Street Scenes, Tarantellas and Blue YearningsBy Erik Aschengreen
To attend the first night of Napoli on March 29 1842 was an intoxicating experience. The Danish audience, which, then as now, had a reputation for being reserved, was completely carried away and became really quite Italian. They, "for want of castanets, accompanied the tarantella unceasingly with clapping and cheers, and there was a gaiety throughout the whole house which could waken the dead", wrote an eye witness.
Napoli represents the essence of August Bournonville?s creativity, both in steps and ideas. It also demonstrates that the concepts of a Bournonville tradition? is not so straightforward and easily definable. Napoli has been danced in an unbroken tradition for 150 years. More than 700 performances. But this does not mean that it has not changed along the way. Quite the contrary. Ballet masters, designers and dancers have revised it time and again in accordance with the era in which they lived. They have tightened it up, adjusted, arranged and re-choreographed. They have created new scenic decor and offered new characterisations. Each generation has wrestled with Napoli from the quite proper point of view that a classic only lives if one can relate to it.
Napoli was an immense success. One of those rarities when the audience and the reviews unite in spontaneous acclaim. After the premiere, Johan Ludvig Heiberg - the aesthetic umpire of the time and not particularly fond of ballet - made a point of emphasising that Bournonville?s ballets are imbued with spirit and never stagnate in superficial entertainment for the eye. The spirited has sometimes been kept on the back burner during the past 150 years, but the joie de vivre has always received its due as Bournonville?s steps dance joyfully across the stage.
Napoli is a happy ballet and for Bournonville there is good reason for this happiness: the central couple do not give in to life?s temptations - represented by the erotic universe of the Blue Grotto - but, with the help of Christianity, they return home to Naples and the gala dancing of Act III. Since the beginning of the 20.th century the third act has been the Royal Danish Ballet?s visiting card. But seen in isolation this abundance of exuberant dance is actually quite unruly. The ballet should be experienced as a coherent whole. A ballet version of the nineteenth-century popular genre novel, Goethe?s Bildungsroman, composed on the three-stage model: home-abroad-home. The middle phase covers the dangers of youth, when identity and purpose can be lost. Both Teresina and Gennaro pass the tests in the Blue Grotto and reach home. To Naples and to everyday life. Following her encounter with Golfo in the Blue Grotto, Teresina probably returns with the greater impression of other possibilities afforded by life. The music for her pas de deux with Golfo is both seductive and sensual.
Another world exists in the Blue Grotto; a Romantic universe where the everyday, with its joys and sorrows, disappears. Bournonville had experienced this himself, swimming into the cave under Capri. And it is this sensation of the compelling, mysterious and different - a world where eroticism, seduction, yearning and death are both dangerous and alluring realities - that should continue to move us today.
Bournonville knew what Napoli meant for his career and status. Indeed for his entire future. It had been created at a time where he was at a crossroads in his life. In 1841 an intrigue at the Royal Theatre had resulted in a heated Bournonville, on stage, addressing the king, seated in his box. He thus fell into disgrace and set out through Europe, considering a career abroad, only to return home from Italy with Napoli. It was to be his ultimate triumph and won him, forever, the status of Danish ballet poet, as Hans Christian Andersen called him in a letter following the first performance. With Napoli he bade a definite farewell to European Romantic ballet and preached the belief in harmony and a world of sense and order which was to be the typical of his ballets and indeed Danish Romanticism in general.
Napoli was drafted in a stagecoach between Paris and Dunkerque. The first and third acts being inspired by the Italian street scenes that Bournonville had witnessed: "From my window, in the course of an hour, I would witness more tableaux than I could use in ten ballets", he wrote in his memoirs. From the pictures of life on the harbour front of Santa Lucia, situations and tableaux leapt, as it were, straight onto the stage, whilst the festival of Madonna dell?Arco in Act III is a little more idealised. But Napoli is also coloured by the impressions of French Romantic ballet that Bournonville picked up in Paris, where he saw Giselle, with which he was not enamoured, but he found the universe it represented inspirational for Act II. Napoli, therefore, is a reply to Giselle, but it is primarily an acknowledgement of reality and, moreover, a reality, which is way, down the social ladder: poor fishermen in Italy portrayed with what, in 1842, would have been seen as realism.
Some of the dances in Napoli are those which have been handed down with most authenticity from generation to generation. This applies to the ballabile in Act I and the sequence of dances in Act III, but here the history of the pas de six brings us to the ambiguity of the heritage. Even Bournonville made changes. From 1842 until 1854 it was a pas de cinq. During the preparations for a guest visit to Vienna in the mid-1850?s, it became a pas de trois and it took on its final shape at the beginning of the 20.th century when Hans Beck increased the dances with five numbers from another Bournonville ballet Abdallah. From the very start, Bournonville?s works were utilitarian and could be adapted to the current requirements and facilities of the theatre. It was not until nearly a hundred years later that they became sacrosanct.
During the first quarter of the 20th century the mime began to fade away. In Napoli it was shortened and cut, mainly in Act II. In 1932 the new ballet master, Harald Lander, together with former principal dancer Valborg Borchsenius, staged Napoli and tried to reintroduce the mime sequences as authentically as possible, but without success. The ballet was considered too long and the Act II, which had enthralled the audience of 1842 as a serious, lyrical dream setting, had lost its purpose and content. The leading theatre critic of the time, Frederik Schyberg, pronounced a hard judgement in 1932: "All spirit and intention have long since flown from the boards and props - we are left with 16 dissipated dancing school girls in green who do steps and stand in attitudes - and the ?sea spirit? Golfo who, with the passage of time, has become, not a sea spirit, but a jelly fish ...They do it better at Tivoli."
The audience left for nearby Restaurant Brønnum to fortify themselves before the effervescent dance of Act III and Harald Lander took the consequence when he again staged Napoli in 1941. The act was reduced to a minimum and today none of Bournonville?s dances are preserved. Hans Brenaa and subsequently Kirsten Ralov, responsible for the production from 1951 to 1990, kept, by and large, Lander?s version of the ballet, but expanded Act II with new choreography. Thus it was that in 1963 the pas de deux between Teresina and Golfo returned. There have been minor changes in Acts I and III during the last 50 years, but dramatically and choreographically Act II is still a challenge, also because it is the mainstay of the whole idea behind the ballet.
For the 1992-production of Napoli - 150 years after the first performance - Dinna Bjørn choreographed a new Act II, and for the whole production she was responsible together with Henning Kronstam and Frank Andersen.
Away from the Royal Theatre, two choreographers have made their versions: Elsa Marianne von Rosen and Allan Fridericia have staged Napoli many times. First in 1971 in Gothenburg in Sweden, later, among other places, at the Kirov Theatre in St. Petersbourg where they attempted to restore the lyricism of the choreography. Peter Schaufuss, in his production for the National Ballet in Toronto in 1981, staged Act II as Gennaros dream and emphasised the dramatic and perilous.
Erik Aschengreen: Professor (University of Copenhagen), Doctor of Philosophy (Dr. phil.), Dance critic