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Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away with the RDB

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The RDB’s production of Twyla Tharp’s "Come Fly Away" has in general been rather badly received by the critics: the dancers don’t look right – they look too much like ballet dancers; the choreography is thin and repeats itself; the ballet’s lack of substans choreographically and dramatically goes badly with the lengthiness of the performance (45 + 30 minutes); until the end of October "Come Fly Away" is the only ballet in the programme, which leaves more than half of the company unoccupied for nearly two months etc. etc.

Well, much of this might be true or partly true, but I must admit that I left the theatre mighty uplifted after a performance of "Come Fly Away" earlier this week! It is true, that the ballet is not one with many depths, and it is also true that some of the dancers haven’t got the style completely under their skin, but many of them actually have or they have come so far that the rest is a matter of time. And what is very important: they dance with a joy and commitment which transmit to the audience. They were rewarded by an unusual roar of enthusiasme, both during and after the performance, some of it, I’m sure, also as a respons to the brilliant musicians who perform on stage, directly behind the dancers.

Of course it might have looked different if it had been performed by dancers more used to modern dance or show dance, but much of Tharp’s choreographic vocabulary is actually very classical, so it is not as if it is another planet. Compared with the company’s toothless production of Robbins’ "West Side Story Suite" a couple of years ago, the dancers have improved pronouncedly in this field since then.

Some of the dancers seem to adapt the style effortlessly: Charles Andersen danced the popular role of the shy bartender Marty, and everything simply looks right when he and his sweetheart Betsy, danced by a very young and very promising Benita Bünger, who despite her foreign name is a “homegrown” product of the Royal Danish Ballet School, take over. He is able to give even the most classical looking steps the right twist or boost to make them look less “neat”. Andersen, an American import, who has been with the RDB since he was 19, and who is now 26, is one of the most versatile dancers of the company at the moment: He is equally good whether it is in the peasant pas de deux of "Giselle", which he renders with a delicacy of a Meissen porcelain figurine, or in Balanchine’s clean cut choreography in "Symphony in 3 Movements" or in the earthbound primitivistic style of José Limon’s barefoot ballet "Unsung". Here, in "Come Fly Away", he gets the chance to show off his acrobatic skills and his comic talent. I know I have said this before, but I can’t help saying it again: He must be one of the obvious choices when the time comes to appoint new soloists, but of course the competition is hard: the corps is brimming with talent at the moment!

Amy Watson, another American in the company, also looks like she has the style in her blood. Her “Babe”, dressed in dramatic laquer red, simply looked gorgeous, and one could understand why her suitor, Sid, danced by a chunky Alban Lendorf, couldn’t take his eyes from her! It comes to my mind that she was also a fabulous – and surprisingly temperamental – Anita in Robbins’s otherwise terrible "West Side Story Suite". This kind of choreography seems to set something free in her. Among the women Femke Mølbach Slot also stood out as the hotheaded and unpredictable Kate, who in the end can’t help seeking the comfort of her lover, whose possessive manners she has rebelled against all night. She is a longlimbed, willowy ballerina with a bambi-like air, which makes her flirtatitious and defiant manners even more bewildering. Femke Mølbach Slot has not been given so many chances in Hübbe’s era and it is great to see her in a big role again – and so succesfull. Maybe her hight compromises her swiftness which seems to be one of Hübbe’s prefered qualities in a female dancer.

Femke Mølbach’s partner, Hank, was danced by Gregory Dean. He seems to develope with giant steps with every new part he is given. I would have thought him among the dancers who would have most difficulties with leaving the purity of the classical style behind, but I had to think again! I have never seen him dance with so much edge and daggerlike precision. All softness, which is both his hallmark and sometimes his weakness, had vanished. He created a very unpleasant character, dark and possessive – very far indeed from his boyish, sunny Romeo a season ago.

Alban Lendorf was – of course! – great as Amy Watson’s partner. He has the right weight to put behind his giant jumps when he soars into the air like a rubber ball or turns like he was the very epicentre of a hurricane. It is not his fault that the choreography of his solos is a bit repetitive: his turning will take no end and becomes a kind of gimmick in the end. Neither is it his fault that the costume makes him look shorter and more chunky than he really is.

The costumes are created by the New York based fashion designer Norma Kamali. They look good on most of the women, while the men’s costumes in various shades of silver or shimmering black are less flattering and don’t seem to follow the body but crease and stretch in ungainly patterns.

The last solo couple were Marcin Kupinski and Maria Bernholdt as Chanos and Slim, and none of them looked like they felt comfortable with what they were doing. Bernholdt was costumed in a way that made her look distractingly like Barbara Streisand, and she appeared strangely stiff, like she wasn’t comfortable in her stilettos. But she can act! Slim is the real bitch in the ballet, making passes at everybody else’s boyfriends and poisoning the mind of the naïve bartender so that for a time he forgets about his Betsy. But in the end also Slim has to give in and stick to the man she came with and whom she has tried to escape all evening: Marcin Kupinski’s Chanos. Kupinski is a total miscast in this ballet. I actually felt rather sorry for him. He is a dancer with a very pure classical style , and he should have been spared from going through this.

To fill up the stage and make athmosphere three nameless couples are involved, mostly in the background, but at times taking part in small ensembles or being at hand when a woman needs a crowd of admirer or a man needs a second object of his desire, when his first priority is not obtainable. It looked like nobody had cared much about them, and especially the men looked lost, with no idea of style and direction. It seems that most of the coaching has been spent on the four solo couples.

There are lots of great photos from the production by Costin Radu on the theatre's homepage here.

The music

The double bass player Chris Minh Doky was in charge of the bigband, and it sounded great! Only the string section was cut away, probably for economical reasons, and the strings were reproduced by a synthesizer. But else it was “the real thing” except for Sinatra’s voice, which was added to the live music on a separate sound track. It worked out fine, and probably it is the right thing to do, as no one can reproduce Sinatra – furthermore I suppose Tharp wouldn’t allow a performance without the use of this voice track. But does the music have to be so loud? Before the break it was tolerable, if only just, but after the break, as it often happens, the volume had increased to a level where it causes pain. I don’t see the point, but maybe I’m just old fashioned.

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Yes, I went there on Tuesday! I would have loved to see the second cast on Friday also, but maybe you did? I could imagine they are rather different from the first cast.

It is going to be really interesting to read your review, especially as it is of the very same night in the theatre!

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I would especially have loved to see Tim Matiakis as Hank and Nicolai Hansen and Alba Nadal as Chanos and Slim. And out of sheer curiosity it would have been interesting for me to see Camilla Ruelykke Holst as Babe, as I have never seen her in a major role. Her name keeps popping up and I suppose she is one of the new talents to keep an eye on.

No, I didn't see the children's ballet. Was it worthwhile seeing? I saw a million children milling out from the theatre in the afternoon - but I didn't realize they had been to a children's ballet!

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I would especially have loved to see Tim Matiakis as Hank and Nicolai Hansen and Alba Nadal as Chanos and Slim. And out of sheer curiosity it would have been interesting for me to see Camilla Ruelykke Holst as Babe, as I have never seen her in a major role

Yes - and also Benjamin Buza in Lendorf's role.

The children's ballet was briliantly inventive - it was the brainchild of Shane Brox, who I guess you will know from TV -

but it was about nightmares and some of it was really a bit frightening. But the children seemed to take it all in - next time maybe they'd better insist that timid older people are accompanied by sensible 7 year olds who can reassure them that it's only boys and girls dressed up. But a gold star to whoever had the clever idea of recycling the elephant from Bayadere!

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Of course it might have looked different if it had been performed by dancers more used to modern dance or show dance, but much of Tharp’s choreographic vocabulary is actually very classical, so it is not as if it is another planet.

This was very clear here in Seattle, in her most recent work for Pacific Northwest Ballet. There is a distinct classical technique underpinning the more contemporary elements in her choreography. In some ways, I think her work has changed over time -- we saw Brief Fling from the 90s and Nine Sinatra Songs from the 80s on the same program and there's a marked difference. But I also think that Tharp has been at the vanguard of more universal changes in dance training and performance over the last 30-40 years -- her work was a challenge for the company, but it was most certainly in their skill set, in a way that it might not have been for previous generations.

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Yes it’s funny how the boundaries are constantly pushed: what was difficult ten or twenty years ago might not be difficult today.

You mention the Pacific Northwest Ballet. I saw them in 2002 in London, where they had brought their Jerome Kern programme "Silver Lining" to the Saddler's Wells. From your description it sounds like the company has quite a tradition of doing this kind of semi-modern chorerography? I wasn't so impressed by the choreography of Silver Lining (I think it was by the company's director Kent Stowell). It was charming but to mine eyes not very inventive. I think Tharp is much more genuine in her choreographic language, but my view might be influenced by my disliking of show dance in point shoes. I quite fell in love though with the dancers of the PNB back then, I especially remember dancers like Stanko Milov, Olivier Wevers and Paul Gibson, the latter I liked for his Gene Kelly-like way of dancing, but in general I liked the marked individuality of the dancers, especially among the male dancers.

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Silver Lining is fun, but I agree it isn't very deep. PNB should have brought more Balanchine for that tour to show them doing their best dancing in the best choreography. I guess I could say the same thing for RDB's recent tour of the USA - they should have brought their best choreo for their best dancers.

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I have a feeling that Silver Linings was more a home-town ballet -- Stowell made it to celebrate an anniversary, and it was designed specifically to use everyone in the company. But perhaps not a good choice for that tour. They'd had a warm response to their Midsummer, and I think they felt they needed to take a program-length work with sets and costumes to London, to balance out the more streamlined mixed repertory.

But I'm glad you saw the company at that point -- the dancers you mention specifically did some really lovely work. Milov is teaching at the school now, and Gibson is working as a ballet master, as well as choreographing occasionally. And you likely know about Wever's ensemble and his work as a chorographer. I do miss seeing them as performers, though -- thanks for the reminder today!

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