Nikolaj Hübbe seems to be intent on upsetting some of the Royal Danish Ballet's most faithful admirers with his new version of the Royal Danish Ballet's almost sacred La Sylphide.
The company have been performing it, more or less in its original form, since August Bournonville created it in 1836, but now Hübbe is going to break with tradition in both the storytelling and its setting.
Things will become clear at the première, but now I can only talk in code… I can say that we've changed some of the sexes of the roles. Some people who might not exactly be gender-confused, can certainly be sexually confused.
Hübbe says in an interview with the Berlingske newspaper.
I can reveal the dancers' names, but not the roles that they will dance,
he says intriguingly. If this means that the sylph may be played by a man, the fact that the choreography will remain that of Bournonville – so he says – is certainly puzzling.
If James leaves his bride-to-be, Effie, for a sylph, he is choosing uncertainty:
We know that La Sylphide is both a sensual and sexual spirit of the air. James pursues her because she's his dream and fantasy.
In the pursuit of his fantasy he enters unknown territory, traditionally a forest, leaving behind the safe, orthodox world that Effie represents.
…but if his decision was also about gender identity, this would add another layer to the story.
Hübbe told the Jyllands Posten.
Although I no longer dance James, I identify strongly with him when I see La Sylphide, even today. But there is something I just need to work out with his character… it's almost like therapy.
I've thought about the role through many stages of my life; he is a person with many facets. For me, he started as a romantic young beauty, then later he became a person who could finish up in a psychiatric ward, almost schizophrenic. Now I think there is something else, but you'll have to come to the theatre to see what it is!
he added to the Berlingske journalist.
About the story he says no more, though it's not only the story that's getting an overhaul. After his traditional version for the company ten years ago with Mikael Melbye's designs, he is working this time round with Bente Lykke Møller.
We are accustomed to an extremely romantic, picturesque and exotic view of Scotland, where the main character James is covered in Scottish tartan… [In this production] it is still Scotland, and there are still kilts, but it is more the Scotland as seen in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. It is a bleak religious environment, where you can easily cross some rules and boundaries.
Sexual boundaries? Hübbe nods.
When Bente and I started to work with the new version, I wanted there to be something very dark and mysterious about the ballet…then one day Bente said, “It's hell to make a forest. Can't we find a place other than a forest for the second act?”And then she came up with an idea for something different, a place of death, of something intangible. A place where none of us have been.
So what will this La Sylphide say to a modern audience?
It's interesting because it's all about being human: good and evil. That's why you can continue to find new ways of looking at it. It's ultimately about something huge, about life itself, about being able to be with ourselves and accept ourselves, but also about being able to live in coexistence with other people and how difficult that sometimes is.
La Sylphide will be performed with Harald Lander's Etudes from 25 October to 27 February 2014.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.