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Royal Danish Ballet

‘La Sylphide’, ‘Symphony in C’

February 2010
Copenhagen, Royal Theatre

by Jane Simpson



© Henrik Stenberg

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Balanchine's Symphony in C probably wouldn't be the ballet which would jump first into your head if you were looking for something to fill a programme alongside La Sylphide: but it's the Royal Danish Ballet's choice for this season and it actually works rather well. Of course it has to close the evening rather than opening it - nothing could follow that finale - but that does make quite a nice transition from one 'white' act to another, a hundred years further on in style and technique.

This particular performance showed some rather tired dancers and a depleted corps de ballet, understandable perhaps in a week dominated by the final rehearsals for John Neumeier's Midsummer Night's Dream - two hours of solid dancing, double-cast and using most of the company. There were still individual performances to admire: Gregory Dean looked much more happily employed in the first movement than he did last season in the second, Alban Lendorf repeated his impressively airborne performance in the third, and in the fourth, Lena-Maria Gruber - in much the biggest role that she's tried - showed that she has the technique it demands if not yet all the style. There was one very pleasant surprise, too, in Alexandra Lo Sardo's appearance in the second movement. After seeing her charming but girlish performance in Dances at a Gathering earlier in the season, I was expecting a clear but perhaps rather unassertive account of this great role. Far from it: helped by Jean-Lucien Massot's unobtrusively secure partnering, she found a proper weight for her movement (despite her lack of height) and unfurled some luscious, long adagio phrases, a delight to watch. Her interpretation was interesting, too, slightly withdrawn but very feminine and slightly wilful - in fact she reminded me quite strongly of another Alexandra, the recently-retired Ansanelli. There's no Balanchine in the company's programme for next year but I really look forward to seeing how she progresses in the role in future seasons.

A somewhat below par Symphony in C at the end of a run can be excused or overlooked, but a disappointing Sylphide from this company is much more worrying. Nikolaj Hübbe has chosen to give all of this season's performances to more junior casts, leaving his top stars on the sidelines: obviously he needs to develop younger talent but, with no home performances scheduled either last season or next season, that's three years in which the older dancers haven't been seen, and both they and their audience must be conscious of time ticking away. Meanwhile at least two of the dancers making their debuts in this run look as if they could still learn a lot from watching their seniors.

 


Ulrik Birkkjaer in La Sylphide
© Henrik Stenberg
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window


Ulrik Birkkjær is currently a young man going places in a hurry, having been given both the two plum roles in the Bournonville repertoire - Gennaro and James - within a couple of months, and promoted to Solodanser as well. Unfortunately 'young man in a hurry' also characterises his James. He gets past the first hurdle - of convincing us that we're watching something more than a banal story of a man dumping the girl-next-door in favour of a harpy from out of town - but only just: it's hard to see what sets this James apart from his family and friends, what Hübbe describes as "that sensitivity, spirituality...that extra layer" which allows him, and only him, to see (or imagine or create) the Sylph. It would help, I think, if he would slow his mime down and it give it more weight so that it would more clearly reflect the seriousness of his inner conflict; maybe he's aiming for impetuousness but at present it just looks rushed. His dancing is not a problem, but we do need more reason to care about him. Let's hope that the gravitas he currently lacks will come naturally as he gets a little older.

He and his Sylphide, Susanne Grinder, and the rest of the company too, would benefit from better support from the orchestra - not the in-house team we usually hear, and under a conductor whose CV doesn't reveal any previous experience of working with a ballet company. Grinder herself - who made her debut both as the Sylph and as Giselle within a few weeks in January - is a something of a puzzle to me, always looking as if she's about to deliver a really fine performance and never quite achieving it. She comes across as very delicate and somewhat nervous and needs to find a stronger characterisation if we are to understand how she bewitches James. In Dances at a Gathering she showed a nice, gentle sense of humour and maybe a little of that would help here.

 


Ulrik Birkkjaer and Susanne Grinder in La Sylphide
© Henrik Stenberg
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More positively, Alexander Stæger's Gurn is an interesting and successful creation - he's becoming a fine actor and his dancing looks better every time I see him, whilst Merrill Ashley's Madge - the second of her two guest appearances in the role - is powerful and individual and fits perfectly into this production. And, as I think every time I see this lovely piece, is there a more magic moment in all ballet than the chord which separates Madge's shenanigans with the poisoned scarf from the first appearance of the sylphs, seeming to contain within itself all the enchantment which is to unfold?


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