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Royal Danish Ballet

Balletaften: ‘Le Conservatoire (Konservatoriet)’, ‘Etudes’,
Alumnus: ‘Les Lutins’, ‘Salute’

May 2011
Copenhagen, Royal Theatre

by Jane Simpson



© Costin Radu

'Le Conservatoire' reviews

'Konservatoriet' reviews

RDB 'Les Lutins' reviews

'Les Lutins' reviews

RDB 'Etudes' reviews

'Etudes' reviews

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At the end of a season given over almost entirely to long narrative works, the Royal Danish Ballet's last programme is a celebration of dancers, dancing and choreography: four pieces providing a happy and exhilarating mixture of charm, humour and virtuosity. I'm really enjoying Nikolaj Hübbe's programming - he seems to have the knack of putting together ballets which enhance and complement each other to make an evening which is more than just the sum of its parts.

The idea behind this particular mix was to show off Danish choreography from three different eras, starting with Bournonville's Le Conservatoire (Konservatoriet) and continuing via Harald Lander's most enduring ballet, Etudes, to new works by Johan Kobborg, who has only quite recently begun to try out his choreographic wings. The first two, of course, start at the barre, and I believe the original plan was that Kobborg's piece would do the same; that idea disappeared somewhere along the way but his two-part Alumnus happily acknowledges his Danish training and so fits in very well.

I'd actually be perfectly happy with a bill consisting of Le Conservatoire, Le Conservatoire and Le Conservatoire. The corps de ballet might disagree, though, as the ballet's gentle charm is underpinned by some highly exposed and - I imagine - ferociously difficult technical work. But it's a unique window into the lost world of the French school of the 1820s, where Bournonville learnt his trade from the great Auguste Vestris. For this new staging, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter has added a very short prologue to introduce the leading dancers and just to hint at the plot of the longer ballet from which this scene is taken. It's harmless but I don't think it really adds much: for me the magic still begins when the dancers, lined up for centre practice, take a concerted step forward and begin their grand plié - a moment as weighted with significance and promise as the famous opening of Serenade.

Two casts left some pleasing memories: Diana Cuni flying through her allegro solo; Alexandra Lo Sardo, darkly demure, the picture of a Romantic ballerina; Lena-Maria Gruber serenely in control. I'd looked forward to seeing the always-stylish Nicolai Hansen as the Balletmaster: the style was there but there was a slightly awkward self-consciousness in his acting which didn't sit well with his character's status - Jean-Lucien Massot was a more convincing authority-figure. There were the inevitable few wobbles to be seen in the corps de ballet, and the predictable - and deserved - round of applause for the eight serious but lively children.(And it's nice that the programme book names their photographs, so we can look back and gloat when they get to be solodansers.)

 


Alexandra Lo Sardo in Le Conservatoire (Konservatoriet)
© Costin Radu
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window


The non-negotiable need for Etudes to close the programme meant that the chronological order of the evening's choreographers had to be broken, which would have been a shame if Kobborg's pieces had been unmistakeably of our own time. I'd expected something rather dramatic and perhaps a little dark, but far from it - in his Salute he's actually produced a charming example of that almost forgotten genre, the demi-caractère comedy. John Cranko might have made something very similar in style at Sadler's Wells not long after Etudes itself first took the stage. To a rumbustious selection of catchy tunes by H. C. Lumbye (whose music features in Napoli and lots of other Bournonville ballets), Kobborg gives us a cast of dashing soldiers and admiring girls, falling in and out of love, waltzing, and playing at going to war, all (literally) under Bournonville's nose. And doing Bournonville's steps, too - or at least Kobborg's version of them, sharpened up and given a slightly more modern polish. Nothing goes on too long - not even, for once, the mandatory romantic pas de deux - and it's all done with infectious relish and spot-on timing. Every one was good, it's lots of fun, and the audience adored it.

For some reason - maybe Salute didn't turn out to be long enough? - we also got Kobborg's Les Lutins, first made for the Royal Ballet a couple of years ago. This time Bournonville looked slyly out of the wings rather than down from above, and I think he's have recognised rather less of his own influence: but it was nicely done. The casts were not quite so starry as the RB original (McRae/Polunin/Cojocaru) but it's interesting to see how charm and character can make as strong an effect as out-and-out virtuosity, as well as to note that Alban Lendorf (in Polunin's role) can produce the virtuosity too.

 


Johan Kobborg's Salute (Alumnus)
© Costin Radu
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Harald Lander made Etudes for this company in 1948 and it has been one of the backbones of the repertory ever since. Lander revised his original version within a very few years and made more changes when he mounted it for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1952; since then it's been performed all over the world and as so often happens it's been altered and added to by various stagers until there no longer seemed to be an 'authentic' production left anywhere, even in Copenhagen. The RDB decided to put this right, and Thomas Lund and Nikolaj Hübbe enlisted the choreographer's widow, Lise Lander, to help them clear away some of the later accretions and to establish a version which was both true to Lander's intentions and specifically Danish in style and feeling. Lander's original notation has been compared with film of many later versions in an attempt to distinguish between his own second and third thoughts and other people's unauthorised fiddling, and with Lise Lander's own memories fed into the process, the team believe they have arrived at a definitive version. A lot of work has gone into it and the result is a much tighter and more cogent piece.

Some of the changes are at a level of detail which most viewers probably won't notice; the most immediately obvious difference is that Lund (who has been responsible for the actual staging) has kept the momentum going by keeping the often irritating black-outs between sections to an absolute minimum duration - just a matter of seconds in every case. It makes a huge difference to the feel of the earlier part of the ballet. Lund has also tried to soften the near-militaristic precision which some companies emphasise, re-introducing a gentler, more Danish style. And - something I was particularly pleased to see - he's also brought the Romantic section 'back home': the big lifts still remind us of Giselle but much of the rest of that section is now recognisably a homage to Bournonville's Sylphide. Finally, by just a small increase in the tempo of the closing minutes, he's made the ending as exciting as that of Symphony in C. Altogether this is a persuasive production: I doubt it will convert those critics who actually despise Etudes (mostly because of what it isn't rather than what it is), but it's certainly greatly increased my own enthusiasm for the piece.

Of course it's a huge test for the company, particularly at the end of an already hard season combined with preparations for their American tour; and of course the performance wasn't perfect. But it seemed to be improving night by night, and was already more focused and 'together' than the last performance I saw here, 5 years ago. It was a pleasure to see Mads Blangstrup looking in such good shape as the Romantic prince, and I was very pleasantly surprised by J'aime Crandall as the ballerina: her arms are so much improved - softer, more weighted - since her hastily-learnt Aurora earlier in the season, and she looked as if she had really earned this big role. Alban Lendorf has confidence, power and finesse and it was absolutely no surprise to hear that he had been promoted to solodanser after the first night.

So, a fine evening all round - an impressive end to the Copenhagen season and a good send off for the company's important tour.


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