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Dance review: Royal Danish Ballet opens at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

May 25, 2011 |  4:00 pm

Can a 263-year-old ballet company be reinvented? Can its reliance on 19th-century nostalgia and Old World charm be dumped in favor of a bracingly contemporary muscularity and heat? And can its unique classical style emerge from this daring transformation looking stronger than ever?

The answers proved triumphantly affirmative on Tuesday, when the Royal Danish Ballet opened its first Southland engagement in more than 15 years at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Under the artistic direction of Nikolaj Hübbe (best known in America as Copenhagen's gift to New York City Ballet), the Danes offered an audacious, five-part  “Nordic Choreography” program emphasizing what has always been their pride and glory: male dancing.

August Bournonville's antique choreography is the foundation of  the company's classical technique. And in “Bournonville Variations,” Hubbe and Thomas Lund paid tribute by arranging step-sequences from the company's schools into an exciting  all-male showpiece to music by Martin Akerwall.

From the suave mirror-synchrony of Alban Lendorf and Marcin Kupinski at the very beginning, this was classical dancing both grounded in the past and a fertile resource for the varied 21st-century choreographic development displayed on the rest of the program. The speed, the buoyancy, the intricate step-patterns and above all the sense of an elegant, focused body-image were presented with great purity here. But forget nostalgia. With contemporary paintings by Helmut Schober  projected on the backdrop, and costumes by Annette Norgaard evoking everything from Milan in Fashion Week to “Braveheart,” the sense of a vibrant living tradition remained supreme.

Royaldanish2 Indeed, the only descent into balletic grave-robbing came in the ensemble piece “Salute” by Johan Kobborg (best known in America as Copenhagen's gift to England's Royal Ballet).  Set to music by Lumbye, it began with a kind of polka militaire and culminated in a sweeping waltz, but stayed so relentlessly fussy and unfocused -- sometimes commenting on RDB traditions, sometimes merely appropriating them -- that it was a blessed relief when Susanne Grinder and Jón Axel Fransson interrupted the flimsy whimsy to dance a relatively simple lyric duet.

Shorter and infinitely better, Kobborg's comic competition trio “Les Lutins” featured the only live music heard Tuesday plus dancing skill of the highest order from Kupinsky, Gudrun Bojesen and Tim Matiakis. Bournonville effigies  loomed over both Kobborg pieces, but the occasional infusions of  Russian bravura suggested that Marius Petipa should have been there too.

The company's technique melted, warped and splintered throughout Jorma Elo's inventive, unpredictable sextet “Lost on Slow,” (to Vivaldi.) The Danes' ability to launch virtuoso sorties with no evident preparation came into prominence here, with the density and velocity of the movement, along with the frequent fake-outs (including the ending) challenging dancers and audience alike. Highlights were the moody solo-in-silence by Fernando Mora and the brilliant, off-kilter duet for Alba Nadal and Matiakis.

The program ended as it began -- with an all-male showpiece. But Jorma Uotinen's neo-primitive “Earth” (to Apocalyptica) downplayed Bournonvillian aplomb in favor of a more weighty and gymnastic style. Indeed, a stageful of guys wearing nothing but kilts and kneepads, stomping and rolling and lifting one another in what looked like dry leaves (but was reportedly tiny rubber balls) may have evoked Pina Bausch's modernity rather than Copenhagen's bastion of  classicism. But it's an index of Hübbe's achievement that every mother's son looked perfectly in his element. 

In “Les Lutins,” pianist Julian Thurber and violinist Lars Bjornkjaer played music by Wieniawski and Bazzini. Members of the Pacific Symphony will accompany  Bournonville's full-length story ballet “Napoli” on the weekend.


Nikolaj Hübbe electrifies the Royal Danish Ballet

New York City Ballet and its dancers resolve contract dispute

Review: Los Angeles Ballet gives a moving performance of 'Giselle'

-- Lewis Segal

Royal Danish Ballet, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
“Napoli”: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $17-$115.  (714) 556-2787 or

Top: Royal Danish Ballet dancers perform "Bournonville Variations" Tuesday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Lower: The company in “Salute” by Johan Kobborg. Credit: Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times

Formerly The Times' staff dance critic, Segal is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.