Far from Denmark, one of August Bournonville's surviving ballets, is set in Argentina and includes dancing Greenland Eskimos, among other exotica. But the title could equally apply to Ballet Arizona's ambitious plan to mount Bournonville's full-length Napoli in their hometown Phoenix, the first US company to stage the ballet in its entirety (the National Ballet of Canada did so a few decades ago).
It's hard to imagine a place farther from Denmark than Arizona, in topography:
|Red Rocks, Sedona|
|bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus|
|Javelina and babies, sculpture in Sedona|
But for the past 15 years, Ballet Arizona has been blessed with an artistic director, Ib Andersen, who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet school and danced with the Copenhagen company before having a distinguished career with New York City Ballet. Like so many Danish dancers, he is committed to the Bournonville ballets as a living, breathing tradition, and we are the lucky beneficiaries of that committment. Having cherished the dream of bringing Napoli to Phoenix for over seven years and worked towards his goal with the help of generous donors, he has transplanted this Nordic flower into the Sonoran desert where, far from shrivelling in the subtropical sun, it has blossomed.
This remarkable transmission of a great dance tradition from the Old World to the New was epitomized for me by seeing the names of successive performers stitched into Teresina's costume. The latest addition, Ballet Arizona's Jillian Barrell, is in very distinguished company wearing the dress formerly worn by the Royal Danish Ballet's brilliant ballerinas Gudrun Bojesen and Gitte Lindstrom, and Petrusjka Broholm.
|Naiad wigs with streaks of blue/green hair|
For the artistic staff, Arizona must have felt just a tad TOO far from Denmark, as mere days before the performances, the Royal Danish Ballet sets had still not arrived. While the costumes had come from Copenhagen with plenty of time for fittings, the sets were scheduled to arrive by container ship a few weeks before the run. All would have been fine... except for ongoing labour troubles at the port of Los Angeles, which kept over 100 ships moored offshore waiting for their thousands of containers, among them the three packed with Napoli sets, to be unloaded. Time marched on, with Director of Production Michael Panvini making ever more desperate phone calls pleading to have the containers unloaded and trucked across to Arizona. Other desperate phone calls went to The National Ballet of Canada in the hope that it could send down its Napoli sets if all else failed. A mere six days before dress rehearsal, the NBOC had agreed to put its sets on a truck the next morning for the 33-hour drive to Phoenix... just as the crucial ship got unloaded in California. Late on the Friday night, as some of us were enjoying the ballet gala in blissful ignorance,
|with Cuban dancer Alejandro Mendez, one of Ballet Arizona's Gennaros|
a Danish Naples was belatedly travelling across the Mojave Desert to its new American home.
(Just how miraculous this achievement was was brought home to me the following week when I read this in a New York Times article about the longshoremen's strike: "The impasse,... has brought crippling delays to sea freight in and out of the country and is wreaking havoc for retailers, food companies, farmers and manufacturers. For weeks, McDonald’s scrambled to address a global shortage of French fries, flying 1,000 tons of frozen fries to Japan to bypass the logjam.")
When the curtain went up, the dancers, along with hordes of ballet students and extras, rose splendidly to the occasion. Ballet Arizona has been the fortunate home of four defecting Cuban dancers, and two of them, Alejandro Mendez and Arianni Martin, brought technical flair and acting ability to the lead roles. Throughout the company, the buoyant jumps and brilliant footwork which are essential to this style were all on display, but above all the dancers were able to convey the joyousness without which Bournonville is not Bournonville.
The New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, stating "This company has become one of America’s finest", applauded: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/17/arts/dance/review-ballet-arizonas-napoli-embodies-a-culture-of-exuberance.html
For a photo gallery from the performances, click here:
Some people think it ironic that Sarasota Ballet in Florida has become a bastion of Frederick Ashton's works, and now we have another southern US city adopting Bournonville. But over the centuries, ballet has always passed like this from one dancer to the next, from one generation to the next, from one company to the next, from one country to the next. This transportability has always been one of its great strengths as an art form. But it doesn't happen without a great deal of care and passion on the part of the dancers and the stagers of the ballets. More power to them, and bravo to Ib Andersen and the dancers of Ballet Arizona.
There seems to be a bit of a Bournonville revival going on in North America at the moment. Peter Martins will be mounting La Sylphide for New York City Ballet this spring (join my Tours en l'air trip to New York in May to see it and much much more), and Johan Kobborg will be doing likewise for The National Ballet of Canada in March 2016.
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