The intensity burns in Marit Moum Aune’s Hedda Gabler for Norwegian National Ballet

Opera House, Oslo
October 6, 2017

Maggie Foyer

It became clear, when Marit Moum Aune produced a dance version of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts in 2015, that combining her theatre director’s eye with the talents of the Norwegian National Ballet could bring the renowned Norwegian playwright’s work into another dimension. She confirms this in her latest production, Hedda Gabler, a work of searing intensity.

In using the eponymous heroine’s maiden name, Ibsen makes clear that Hedda is her father’s daughter, a product of the aristocratic military class, rather than her husband’s wife. Aune’s opening tableau, shows the child Hedda being shown how to aim a pistol by her proud father, (Christian Alm). The scene switches seamlessly to the adult Hedda who joins enthusiastically in the soldiers’ military exercises. Raised with the freedom of a boy, she is soon to experience the unwelcome restrictions imposed on a woman.

This is unquestionably Hedda’s show and in Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Aune has found a remarkable interpreter. Tall and blonde; a veritable Nordic goddess, she appears naked for a brief scene and sends testosterone levels rocketing. But it is the character’s interesting and imperfect interior, rather than her perfect body, that makes the evening memorable. Her face set in a mould of haughty aristocratic languor, her emotion is articulated through her powerful, hyperflexible body, her feet fiercely pointed like weapons at the ready.

Samantha Lynch and Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken in Hedda GablerPhoto Erik Berg
Samantha Lynch and Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken in Hedda Gabler
Photo Erik Berg

Hedda does not have the clear thinking and logic of Ibsen’s other great heroine, Nora, in The Doll’s House. Hedda is an existentialist: she has created her trajectory and must fulfil her destiny. Like that other ballet enigma, Cocteau’s Death in Le Jeune Homme, she just is. Hedda functions at the extremes of an emotional continuum. In her duet with Judge Brack (Shane Urton), an equally dystopian character, her emotions switch from animalistic lust to visible disgust at his touch with no space for womanly empathy or warmth.

Each of the four men is a finely drawn character. Kristian Alm, as her father, the defining influence, is a background figure but casts a long shadow. The tragic Eilert Løvborg, played by Silas Henriksen has the air of careless youth, but also the foolhardiness. Aune has created a tingling duet of early love between him and Hedda which glowed with innocence in contrast to their damaged adult relationship. Of all the men in her life it is Tesman, her husband, played by bespectacled Philip Currell, who strangely seems least affected by her callous behaviour. Like the holy fool, his bookish nature seems to offer him a protective shield.

The choreography is credited to Aune, assisted by Christopher Kettner, Kaloyan Boyadjiev and the lead dancers and the rich creative input has invested each scene, especially the duets, with acute subtlety and invention. While the structure of the material and focus of the text bears Aune’s authorial voice, each dancer’s investment in the creation of the characters, gives a dramatic potency that is rare and wonderful to experience.

Philip Hurrell and Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken in Hedda GablerPhoto Erik Berg
Philip Hurrell and Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken in Hedda Gabler
Photo Erik Berg

The women in Hedda’s life have a rough ride, beginning with her spiteful behaviour to Thea, her childhood friend. Thea Elvsted, (Eugenie Skilnand) suffers from the maddening dullness of the very nice but Aunt Julle (Samantha Lynch), reveals hidden passions. She emerges from the line of funeral mourners, dressed alike in heavy dresses and veiled hats, to force Hedda into an unaccustomed subservient position as she roughly manhandles the younger woman roughly. It is payback time for the kind old lady, after both her knitting and her beloved nephew have been abused by Hedda.

The setting has the reality of tables, chairs, books or clouds, but in unreal situations. The furniture hovers above, flying in when needed and the clouds are projected on fragments of set, turbulent and always on the move enhancing the unease. The use of stairs from the pit further develops the use of the vertical and creates something of an immersive element to draw the audience in.

In the second act, the work takes a surrealist turn. The male chorus neatly suited, sport fish head masks as the circle round Hedda. Aune catches the moment when Løvborg’s life falls apart. Meekly accepting Hedda’s suggestion, accompanied by one of her father’s pistols, that he try to make a ‘beautiful’ death, he seeks courage in the brothel in the arms of a sad faced prostitute. Nils Petter Molvær’s haunting trumpet is the perfect accompaniment to this tragically Munchian scene. In contrast Hedda’s end, a single shot then blackness, is as calculated and beautiful as her father might have wished. It is a rare dance performance that can stir such emotion, leave one so devastated, yet longing to see it all over again.