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The Danish Girl

Sasha Riva and Simone Repele, Italian dancers with parallel careers with Hamburg Ballett and Geneva Ballet, now a choreographic duo, chose the novel and the movie The Danish Girl as a subject for their new work: “Lili Elbe Show.” After a preview last summer in Montepulciano (a beautiful village in Tuscany), the piece for five dancers, with revised choreography, staging and with new costumes by Francesco Murano, premiered in February in Rovereto and Trento, headlining inDanza.22. As explained by the choreographers themselves, it was not easy to approach such a story, but they believe that this is the right moment to stage a dance piece about the true story of Einar Wegener, a Danish painter, and one of the first people to undergo a surgery for a gender reassignment in 1930.


Riva&Repele: “Lili Elbe Show”


inDanza.22, Rovereto, Trentino, Italy, February 13, 2022


Valentina Bonelli

“Lili Elbe Show” by Photograph by Paolo Laudicina

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First of all, Riva&Repele asked David Ebershoff, the novel’s author, for his permission to use the original title, “The Danish Girl,” sending him some clips as a preview of the new creation. The writer imposed one condition: the title role should be performed by a transgender dancer. The request is understandable, however, renouncing the original title, Riva&Repele felt probably more free to stage their own vision of the story, fitting it on the dancers they chose, and staging it in a not merely didactic or biographic way, a merit of this production. As former dancers with John Neumeier, they learned to construct a story proceeding with moving suggestions, dreamy images, delicate poetry, staging an involving one act show. In the same way, the choreography has a classical base while an original style, revealing how the two choreographers are in harmony in their way of conceiving and staging it.

“Lili Elba Show” by Riva&Repele. Photograph by Paolo Laudicina

Evoking time and context where the story took place, the simple scene is dominated on the right side of the stage, by a big, empty frame, where dancers come in and out, among a cloud of smoke. It seems to represent a kind of gate towards an unknown world, that could be fairy-like, an Alice’s Wonderland, or dark like a gothic novel. Einar has the courage to go beyond it, welcoming joy and accepting sorrow, after that he posed en travesti for his wife Gerda (also a painter) discovering his inner, feminine nature: Lili. A beautiful, tall, elegant dancer, Sasha Riva is both strong and delicate in portraying Einar becoming Lili, dressed in an orange suit with a dandy touch before, then in a green robe de soir like in the movie, taking some gestures and expressions from actor Eddie Redmayne.

Meanwhile, a tiny dancer, Christine Ceconello as “la petite femme fatale” (the title of a Gerda’s painting portraying Einar as Lili), embodies the female spirit of Einar, so that, like a funny but cruel little joker, she makes up him with a lipstick for the first time. But this little girl jumping around could represent also the daughter that Gerda and Einar desired but never had as a married couple.

“Lili Elba Show” by Riva&Repele. Photograph by Paolo Laudicina

Apparently little and fragile but firm and compassionate in supporting her husband until the dramatic end, Hamburg Ballet’s principal Silvia Azzoni as Gerda finds one of her great roles, showing her qualities as an expressive dancer and a sensitive actress. A powerful black dancer, Jamal Callender, not among the movie’s characters, seems to embody the carnal desire, while a whimsical Simone Repele looks like a Mediterranean acrobat who pulls the strings of the show with its both funny and tragic mood.

A score mixing Bach during the most tragic moments and folk music from Denmark when the drama turns in farse is an effective choice, as well as it is powerful the use of a wheelchair where Einar/Lili is sat at the end to symbolize the cruelty of the gender transition, despite the fake joy of the little group throwing confetti. Beautifully powerful, the last scene shows a theatrical Pietà, with Lili emerging in the darkness taking in her arms la petite femme fatale, naked and by now dead.

For sure Riva&Repele found the best way to stage the Danish girl’s story, succeeding in taking the audience to reflect on inclusion and tolerance, not only about gender issues—as they said. Beside the artistic merit, for these civil reasons, the “Lili Elbe Show” should tour widely and successfully in the future.

Valentina Bonelli

Valentina Bonelli is a dance journalist and critic based in Milan, and a longtime contributor to Vogue Italia and Amadeus. She is a correspondent from Italy for international dance magazines such as Dance Europe and Dance Magazine Japan. As a scholar her main interest lies in the XIX century Russian ballet, in its connections with the Italian ballet school. She has translated and edited Marius Petipa’s Memoires (2010) and Diaries (2018) into Italian, and she is currently writing essays and biographies about La Scala ballerinas dancing at Russian Imperial theatres.



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