Choreography: August Bournonville
Music: Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann and Niels W. Gade
Debut: Royal Danish Ballet, 1854
I have just returned from a most unexpected evening of absolute pleasure at The Kennedy Center, where the Royal Danish Ballet performed a totally enchanting August Bournonville classic: Napoli.
Having attended a dress rehearsal earlier this week for A Folk Tale, the company’s other program and another Bournonville creation, I was not primed for the sheer delight of Napoli. Despite several complimentary reviews of A Folk Tale online, I found the ballet, my first Bournonville, to be even more confusing and ridiculous than the average classical ballet. The sets were immaculate, taking me away to a troll-inhabited fantasy land, Danish style. Current artistic director Nikolaj Hubbe is said to have toned down the religious aspects of the story but the overriding theme of Christian goodness still pervades – in overly simplistic, literal terms. Perhaps I should forgive in this respect, as the ballet is very much a product of the time and place in which it was created: 1854 Denmark. Bournonville called A Folk Tale, “The most complete and best of all my choreographic works.” However, the utterly silly plot (it’s too long and difficult to summarize here) and, moreover, the favoring of pantomime almost entirely over actual dancing had me questioning the greatness of this great choreographer and founder of the Danish school.
Hence, my surprise and delight at Napoli. Although the first ten minutes or so of the ballet were light on dancing, which is typical of the era in which Bournonville choreographed, the ballet suddenly gets balletic and never stops through the grand finale. The steps are the old-fashioned kind that we still practice in ballet class but rarely see onstage anymore. Petite allegro abounds; the Royal Danish cast executes each beat and jump – each jete, cabriole, ballone, brise – with alacrity and style. Every leg is turned out and every foot invariably stretched to a beautiful point, every face is serene and smiling, and every arm held roundly in place as both male and female dancers demonstrate their trademark quick, airy approach to some most difficult choreography. Contrary to many world class ballet companies today, the Danish seem to favor control over showmanship. Pirouettes rarely exceed a double but each is finished neatly and with an easy grace. It’s a refreshing style today.
As in A Folk Tale, the sets for Napoli were wonderful. Hubbe places the Italian town in the 1950s, cigarettes and high heels included. Also as in A Folk Tale, videography and non-orchestral sound was incorporated. However, the effect was a success in the latter ballet and not so much in the former. The Danish honor their 19th century roots, which means, for better (as in Napoli) or for worse (A Folk Tale), they tell stories through an overall setting of theatricality, with dance as one element. Audiences can expect not just pantomime but clapping and stomping, too, onstage. It’s an old-fashioned approach to story telling (prior audiences demanded humor, mime and more than just dancing from their ballets) that somehow feels a little avant-garde now.
Nowhere was the talent of the company to create real atmosphere more apparent or appreciated than in Act II. Set in an underwater grotto, this all too brief scene depicts hero Gennaro rescuing heroine Teresina from a destiny of Naiad-ism…which is like dryad-ism except under water. Gennaro’s love for Teresina overcomes the evil sea demon Golfo’s power over her and the lovers ascend toward light and life together. The entire scene was breathtaking from start to finish, thanks to both choreography and theatricality. Golfo was powerful and sympathetic, and the lovers tender and romantic. The fleeting scene was so majestic that I thought I’d like to skip Act III and simply see an encore instead.
However, the final act, despite its predictably charming peasants and the incongruity of the 1950s costuming combined with the traditional balletic dress of the soloists, was not in the least anticlimactic. The stellar cast performed a lively series of delightful divertissements with precision and color. As the curtain fell in the final moment, I was genuinely inspired to join in the well-deserved standing ovation.
I’m grateful for this week’s opportunity to finally experience the Danish school of ballet, which holds a unique and respected place in ballet history and today. The style is undoubtedly distinctive. I am intrigued and amused by the fable-inspired themes – and more than slightly confused by the cross-dressing characters appearing in both ballets (having arrived at the theatre direct from the Capitol Pride Parade, Napoli’s “drag queen” scene felt either playfully appropriate or uncomfortably mocking). But more than anything, I am entirely impressed by the quality of dancing and elaborate theatricality that combine at the Royal Danish Ballet, which make for some captivating story-telling.
Reading the story of Napoli in “101,” I recognize many changes and reductions to the original production, which was performed, according to Danish tradition, in exactly the same manner for well over a hundred years. Hubbe’s break with tradition is welcomed in my case.