Dance Review: The Royal Danish Ballet in New York

Royal Danish Ballet, La Sylphide

Ulrik Birkkjaer and Susanne Grinder in La Sylphide
© Henrik Stenberg

As the New York City Ballet has become a steward of ballets by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine, so the Royal Danish Ballet is the chief caretaker of August Bournonville’s work. At the Saturday matinee performance by the Royal Danish Ballet in New York, we were treated to two ballets that are staples of the Bournonville repertoire: La Sylphide and the third act of Napoli.

RDB’s La Sylphide is wonderful, lush and filled with exquisite detail. The scenery is understated and sophisticated—a perfect foil for the dancers, who move with a markedly unostentatious quality, even as they execute technically treacherous feats. In the second act, the sylphs seem to breathe as one; in the jigs of the first act, their movements are precise without losing the feeling of spontaneity.

Marcin Kupiñski as James—the young Scot who, on his wedding day, is tempted away by a sylph—is especially good in these group dances, movements crisp and earthbound. (As the ballet goes on, and he follows his sylph into the forest, his jumps soar higher and higher into the air.) He is less a dreamer than one unsatisfied with reality. Alexander Stæger as Gurn (James’ rival for his fiancé’s affections) and Mette Bødtcher as Madge are both engaging actors. Stæger shows a convincing mix of petulant jealousy and real love for Effie. His (oh so brief) hesitation before proposing to Effy when James has disappeared is comic, but it is not without some trace of a dismay that betraying James inspires. And Bødtcher’s Madge is both sensual and frightening.

Susanne Grinder’s portrayal of the sylph was at times poignant, though also baffling. She has lovely, gentle port de bras, her arms relaxed at the wrists and elbows. (In fact, most of the Royal Danish Ballet dancers possess such suppleness in their upper bodies—an attribute that is missing from too many dancers of the two major ballet companies in New York.) This pliancy, however, does not extend to the rest of her body: the landings of her jumps are often brittle, and her technique is sometimes a bit too uncertain for her to seem to fly. (Many may remember how Natalia Osipova skimmed across the stage in a series of sauts de chat two years ago in the American Ballet Theater’s production of the ballet.)

That said, Grinder’s delicacy and reserve—in both her dancing and her acting—make her Sylphide an interesting one, if not quite typical. Most sylphs, eyes brimming with wonder, are flighty creatures: their hearts flutter with their wings and are as quick to change as the direction of their feet. Grinder’s sylph, from the beginning, is a more tragic figure; her restless energy seems more often to emanate from shivering nerves than from joy. When James tells her to release the butterfly she has trapped in her cupped palms, she watches its escape regretfully, knowingly.

Bournonville’s Napoli, which tells the story of a young woman who falls in love with a fisherman, is rarely performed in the United States—so it was a pleasure to get to see the third act (the wedding) danced alongside the better-known La Sylphide. This act begins calmly, with a dance for six, followed by solo variations for seven. The variations in Napoli are fiendishly difficult: they are all tiny, fleeting steps between hovering jumps and balances. All of the dancers were more than up to the task, but Lendorf stood out: his smaller steps sung like trills and transitioned smoothly into airy, suspended leaps and tours.

Meanwhile, children watch the scene below as they lean their elbows over a bridge, townspeople gather along the sides of the stage, and an occasional face appears from behind a shuttered window. Enter the happy couple (Amy Watson and Alban Lendorf), and soon the whole town has joined in the celebration—a great swarm of people circling the stage, taking part in the festivities for a time before retreating to the sidelines to recharge.

Royal Danish Ballet, Napoli

The Royal Danish Ballet 2010/11
August Bournonville: Napoli

Photo: Costin Radu

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