When one says Copenhagen, one thinks Bournonville right? That quintessential of all styles: subtle yet complex, unassuming yet impossible, reserved yet accomplished. Well, summer in Copenhagen offers a different kind of smørrebrød: Kammerballetten.
Taken from the concept Kammermusik (chamber music), Kammerballetten is a creative performance platform for new work started in 2018 by the music group Trio Vitruvi: Niklas Walentin, Jacob la Cour and Alexander McKenzie. McKenzie, a composer and pianist, is the director, supported by co-director Emma McKenzie, a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet.
The premise is new classical chamber music and contemporary dance shared in an intimate environment, with an exploratory agenda. Sounds intriguing, and much needed, especially the compositional and collaborative angle.
Kammerballetten 2023 features four choreographers – Ella Rothschild, Tobias Praetorius, Laura Arend and Paul Lightfoot.
- Rothschild is based in Israel and has danced for both Crystal Pite (Kidd Pivot) and Ohad Naharin (Batsheva Dance Company) amongst others.
- Praetorius is a soloist with The Royal Danish Ballet, and has been choreographing since 2017, and previously for Kammerballetten (Chorale Dances, 2019).
- Arend runs Labor Art Company based between France and Luxembourg, and as a dancer worked with Merce Cunningham in New York before returning to Europe in 2011.
- Lightfoot was a dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater from 1985-2008. From 2011-2020 he was Artistic Director of the company, and a choreographer in collaboration with Sol León since 1989, acting as house choreographers for NDT, a position they held from 2002-2020.
Opening the evening is Milk Teeth by Rothschild, a reflection on her childhood home and experience in the outskirts of Tel-Aviv, with music by Franz Schubert – it doesn't disappoint. There's almost too much good stuff happening at once to savour the level of the work, so a little structural rethinking wouldn't hurt. Fundamentally, Rothschild is a storyteller on a philosophical level. What she offers isn't literal but rather suggestive, something anyone can connect with and apply to their own experience or existence. The work unfolds like a collection of portraits, with blackouts being used intelligently to allow the images to stay imprinted in the mind even once they've gone. Think Lars von Trier.
There's an element of family dynamic with a (grand)mother, a married couple and a child (potentially). Often the movement is minimal, using gesture underpinned with empathetic emotion, enhanced through some aesthetic trickery with abnormally long arms, all conveying the recognisable roles and relationships of humanity.
The addition of a singer and an actress who also partake in movement is another layer of idiosyncrasy, and when Rothschild allows herself to invest in extended movement phrasing it's very satisfying. A section where a male role is manipulated by the rest of the cast sees movement created through movement inability, which is striking in its originality, as is a later duet for two female roles who dance in unison. Rothschild clearly allows the space for individual interpretation as the two executions aren't identical, but the depth of the work is evident through the complex use of dynamic and an undeniable presence of expansion, with Emilie Leriche communicating a very watchable, poignant embodiment.
I was already excited to see Rothschild's work, and now I'm even more eager for another installment.
Closing the first half is Tori by Praetorius, a study of the emotional layers in Hasegawa Tohaku's ‘Birds and Flowers' painting, with original music by McKenzie. The painting is a combination of intricacy and vagueness, and I'd say the same for Praetorius' choreographic interpretation. The cast of four dance well, and definitely bring the drama, but also enforce the question: what is the drama all about?
Movement-wise, there's too much empty running for my liking, as well as an overuse of the confetti of doom and pas de bourrée. Praetorius' pas de deux work is definitely his strongest skill, but it doesn't push any existing boundaries. In an innovative space like Kammerballetten I'd expect to see more obvious levels of experimentation, and especially from someone who's brave enough to use ballet as their language of choice as it desperately needs the exploration.
After the interval comes Mary by Arend, a duo addressing her reading of love from the perspective of a woman and artist, with music by Gabriel Fauré. It's a flash in the pan, lasting five mins max, so difficult to get a major kind of hold on anything.
It started heavy on the drama again, which got me rethinking – as I'd begun during Tori – why does the majority of modern/contemporary dance need to be either melancholy or just downright depressing? What about movement for movement's sake? Or the joy of pure dance? Mary then continues into a combination of repeated, frenzied falls to the floor, and some high energy, canon phrasing, elevated by reems of tulle. Perhaps extended time would've allowed for more possibilities…
Next a purely musical moment: Ravel's Modéré played by Trio Vitruvi. It's an interesting piece reminiscent of Berlioz, Debussy and Stravinsky at times, and exquisitely played. A well-programmed moment for reflection.
Ending the programme is Suffer Little Children by Lightfoot, a work in reaction to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas (2020), with music by Handel, Abel, Bach, Olafur Arnalds, and Vivaldi, all arranged by Trio Vitruvi. If you didn't know the piece's subject matter you wouldn't necessarily get there through watching the work alone, but what you do find is textbook Lightfoot – very stylish, very skilled… very predictable. Lightfoot is a major player in the dance world, but I felt it was a missed opportunity.
Similarly to Praetorius, the experience was all too safe. If you live in Den Haag, you've seen this work before. Obviously not the exact piece, but rather the Lightfoot oeuvre. Is there anything wrong with this? Absolutely not. However, I don't believe the contemporary dance world necessarily benefits from another, formulaic Lightfoot piece but rather it's in need of modern dance titans questioning and subsequently aiming to develop the genre as we currently know it. I've seen the exaggerated facial expressions, the detailed, articulate hand choreography, the svelte, aesthetic female dancers being lifted and contorted in a heteronormative, performative manner all before.
I'm absolutely ready for a new proposition. Pam Tanowitz-style, where you literally don't know what's going to come next. Creation on the precipice? Yes please! Lightfoot's dancers do him proud regardless though, with Mikaela Kelly literally dancing for her life.
A very interesting performance where I was thinking the whole evening, though not necessarily engaged with what was being offered – rather musing over what could be. Kammerballetten is “working towards becoming a full-time company that constantly pushes the envelope” and I'm all for it. But now is also the time to keep questioning its brave mission, and specifically: what and where is the envelope, and why and how are we going to push it exactly…?
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.