Theatre review: Delicious execution, erroneous direction
242 Years in Leotards
They feature as wicket witches, drunken police officers or gracious kings in many narrative ballets: dancers who performed in the limelight some years ago, but whose ageing bodies no longer excel at spectacular jumps and acrobatic twists. The Royal Danish Ballet is one of those companies that keep some older members with a particular theatrical talent to perform the smaller, more acting-than dancing-based roles. ‘242 Years in Leotards’ is an evening devoted entirely to the company’s five ‘character dancers’.
The programme begins with ‘Petit Voyage’, the first choreography by Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter who formerly danced with and now teaches at the Royal Danish Ballet. Her short piece follows a woman’s journey through life. Lis Jeppesen performs with remarkable attention to detail. She conveys captivating astonishment at her wiggling fingers when embodying a toddler, bursts of youthful energy when she turns into a schoolgirl, reveals the joy of having a child and the pain of a breaking relationship before she finally withers away as a stooping figure.
But while Jeppesen’s expressive performance is striking, one wonders why she hardly gets to engage physically with the dance form she has practised for most of her life: ballet. The choreography uses almost no elements from the vocabulary of ballet nor reflects on such movements in suiting them to Jeppesen’s ageing body. In that way, ‘Petit Voyage’ confirms that ballet is something only young dancers perform. What anchors the piece most firmly in the world of ballet is then its inescapable narrative: girl is born, discovers her body, marries, has a child, gets hurt, dies.
The evening’s second piece, ‘Re-collect’, is like a brief peek behind the scenes of the Royal Danish Ballet. Four character dancers in their late 40s to late 60s perform repeated and sped-up versions of their daily routines. Each of them is celebrated with projected snippets from his/her career before performing an extract from a piece of his/her choice. While these dancers have been – and are – dazzling performers, director Staffan Valdemar Holm sews the scenes together somewhat carelessly.
In many of the Royal Danish Ballet’s performances, it is not unusual for the captivating charm of character dancers Lis Jeppesen, Mette Bødcher, Eva Kloborg, Mogens Boesen and Poul Erik Hesselkilde to outshine their younger colleagues on stage. Despite the evening’s shortcomings, moving these older dancers into the focus of a production is a magnificent idea and might remind us how limiting it is to think of dance as an art form for the young.