"The Lesson" follows a three-part narrative structure: the early interactions (at times, comic) of the three characters (the ballet master, the student and the pianist); the catalytic event (the introduction of the pointe shoes), which leads into a final demonic and violent descent.  The opening, 'lighter' scenes were almost a farcical caricature of the ballet world: the eccentric teacher, the doe-eyed student and the stoic accompanist.  Then came the moment of transition, where the evil intentions of this classroom came to light - personified by the introduction of pointe shoes.  Up until that point, the student had been taking her class in soft ballet flats.  As she donned the new satin slippers, the comedic exercise turned into a creepy, threatening, lecherous pas de deux.  The ballet master's control and domination was so total and it resulted in the student's tragic demise.  "The Lesson" ended as it had began with the pianist organizing the room, and as the ballet finished, it was clear that she was actually 're-organizing' the space - clearing it of the horror that had just occurred and preparing it for the next encounter.  Flindt's piece is the epitome of dance theater - he showed us the dark side of humanity and left us to experience and sit with what we had seen.  No explanation; no justice; no reason.     

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