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About the Change

Royal Danish Ballet

M/K: Danseur Noble:
‘Bournonville Variations’, ‘The Unsung’ ‘Les Gentilhommes’ ‘A Suite of Dances’ ‘Eidolon (male)’

M/K: Ballerina:
‘Serenade’ ‘The Cage’ ‘The Dying Swan’ ‘Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan’ ‘Eidolon (female)’

June 2010
Copenhagen, Operaen

by Jane Simpson

© Costin Radu

RDB 'Serenade' reviews

'Serenade' reviews

RDB 'The Cage' reviews

'The Cage' reviews

RDB 'Five Brahms Waltzes' reviews

'Five Brahms Waltzes' reviews

RDB 'Eidolon' reviews

Lendorf in reviews

recent Royal Danish reviews

more Jane Simpson reviews

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Gallery of M/K Danseur photographs

Gallery of M/K Ballerina photographs

To finish off this season, Royal Danish Ballet director Nikolaj Hübbe had the neat idea of showing a pair of programmes, one focusing on the company's women and the other on the men. (M/K is the Danish equivalent of Male/Female.) Each includes five pieces, cleverly chosen to show the huge variety of styles today's dancers have to master, and each of them could stand on its own as a worthwhile evening. Seeing them both, though, brings extra rewards from their contrasting content and also from what they jointly reveal about the current state of the company.

M/K: Danseur Noble

The men's programme opens on a darkened stage, empty except for some bits of lighting kit and an illuminated sign in the middle which says (in Danish) "The Dance is an art because it demands a vocation, knowledge, and skill". It's the first sentence of August Bournonville's choreographic credo, the foundation stone of this company and the perfect start to an evening like this. When the dancers appear, they're in street clothes; they read the message, and nod as if in in acknowledgment of its truth: then in a few seconds they've stripped off their glamorous trench coats and boots and are revealed as Bournonville dancers, and we're away into Bournonville Variations, a newly devised compilation of extracts from the daily Bournonville Schools, shaped by Thomas Lund and Nikolaj Hübbe into an entertaining and often exciting little ballet. Lund - who chose the extracts - doesn't make life easy for his cast, starting and ending with parts of the Pas de la Vestale, a pas de deux once danced by Bournonville himself, and which it's said that Erik Bruhn refused to dance because it was so difficult. In between, the dancing is non-stop, but broken into distinct sections - one with a Spanish flavour, for instance - and there's also a nice joke, when the sequence known as the Dark Step (because it's so complex that a black mist descends on the brains of dancers trying to learn it) is done literally in the dark, with only the flashing feet of the dancers visible in ultra-violet light. Ulrik Birkkjćr is the soloist leading the cast of twelve, but the stylish technique of Alban Lendorf and Alexander Stćer, often dancing together, grabbed most of the attention.


Alban Lendorf and Alexander Staeger in Bournonville Variations
© Costin Radu
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After twenty minutes of strenuous Bournonville you'd imagine the dancers would need a little rest, and I was deeply impressed that three of them went straight from this into the extreme, and completely different, physical demands of José Limón's The Unsung, after a pause just long enough for them to swap their clasical outfits for buckskin trousers, bare chests and bare feet. The Unsung, dating from 1970, is Limón's evocation of the Native American Ghost Dance rituals. There's an introduction for the whole cast of eight, followed by six solos, each of them very long; add to that the fact that the only sound is what's made by the dancers feet (and their increasingly laboured breathing) and you get a piece that makes heavy demands on an audience too, particularly one unused to Limón's modern dance idiom and possibly unfamiliar with his source material. Each of the solos is interesting, and very impressive in itself but it's hard to keep concentrating past the first three or four. Nothing but praise for the cast, who throw themselves into the sometimes violent choreography with total commitment: Constantine Baecher had the first solo and therefore made the strongest impression, but there wasn't a weak link. But I think it's probably a piece that needs to be assimilated over two or three viewings.


Sebastian Kloborg in The Unsung
© Costin Radu
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Another complete change of mood after an interval: Peter Martins's Les Gentilhommes, made for NYCB to show "how elegantly and beautifully men can move" and particularly appropriate here as Martins dedicated it to the Danish Stanley Williams, once his own teacher at the RDB school. It's a fairly lightweight piece, largely carried by Handel's music, but it does it was intended to, and shows some of the men - Christian Hammeken in particular - in a new light. Lendorf had the leading role this time, and showed that he has stage presence and authority as well as an awesome technique. Jerome Robbins's A Suite of Dances followed - made originally for Baryshnikov, it's a playful, mercurial piece and although Nehemiah Kish had no problem with the actual steps, those qualities don't come naturally to him and the whole piece had a rather artificial air.


Nehemiah Kish in A Suite of Dances
© Costin Radu
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The real novelty of these paired performances was the new work by Kim Brandstrup: a piece called Eidolon, created in two different versions, using the same music and the same set but with somewhat different choreography and mirror-image casts - twelve men and a woman in Danseur Noble, twelve women and a man in Ballerina. It's all about mirrors, in fact. The dictionary definition of 'eidolon' includes 'an image, a confusing reflection, an apparition', and the idea seems to be one of Brandstrup's obsessions, as he and his composer, Kim Helweg, have already made one piece with the same title, for Rambert in the mid-1990s. The set (beautifully simple, by Richard Hudson) features a ballet barre at the front left and a huge 'mirror' set diagonally across the right-hand half of the stage: or at least, sometimes it's a mirror and the 'real' dancers are exactly reflected by doubles; at other times it's just a boundary, perhaps between real and imagined worlds, and is overstepped in both directions till you no longer no who is 'real' and who is a reflection.


Nicolai Hansen and Thomas Lund in Eidolon (male)
© Costin Radu
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It's a typical Brandstrup piece in that there's no explicit narrative. One of the dancers is central to the action, unhappy or uncertain for non-specified reasons; the others, mostly working in pairs, appear threatening or uncaring, and the problem is only resolved - or perhaps merely changed into another problem - by the arrival, five minutes or so from the end, of the dancer of the opposite sex. All this is common to both versions (which are distinguished in the programme by being called Eidolon♂ (the men) and Eidolon♀ (the women)), but the way they play on stage is very different. I saw Eidolon♂ first and found it much the most convincing of the two; however I am very aware that I was looking in Eidolon♀ for a corresponding 'story' and characters, and failing to find them, and maybe someone who saw the two the other way round would have seen them very differently. There were two problems, I think: first, that the choreography simply fitted the men better. I don't know exactly how Brandstrup created the piece, but it looked as if he'd worked it out with the men first and then adapted it for the women, and in the process it had lost something in strength and drive without gaining enough in other qualities to compensate. The second and perhaps more serious problem lay in the casting. The men were chosen from amongst the strongest dancers in the company: Lendorf in the lead (again), Thomas Lund and Nikolai Hansen as an older, perhaps dangerous pair, Alexander Stćger and Gregory Dean nearer in age to Lendorf, and perhaps competing with him in some way. All of these are strong characters, instantly recognisable and sharply differentiated, and it was easy to follow them and to fit them into one or several scenarios. The women, on the other hand, were almost all from the corps de ballet and much more difficult to recognise as people or as types. In general, too, they seemed much younger than the men, so that sequences which had felt genuinely threatening were reduced to something like playground bullying: in short, it was quite hard to work out what the leading woman's problem might be - and whatever it was, it didn't seem to be fixed by the eventual arrival of a man (Nehemiah Kish). So although I liked Eidolon♂ a lot, Eidolon♀ seemed a blurred image of it, and too indefinite for me. (A clever experiment, though, and some rethinking and recasting might bring it properly to life.)


Maria Bernholdt and Giorgia Minnella in Eidolon (female)
© Costin Radu
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M/K: Ballerina

Working backwards through the women's programme from Eidolon♀, the middle section of their evening started with a cracking performance of Jerome Robbins's weird little shocker, The Cage. It's quite hard to take this seriously these days, though all sorts of interpretations are there if you want them - among them the idea that these predatory insects are a sci-fi take on Act 2 of Giselle. Jodie Thomas was the scared and scary novice, with Jean-Lucien Massot as her prey; the corps de ballet looked to be having a lot of fun. (Perhaps surprisingly, it seems that it's easier to find ballets with no women than ballets with no men: there's only one female in the whole of the Danseur Noble programme, whereas the Ballerinas have to import five featured men over the evening, and four more in the corps de ballet.)


Jerome Robbins's The Cage
© Costin Radu
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Two solos followed: The Dying Swan, with Susanne Grinder giving a very well-coached but too gentle performance which didn't change my view that there's no life left in this hackneyed piece, and Frederick Ashton's Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan, a company premičre and a rare opportunity to see anything by Ashton in Copenhagen. Maria Bernholdt has been coached by the role's creator, Lynn Seymour, and it looked to me as if Seymour has allowed her, or more likely encouraged her, to develop a far more exaggerated portrait than Ashton intended, tipping over into caricature in the first dance, which looked like Isadora late in her career and on a bad night at that. It's a shame, as Bernholdt is actually very well cast and in the last waltz - the beautiful one which starts with her running down to the footlights in a shower of rose-petals - she was lovely.


Maria Bernholdt in Five Brahms Waltzes in the manner of Isadora Duncan
© Costin Radu
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And the Ballerina evening started with a wonderful surprise - a performance of Balanchine's Serenade which was one of the most enjoyable I can remember, one of those occasions which reminds me why I spend so much time at the ballet. True, I've seen stronger performances of all of the soloist roles, but the piece as a whole was done with an irresistible drive and musicality and spirit - a huge credit especially to the stagers and the corps de ballet, and also to the conductor, Mats Rondin, who found just the right point between fast and too fast. It was a real pleasure to see Kristoffer Sakurai back on stage after such a very long injury break, and looking confident and happy, and I also liked J'aime Crandall, dancing her heart out as the Russian girl. The RDB may not have the glamour and the megastars of some of the big companies but on their night they have a directness and a spirit that delivers the essence of a ballet in a way that would make any choreographer very happy.


Kristoffer Sakurai and Susanne Grinder in Serenade
© Costin Radu
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The company

The theatre's publicity for these two programmes referred to a 'battle of the sexes' and although I don't think there was actually even a hint of that (except in The Cage of course) there were some very interesting comparisons to be made of the relative strengths of the male and female wings of the company. On both sides, there's a big gap between the principals now in their middle or late thirties and the generation which will have to succeed them. The soloist and corps de ballet ranks are in a process of renewal, with a lot of talent discernible but much of it not yet ripe for leading roles. The men are further along the path than the women, with a group of half a dozen or so who've been pulling away from the rest over the last couple of seasons, and Alban Lendorf - as evidenced by this programme - not just rising fast but evidently rocket-propelled. It's harder to pick out the ballerinas of the future at the moment, but we should get a few clues in the first months of next season, when both Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty are scheduled for long runs. Interesting times ahead!

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