When the Royal Danish Ballet puts its classic repertory on stage along with contemporary ballets by Jorma Elo and Jorma Uotinen as they did on this repertory program, they are doing something that no other ballet company in the world can lay claim to: drawing on an unbroken company history that begins in the 18th century and continues into the 21st. While that is an impressive thing as a stand-alone accomplishment it is not immune from some drawbacks. Tuesday’s repertory program looked like an evening with a beginning (two Bournonville style ballets) and an end (two recent ballets by Finnish choreographers) but no middle. Still there was much to admire at both ends of the spectrum, both in the theatricality of the evening and in the dancing, which ranged from the purity and buoyancy of Bournonville’s open-hearted and mannered take on classical dance to the slide-in-the-dirt tribalism of Uotinen’s EARTH. In that work the stage is covered in a carpet of brownish rubber pellets that stand in for a ritual holy ground.
Without a story to hang the dancing on, the two works in the Bournonville style, Bournonville Variations and Alumnus tended to feel short on content, while Lost on Slow (Elo) and EARTH (Uotinen) felt more like dance for a purpose. Artistic Director Nikolaj Hubbe, has staged and arranged the 1890s step lexicon from Hans Beck to create Bournonville Variations. The ballet is cast for men only. Using a bare stage opened to the back wall, the dancers enter one by one wearing full length coats and work boots. The costuming and set are an attempt to make sense out of an August Bournonville quotation hanging on a placard just below the proscenium. Paraphrased it says: dance is an art because it requires work and knowledge. But soon enough, the dancers discard the work clothes for underdressed tights and tunics, a back drop comes in, glowing lighting materializes and this didactic ballet of daily class and technique swings into motion. The piece moves from solo and duo variations on basic steps to a group of concluding sections for three groups of four men each. The costuming (Annette Nørgaard) which dressed the men in grey tights and a variety of tunics included one costuming failure with a dancer’s sash coming undone during a pas de trois. It remained on the floor, painfully well-lit during much of the action. At times, the corps of men had a rough go of making the dancing look easy and well in hand.
Johan Kobborg’s Alumnus (2011) seemed a weak offering with its frilly story of soldier boys and soldier girls in a light drama of flirtation and social hookups. The opening section, for two men and a woman dressed as a man titled Les Lutins, was danced to the only live music of the evening, an on stage piano and violin duo. The salon music by Wieniawski and Bazzini was played capably and with ready wit by violinist Julian Thurber and pianist Lars Bjørnkjær. The second section, Salute, with its fleet of men military dress costumed by Natalia Stewart was danced to a recorded medley of marches militaires and waltzes. Both sections were easy on the eyes but felt over saturated with mugging and overly broad pantomime. Looking on from the wings and then pointing downward from above in both sections were oversized profiles of Bournonville himself. In the end it made you wonder if a new faux Bournonville ballet was really worth the effort.
Lost On Slow, the first of the contemporary ballets, progresses with several mix and match movements from the concertos of Vivaldi. It’s not the first time that modernism has been paired with the Baroque. Elo has fashioned a ballet without plot that develops through a series of interactions with three sets of couples. He combines both classical movement and partnering with quirky broken positions and rippling limbs and backs. Particularly arresting was a lengthy, central adagio duo for Tim Matiakis and Alba Nadal that was easily the most interesting section of the work. I imagined it to be the lost on slow of the title. Also striking was Jean Lucien Massot, both in his solo moments and ensemble sequences. He was a singularly expressive powerhouse throughout. Elo brings a memorable quickness to his movement which he exploits both when the music is brisk and when it slows. Several sections began in silence. The costumes by Nanette Nørgaard put the men in satin-like pants of varying colors and tunic tops that riffed on a sleeveless Sgt. Pepper look and the women in small layered tutus with iridescent colors. Thomas Bek Jensen covered the stage with heavily shadowed, almost bleak lighting. Of all the choreography on the evening it made the most sense and did so with a simple sense of economy. It would have been immeasurably better with real music of course, but this year has been a disappointing one for big companies touring with canned music. Let’s hope that it’s not the new paradigm. Lost On Slow was originally created for the Royal Danish Ballet and premiered at the Royal Danish Theatre in 2008.
The hyper masculine EARTH drew powerful lines with ritual and tribal elements embedded in a gritty electric score from the Finnish metal cello band Apocalyptica and Metallica. EARTH was easily the riskiest dancing of the evening with the twelve men turning, sliding and flailing on a thick bed of ersatz dirt. One lengthy section was danced in the distorting flicker of a harsh strobe. The work begins and ends with lengthy full ensemble sections. Standing powerfully alone at the center of EARTH was a section for four men laden with expressive partnering. The movement rises only to slowly work its way earthward and finishes with two men in an uncomfortable, horizontal suspension. While much of the movement was imbued with virile athleticism there were also, curiously, elements of classical movement that looked out of place.
EARTH comes across in equal parts as dance and as spectacle. The men were shirtless and dressed in red brown kilts. The costuming was by Erika Turunen. The sets and lighting design by Mikki Kunttu effectively created the sense of a disintegrated future landscape. EARTH was first performed at the Royal Danish Theatre in 2005.