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Summer Scene for the Winter Blues

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MAX Whitcomb-

A Peak at Royal Danish Ballet's Napoli at Kennedy Center

My first experience with Napoli was when I was twelve while studying at the American Ballet School, of The Joffrey Ballet, in New York City. I had the opportunity to be cast as a supernumerary for Peter Schaufuss's presentation of Napoli during London Festival Ballet's tour at The Met in 1989. I had a lot of fun, and became friends with the other “extra” boys, from The School of American Ballet of The New York City Ballet, who later on became my colleagues at that school. I was an acolyte, and one of the children on the bridge in Act Three. Peter Schaufuss actually performed Gennaro, and from the bridge there is an excellent view of the stage. Although a little rusty in his turns, Mr. Schaufuss was very convincing in the role, as most of the Danes from The Royal Danish Ballet have been rooted in Bounonville ballets since childhood.

This June, I had the opportunity to revisit Bournonville's Napoli at The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, as part of The Royal Danish Ballet's 2011 US Tour. RDB is currently under the direction of its newest ballet master -- Nikolaj Hubbe. Hubbe's career has been prolific as a dancer at The New York City Ballet, but as is evident in this production of Napoli, his roots are still in the Danish tradition. Bournonville’s Napoli is a fun-filled, yet near-tragic, ballet with lots of pantomime, character roles, and, especially during the third act, dancing.

Napoli is a story ballet set in three acts. During the first act, the plot and scenario are laid down with extensive pantomime and character interaction developing every role on stage in a square of Naples. The scene becomes very exciting, and there is much action going on. The main plot is the love story between a fisherman, Gennaro, and the lovely Teresina. I would have to say that there is very much going on and there are very many plots and subplots for one to understand if one were unfamiliar with this piece. However, if one had read the program, one could get the gist and follow along. Unfortunately for me, having been seated off to one side, I could not notice one of the most essential set pieces, the boat, which transports Gennaro and Teresina out to and in from sea. I believe the sets are designed for the narrower width of the house of the King's Royal Theater in Copenhagen.

Gennaro loses Teresina at sea, and then returns to save her. Act Two is set in the Grotto where Teresina is held captive by Golfo (an evil Rothbart-type) where an eerie mood is set as "Naiads" in romantic long white costumes fill the stage as almost ghostly sea nymphs. There are really cool female "murmurings" across the PA system that really add to the ambiance of the Naiad’s domain. The Grotto’s immense cavernous sea cave set is surreal and intriguing, creating a deep dark atmosphere. Golfo is danced by a Frenchman, Jean-Lucien Massot, who very much embodies the role. Gennaro proclaims his love for Teresina with a necklace locket that snaps her out of Golfo’s spell allowing Gennaro then to rescue Teresina out of the Grotto before her fate is sealed to become a Naiad.

At Gennaro and Teresina's return to shore in Act Three, everyone is elated, and here comes all the joyous dancing one comes to expect from the Royal Danish Ballet. In opposition to the theatrical first act, there is almost no story left to tell; the lovers are back and that is all there is to care about. The famous "Tarantella" in Act Three, danced by Charles Andersen and Laure Dougy from the corps de ballet, is very exciting. The two dance about at a whirling dervish tempo and keep the beat with tambourines while the rest of the dancers rally behind them. The placement of the feet, the timing, and dynamic is consistent in their dancing, and the dancing very buoyant. This dance would later become one of dancer Edward Villela’s signature pieces at The New York City Ballet. It is a dance that had been brought back by August Bournonville from his self-imposed exile in Naples. If one had been bitten by a tarantula the person would have to dance out the poison. There is so much dancing and so many solos in this last act that it is almost like watching a fireworks exhibition finale. The dancing lasts over twenty minutes extensively. The bridge set in the background is filled with children. The reason for this is that Jean Jacques Noverre had come up with a perspective solution: the smaller children would look like adults off in the distance.

Overall I was pleased and had a good time watching this fun-filled piece. Gennaro is performed by soloist Alexander Steager who portrays a lively character, but could be more honestly affectionate. Teresina is danced by a ballerina who is actually from DC, Amy Watson, who is exuberantly talented. I got the chance to ask for autographs afterwards from the dancers of the main roles at the stage door.

My only criticisms are that the conductor pushed the third act too fast, although the dancers were up to speed. It seems to me that this is a problem with dance orchestras in general. There is so much action in the first act to follow and so many side stories one is gasping to understand, that I feel this ballet is intended to be viewed more than once. Given the theatrical aspect of this ballet, the pantomime tradition of the RDB is very strong, but at times could be more sincerely felt.

The updated (1950's) Napoli is a very fresh presentation nicely trimmed up by Mr. Hubbe. He adds a funny newspaper skit with a paper headlined on it, "La Mafia”. Other touches, such as new costumes and sets, really bring this old ballet new life. There was just one sore thumb: there is a cyclist onstage at one point, and instead of the bicycle being 50's period, it is a brand new old-style Bianchi road bike of today. There remains the reference to religion, as the Catholic priest walks across the stage with his acolytes (extras) during the first act. Again, Napoli is standing the test of time since its creation over 150 years ago, and most of all, it is fun to watch.

Royal Danish Ballet’s style is elegant and unique. It retains a strong theatrical aspect.

The pantomime and presentation of steps are equally important. Danish dancers have a way of embodying a role technically as well as emotionally. Understanding how to perform Bournonville roles is tradition at the Royal Danish Ballet, and it is an art that is clearly not lost.

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I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on this production of Napoli. A friend and I saw it in Paris in January and very much enjoyed it. I saw a review at the time that described it as a triple bill and I can see where the reviewer was coming from (Laura Capelle in the Financial Times) but I thought it worked. I liked the new Act 2 with Terresina floating down to the floor of the cave. The new music and spooky sounds made the new act very subterranean in feel. Jean Lucien Massot was wonderful as Golfo. Act 3 continues to be one of the most joyous events you can ever see on stage and the whole company fizzed and sparkled like a bottle of champagne opening after it has been shaken!

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