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Royal Danish Ballet: 'Napoli'

The Washington visit of the Royal Danish Ballet concluded this weekend, with its strikingly updated production of Napoli, seen at the Saturday afternoon performance. The story of this ballet, created by the company's legendary choreographer August Bournonville in 1842, is very simple: Gennaro, a poor young fisherman in Naples, loves a pretty young girl named Teresina, but her money-obsessed mother will not allow them to marry. The company's current artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe, has updated the title city to Naples in the 1950s -- the Naples of the infamous Camorra, although there was not yet garbage piling up in the streets. (Former dancer Sorella Englund shares credit again with Hübbe for the production.)

The score and scenario are far less interesting than A Folk Tale, which I reviewed for Washingtonian. Again, the quality of stagecraft was admirable, including video animations projected on scrims or on the stage back wall, the latter showing an approximation of Vesuvius with changing weather patterns for the storm and different times of day. The music of the outer acts, by a team of composers including Edvard Helsted, H. S. Paulli, and H. C. Lumbye, represents a sort of garden-variety Romanticism, even making lengthy quotations from Rossini operas, not nearly as distinctive as the work of Niels Gade. The first act's choreography is almost all pantomime, featuring distinctive character work from Lis Jeppesen (Veronica, Teresina's widowed mother) and Fernando Mora and Jean-Lucien Massot as the two undesirable suitors, the last two heavily relying on Italian stereotypes.

Susanne Grinder, who had also been the Hilda in the performance of A Folk Tale we saw, was an equally lovely Teresina, feistier and sexier. She was matched by Ulrik Birkkjaer as a virile, handsome Gennaro, if not particularly virtuosic in the strength of his leaps or the verticality of his turns. The Act I pas de deux, consisting of many mirrored movements, was lovely. When Gennaro rescues Teresina from a boating accident during the storm, her mother relents and the third act is a long wedding entertainment of the sort that features lots of beautiful dancing but grinds to a halt dramatically (think The Sleeping Beauty). Lead dancers, beautiful but not particularly striking, were featured in the pas de six, the sort of ensemble divertissement Bournonville favored in many of his ballets, culminating in a tangy tarantella, with lots of ensemble hand clapping and tambourine striking, that does go on.

Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Royal Danish Ballet’s earthy, pretty ‘Napoli’ (Washington Post, June 13)

Gia Kourlas, Add Audacity To Under-statement, And Stir In Patience (New York Times, June 10)

Lewis Segal, Royal Danish Ballet performs a revamped, updated 'Napoli' at Segerstrom Center for the Arts (Los Angeles Times, May 29)

Kevin Berger, Nikolaj Hübbe electrifies the Royal Danish Ballet (Los Angeles Times, May 22)
Hübbe really left his mark on the work with his complete refashioning of the second act, the Blue Grotto scene, in which Teresina sinks to the bottom of the Grotta Azzurra on the island of Capri. Gennaro, with the help of the otherworldly pilgrim who crosses their path (Hübbe also removes the specifically Christian aspect of the story), frees his beloved from the clutches of an underwater spirit, Golfo, and his harem of naiads. This was the best part of the original score, mostly composed by Niels Gade, which Hübbe jettisoned in favor of an atmospheric experimental score by composer and "sound artist" Louise Alenius (you can watch a video of the opening eight minutes of the Blue Grotto scene at her Web site). Her music, jarringly different from the rest of the score (appropriately enough), includes recorded whispers and other menacing noises, as well as many unusual instrumental effects (bell tree, rattles, timpani glissandi, trombone wah-wahs, corrugaphone or lasso d'amore, just to name a few), but then reverts to the original pas de deux music when Gennaro and Teresina are reunited.

As the scene opens, Teresina is suspended on wires at the top of the set, floating in front of the sparkling video of underwater blue and rays of sunlight from above (sets and costumes by Maja Ravn, lighting by Mikki Kunttu). She sinks downward to the ocean floor and is gathered up by the corps of naiads, dominated in a striking choreography by Golfo, danced with disturbing menace and boundless strength by a white-faced Andrew Bowman, lifting Grinder effortlessly around the stage. The choreography includes very little strict pantomime, with duos between Golfo and Teresina and between Teresina and Gennaro, as well as beautiful group scenes for the sparkling women of the corps as the naiads. Bournonville's choreography having been lost for the second act, this seems a much more striking replacement than an attempt to create something Bournonville-like to the older music (see a sample of that in this video).

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