Royal Danish Ballet – ‘Ballet for Beginners’ Dans2Go bill – Copenhagen

Shelby Elsbree as the Pupil in The Lesson. © Costin Radu.
Shelby Elsbree as the Pupil in The Lesson. © Costin Radu.

Royal Danish Ballet
Dans2Go: The Concert | Tchaikovsky pas de deux | The Lesson

Copenhagen, Royal Theatre
6 March 2012

One of the posters for the Royal Danish Ballet’s Dans2Go programme, now in its second year, describes it as ‘Ballet for Beginners’: it’s intended primarily as a taster evening to show new audiences what ballet can do, via three short pieces covering the widest possible range. All tickets cost 150 kroner – about £17 – or half that for under-25s or students, so it’s not surprising that every performance sells out: though, equally unsurprisingly, not entirely to newcomers – in Copenhagen as everywhere there are plenty of regular dance-goers happy to see some top-level dancing for a fraction of the normal price.

Last season’s successful try-out established the format: two complete ballets, chosen – for practical and financial reasons – from the current repertoire, separated by a pas de deux, the sort of thing you’d see at any gala: last year it was Don Quixote, this time it’s Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky pas de deux;  the programme opened with Jerome Robbins’s The Concert and closed with the Danes’ own classic, Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson. Three different casts feature almost all of the company’s top dancers as well as some intriguing debuts.  The audience is somewhat younger than usual, but otherwise the only things that distinguish one of these evenings from a normal repertory performance are the brief films introducing each section and the free programme leaflet, which includes a nicely-posed page of photographs that really do show ‘ballet for beginners’ –  the five positions of the feet.  (Very nice feet, too, belonging to corps de ballet dancer Laure Dougy.)

The Royal Danish Ballet in The Concert. © Per Morten Abrahamsen.
The Royal Danish Ballet in The Concert. © Per Morten Abrahamsen.

The Concert must be close to a perfect first ballet: funny, instantly understandable and completely free from any trace of preciosity – and it even includes, in the opening scene, a quick guide for the audience on how not to behave. (I wonder if anyone will ever have the nerve to introduce some of today’s new hazards – phones ringing, live tweeting, and so on?)   It’s not new to the Danish repertoire but it’s some time since it was last seen and I’d guess that all the dancers were new to their roles this season. The cast I saw was led by Gudrun Bojesen as the woman in the blue hat, with Tina Højlund  as the stern wife and Thomas Lund as her husband – a trio you might once more likely have expected to see in La Sylphide, but all of them looking as if they relished the chance to let their hair down a bit. Bojesen has a lovely goofy charm,  Højlund is a disapproving dragon; Lund, as always, finds his own way into the role, looking for something a little more  than just slapstick – it’s a pity, though, that we lose so much of his eyes and facial expressions under the hat, the glasses, the moustache, and the cigar. I also liked Nikolai Hansen’s cameo as the man who helps Bojesen choose her hat, and Diana Cuni as the furious lady in glasses, but there was something just slightly out of focus about the performance as a whole – it needs to be put over just a little more crisply.

Susanne Grinder and Marcin Kupinsky were both making debuts in the Tchaikovsky pas de deux the night I was there. Neither of them would seem to me an obvious choice for the piece and it was interesting to see how they played to their own strengths, Grinder full of charm and showing off her beautiful arms in the opening section, Kupinsky at his best in a very light, elegant circle of jetés. A little video at the start had Kupinsky talking (in English) about the challenges of the piece and showed the two of them repeatedly trying to perfect the flying catches: a disarming glimpse into the terrifying technical difficulties and one which brought a sympathetic sigh from the audience when they very nearly missed the first catch in performance.

Shelby Elsbree as the Pupil in The Lesson. © Costin Radu.
Shelby Elsbree as the Pupil in The Lesson. © Costin Radu.

An internet comment from a young student who really had been seeing her ballet made it clear that though she enjoyed the first two pieces, it was The Lesson which really engaged her interest – and from the applause level I think she wasn’t alone. For me the main interest was in seeing Sebastian Kloborg in only his second appearance as the  Teacher, showing a real dramatic intelligence in an interpretation very different from the two senior dancers I saw earlier in the season. He spoke in Danish in the introductory film but I’m told that he was talking about how he’d decided to try to make the character more natural – odd rather than psychotic –  at the beginning of the piece.  I’ve for some time wished that I could see it done like that and I thought he brought it off entirely successfully; what didn’t completely work for me was the transition into horror – but he has plenty of time to work that out in the future. It was in any case good to see him back in a major role after a long absence through injury. Shelby Elsbree, the Pupil, is  already developing her role from the promising beginning last year,  and Gitte Lindstrom is a strong, impatient Pianist.

The interesting thing, of course, would be to know how many people seeing dance for the first time this evening will come back, and maybe become part of the regular audience of the future: I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

About the author

Jane Simpson

Jane Simpson has written for DanceTabs/ Balletco since its very early days in 1997. She contributed regularly to Dance Now for its last 10 years and wrote for the Yearbook of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2000 - 2009); she writes a 'London Letter' for the Washington-based quarterly, Dance View. She is based in London and also makes several trips to Copenhagen each season.

Update: In June 2014 Jane decided to retire from writing - see more on this page.

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