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The Lady of the Camellias, a review

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John Neumeier has been in Copenhagen to stage his ”Lady of the Camellias" - or "Kameliadamen" as it is called in Danish - with the RDB. It is the first time the ballet has been presented to a Danish audience.

It was premiered last Friday with Susanne Grinder and Alban Lendorf as Marguerite and Armand. I saw the second performance, on Saturday night, with Gudrun Bojesen and Ulrik Birkkjær as the protagonists. It was a great pleasure to see the RDB unfold all its best qualities: spirit, stage presence and care for detail down to the smallest part. And I’m very grateful they have chosen the old theatre instead of the new Opera, because the qualities mentioned above really come to their right in this old and intimate frame, and it was rewarded by an appreciating and concentrated silence in the audience – and a warm applause at the end.

And the company really deserved the applause! I don’t mind that some of the ensembles weren’t as synchronous as they were meant to be, that’ll probably settle when they get over the nerves and the rush of the first nights. Important was that everybody danced with a verve and a commitment which made the stage bubble with life.

As Manon and De Grieux, the couple mirroring Marguerite and Armand, I saw Lena-Maria Gruber and Gregory Dean, who were both terrific. Gruber is a small dancer with a strong technique and an energetic approach, and if she continues stretching her lines, I think she can develop into the more serious repertoire, like Heidi Ryom, another petite dancer, did half way through her carrier after a decade with soubrette roles. Gruber certainly showed character as Manon. Gregory Dean on the other hand is born with beautiful long limbs, and for him the challenge is the exact opposite of Gruber’s: to tighten his movements and become less “willowy”. As Des Grieux he demonstrated both precision and some wonderfully controlled pirouettes. But why Neumeier has made Des Grieux such a simpering, ridiculous figure? It doesn’t make sense to me.

I wondered, by the way, if Neumeier has been inspired by MacMillan’s Manon-ballet, the way Manon’s three admirers/lovers constantly carried her around, her feet barely touching the ground.

Many other dancers deserve praise, among them Hilary Guswiler as the treacherous courtesan Olympia. She has the sweetest face you can imagine, all dolls eyes, which she darts in all directions to great effect. You can’t take your eyes from her! She is still just a corps dancer, but I think she will soon advance, already being a strong technician and blessed with a natural talent for acting. And I’d like to mention one more: the apprentice Astrid Elbo, who played the role of Marguerite’s servant Nanina. The part is more acting than dancing, but this she did it with much charm, and again, like Hilary Guswiler, she has a very sweet face with big and telling eyes. She is rather tall but carries herself with so much grace that I hope her hight will not be of any hindrance to her. And last but not least it was good to see Marcin Kupinsky cast against his type as the ardent and playful playboy Gaston Rieux. He was actually quite amusing! His lighthearted partner, the courtesan Prudence, was danced by the equally lively Jodie Thomas.

Gudrun Bojesen and Ulrik Birkkjær had the all dominating parts of Marguerite and Armand, and Jean-Lucien Massot had the smaller but very important part of Armand’s father. Bojesen has the indefinable quality of the star dancer. Her acting is natural but not naturalistic, it is as if there is always something more than what you see, and that is probably the quality that makes her such a fantastic Sylphide, Odette or Hilda, and maybe also the reason why she was never cast as Juliet. To her interpretation of Marguerite it brings some grandeur to the role and makes it clear from the beginning that she is different from her “colleagues”, the other courtesans, even when she presents herself as frivolous as they do. Birkkjær is a slightly built dancer, but he certainly shows to have a lot of strength. Neumeier has given him a tough job carrying the heroine around the stage in all possible combinations and positions, some looking great and others looking more like a scuffle. (Her voluminous skirts were sometimes very much in the way, blurring both his sight and our sight of things.)

Birkkjær has very much developed since I saw him last, especially when it comes to acting, it looks like he has benefited a lot from the instructions of Neumeier. And I must admit that I was impressed by his technical abilities. But I think he would have been better off with another partner than Bojesen. He looks too small beside her, and not only physically. He cannot match her and he appears more insignificant than he need to. In the pas de deux between Bojesen and Massot as Armand’s father in the 2nd act things suddenly balanced, and you could see what happens, when two mature artists play up against each other. Alban Lendorf as Armand would probably have been a better match, and I could imagine the fragility of Susanne Grinder would have suited Birkkjær well.

I have given much thought to, why I wasn’t so deeply moved by this ballet as I thought I would have been. I mean the story is the saddest thinkable, and the dancers gave all they had in them, not holding anything back. But nevertheless it stayed a very intellectual experience. Neumeier has created some of his most inspired choreography for this ballet, and one cannot help admiring all the complicated lifts, intertwined figures and intricate steps and jumps he can come up with, and the movements always convey a meaning, either emotional or symbolic, but at times it kind of takes over, killing the flow and the spontaneity of the dance.I liked very much, though, the passage in the happy pas de deux of the second act, where Armand carries Marguerite lying horizontally on his shoulders and she kind of rests her head in one of his hands with a happy smile on her face. I don’t know how he got his hand free for that and how she kept her body in place, but it looked lovely! The ballet is full of such fantastic inventions, I just wish Neumeier would sometimes economize a little bit. It becomes tiresome in the length.

His choreographic language is very similar to the one he uses in Romeo and Juliet from 1974: a mixture of naturalistic body language and highly stylized movements. Like he invented the pointed arms and hands to characterize the stiff formality of the Capulets he has invented a special way of walking for the courtesans here: a swaggering walk on pointe with their feet sweeping backwards at each step like the sophisticated gait of a thoroughbred horse. Like the thoroughbreds they are elegant and expensive creatures, and KEPT.

In Romeo and Juliet his choreography had a freshness which is lost in the Lady of the Camellias, which was created 4 years later. It is still very expressive and has a great impact on the viewer, but one cannot help being constantly aware of the construction underneath and the brainwork behind it.

One shall not underestimate the role the music plays in these matters. In Romeo and Juliet Neumeier had the greatest ever storytelling score as a vehicle for his own storytelling. Not that it is an easy task to match that score – I have seen many boring versions of Romeo and Juliet, no matter how well they played in the pit – but still, for a great choreographer, to which category I count Neumeier, such a score is not only a challenge but a great gift.

For his Lady of the Camellias Neumeier has chosen Chopin’s music (brilliantly played from the pit by Roberto Cominati). First act is build upon the 2nd Piano concerto, which we get in its entire length, for the second act he uses a mix of preludes, waltzes and other pieces for piano alone, and in the 3rd act he turns back to pieces for piano and orchestra. Neumeier is very faithful to the music and doesn’t mess around with it or cut it to pieces like other choreographers have done to make preexistent music fit their purposes. That is a very honourable thing but strangely enough it also constitutes one of the major weaknesses of the ballet. The music has a life and structure of its own which is not necessarily the same as the drama’s. That means that the drama has to follow the music and not the other way around. Because Neumeier is extremely clever and very sensitive to music he is able to make the music fit the drama like a glove in many scenes, but too often it is like the music and the drama have two different stories to tell, or to put it more precisely: the music doesn’t tell a story at all, it is simply music in its own right, conveying emotions and moods but no action. It is as if it refuses to subordinate to the drama and keeps poking on its own independence. Strangely enough Chopin’s music which is normally considered very emotional and romantic gets an almost neutral quality here, which adds to the intellectual distance mentioned above.

Maybe I prefer the story ballets of Cranko and MacMillan, where the choreographer has allowed the music to be tampered with and who have chosen music of a lesser quality from the beginning and then let some clever orchestrator arrange the music to fit the story. It might sometimes border on bad taste, but it works!

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Anne, thank you for this long and detailed piece.! I've been holding back from replying till I'd seen this cast, and I did find they were overall not quite so moving as the Grinder/Lendorf performance the night before. I'm still trying to work out why - particularly as I thought Bojesen was very fine - before I write my own review! And my problem with the music was more with all the bits that I associate so strongly with Dances at a Gathering or Month in the Country. But I think there are some wonderful things in the ballet, too, and I was very impressed by the way the whole company puts it over. The reception at the end was very warm - lots of rhythmic applause and stamping - if not quite at the level of enthusiasm of the night before. The whole run seems quite close to a sell-out now, as were Nutcracker and Folktale and Dans2Go - which makes it all the more disappointing that it apparently won't be coming back!

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I was wrong about one thing: The ballet has actually been presented to a Danish audience once before: Neumeier brought it to Copenhagen in May 1987 with his own company the Hamburg Ballet. They performed in the Royal Theatre.

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