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Swedish rhapsody.

What makes a ballet company? I suppose I ask this in something like a Platonic sense--what is the ethos, the spirit, of a ballet company? What makes it tick--first, tick in some kind of starburst of energy, then go on ticking, for years, for decades--for centuries? I found myself thinking darkly about this a few months ago in Stockholm. I had gone to this beautiful and self-styled Venice of the North--does Venice ever call itself the Stockholm of the South, I wonder--to assist, as the French say, in the 225th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Ballet. Actually, it was also the 225th anniversary of the Royal Swedish Opera, but the opera was not making a song and dance about it, and the ballet was.

Still, face it, it is not every day that you get to be 225 years old, and the Royal Swedish Ballet really is the fourth-oldest ballet company in the world--its seniors living in Paris, St. Petersburg, and Copenhagen. So, justifiably exhilarated by this benchmark birthday, the company held what amounted to a ten-day party based at Operan, Stockholm's Royal Opera House, surely one of the few opera houses in the entire world to boast of a major restaurant within its walls.

The celebration took the form of festival performances, naturally enough, and also the public presentation of scholarly papers that ranged over the entire history of the company. (A few were perhaps a little less than scholarly, for I must confess that I gave one.) This survey began with the founding by Gustavus III--yes, that same unfortunate monarch who appears under the nom de guerre of Riccardo in Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera--and went up to the present day, with a certain emphasis on that celebrated historic digression, Les Ballets Suedois (1920-25).

Just as a man is as old as he feels, a ballet company is as good as it looks. Although the Royal Swedish Ballet under its present artistic director, Danish import Frank Andersen, looks almost unexpectedly good, with dancers who at last seem in the same league as those of its Scandinavian rival and big brother, the world-famous Royal Danish Ballet, its repertory nevertheless lacks a distinctive character. Andersen, recently a much-admired director of the Royal Danish Ballet, has been in his present job for only three years, and he is busy putting the best face with the happiest smile he can on the troupe's oddly mediocre past.

This fact was very much in evidence at the grand, four-hour gala performance, attended by the king and queen of Sweden, that ended the festival. The program, appropriately enough, presented a comprehensive, if sketchy, retrospective of the company's history. This gallop through the past provided an unusual but shrewd spin to a gala that consisted of vignettes and excerpts rather than those war-horse pas de deux that are the customary gala fare.

Yet, when all was said and danced--and most handsomely danced it was--it still left hanging in the air the odd question, Just what was the Royal Swedish Ballet? At the moment it is an extraordinarily good collection of dancers (among the best in the world) both held together and pushed forward by the admirably incredible Andersen, who is clearly the best thing to happen to Swedish Ballet since the appointment of British director Mary Skeaping started its renaissance in 1953.

There is a great deal of understandable interest in Rolf de Mare and Jean Borlin's Les Ballets Suedois today, and the festival repertory included a program of putative reconstructions--which I arrived too late to see--that the company will bring to Washington's Kennedy Center next year on what will be only its second U.S. visit. The Royal Swedes are happily embracing the remnants of Ballets Suedois, but this venture was never really a part of mainstream Swedish dance; because its repertory has not survived choreographically, as has a quite sizable part of Diaghilev's, the short-lived company must be regarded more as a curiosity than as a heritage.

Which brings me back again to the question with which I started: What makes a ballet company? In some sense the answer must be character, and in dance this can surely be derived from only an individual style. And it seems to me that this style usually comes from the nurturing presence, later sustained by tradition, of a major choreographer or choreographers. The Maryinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg clearly has Petipa and Ivanov as its lodestones, the Danes have Bournonville, New York City Ballet has Balanchine and Robbins. Even Stuttgart Ballet has Cranko--as was remarkably evident during its recent New York City visit. Britain's Royal Ballet had Ashton, and American Ballet Theatre had Tudor, but both companies seem to be letting those traditional links with their pasts erode and permitting their heritage to slip through their fingers. Paris Opera Ballet might have had a founding choreographer, but it has managed to maintain only a school. So Paris Opera Ballet is a troupe with fabulous dancers, but again, like the Swedes, no repertory that it can pinpoint as its own.

Does this really matter? At one time I would have said emphatically, yes, but not now, when ballet is becoming as international as opera or soccer. I look at Stuttgart Ballet with its vast collection of nationalities or, for that matter, ABT or the Royal Ballet or City Ballet (which has traditionally enhanced its male ranks through green cards and visas). A major company with a strictly homogeneous character is becoming as rare as an opera company with one; even such time-honored stalwarts as La Scala in Milan or the Vienna State Opera are more often an assemblage of international singers performing standard works under shifting surtitles.

What made a ballet company in the twentieth century may not be what makes one in the twenty-first. The advances that notation and video are making in preserving a standard dance repertory just may turn ballet--as its increasing popularity just may turn soccer--into an altogether different ball game.

Clive Barnes has contributed to Dance Magazine since 1958.
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Title Annotation:The Royal Swedish Ballet celebrates its 225 year anniversary
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Previous Article:Lines Contemporary Ballet, Joyce Theater, May 26-31, 1998.
Next Article:Quinquagenary.

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