Royal Danish Ballet’s earthy, pretty ‘Napoli’

For a 170-year-old ballet, “Napoli” is in admirable shape. Hot-tempered men and beautiful women with flamboyant sex appeal fill its first act, surrounded by a seaside setting so Technicolor-rich you can almost feel the heat of the sun. Or maybe that was the heat of the hoopla onstage, as the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet whipped up an earthy Italian village scene in the production performed this weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

This 2009 staging of the 1842 original by Danish choreographer August Bour­nonville contains the light, carefully shaped dancing Bournonville works are famous for — as well as rudeness and raw comedy. Not the usual fare for romantic ballet, but that was exactly the point for Artistic Director Nikolaj Huebbe, who created this production with colleague Sorella Englund.

Huebbe and Englund spin the ballet forward a century, positing it in the 1950s, when postwar modernity was edging in on the old ways. The Mafia moves through this ballet’s Naples, and so does that ’50s icon, the Vespa scooter. But, to me, what truly said vintage Italiano was the appearance of a cyclist in a retro wool jersey who wandered onstage with his foldout map, wheeling a gleaming old-style Bianchi, the prized Italian bike known for its distinctive shade of turquoise. This was a sign that Huebbe did his research in the era — and perhaps it is also a plug for the sport that he told me in a recent interview he has taken up since he retired from dancing three years ago.

The cyclist is an apt touch, for this is an Italy of action. “La dolce vita” hasn’t quite made it to this newspaper-strewn wharf, where fists and cigarettes jab the air, mimed interactions are kicked up a notch with rough, indignant gestures and a drag queen has a piquant moment in the spotlight. The whole first act unspools at the rollicking pace of an Italian comedy.

It also sets up a promise that the ensuing two acts don’t quite fulfill. Once the stars of the ballet, young lovers Teres­ina and Gennaro, depart by boat just as a spectacular storm hits, the ballet leaves the realm of cinematic realism for less engaging territory. Teresina is swept overboard, Gennaro dives in to save her and the two spend the brief second act in an underwater grotto, where Gennaro struggles to free Ter­esina from a sea demon, Golfo, who has turned his surprise visitor into a naiad.

Huebbe and Englund rechoreographed this act (no blasphemy there; the original steps have long been lost) and replaced the traditional accompaniment with modern music by Louise Alenius, merely acceptable fare punctuated by clicks, blurps and whispered incantations.

Teresina — danced by Amy Watson — is a new initiate swept into the all-female coven of naiads, and this was beautifully rendered, bringing to mind the dance of the Wilis in the second act of that most iconic romantic ballet, “Giselle.” Jean-Lucien Massot, as Golfo, has a chesty, magnetic solo — all his power residing in his impressive pectorals. In comparison, the more slight Alexander Staeger, as Gennaro, relied on ardent intensity to win Teresina back.

The third act is traditionally “Napoli’s” strongest, filled with group dances and tarantellas in celebration of Teresina and Gennaro’s wedding. Certainly, the crisp turns, boiling jumps and great warmth of spirit here were exhilarating, a true reflection of the sweet life. In the spree of formal variations, however, I missed the first act’s gutsy hullabaloo and wished the two views of Naples could have been more seamlessly combined. But that aside, this renovation is a keeper. Huebbe has infused new blood into a treasured classic. And in the end, la dolce vita came to town.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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