A Danish Classic

Written by Susan Reiter on . Posted in Dance, Posts.

The last time New Yorkers saw the Royal Danish Ballet, a
young 20-year-old named Nikolaj Hübbe was one its newest principals—and he made
quite an impression. He was dashing and technically powerful, with vivid
dramatic instincts. In 1988, New York
critic Anna Kisselgoff called him “one of the season’s revelations”
and wrote that he was “already blessed with star presence.”

Four years later, in 1992, Hübbe followed what has become a
tradition of sorts among leading men of the RDB: He came to dance with New York
City Ballet. His 16 years there endeared him to the local audiences; he put his
distinctive stamp on many Balanchine and Robbins roles and appeared in many
original works. When he decided in 2008 to hang up his tights, Hübbe was
appointed the new artistic director of his former company. So this prodigal son
returned to Copenhagen, bringing the experiences and insights he’d gained
during his years in New York.

He returned to a company that had experienced a revolving
door of artistic directors—for a while, the position seemed to change hands
annually—before Frank Andersen, the director who had nurtured Hübbe as a
youngster, again took charge. The RDB carries a noble tradition—the unique,
dramatically detailed ballets by the 19th-century master August
Bournonville—that is its calling card, but can also sometimes be a burden. And
while it tours to Japan and Beijing, Budapest and Paris, the RDB had not been
seen in New York for more than two decades.

Admirers of Bournonville’s buoyant, fleet choreography and
of the many generations of memorable Danish dancers hoped that Hübbe’s arrival
might lead to New York performances by the company. Happily, that has come
about in short order. On June 14, Hübbe brings the RDB to the very theater
where he himself danced, for a week of performances ranging from La Sylphide, an 1836 Bournonville
masterwork, to Lost on SLOW, a 2008
work by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.

Speaking recently from Berkeley, Calif., the second stop on
the RDB’s four-city tour, Hübbe recalled the 1988 U.S. tour. “The enthusiasm of
American ballet audiences was wonderful. There’s something about the American
theatergoer that is overwhelming, when they’re passionate,” he says. “I wanted
these dancers to have that experience.”

Hübbe has wasted no time in putting his imprint on the RDB.
He returned to find that company class had lost its focus. “Over one year, they
had 24 different teachers, and I don’t think that’s very good,” he says. “When
I came in, their classical technique wasn’t as polished as one could wish. So I
probably laid down a line that was much more conservative than the previous
director.” He included an all-Balanchine program during his first season, and
soon turned his attention to the RDB’s calling card, the Bournonville ballets.

In 2006, he’d been invited to stage a new production of La Sylphide, the choreographer’s
best-known and perhaps most perfect work, in which Hübbe formerly danced the
lead role of James with passionate bravura and interpretive nuance. Set in
Scotland, this quintessentially Romantic ballet contrasts the comfortable
safety of the familiar with the lure of a magical, mysterious realm. James,
about to get married, responds to the lure of the beautiful, elusive Sylph,
entering her realm in a second act that is one of the true glories of ballet.
Several casts will perform the work in New York, and the pivotal mime role of
Madge (a witch who bears a grudge) will be interpreted by the veteran Sorella
Englund as well as Lis Jeppesen, a star of the RDB’s 1988 tour.

Since becoming director, Hübbe has turned his attention to
two other Bournonville classics, Napoli and
A Folk Tale. In both cases, he shook
things up to some extent, altering the setting, time frame and some dramatic
elements while always recognizing the timeless mastery of the much-loved
choreography. Keeping Bournonville’s ballets in repertory is a given, he says.
“You have to do them. But I don’t think you can just repeat the same thing, and
do a replica. You have to relate Bournonville to this generation. You have to
make him relate to the dancers of today, so that they can communicate and
convey his works.”

New York will see Napoli’s
famous third act, with its exquisitely refined pas de six and the robust “Tarantella.” Hübbe has added a wedding pas de deux for the central couple. Additional
repertory includes The Lesson, a
moody Ionesco-inspired 1963 ballet by Flemming Flindt, a former RDB dancer and
director. “It’s a fantastic vehicle for three dancers—a Danish classic,” Hübbe
says. The male dancers’ improved technique will shine in Bournonville Variations, which assembles the technically
challenging and highly musical attack of the master’s steps into something new.

Hübbe will no doubt be watching with pride as his dancers
take over the stage that was his artistic home for so long. He may have been
going home when he returned to Copenhagen, but this will be a homecoming on
another level.

Royal Danish Ballet

June 14–19, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center (70 W.
63rd St.), 212-721-6500; three programs, $20 & up.