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The new Napoli

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The RDB's new production of Napoli (updated to the 1950s) opens next Tuesday and Nikolaj Hubbe is not sleeping well...

In an article in a Danish paper yesterday (trailed by a large photo of Hubbe on the front page - this is a big story!) he and Sorella Englund rather nervously describe what they're doing as 'throwing Bournonville up in the air' and 'melting down the family silver' - but Hubbe is adamant that it's a valid thing to be doing and says he has the total support of the older dancers who've been doing the old version all their lives.

There's also an older article here which shows that at least some of the costumes will look familiar.

So we shall see... I won't be there till later in the month but I hope we'll have some news of it before then!

Edit to add:

And I've just noticed that David Amzallag has added a few pictures of Act 1 to his photo blog and also links from there to a whole series of the new Act 2.

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What I want to know is -- where can I get that striped shirt Hubbe is wearing in the photo from the first newspaper article? :flowers:

On a more serious note (rare from me, I know), the Napoli costumes reminded me of Fassbinder's Querelle. Surely not what they're striving for!!!

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First review this morning likes some of the new production but thinks it hasn't gone far enough, and that all logic is abandoned in the last act. But thinks it must be seen and is clearly made out of love for 'the family silver'.

The first cast Gennaro, Ulrik Birkkjaer, was promoted to Solodanser (principal ) onstage after the performance - pictures here

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More on the new production:

Eva Kistrup's long and interesting analysis in DanceViewTimes

and on the RDB's website there's a very short video, with first-cast Gennaro and Teresina, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gitte Lindstrom, introducing the production; underneath that , if you click on where it says her, you'll be taken to a screen where you can see a television discussion programme which features rather more clips of the production - some right at the beginning, then more in the Napoli section which starts at 12:13. For some reason all the film, in both videos, is of another cast - Susanne Grinder as Teresina, Alexander Staeger as Gennaro, Sebastian Kloborg (I think) as Golfo, and a tiny shot of Thomas Lund as Pascarillo, a transvestite street-singer.

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I think they're talking almost entirely about the new second act and the way it emphasises the erotic nature of the encounter between Golfo and Teresina - but I really don't 'get' much of spoken Danish and someone else will be able to tell us properly.

(I'm also not really convinced that Golfo is actually Sebastian Kloborg, although he is listed as dancing with this cast.)

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More on the new production:

Eva Kistrup's long and interesting analysis in DanceViewTimes

Thank you Jane for drawing attention to this review.

Every English ballet person I know like myself, went to Denmark to see Bournonville ballets that had clear connections with original productions. It was the sincerity and purity of the RDB productions together with the extraordinary talents of it dance actors that gave Denmark any kind of performing arts status.

The Royal Danish ballet has always been admired by ballet cognoscenti across the world as the leading guardian of the Romantic tradition as epitomised by one of the few great choreographers of academic ballet Auguste Bournonville.

The raison d’être of story telling of the Romantic ballet and the later Academic Classical Ballet is a signified morality, through the use of symbolism, allegory and allusion. Eva Kistrup in her informative and clearly detached view of the new Hubbe production says, “Hübbe has a major problem with the philosophical and religious foundation of August Bournonville's ballets. I cannot help but to agree with Ms Kistrup when she states, “Removing the religious motives from "Napoli" does more than removing a few ave marias, it destroys the dramatic base of the ballet and reduces "Napoli" to an incoherent story with no dramatic core or reason.” Elsewhere she says that the Bournonville choreography survives the incursions of Bournonville’s enemy.

I have not seen this production and would never see it, but it recalls other tampering of major ballets which always to me, might be interpreted as narcissistic symbolic acts associated with inadequate choreographers. It also appears that this is a another suicidal event in yet another great ballet company, that has undermined its heritage by not respecting the significance of original productions which speak as clearly and loudly to present day audiences as they did when first produced.

Having read about Hubbe’s production, I am entering a period of mourning recalling RDB performances of the 1960’s with the likes of Margaret Schanne, Kirsten Ralov, Kirsten Simone, Inge Sand, Solveig Ostergaard, Neils Kehlet, Niels Bjorn Larsen, Fleming Flindt and that paradigm of style and nobility, Henning Kronstam.

Miss Kistrup ends by saying, “I will not call the production a 100% failure because it did show that Bournonville is strong enough to be tampered with and it may help to lighten up the notions of what you can do or not do with Bournonville. However, I would not recommend the RDB to tour this ballet, especially before it has been given a serious work over and found some coherence between it various segments.

I hope Hubbe’s production dies a swift death and not rob future audiences of the experience of a great ballet company heritage.

The” visitdenmark” website promotes, “Denmark is now going to join the list of countries that attract a growing, but fastidious, international cultural audience looking for outstanding artistic events. What has made this possible is not least the new Copenhagen Opera House, combined with the world-renowned Royal Danish Ballet. “

I somehow think they were referring to the famous traditional Bournonville productions.

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I have not seen this production and would never see it, but it recalls other tampering of major ballets which always to me, might be interpreted as narcissistic symbolic acts associated with inadequate choreographers. It also appears that this is a another suicidal event in yet another great ballet company, that has undermined its heritage by not respecting the significance of original productions which speak as clearly and loudly to present day audiences as they did when first produced.

Hear, hear.

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Here's another point of view, from the Financial Times:

"This is a triumph: Nikolaj Hübbe’s new production of Napoli, his company’s signature work, confounds the lip-smacking doom-mongers both in Denmark and abroad who foresaw the destruction of the finest-cut jewel of the Royal Danish Ballet’s Bournonville repertoire. "

English ballet criticism is at an all time low and I have given up reading most of our critics.

I wonder what take the distinguished critic Mary Clarke as both an admirer of the RDB and visitor to Copenhagem, would be?

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I have not seen this production. But the debate it has stirred has implication beyond a single company and a single revised staging.

Kistrup's piece is wonderfully written and argued. Dowler's piece in the Financial Times is not anywhere near her level. But I can understand his point.

Perhaps the time has come for "honesty in advertising" where up-datings are concerned. It appears that this production is not offering a ballet "by" Bournonville. The work is now (to use an old-fashioned term) "after" Bournonville.

There may be room for both approaches. I tend to think that there is, or should be. But it is not fair to anyone -- dancers, audience, or to those concerned about the inegrity of ballet tradition -- to tell people that what they are seeing "is" Bournonville. Despite the effort -- which Kistrup also acknowledges -- to maintain fidelity to the steps.

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I haven't seen the production and cannot comment on it. For 20 years, the Bournonville repertory has been in the hands of people who turned the ballets into cartoons, and I'm glad that era is over. I don't have a problem with updating, in general. Some works can stand a change in setting, and finding new things of interest in a work is part of theater tradition.

I do believe that a fresh look at a production must retain the main philosophy and aesthetics of the work (or call the ballet something else), and these comments are on the libretto of this "Napoli," as portrayed in the reviews. Say an actor is staging "Hamlet." He's always found Hamlet a tiresome character -- elitist snob! what does he think he is, a prince or something? All those long speeches about existence and the nature of man. Like, get a life! Kill the king already and get it on with Ophelia. We need more sex in it to bring in the young people. When we're done, let's take that hideously offensive Christian holiday, Christmas, out of "A Christmas Carol" and the French Revolution out of "A Tale of Two Cities." The world would be a far, far better place.

I wrote something about "Napoli" a few years ago that I'll quote here.

A storm comes up; Teresina is swept overboard. She’s rescued by two naiads and carried to the Blue Grotto, home of Golfo, a sea demon. Golfo bewitches her (originally, he actually restored her to life) and changes her into a naiad in one of the great transformation scenes in ballet. Gennaro, inspired by the local friar and his own faith, comes in search of her and, when he finds her, coaxes her back to human form. He first attempts to do this through emotion (reminding her of his love), then intelligence (appealing to her memory and logic) and finally succeeds through the power of faith: he shows her a blessed medallion and, as a Catholic hymn swells out of the score, Teresina is transformed, in a second stroke of theatrical genius, back to human form. The power of faith conquers the pagan god, and the two sweethearts row off and live happily ever after—but not until they’ve silenced the local gossips once and for all, and danced a suite of brilliant classical dances (the solos were added by Hans Beck, the first great post-Bournonville director/stager) crowned by a tarantella and finale in which most of the town seems to take part.

Emotion, reason and faith were the three stages of existence in Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling" (Kierkegaard and Bournonville were contemporaries): The Aesthetic, The Ethical, and The Religious. The Grotto scene is the point of the ballet.

It has seemed to me that many Danish writers -- and dancers -- have little real respect for Bournonville, or at least, some of his ballets. They trivialize him and see him as, at best, a charming, sentimental fellow who made a few good roles, but mostly as a moralistic prig who's their "luggage" and worth keeping only for that. (Luggage in the sense of a burden and also their calling card because, as one dancer once told me, "without him we'd be just another mediocre ballet company.") Some also seem to have trouble distinguishing between themselves and their beliefs, Bournonville and his beliefs, and the beliefs of the characters in the ballets. All of the people in "La Sylphide" would have believed in sylphs. Doesn't matter whether the dancer does, or the audience does. We know THEY do. And all of the people in "Napoli" are Catholics. That was part of the point, of the local color of the piece.

Which brings me to a final point, that some do not seem to understand that there are two strands in Romantic ballet: the supernatural and the "local color." There can be elements of both in a ballet, but each had its own character. There is one school of thought that's been put forth incessantly in Denmark for the past 50 years that "Napoli" is a wimpy -- oops, deeply flawed -- ballet because there's no sex -- oops, romantic danger -- in it. (The same problem plagues "A Folk Tale." Oh, what a tragedy to be saddled with such an insipid choreographer all these years.) The idea that Bournonville could convey in one three-minute scene what Kierkegaard took a book to do does not seem to have crossed their minds. The idea that Bournonville, in 1842, is dealing with a central existential quesiton -- Who are we? What can make us stray from our nature? What can make us return?-- has been missed as well. Teresina did not fall in love with Golfo. Golfo was a monster. I've seen film of him back in the late 1950s, and there's nothing appealing about him at all (and I was told that the Golfos 30 years before that were even more monstrous). He's there as a counterpoiint to faith. Not Bournonville's faith, but Napoli's.

Edited by Alexandra
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Thank you Alexandra for your brilliant post.

Earlier this year Jane pointed out, “The Royal Danish Ballet still does The Lesson, of course - a couple of years ago it was chosen as part of Denmark's 'cultural canon' (the other dance works being La Sylphide and Etudes).”

I think the whole Bourninville oeuvre should become part of Denmarks cultural canon and in fact become part of a newly created UNESCO protected world heritage art form status.

Companies like the RDB, the RB, ABT, Kirov, Bolshoi, Cuban, etc can call upon in some instances a huge repertoire of highly successful works that are rarely or never revived which could give some respite for dancers and audiences alike from the more familiar classics.

Knud Arne Jürgensen makes a very good case for the revival of Bournonvilles larger oeuvre, “Of Bournonville's numerous unpublished writings, it is his choreographic records, which attract special attention, because it is through them that we can follow, at closest quarters, how ballet as an art form developed during the whole Romantic period from the end of the 1820s up through the next five decades, resulting in an artistic flowering rarely seen before or since. Bournonville's choreographic notes are quite exceptional in this respect, for here we find some of the most famous dances and divertissements from the culmination of Romantic ballet.

Analysed from a pure technical view of the style, Bournonville's choreographic notes appear as one of the most eminent and complete depositions of Romantic ballet step technique and aesthetic style foundation. Seen in this perspective, the importance of his production notes reaches beyond simply that of having preserved his own works and those of others for posterity. His records actually represent a direct reflection of the very pulse of the Romantic ballet.

I would encourage anyone who has only a little familiarity with Bournonville, to read Jurgenson's whole article under the heading “Reconstructions” to be found at:


Denmark is a country with various traditions reaching back to more than a thousand years. It does not deny its Royal Heritage nor the Danish heritage buildings or historic towns like Aarhus. For a small country, it has somewhere around 200 museums and more than forty art museums and galleries. So we know that Denmark does value and revere things of the past but not it seems, its most glorious balletic heritage.

It is a failure of nerve when ballet companies stage new works which are not a real fit for an academic classical ballet company, but is is even worse when it abuses its own great heritage works.

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Thank you, Leonid. The company does have a problem, in that the city (and, consequently, the ballet audience) is relatively small, and the works have been performed so frequently that they do not draw full houses, and many fans who would say "don't touch these works" don't go very often. In the past, they've solved this by double-billing a popular, or new, work with one of the shorter ballets; "Napoli" and "Folk Tale," though, have to stand alone and there has been enormous pressure by at least one of their leading critics to update "Napoli" for 50 years. That's hard to resist. This idea of updating "Napoli" is not new. A dancer (no one involved in this production) spoke excitedly to me in the early '90s of how great Gennaro's leaping entrance was, and, in the same breath, how much greater it would be if he rode in on a motorbike.

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The always problematic second act -- that everyone is supposed to have skipped out on -- seems to be the one that is new and has most of Hubbe's choreography. The FT reviewer gave the production five stars which is not given lightly -- Did this new choreography sway him?

Other questions: Is the second act based on the Agnes and the Merman story, of which both Andersen and Kierkegaard wrote versions and which may have been pagan in origin?

And Alexandra, OT a bit, I'm intrigued to know more -- from your Bournonville notes elsewhere -- about the balletic leap (not a motorcycle's!) that inspired Kierkegaard's -- who also apparently had a discussion with Bournonville on irony?

From On Repetition:

An individual might learn how to dance, and attend the ballet to admire the artistry of the dancers, but a time might come when ballet no longer touched him. Still there might be moments when he would withdraw to this room and let himself go, deriving an indescribably gratifying feeling of release simply from standing on one leg in some picturesque pose, or wishing the whole world to death and the devil and letting everything depend on the execution of an entrechat.
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OT: Quiggin, unfortunately, I don't think many philosophers take ballet seriously. :thumbsup: But yes, the "leap of faith" was really a grand jete en avance!! There's another section that says, "The knights of infinity are ballet dancers" and describes how the dancer will move from position to position, and then suddenly he will leap; that was the source of his metaphor.

Kierkegaard went to the theater a lot, and mentioned Bournonville several times in his writing. He said that one leap of Bournonville's (as a dancer, as Mephistopheles in his "Faust") made him understand the demonic, namely, it is the sudden. That's a paraphrase from memory, and from his diaries. I never could find any reference to "La Sylphide," which is very odd, as it would seem so relevant to Kierkegaard's own life.

I don't know if the Agnes and the Merman story influenced Bournonville, nor the dates of the other writings, and don't have time to check it tonight. "Napoli" is 1842, and was written in 1841. He was directly inspired by his trip to Naples and the blue Grotto, but that doesn't mean that other stories may have been worked in.

On the second act choreography, I've read and was told tthat Bournonville's act was not badly chhoreographed, just a lot of dancing for the audience of that time, especially the men, who weren't as enamored by a stage full of women as were their French contemporaries. The act got chopped, down to the mime, a pas de deux and the transformation scenes by Lander; afterwards, others have tried to choreograph something "after Bournonville." I can't comment on the present production, of course, as I haven't seen it. I hope someone else will.

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I was going to say that following good archeological practices, the sutures between the old and new parts of Act II should be left evident, but it seems as if there have been so many changes that that would not be practical. From the Bournonville.com site, by Erik Aschengreen:

[Act II] was reduced to a minimum and today none of Bournonville's dances are preserved. Hans Brenaa and subsequently Kirsten Ralov, responsible for the production from 1951 to 1990, kept, by and large, Lander's version of the ballet, but expanded Act II with new choreography. Thus it was that in 1963 the pas de deux between Teresina and Golfo returned. There have been minor changes in Acts I and III during the last 50 years, but dramatically and choreographically Act II is still a challenge, also because it is the mainstay of the whole idea behind the ballet.

For the 1992-production of Napoli - 150 years after the first performance - Dinna Bjørn choreographed a new Act II, and for the whole production she was responsible together with Henning Kronstam and Frank Andersen.

Away from the Royal Theatre, two choreographers have made their versions: Elsa Marianne von Rosen and Allan Fridericia have staged Napoli many times. First in 1971 in Gothenburg in Sweden, later, among other places, at the Kirov Theatre in St. Petersbourg where they attempted to restore the lyricism of the choreography. Peter Schaufuss, in his production for the National Ballet in Toronto in 1981, staged Act II as Gennaros dream and emphasised the dramatic and perilous.

At least there seem to be stretches of Napoli intact, unlike the Swan Lakes that Mel mentioned, which are have any only a shaky outline left -- "acceptable ideas", and would seem to be exercises in some weird sort of historical amnesia. (The forgetting of Petipa, Ivanov, Ashton, & Balanchine.)

Leonid, are there any translations of the reviews you posted?

Alexandra, so a grand jete en avance or two was all that would have made the existentialists of thirty years ago happy?!! Interesting that Hans Christian Andersen wanted to be a ballet dancer at his friend Bournonville's company before he found his vocation as a writer.

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Quiggin, there are huge stretches intact -- the whole first act. All of those crowd scenes are choreographed, on the music. (Kronstam led the rehearsals for the 1992 production Acts 1 and 3, according to dancers in that production. He tightened the first act, restored some details, made it musical -- it was quite fine. Bjorn choreographed new dances in Act II, replacing the suite by Kirsten Ralov. It was very.....watery.)

Don't know what you mean by "existentialists 30 years ago." I meant the grand jete en avance was what gave the idea and the image to Kierkegaard of "the leap of faith."

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Alexandra, I'm sorry for being obscure, which I can frequently be -- it's just when I going to college in film school there was still a lot of interest in Existentialism and making a leap of faith about something, anything. The concept of thinking outside the box is maybe the closest we have to it now. To be able to link it to the leap of a ballet dancer at this late date is a nice image for me. I tend to like everything in life somewhere to have nice "points of attachment" to everything else I'm curious about.

I guess I was interested in Napoli thread because it got me to link Kierkegaard, Bournonville and Hans Christrian Andersen more closely together, even leading me to read Andersen's description to Bournonville of K's funeral with the ladies in red hats and blue hats and the argument about the handful of earth tossed on his casket.

Also because of Hubbe's integrity as a dancer -- who everyone admired so much -- that I sort of wanted a case to be made for the integrity of his new production of Napoli.

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"-- that I sort of wanted a case to be made for the integrity of his new production of Napoli."

I do not think it is possible to talk about the integrity of any ballet production that takes a significant artwork like “Napoli” and tramples on its status as a (mostly) genuine historic ballet by a recognised great choreographer.

My feelings about Bournonville’s “Napoli” is that it exists with an integrity in the sense of wholeness

To disturb such wholeness, is to impose inconsistencies that are both a denial of a masterwork and ultimately the congruence of the Romantic ballet as a genuine historic genre worth protecting.

I have as perhaps you have, seen many failed productions of “Giselle”, “Swan Lake”,” Sleeping Beauty” etc. There have been some variable productions of “Napoli” over the years, but surely from the descriptions we have read, none possessed such a blatant vulgarity in turning its back to Bournonville’s genius.

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Well, I've now seen two performances of the new Napoli and also talked to Nikolaj Hubbe about it. I have to write two formal reviews of it so these are just some overall impressions.

The three acts have been treated so differently that it's a bit like watching a triple bill: Italian versimo with some set pieces of dancing - contemporary ballet with new music - Act 3 of Napoli. It's an experiment, I think, done to find out if there are new things to be found in an old ballet and for myself I'd rather see a wholesale revision like this than the sort of creeping changes we see elsewhere: if we were talking about an English 'icon', I'd rather see La Fille mal Gardee in modern dress with the story slightly changed but most of Ashton's choreography retained than see the originalproduction with little bits snipped out and some pseudo-Ashton solos inserted. The first one you can just throw away when it outlives its novelty, the second is far more difficult to disentangle. That said, I'm sure there are lots of people who will detest this Napoli - I really disliked the first act the first time I saw it, but then quite enjoyed it the second time round when the shock had worn off.

The second act is completely new. It's very attractively set and lit, and I liked the new music. Hubbe and Sorella Englund have provided new choreography which concerns itself more with the relationship of the characters than with providing the equivalent of a 'white'act. The third act, after the first 5 minutes, is pure Bournonville, with the addition of a short pas de deux for Teresina and Gennaro, which looks like stitched-together bits of the Bournonville schools - I have to say I just loved Gennaro's new solo.

For me the first act is overdone - every possible Neapolitan character seems to be there and there are a couple of touches I'd be happier to see cut.

Eva Kistrup has covered most of the ground about the removal of the reliance on religion etc and I agree with much of what she said.

There were interesting contrasts between the two casts - some excellent performances, some weaker - the pas de six was noticeably more strongly cast on the second night. There were lots of cheers at the end but how many were for the Tarantella etc and how many for the rest of the piece, I don't know!

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