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The Royal Danish Ballet's Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Bournonville's "Napoli." Costin Radu photo courtesy RDB..

Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- The Royal Danish Ballet's return to Lincoln Center for a week (June 14-19) in what many New Yorkers persist in calling "the State Theater" was an occasion for expectation laced with dread. The company's new artistic director, RDB-schooled Nikolaj Hubbe, who returned to his alma mater in 2008 after some 15 years as a much-beloved principal with New York City Ballet, had reportedly lost no time in giving the company what he called a "strong contemporary artistic profile." Was this lofty phrase a euphemism for Eurotrash, the foisting of updated irrelevance on the staging of the performing arts which has reached epidemic proportions abroad and here? Was the Danes' precious heritage of August Bournonville ballets now threatened?

Hubbe wisely offered New York only a glimpse of any damage he did to "Napoli," Bournonville's 1842 fairy tale of the fisher boy Gennaro who rescues his beloved Teresina from the clutches of the evil sea sprite Golfo. Plainly, there was nothing Hubbe could do with such a fanciful 19th-century plot except set it in the slums of 1950 Naples and turn Gennaro and Teresina into lovable, indomitable urchins. In the press kit photo they looked like characters out of Vittorio de Sica's neorealistic classic "Shoeshine." (I presume the villainous Golfo is now a mafioso who, as we learned from "The Godfather," sometimes sleeps with the fishes.)

Fortunately, all that New York got to see of "Napoli" was its often excerpted Act III, in which the community celebrated the lovers' triumph by dancing, not in blue jeans and bobby sox but in the traditional costume of peasant skirts and blouses for the women and tights and shirts with sashes and kerchiefs of matching colors for the men. I felt privileged as well as gratified to see a great artistic tradition kept alive by such buoyant, scrupulous dancers whose legs and feet darted with precision and whose torsos remained unfailingly erect, arms held at the side like parentheses. Smudges of Hubbe's alien concept were glimpsed only around the edges, where grungy onlookers in 20th-century sweaters, jackets, slacks and dresses wielded tambourines. Then in the closing moments, 1950 Naples reasserted itself with the visual equivalent of a fart: Gennaro (Alban Lendorf) and Teresina (Amy Watson) returned to the stage riding a Vespa motor scooter. The Playbill's choreography credits included Hubbe and character dancer Sorella Englund along with Bournonville. Regrettably, spotting who was responsible for which step and what ensemble is beyond me, but I know whom to blame for that Vespa.

"La Sylphide" (1836), the jewel in the company's crown which I saw twice, remained recognizably Bournonville's (although designer Mikael Melbye's oddly gnarled trees in Act II had a decidedly contemporary look). American Ballet Theatre would do well to adopt such RDB inspirations as having the Sylphide (shared here by Gudrun Bojesen and Caroline Cavallo) seem to float to the floor in Act I after she re-entered the action through the window. Actually she went on pointe atop an unobtrusive little pedestal that I hadn't noticed until it slowly sank into the stage, a gentle descent that imbued this airy character with a precious lightness I have never seen before. I also relished the welcome dash of humor when Gurn (excellently done both nights by Nicolai Hansen) discovered the only partner he could find for the Act I reel was a tiny kilted lass all of 36 inches high; Hansen's fleeting grimace of exasperation said volumes.

RDB's second act assemblage of sprites included a Leading Sylph (Hilary Guswiler) and a lovely pas de trois that I would very much like to see duplicated at ABT, however ABT's ragged, doddering Madge, often done in drag, definitely has the edge in witchery. Former ballerina Lis Jeppesen, although an excellent mime, didn't throb with meanness until she grabbed the defeated James (Mads Blangstrup) by his hair in triumph. Englund, who dressed like a dowager gone to seed, was gentler with Ulrik Bikkjaer. The Danish crones helping themselves to hearty quaffs from their cauldron of poison was more like it. While the Herman Severin Lovenskiold score shouldn't have been a challenge for today's musicians, the New York City Opera Orchestra still played noticeably better for Graham Bond than for Henrik Vagn Christensen.

Caroline Cavallo in the Royal Danish Ballet's production of Bournonville's "La Sylphide." Martin Mydtskov photo courtesy RDB.

New Yorkers curious about how the RDB might look in something made within the last 50 years had only two ballets, Jorma Elo's "Lost on Slow" (2008) and Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson" (1963), to choose from this visit. I cannot comment on the former, which the company had premiered soon after Hubbe assumed command; I made no attempt to see it because Elo, choreographer in residence at Boston Ballet, is not exactly an unknown quantity in New York. His "Slice to Sharp," that emerged from City Ballet's 2006 Diamond Project, had consisted entirely of contemporary Forsythe cum Tharp twitchery monotonously foisted upon 300-year-old Baroque compositions (a von Biber partita, movements from seven Vivaldi violin concerti). Elo's comments in the RDB program notes on his modus operandi, while amusing, were not reassuring: "Instead of drawing lines between all points, I draw the points and then select movements in random order.... I don't ask myself so many questions -- or rather I might ask a question, but I don't always answer it myself." "Lost on Slow" was set to six Vivaldi violin concerti, including RV301 in G major, which he had mined earlier. I am content with my deprivation.

I wasn't exactly looking forward to another exposure to "The Lesson," but I was morbidly curious to see how this essentially sunny company would respond to a dank shocker based on Eugène Ionesco's absurdist play about the fatal power of pedantry; here, of course, it's a dance teacher who kills his students. Deeply miscalculated as this first ballet of Flindt is, Hubbe may have scheduled it as a tribute to the man who was RDB's artistic director from 1966 to 1978. What the audience takes away from the performance, however, is overwhelming respect for the dancers, not Flindt.

Blangstrup, so convincing as a young farmer led astray by an irresistible sprite, underwent a 180-degree change into a skulking, wild-eyed creature who crept about in fits and starts, so afflicted by tics he could only be described as a tic-ing time bomb. Telegraphing the grisly ending from his very entrance, this grotesque turned the entire ballet into an anticlimax by preventing the gradual accumulation of horror, yet what choice did Blangstrup have? Georges Delerue's score crepitates with quirkiness from bar one and Flindt lets few notes go undanced. Mette Botcher as his pianist and accomplice had an eccentric walk that perfectly suited her conflicted character. Alexandra Lo Sardo as the doomed student brought a radiant innocence into the studio that proved heart-breaking. Anyone but a character in this ballet would have made a grand jet;eacute for the street the moment Blangstrup, eyes aflame, sidled up to her.

A far more treasurable memory of this company was of its touching ritual of bowing together onstage after a performance, most specifically after the June 18 "La Sylphide," when Cavallo, an American guest artist, concluded her career. As usual, everyone who had danced was massed onstage, the leads lined up before the corps, and when the curtain opened all bowed as one. The second time the curtain opened, the leads stepped forward for a joint bow while the corps remained behind. The third time the leads -- Hansen, Jeppesen, Blangstrup, Cavallo -- stepped forward one by one. I'd seen no ballerina presented with flowers during this visit, although several had deserved an armload, but on this special occasion Cavallo was given a huge bouquet when she took her bow. Spontaneously, leads and corps burst as one into applause. Long after I will have mercifully blotted out all memories of motor scooters and homicidal maniacs, I will recall that lovely burst of joyous, perfectly timed camaraderie when I think of the Royal Danish Ballet.

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