Starting a second, final week at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, the Royal Danish Ballet sent a message to the public, and it came across loud and clear. "Don't imagine that we're typecast," suggested the unmistakable subtext of the evening's program. "We may be Danish, and loyal to the tradition of dainty classicism for which we are so noted. But we are also dancers immersed in the contemporary world, and we can be as sexy, as hip, as with it as the best of them, and don't you forget it."
They're pretty well right about it, too. This is a superb company; the vivacity of spirit the members have been exhibiting during the current visit isn't exceeded anywhere in the ballet world. It's no surprise that they should command the kind of stylistic versatility that's required of other major ensembles, and ever since they went international in the '50s, the Danes have been acquiring modern repertoire from a multitude of sources. Nor is this the first time they've shown off their polydexterity in this country. Still, last night's demonstration was electric in feeling--these dancers are thrilled with the reach of their art, and they can't wait to let us in on it.
And so, after a week devoted exclusively to ballets by August Bournonville, the sovereign choreographer of their 19th-century tradition, we were treated to a program anchored at one end by the U.S. premiere of Glen Tetley's "The Firebird," and at the other, by the first American performance by the RDB of Alvin Ailey's "Memoria." Coals to Newcastle? Maybe. But the point was securely made. Though a Danish accent in the dancing of these ballets by American choreographers was plainly perceptible--the more so in the Ailey, for good reason--these were brilliant, gripping, virtuosic performances, thoroughly sensitive to the stylistic idiosyncracies both works entail.
The Danes instilled so much conviction and oomph into their account of "The Firebird" it almost enabled one to overlook the work's shortcomings. Tetley has used the famous Stravinsky score (in a rather unfamiliar arrangement based on the composer's 1911 version, according to conductor Peter Lassen), but its treatment is far from traditional. In place of the Russian fairy tale of the original ballet, Tetley attempts an allegorical abstraction. The roles of the magic Firebird and the Princess are rolled into one; the Prince becomes The Lover; and the evil Katschei is The Keeper of the Garden. In addition, there's a sextet of stiff-necked Women in Black (the costuming, at the start, is Victorian in look), and hordes of Young Maidens and sleek young males called Ravens. The general idea is clear enough--the Firebird, as a symbol of revolt against sexual prudery and repression, is set free when the Lover vanquishes the Keeper in combat. You can make what you will of the theological or metaphysical implications.
The narrative progress of the ballet, however, is messy and murky, and the ultimate effect is to reduce everything to a pretentious and lurid melodrama--heroic Libido defeats nasty Prudery, an effect redoubled by dressing the Keeper, all in black, as a cadaverous Count Dracula and the Lover, in open white shirt and khaki slacks, as a tennis pro. Under the circumstances, John Macfarlane's chic moderne decor is atmospherically apt. As for Tetley's choreography, it is, as ever, full of writhing torsos, entwining limbs, cascading leaps, swirling formations, all in rather fulsome profusion. What could be more opposite to "proper" old Bournonville than Tetley, the incontinent apostle of carnality? Be it noted, though, that Linda Hindberg made a wonderfully sensuous Firebird, Arne Villumsen a powerfully ardent Lover, and Lars Damsgaard a magnificently menacing Keeper.
Even more of a challenge from a stylistic standpoint was "Memoria," Ailey's 1979 tribute to the late Joyce Trisler, in the form of a congregational dirge and paean to the rambling music of Keith Jarrett. Pelvic rolls, backfalls, extreme arches of the torso, sinuous stretchings of limb and trunk, along with jazz rhythms, are as far removed idiomatically from the Danish training as could be. With Linda Hindberg, Lars Damsgaard and Torben Jeppesen at the head of a vibrant cast of 45, the company made up in rapture and energy what they may have sporadically lacked in elasticity and "soul."
The program had its old-fashioned side too--a delicious performance of Vincenzo Galeotti's 1786 "The Whims of Cupid and the Ballet Master"--the world's oldest preserved ballet. An entire separate review could be written about the comedic mastery of the Danes in this context, and the charming and ingenious staging which is its basis--but this must await another day.