The Royal Danish Ballet Returns to NYC After 23 Years
By Ellis Nassour
The Royal Danish, the world’s third oldest ballet company [founded in 1748], in a long overdue return to NYC will present six performances at Lincoln Center’s David Koch Theater tonight through June 19, which marks the end of the U.S. tour.
This is the first RDB visit since 1988 when they performed at the Met. Artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe triumphantly returns to NY, where for more than 15 years he was one of the NYCBallet’s most celebrated principals.
The company will dance three programs comprised of August Bournonville’s Variations, Napoli (Act III) and La Sylphide, Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson and Jorma Elo’s Lost on Slow.
"Since I became artistic director," says Hübbe, "I felt that a return of the Royal Danish Ballet is long overdue – 23 years is a long time. We’re excited to be back in New York, but it’s a daunting prospect because of the sharp and often-feared high level of critical analysis.
"I worked especially hard on this program," he contines, "because I’m well aware of New York’s enthusiastic dancegoers. They are of another caliber than the more reserved Copenhagen dance lover. However, tough scrutiny is what any major ballet company needs to keep a high level and to measure up to other international companies."
He knows there will be many old friends to see and many memories of his years dancing in what he knew as the New York State Theatre. "It was an incredible 15 years, with many personal triumphs so I know I’ll be moved."
Born and raised in Copenhagen, Nikolaj Hubbe spent formative years in NY. "It was difficult readjusting to Copenhagen because it doesn’t have the same big city energy. I have missed the pulse and fast pace of the Big Apple! "
The RDB, strongly known for its Bournonville tradition, he says, "doesn’t live in the past. During the 20th Century, the company developed into one that spans many styles – from Balanchine’s works to international choreographers such as Béjart, Kylián and Neumeier.
Hübbe notes that the Bournonville heritage will always represent the core of the RDB, "but that past and present are constantly merging magnificently through a vision of a constantly developing repertoire with new creations and choreographers."
Speaking of his work with Balachine and Robbins and his tradition with Bournonville, he notes "the three masters have such different approaches. What has made the most impact on me is their consistency. You have three unique styles bonded by a strong classical base in their choreography."
He points out that no other ballet company keeps as many ballets in its repertory, danced in uninterrupted tradition. La Sylphide and Napoli are masterpieces, not only in Danish ballet history but also in an international context. The repertory includes classics such as Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker.
"My greatest joys at the Royal Danish," states Hübbe, "have been seeing the dancers grow to develop even more talent and artistry, and digging deep into the creative process of creating new productions."
Because he had never directed, he felt that becoming A.D. would be intimidating "but things fell into place quite quickly. Even though I was gone for many years, I was part of the Royal Danish and educated with the Bournonville tradition. So, the transition wasn’t hard."
With his contract coming to an end next year, he was asked to ponder his lasting imprint on the company. "Others will have to decide," he says, "but I don’t know if we’ve seen even the contour of such an imprint yet. I wish to create dances that not only tell humorous, dramatic or captivating stories but to also take the art form further. Most importantly, I want to encourage audiences to see and support dance."
Hübbe and company have been elated by the audience and critical reception of West Coast and Kennedy Center performances. "It’s heartwarming and delightful to be so celebrated with the programs one has worked so hard to put together."
Counting the company’s blessings for the tour, he knows great challenges face dance in this changing world of economic uncertainty. "We must continue to make it entertaining – I’d almost use the word commercial – to audiences without loosing the values and esthetique that all classical ballets are based on: refined technique, musicality and theater."
Among RDB’s principal dancers in the troupe are Ulrik Birkkjaer, Susanne Grinder, Gudrun Bojesen, Amy Watson and Jean-Lucien Massot.
Bournonville’s breakthrough work in
European romantic ballet, La Sylphide is his only tragic ballet. It tells of a young Scotsman, who’s split between the world he knows and dreams of a tempting and dangerous life.
Created in 1832 by Filipo Taglioni for his daughter Maria at the Paris Opera, Bournnonville staged his version and danced the role of the Scotsman in Copenhagen four years later with Lucile Grahn as the Sylph.
Napoli, another of Bournonville’s main works, is among the most prominent works in international ballet repertoire. Act III’s celebratory dance is a hallmark of the RDB. It’s the gripping tale of a girl and her poor fisherman, whose love is challenged by a seductive sea demon. The choreographer’s Variations is a showcase for his clearly definable strokes, recognized "by the gracious execution of each step, the softly rounded arms, the direction of head and torso and the natural, joyous expression in the dance."
Lost on Slow, music by Vivaldi, is danced by three women and three men and distinguished by geometric sharpness, quick isolation of body parts, tightly woven motifs, and doll-like maneuvers. As "ornately tutu-ed ballerinas slither in and out of the arms of their male counterparts – sometimes frozen, sometimes trembling, it’s a sophisticated, macabre dialogue of tongue-in-cheek mime/modern dance and human puppetry."
The Lesson, created for Danish TV in 1963, is based on Ionesco’s La Leçon and is the demonically captivating tale about a deranged, sadistic dance instructor who kills his pupils.
Hübbe began his dance training at age 10 with the RDB School, becoming an apprentice in 1984 and joining the corps two years later. That same year, he was awarded the Silver Medal and the French Critics Prize in the Paris Ballet Competition. In 1988, he was promoted to the rank of principal dancer. In 1992, he joined the NYCB as a principal dancer.
He originated roles by Robbins and Martins, including the role of Friar Lawrence in Martins’ full length Romeo + Juliet. Hübbe worked with numerous choreographers, among them Robert La Fosse, Kevin O’Day and Twyla Tharp. His favorites partners were Yvonne Borree and Wendy Whelan. Favorite ballets were Balanchine’s Apollo, La Sonambula, Swan Lake and Robbins’1995 premiere of West Side Story Suite, in which he danced and sang the role of Riff. He gave his farewell performance in 2008.
The Royal Danish tour has been made possible by the the A.P. Møller and Chastine Mc-Kinney Møller Foundation.
Tkts to the RDB at the Koch are $35-$125. Performances are at 7:30 tonight and Wednesday; dark Thursday; Friday @ 8 P.M.; Saturday @ 2 and 8; Sunday @ 3. For program information and to purchase tkts, visit the Koch box office or go online to www.davidkochtheater.com/events.
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