Pippi Longstocking wreaks havoc at the ballet

(AFP) Pippi Longstocking, the unruly and world-famous creation of Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, takes to the ballet stage in a colourful choreography in which streetdance collides with classical steps.

Red-haired, freckled and subversively unconventional, Pippi is the nine-year-old heroine of Lindgren’s famous stories translated into 70 languages and published in 100 countries.

Mischievous pig-tailed Pippi lives alone in a ramshackle house with her monkey and horse, speaks loudly, wears colourful and ill-fitting clothes and turns the stuffy world around her upsidedown with her absurd stories and daring adventures.

The Pippi stories have previously been adapted for film and TV, theatre and musicals but never ballet, until Lindgren, shortly before she died in 2002, gave her blessing to the Royal Swedish Ballet’s production which opened in Stockholm on Thursday.

“It’s the first time that Pippi is allowed to dance,” spokesman Torbjörn Eriksson told AFP.

And she makes the best of the privilege: From the moment she appears on stage, she wreaks havoc, scandalizes the small-town guests at a straight-laced birthday party, brings chaos to an orderly classroom and jives to South Sea rhythms.

The performance of 36-year-old dancer Anna Valev, who plays the rebellious Pippi, elicits shrieks of delight from the audience, particularly when she demonstrates girl power, quite literally, by trapping robbers, overwhelming policemen or lifting up her horse on outstretched arms.

“I’ve had more fun dancing Pippi than in any role before,” Valev, who has been with the ballet for 18 years, told AFP.

“It’s very special. Generations of people have read the books and seen the films and I’m very honoured to be the first one to dance as Pippi,” said Valev, who has a nine-year-old daughter “which helped to imagine being that age again”.

Mr Nilsson, Pippi’s monkey, is played by Rufus, a 10-year-old Stockholm ballet school student whose droll movements immediately endeared him to the children in the audience.

The ballet is loosely set in the 1950s, the decade that best represents “the society in which Pippi was trapped”, when girls were expected to be quiet, neat and obedient, said chief choreographer Paer Isberg.

“If we had set it in the present it would have been less effective, because everything is allowed today,” he told AFP.

Isberg confessed to having been worried about the risk of tackling a cultural icon in front of a very knowledgeable audience whose every member has an idea of what Pippi should look and be like.

“She’s like a saint in this country. I think I’m going to be punished,” he laughed. “But if you want to achieve something you can’t play it safe. You have to take the plunge.”

He needn’t have worried: “I recognized Pippi very easily,” said one young boy in the audience.

Scenes of conventional Swedish life are accompanied by impeccably classical music and steps, whereas every eruption of Pippi on the scene is set to rhythmic, jazzy music and choreography borrowed from hip-hop and streetdance techniques, contributed by Sweden’s most famous streetdance choreographer, Karl Dyall.

“The greatest challenge was to weave well-known children’s melodies into the score so that everyone would recognize them,” said co-composer Georg Riedel, adding that his target audience was “children from five to 85” who, in Sweden at least, are intimately familiar with the Pippi theme song.

Riedel said a long collaboration with Astrid Lindgren herself got him interested in writing children’s music, including the music for Pippi feature films.

Riedel was in charge of the jazzy bits in the ballet score, whereas fellow composer Stefan Nilsson, who has written the music for feature films including Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror, adds a more fluid cinematographic touch.

“Some scenes feel like a movie,” Nilsson said.

Astrid Lindgren, who was born in 1907 and died in 2002, was famous for her books, but also for her defense of the rights of people and animals. She used her writing talent to express her concern for the welfare of children and because of the high regard in which Lindgren was held her views often influenced Swedish legislators.

In 1958, Lindgren received the most prestigious international award in children’s literature, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and the International Book Award from UNESCO in 1993 but, some think unfairly, never the Nobel prize for literature.

She wrote a total of 80 mostly successful books, but none brought more fame than the Pippi Longstocking stories, which scandalized many parents when the first book appeared in 1945.

But Lindgren herself once said that she did not try to educate or influence the children who read her books.

“The only thing I would dare to hope for is that my books might make some small contribution towards a more caring, humane and democratic attitude in the children who read them,” she said.


Drug and harassment allegations plunge Bejart Ballet into turmoil

Switzerland's prestigious Bejart Ballet Lausanne company faces a probe as allegations of drug use, harassment and abuse of power raise the question why nothing apparently changed after an earlier investigation raised similar issues.

Drug and harassment allegations plunge Bejart Ballet into turmoil
Bejart Ballet dancers perform at Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, on April 3, 2013. credit: YURI KADOBNOV / AFP

The company, founded by the late legendary French choreographer Maurice Bejart, was placed under audit on June 4 over allegations touching on its “working environment and inappropriate behaviour”.

The Maurice Bejart Foundation announced the audit just a week after revealing that the affiliated Rudra Bejart ballet school had fired its
director and stage manager and suspended all classes for a year due to “serious shortcomings” in management.

While the foundation has revealed few details of the allegations facing the two institutions, anonymous testimonies gathered by trade union
representatives and the media paint a bleak picture.

Swiss public broadcaster RTS reported that a number of unidentified former members of the Bejart Ballet Lausanne (BBL) company had written to the foundation, describing the “omnipresence of drugs, nepotism, as well as psychological and sexual harassment”.

Many of the accusations allegedly focus on Gil Roman, who took the helm of BBL when its founder died in 2007.

Roman did not respond to AFP requests to the foundation or BBL seeking comment.

‘Denigration, humiliation’

The French choreographer faced similar allegations during a secret audit a year later, but was permitted to stay on and continue as before, according to RTS and the union representing the dancers.

“We cannot understand what might have been in that audit that would have allowed them to clear him completely,” Anne Papilloud, head of the SSRS union that represents stage performers in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, told AFP.

“The accusations back then were word-for-word the same as today: harassment, denigration, humiliation, insults, temper tantrums, drugs,” she said, citing former company members who had contacted the union in recent weeks and had said they were around during the 2008 audit.

One dancer told RTS on condition of anonymity that it was common for Roman to publicly humiliate dancers who made a misstep, while another said he often asked dancers to bring him marijuana.

“Drugs were part of everyday life at Bejart Ballet,” the broadcaster reported her saying.

Papilloud meanwhile told AFP that the “vast majority of the testimonies I have heard have been about psychological harassment”.

Drug-use had been mentioned, mainly linked to how the drugs “provoked outbursts of anger”, she said.

She said she had also heard a small number of complaints about sexual harassment, although not involving Roman.


But what stood out most in the dozens of accounts she had heard in recent weeks was the sheer “terror” people described.

Their reaction to what they had been through was “extremely strong”, she said, “almost at the level of post-traumatic stress”.

Papilloud said that as a union representative she had long been aware that BBL was considered a difficult place to work, with low pay compared to the industry standard and little respect for working hours.

But the recent revelations of “an extremely toxic working environment” had come as a shock, she said.

Over 30 current and former BBL members had contacted the union following the upheaval at the Rudra Bejart ballet school, she said.

The school, which halted classes and fired its long-time director Michel Gascard and stage manager Valerie Lacaze, his wife, was reportedly fraught with psychological abuse and tyrannical over-training.

One student described how she had found herself surrounded by teachers and other students who “humiliated and belittled” her, the president of the foundation’s board, Solange Peters, told RTS.

One teacher present at the time reportedly compared the scene to a “lynching”.

The revelations about the school appeared to have “opened a Pandora’s Box”, spurring alleged victims of similar abuse at BBL to come forward, according to Papilloud.

“We have really been inundated,” she said, adding that many hope that “this time, things can change”.

Following close communication with the foundation, the union too is hopeful that the current audit will be handled differently than the last one, with more openness and independence, Papilloud said.

“I think this will not be an audit where things are swept under the carpet.”