Dance review: Royal Danish Ballet performs a revamped, updated ‘Napoli’ at Segerstrom Center for the Arts


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For Nikolaj Hubbe, artistic direction is clearly a daredevil occupation.

In the 2009 production of August Bournonville’s full-length “Napoli” that Hubbe’s Royal Danish Ballet brought to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts on Friday, he and Sorella Englund took a 169-year-old national treasure, updated it to the 1950s, junked the Christian symbolism that used to play an important part in the plot and replaced the badly eroded second act with new music and choreography. In Denmark, that might seem close to high treason.


The story -- a happy Neapolitan peasant couple facing dangers both natural and supernatural -- remains the same, but Hubbe introduces radical shifts of emphasis. Some of the changes are merely decorative: the ballet’s young lovers Gennaro and Teresina riding a motor scooter instead of a quaint wedding cart, for example. Others become more transformative, starting with the earthier, edgier mime scenes that dominate Act 1.

Unfortunately, for all its energy and invention, the new production doesn’t eclipse memories of the nearly perfect 1992 staging in which Hubbe gave a great performance on this same stage just before joining New York City Ballet. The crucial flow of mime into dance and back is much less artfully modulated now, directorial focus and pacing aren’t always ideal and you don’t have to be a born-again Christian to find the secularization of the narrative an indulgence rather than an improvement.

With music by Louise Alenius, the Hubbe-Englund Act 2 is completely contemporary in style (except for a brief lovers’ duet). But that’s not as ruinous as you might expect. Bournonville set the whole act in an underwater fantasy world, so the contrast with proletarian Naples was always extreme, and the bold new choreography and more melodramatic conception of Golfo (a resident sea-demon) works efficiently. What’s missing are the sensational instant costume changes that dramatized shifts in identity. Those moments are now flat and prosaic.

In the last act, the onlookers wear 1950s attire, but the dancers in the extended classical and folk divertissements look the way “Napoli” dancers have looked for 169 years. And ultimately you suspect that what Hubbe really wanted was not so much to change “Napoli” as to free his young company from the weight of an intimidating tradition and help them claim the ballet as their own first-generation experience.

If so, he succeeds brilliantly. The men in the first-act balabile dance with almost arrogant force and precision, the women in the classical variations of Act 3 radiate softness and sweetness -- and, more than ever, the sustained intricate bravura of the tarantella sequence makes you understand why this ballet and this company are so adored.

As Teresina, Susanne Grinder finds the neoclassical technique of Act 2 more congenial than the sustained balances of Act 1, but her performance stays spirited and winning throughout. Up to the very end, when he suddenly unveils a spectacular jump, Ulrik Birkkjaer as Gennaro keeps surprising the audience with one excellence after another. Hubbe took the audience by storm in this role; Birkkjaer stays unassuming but never less than world-class.

Andrew Bowman partners Grinder strongly as a menacing Golfo. Alban Lendorf launches the last-act solos impressively. Fernando Mora (Giacomo), Jean-Lucien Massot (Peppo) and Poul-Erik Hesselkilde (Street Singer) display their prowess in distinctive Bournonville character mime. And, in the important acting role of Teresina’s mother, Hubbe cast Lis Jeppesen, the unmatched La Sylphide of the 1980s and early ‘90s and his own ideal dance partner. She is still glorious.

Ambitious, atmospheric lighting effects by Mikki Kunttu wash over the elaborate sets and costumes by Maja Ravn. Graham Bond conducts members of the Pacific Symphony expertly in music credited to Alenius, Edvard Helsted, H.S. Paulli and H.C. Lumbye -- though snatches of Rossini and others also occur periodically. Call it 19th century sampling.


Dance review: Royal Danish Ballet opens at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Nikolaj Hubbe electrifies Royal Danish Ballet

-- Lewis Segal

Lower, Grinder with Andrew Bowman as Golfo and the ensemble.

Formerly The Times’ staff dance critic, Segal is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.