Given that the Royal Danish Ballet’s current New York season is its first in 23 years, one would assume the opening-night program was selected with great care. And how best to reintroduce the company to American audiences? With a revered Bournonville classic or something more modern, to demonstrate how the company has kept up with the times? Either would have been appropriate.
Instead of say, La Sylphide, however, the powers that be chose to open on Tuesday with The Lesson, a monstrous, misogynistic work from 1963 by Flemming Flindt. Based on an absurdist Ionesco play, The Lesson is neither old, new, or any good. In it, a sadistic ballet teacher (Johann Kobborg) gives a private lesson to an enthusiastic young girl (Alexandra Lo Sardo). The teacher at first treats his pupil with the severity and detachment typical of a hardened professional. There are moments that hint at a mutual attraction but the teacher soon becomes violent, using his hands to force her into developés and echappés. His dancing relaxes as her spirit breaks — she cries as he pushes her to the floor, knocks over chairs, and throws the piano sheet music about the room — until finally he pushes her into the barre and strangles her to death. The teacher and female piano accompanist dispose of the corpse, and the accompanist prepares for the next lesson, straightening the furniture and collecting her music. (This is also how the ballet begins.) The Lesson connects the teacher’s brutality with that of ballet in general — his arms even do a sort of echappé around her neck — but The Lesson has no real lesson: It lacks hope or a purpose, trading in sensationalism. As the curtain fell, I heard my first “boo” at the ballet. I couldn’t have imagined a more abysmal start to the evening.
Matters improved somewhat in the second act. Bournonville Variations, an all-male medley of the great Danish choreographer’s classroom exercises compiled by Thomas Lund and Hübbe, is viscerally thrilling but empty. Despite strong performances, what was intended as homage — or perhaps as an introduction to the company’s strong male style — becomes a cheesy, meaningless showpiece. Jorma Elo’s hyper-kinetic Lost on Slow (set to Vivaldi violin concertos) attempts to dissect its dancers, forcing their legs into classical steps while the upper bodies move like spastic robots. The choreography is mostly provocative novelties paired with showy acrobatics. One often-repeated move makes it look as though the dancers are trying to remove something from their heads. (The choreography, perhaps?) The dancers’ near-perfect execution makes the work’s pretensions all too clear.
All was forgiven (if not forgotten) with the third act of Bournonville’s classic Napoli, which was recently updated to the Fellini era by the company’s artistic director, former New York City Ballet principal dancer Nikolaj Hübbe. Inspired by the lively street dancing Bournonville witnessed in Naples, it’s a scene of collective revelry: an outdoor wedding celebration next to an aqueduct crowded with smiling children. The music repeats itself endlessly during the tarantella, and we watch pair after pair dance with different steps but the same sweet, playful joy, their leaps and jétes waxing to the score’s happiest chords. When the newlyweds depart on a cream-colored motorcycle, we’re sad to see them go. Watching Napoli, I became convinced of what I’d suspected earlier: These dancers appear to bounce. Both feet are rarely planted on the ground, yet they always maintain impeccable balance, bobbing in the air like hummingbirds to the music’s pulse.
Napoli was a revelation, showing the Danes at their most skilled and charming, but it was a disservice to the audience — not to mention the dancers — to hide these strengths from the audience for nearly two hours. I return to the David Koch Theater tonight for Bournonville’s La Sylphide, but with The Lesson again opening the program, I won’t be disappointed should I arrive late.