Richard Jonathan

Richard Jonathan is the author of the literary novel Mara, Marietta: A Love Story in 77 Bedrooms

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken | Photo: Erik Berg


The Norwegian National Ballet’s interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler1 is a triumph of adaptation, transposing a theatrical play to a contemporary ballet in a way that vividly brings out the subterranean forces that drive the drama: Hedda’s psychosexual dynamics2. Brilliantly choreographed3 and danced by Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, this Hedda unfailingly fascinates: the fire and ice of her inner struggle are conveyed in spellbinding balletic and contemporary dance. To demonstrate why this version of Hedda is so enthralling is the aim of this essay, the last in a series of five4 on Ibsen’s captivating play. Let us recall the problematic (as defined and developed in the first three essays): Hedda fascinates because Ibsen situates her in the very middle of the primal scene of fascination—the difference between the sexes—yet most productions of Hedda Gabler fail to deliver the excitement Hedda’s capacity to fascinate deserves. To  demonstrate why this ballet version captures the core of Ibsen’s play while so many stage/screen versions5 barely scratch the surface, I will first offer some remarks on dance and ballet as expressive forms, and then contrast the dramaturgy of this ballet to that of Ibsen’s play. Next, I will systematically examine the ballet’s thirty-two scenes. Finally, by way of conclusion, I will reiterate why the heart of Ibsen’s play finds its fullest expression in this magnificent production by the Norwegian National Ballet.


1 – Available on Amazon Prime and on DVD (BelAir Classiques).
2 – See Hedda Gabler Part 1
3 – In collaboration with director Marit Moum Aune
4 – In fact, there are 3 essays in the series, but in order to keep the length of each post reasonable, the second essay (Parts 2 & 3) and  the third (Parts 4 & 5) have been broken up into two parts each. So, strictly speaking, there are 3 essays on Hedda Gabler distributed over 5 posts.
5 – See Hedda Gabler Part 2 and Hedda Gabler Part 3

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Shane Urton | Photo: Erik Berg


The dancer makes the stage a templum, a sacred space set apart from the profane: If this is no longer strictly true today, mythic consciousness having been displaced by the scientific, it nevertheless remains true that through the dancer’s body the powers of the ‘spirit world’ are made manifest: mystic forces and dance physics intermingle, while metaphor and meaning remain inseparable (as in poetry).1 In the magic circle of the stage the dancer unleashes daemonic powers; to the extent that she2 deserts the realm of the mundane, she bridges the gulf between the discursive world of rationality and the mythopoetic world of the imagination. As Suzanne Langer writes, ‘No matter what the dance is supposed to achieve, what dramatic or ritualistic elements it embraces, its first move is always the creation of a realm of virtual power. “Ecstasy” is nothing else than the feeling of entering such a realm.’3 Lightness of movement, the illusion of the conquest of gravity, the overcoming of material resistance—this is the nature of dance. What distinguishes it from gymnastics or acrobatics is that is ‘breaks the beholder’s sense of actuality and sets up the virtual image of a different world’.4 Furthermore, ‘its primary illusion—the appearance of power—and its basic abstraction—virtual gesture’5 assure its ascendency over other art forms with which it might share the stage.


1 – See, for example, Northrop Frye, ‘The Motive for Metaphor’ in his The Educated Imagination (Indiana University Press, 1964) pp. 11-34. Frye, reflecting on language and thought as modes of apprehending ‘reality’, distinguishes between the descriptive (discursive) mode of science, the conceptual-dialectical (discursive) mode of philosophy, the ideological-rhetorical mode of politics, and the imaginative mode of art (mythic-poetic).
2 – Where relevant, understand ‘she’ as ‘she/he’.
3 – Susanne Langer, Feeling and Form (NY: Scribner’s, 1953) p. 192
4 – Ibid. p. 200
5 – Ibid. p. 198

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Philip Currell, Shane Urton, Klara Mårtensson, Silas Henriksen, Samantha Lynch

The sense of freedom ballet procures derives from its formal constraints: if this paradox is not unique to ballet (it applies to all the arts), it is in ballet that we see it most strikingly. Another paradox: ‘If the dance provides an image of life, it is only because the dance is not life itself.’1 A final paradox: ‘The dance always expresses, even when it does not narrate. It triumphs as beyond all representation, as an absolute language which bespeaks only itself.’2 It is my contention, dear reader, that these paradoxes explain why the Norwegian National Ballet’s version of Hedda Gabler literally ravishes us. Indeed, the speed and precision of a leg extension, the needle-threading insertion of a soloist into a moving group formation, the finesse of a gesture free of superfluity or excess: these elements of the performance transport us out of the everyday. They are exhilarating precisely because our daily movements lack the elegance and grace of balletic displacement—the ironic cool, for example, of formal violence. The artifice of the dance makes us more real, its bespeaking only itself confronts us with our own individuality, its dimension of ‘beyond-representation’ procures us a heightened sense of being. Now it would be amiss if I did not mention that ‘the qualities of dance are those of the dancer’3: it is Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken who transports this production from the excellent into the sublime. Rejuvenating a jaded idiom, restoring the ecstatic to ballet, for over ninety minutes she sustains a concentration that distills perfect technique into luxuriant expression, giving us a Hedda who unfailingly fascinates.


1, 2 & 3 – Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, translated by Edward Casey (Northwestern University Press, 1973) p. 75

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Silas Henriksen, Philip Currell, Shane Urton


Hedda Gabler offers the dramaturg or director a clear formal structure from which to develop an interpretation and decide on staging. Charles Lyons explains in his Hedda Gabler: Gender, Role, and World:

Ibsen’s realistic dramas organize themselves through an idiosyncratic and relentlessly constant fascination with a paradigmatic sexual triad: a male who defines himself, in part, by his relationship to two women, an aggressively erotic female and a submissive, erotically neutralized female. Throughout the fifty years of writing, Ibsen’s imagination held on to this psychosexual paradigm that catches the past and present of the male hero in a pattern of eroticism and renunciation. Hedda Gabler organizes itself in a series of personal and sexual relationships in which the basic triangle functions more as a momentary point of stability in a dynamic process of desire and substitution than as a fixed structure in which the text characterizes the three principles of a sexual triad. These fluid triangular relationships figure in a process in which one figure desires another and accepts a substitute who ultimately fails to meet the demands of that desire.1


1 – Charles R. Lyons, Hedda Gabler: Gender, Role, and World (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991) p. 31 & p. 43

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken | Photo: Erik Berg

Charles Lyons continues:

The secrecy of the relationship between Hedda and Lovborg allows the relationship to take the form of a series of surreptitious encounters that, if known, would be seen as transgressions of morality even if they didn’t include actual physical sexuality. When we learn about Løvborg’s attempt to transform a relationship embodied in language to one realized through sex, we can identify the Brack strategy as a repetition, in some sense, of an earlier event in the narrative history of the play. Hedda’s actual sexual experience, limited to her marriage with Tesman, has had less of an impact on her than have these surreptitious erotic conversations with Eilert some years earlier. Acutely afraid of society’s condemnation of sexual transgressions, Hedda’s sexual behaviour has been restrained, except in the oblique language of these meetings. Consequently, the potential excitement of the frequent appearance of Brack, in private visits with her, carries an erotic charge that continues her displacement of sexuality into an exchange of words.1

In terms of dramatic structure, then, the core of the play is this particular psychosexual paradigm and the way it is lived out by Hedda Gabler.


1 – Charles R. Lyons, Hedda Gabler: Gender, Role, and World (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991) pages 45, 48, 49-50

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Klara Mårtensson & Silas Henriksen | Photo: Erik Berg

There are two other dramaturgical dimensions we need to mention: Ibsen’s ‘structural method of retrospective action’ and ‘metatheatre’.1 As you may recall from the discussion in Hedda Gabler Part 3, ‘the Ibsen character demands a double line of action’ which, as Gay Gibson Cima explains, takes several forms:

While at times it is the product of the self-dramatizing quality of a character, at other times it is generated by the use of retrospective action or simultaneous staging. Perhaps the most important change Ibsen and his actors brought about, however, was the creation of self-dramatizing characters operating in ‘metatheatre,’ or theatre pieces about life seen as already theatricalized, the persons appearing on the stage in these plays are there because they themselves knew they were dramatic before the playwright took note of them. They are aware of their own theatricality.2

In addition to the paradigmatic sexual triad and Hedda’s acting out of her psychosexuality, then, the dramaturg/director also needs to take into account the dimension of time—the fact that Ibsen, ‘by opening his plays at the end rather than the beginning of a long, secret-ridden story line, requires actors to reveal facts about the past in the present’3—and also the characters’ self-dramatization and theatricality.


1 – See Hedda Gabler Part 3
2 – Gay Gibson Cima, Performing Women: Female Characters, Male Playwrights, and the Modern Stage (Cornell University Press, 1993) p. 44
3 – Ibid., p. 21

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken | Photo: Erik Berg

In Hedda Gabler Part 2 and Part 3 I discussed, in terms of the problematic of Hedda’s fascination, the dramaturgical choices made in eight productions of Hedda Gabler. We saw that five of the eight failed to deliver a Hedda that fascinates precisely because Hedda’s interior drama, her struggle with her psychosexuality, was insufficiently dramatized in the staging. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that if the Norwegian National Ballet’s production is far superior to the eight I’ve discussed, it is largely because the director, Marit Moum Aune, made dramaturgical choices that brought to the fore the beating heart of Hedda Gabler, play and character. First and foremost, she took as the ‘spine’ of her production Hedda’s struggle with her psychosexuality, placing it clearly in the context of Ibsen’s paradigmatic sexual triad. Just as importantly, she cast a dancer—Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken—who scintillatingly delivers ‘Ibsen’s glorious creature’, incarnating to perfection, in dance brilliantly choreographed and performed, her inner struggle. Secondly, Marit Moum Aune elaborated very effectively Ibsen’s ‘structural method of retrospective action’, bringing on to the dance stage scenes that were only referred to in words in the play. She also altered the sequence of scenes, not to ‘clarify the chronology’ but to sharpen the dramatic line and optimize its impact. And, of course, she cut scenes that, given her conception of the drama, were better left out. The result of these cuts is an undiluted distillation of Ibsen, intense in its impact. Finally, the director skillfully exploited dance’s potential for self-dramatization; she made choreographic choices that highlighted the theatricality of a situation exactly when, for example, psychological tension needed a certain modulation. The intelligence and acuity of Marit Moum Aune’s dramaturgy, then, gives us a ballet that honours Ibsen’s art: her splendid production of Hedda Gabler is profoundly satisfying.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken | Photo: Erik Berg


To situate the ballet in its stage context, I now offer a few remarks on the music, followed by some observations on the lighting and scenography.

Nils Petter Molvaer’s music for Hedda Gabler is played electronically (keyboard and computer) except for three trumpet solos which he performs live on stage. The music, largely composed in conjunction with the choreography, was completed a week before the premiere.1 If Thom Willem’s music for William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987) is the most convincing demonstration of how percussive electronic music, conceived of as an integral part of the architecture of a ballet, can reinvigorate a tired dance form, Nils Petter Molvaer’s score shows just how finely such music can be modulated for a ballet where subtle psychological shadings are paramount. As Molvaer says, ‘It’s about wrapping in, or creating a platform for the dancers. It’s about colors and light, how you present the piece. It can be very simple. I create a pool of notes and colors that the dancers can react to’.2 At one point in the development of the choreography, director Marit Moum Aune told the dancers, ‘Now the performance looks a little bit too ballet classique. I think we should…’ Here she made a gesture that would translate as ‘make it more edgy, more contemporary’. That is exactly what the music so greatly contributes to: helping the dancers modify their classical steps and gestures in the direction of edginess and contemporaneity. The music, periodically, is insistently percussive, but at the same time it is consistently ‘musical’ (as opposed to ‘machine-like’) and nuanced (as opposed to monolithic). The organic sound of the trumpet solos, not brassy and bright but darkly introspective, function as soundscapes for the dancers’ ‘soliloquies’. In short, Nils Petter Molvaer’s less-is-more music complements, to great effect, the dancers’ kinaesthetic magic.


1 –Director Marit Moum Aune in the documentary on the DVD of the Norwegian National Ballet’s Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (Paris: BelAir Classiques, 2019)
2 – Nils Petter Molvaer in the documentary on the DVD, ibid.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Nils Petter Molvaer

I have described this production as ‘edgy’ and ‘contemporary’, and now I must define what I mean by these terms. As I’m using them, ‘edgy’ and ‘contemporary’ refer to productions that attempt to find an organic form to express an artistic vision that aims, above all, to produce a heightened sense of being in the spectator. Ingmar Bergman, writing in 1970, used a striking metaphor to speak of the state of art in contemporary society: a snakeskin that people take for a snake because the ants inside it make it move. If the situation he described was bad then, now—given the ever-increasing debasement of art as society becomes ever-more consumerist—it is worse. Here’s what Bergman wrote:

I regard art (at not only the art of the cinema) as lacking importance in our time: it no longer has the power and possibility to influence the development of our lives. Literature, painting, music, the cinema, and the theater beget and give birth to themselves. New mutations and combinations emerge and are destroyed; seen from the outside, the movement seems to possess a nervous vitality. With magnificent zeal the artists project to themselves and to an increasingly distracted public pictures of a world that no longer asks what they think or believe. On a few preserves artists are punished, art is considered dangerous and worth stifling or steering. On the whole, however, art is free, shameless, irresponsible: the movement is intense, almost feverish; it resembles, it seems to me, a snakeskin full of ants. The snake is long since dead, eaten out from within, deprived of its poison, but the skin moves, filled with meddlesome life.1


1 – Ingmar Bergman, ‘The Snakeskin’. Film Comment, 6 (Summer 1970), 9-21. Quoted in Paisley Livingston, Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art (Cornell University Press, 1982) p. 14

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Shane Urton & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken | Photo: Erik Berg

Paisley Livingston, philosopher, glosses Bergman’s statement thus:

Persisting tenuously in a state of ambivalence, art is caught between two irreconcilable imperatives. Insofar as the artist must draw upon the model of ritual in order to continue, he is bound to a lost tradition. Yet the very vitality of his work—its impact on the public, its meaning, the interest it arouses—depends on that tradition and is determined by the degree to which the artist manages to lend credence to the model. If the modern artist, laboring within the outline left by the dead serpent’s remains, is to regain the poison for his work, he can do so only by somehow recapturing the efficacity of ritual. Yet the ritual model has been made untenable by the very movement of modernity, that is, by the historical desacralization of traditional forms. An aesthetic renewal based on originality and the headlong movement of the avant-garde distances itself rapidly from the model, literally devouring it from within. It would seem that if art is to be truly modern it must obey this double imperative: to spring from the sacred, yet always to betray the sacred. Thus the link to the cult is severed, but without being fully severed. Although the relation to the sacred has been radically transformed, this very relation continues to determine art—negatively. Such is Bergman’s formulation of the ‘unsolvable’ dilemma facing the artist.1

Now, dear reader, you’ll have understood that I contend the Norwegian National Ballet’s Hedda Gabler has regained the poison for its production: the work it delivers, thanks to all its contributors (again, it would be amiss to not point out Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken in particular) is not a dead snakeskin, but a living serpent. And this, precisely, is what I mean by ‘edgy’ and ‘contemporary’.


1 – Paisley Livingston, Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art (Cornell University Press, 1982) pp. 144-45

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat | Photo: Erik Berg

The scenography and lighting, because they provide a setting in which the dancers can ‘regain the poison’, contribute greatly to making the production edgy and contemporary. Below we see the scenography of one particular scene. We don’t see the depth of the stage in this image, but we do see the piano, bed and divan suspended from the scaffold bars under the ceiling: furniture1 is lowered and lit whenever the scene requires it. This vertical dimension extends not only above the stage but also below it: dancers exit and enter via a trapdoor in the stage floor itself as well as via two staircases that link the orchestra pit to the stage. Establishing a depth dimension, entrances and exits are also made from an opening upstage. The platform we see in this photo can, of course, be reconfigured and removed. Dramatically, nothing is made of this deus ex machina or axis mundi set-up: the mythic dimension (or what Livingston calls the ritualistic or sacred dimension) is induced solely through dance and gesture, complemented by all the other elements of the production. The scenography, then, goes for a predominance of clean black and white lines (to which the lighting will add color as required) and an unencumbered stage. To say this is to say too little, however, for scenographer Even Børsum’s achievement here exemplifies how ‘the potential of the visual, spatial, technological and material aspects of performance’  can effectively ‘shape performative encounters’.2 Beyond set design, scenography as a spatial practice, as a site of ‘imaginative exchange and transformative experience’,3 is beautifully evidenced in this production. Costume designer Ingrid Nylander’s dress for the dancers, ranging from the stark simplicity of Hedda’s silk shift to the uniform-like outfits that assimilate Tesman and Brack to their professions, also contributes greatly to the effectiveness of design as ‘performative encounter’.


1 – Dancers, too, can descend to the stage from above, as when Tesman, lying on the bed, makes an entrance.
2 – Joslin McKinney & Scott Palmer, Scenography Expanded: Performance and Design (Bloomsbury Publishing, Kindle Edition. 2017)
3 – Ibid.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Shane Urton | Photo: Erik Berg

As for the lighting in particular1, Kristin Bredal, who designed the lighting, said: ‘In theatre, I control the light precisely to enhance the space and contribute to the narrative’.2 These objectives are amply fulfilled in this Hedda Gabler: to a state-of-the-art theatre she brought state-of-the-art lighting, enhancing the space to the extent that light serves not only to articulate the space and establish mood, but also acts as a prop (as in the suicide scene, for example) and as an ‘embrace’ for the music (the quality of darkness in which the trumpeter stands while the dancers are illuminated in isolating light). There is something synergistic in light and dance that is due, I believe, to the ephemeral nature of both phenomena. Indeed, just as, in any given performance, the dancer and the dance are one, are there a moment, and then are gone, so light is inseparable from its here-and-now presence, is there a moment, and then is gone. The subtlety of this complementarity is probably perceived only subliminally, but in this production the precision with which the light is controlled, the rhythm of its changes across its parameters, makes manifest the complementarity of light and dance. Romeo Castellucci said this about stage lighting:

Light becomes a sign and instantly receives meaning thanks to the surface that catches it, and the shadows created by everything that eludes it. On the boards of a stage this law is raised to a higher power, because every aesthetic gesture has been chosen by someone. I myself, for example, working with beams of light, move them as though I was directing the leading actors. Just like the latter, they enter the stage, say what they have to say in the time they’ve been given, and exit. The light that I respect is not functional, but illuminates itself in a tautological blaze. If light is a sign, my work consists in ensuring that this sign signifies.3

I quote Castellucci to make the point that if Kristin Bredal’s lighting is—consistent with the rest of the production—edgy and contemporary, it is so organically, as a meaningful sign. As such, it contributes greatly to creating that ‘heightened sense of being’ that director Marit Moum Aune’s production of Hedda Gabler so successfully induces.


1 – Not having seen a live performance of the ballet but only the DVD (with all its advantages and disadvantages), my perception of the lighting is not as full as it would otherwise be.
2 – Interview with Kristin Bredal, lighting designer.
3 – Romeo Castellucci, foreword to Yaron Abulafia, The Art of Light on Stage: Lighting in Contemporary Theatre (Routledge, 2016)

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Klara Mårtensson & Silas Henriksen | Photo: Erik Berg


Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a four-act play with, given the continuity of time and place within each act, no scene divisions. For the ballet, director Marit Moum Aune reorganized the play into 28 scenes1 and two acts of four tableaux each2. Act I presents Hedda’s youth, her marriage to Tesman, their apartment, and Løvborg’s return. Act II covers Hedda and her father, the journey of the manuscript, Løvborg’s death, and Hedda’s fall. The ballet opens with Hedda as a young girl, in white shirt and riding breeches, black dressage hat, and long black riding coat and boots, walking from stage left to right. Her father, in his military/equestrian uniform, appears stage left as a series of eleven soldiers/riders drops into view and remains suspended, visible only from the waist down.


1 – According to Nils Petter Molvaer’s list that we glimpse in the DVD documentary (op. cit.), as well as the changes in music that signal scene changes. In my analysis, I make a more fine-grained division of the tableaux, resulting in 32 scenes. I also ignore the division into two acts, since it has no dramaturgical significance.
2 – According to the DVD chaptering, op. cit.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat & Kristian Alm | Photo: Erik Berg

Little Hedda, all poise and cool, gives a lateral hip thrust, takes off her hat in an elegant arc of the arm, tosses it into the wings, then proceeds to perform a series of very simple acrobatic and balletic moves using the legs of the suspended soldiers/riders as props as she moves to meet her father at the other end of the stage. He opens the pistol case he’d brought with him and, as naturally as one man offering another a cigar, offers Hedda a pistol. She takes it, adopts a shooting stance and shoots. The music, which had been soft and spacious, becomes dense and percussive as the soldiers/riders drop onto the stage and step into formation as Hedda, now adult, enters from upstage. The dancers then perform a magnificent ensemble piece, choreographed by Kaloyan Boyadjiev, that radiates the jazzy drive of Bob Fosse and the balletic elegance of Jerome Robbins, with Hedda, distinguished by her white breeches and blonde hair, joining in and giving the eleven-member ensemble the symmetry of twelve.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & male ensemble | Photo: Erik Berg

As General Gabler appears stage right, Hedda leaves the group to consult with him. In their chat we perceive the father’s pride in his daughter: he’s made a man of her. Hedda rejoins the dance, the father leaves. The formation of twelve now performs in subdivisions of four, then, circling Hedda and hoisting her up, they remove her riding coat and exit upstage, leaving Hedda now visibly lithe and all in white. Both dramatically and dance-wise, it’s a superb opening to the ballet. Its excitement is all the more stimulating for having emerged organically out of the stillness of the sequence’s start. We note, right from the get-go, that this will be a Hedda Gabler in which the heroine’s relationship with her father will be conveyed front and centre in physical interaction, and not merely, as in the play, hinted at and left in the background. This, of course, is critical if we are to get a sense of Hedda’s psychosexual dynamics, as her interior struggle over sexual difference1 will, as mentioned, be the ‘spine’ of this production. We see Hedda, alone in white among the black-clad men, at one with them in their exhuberance and discipline. And yet, with the arrival of Løvborg in the very next scene, Hedda’s sexual urges will awaken her to the fact that no matter how well she can shoot a pistol, she remains a woman.


1 – See Hedda Gabler Part 1

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Kristian Alm & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Hedda and Løvborg’s first pas de deux corresponds to the ‘photo album’ scene in the play. The once-intimate friends relive for an instant their past complicity, but at cross-purposes: she to close the door and he to open it. The door to what? ‘Lust for life’, says Løvborg, but the ballet makes it clear it’s lust plain and simple. If for Løvborg, an habitué of the bordello, lust is indeed simple, for Hedda it’s anything but: as those old songs put it—’I don’t like you, but I love you’, ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’, ‘I can’t live with or without you’—Hedda is ambivalent. Yes, she wants to be fucked by him,1 but she cannot accept the passive mode.2 The driving force of their pas de deux is thus Løvborg’s ‘plain and simple’ lust (superseding his desire to be ‘saved’) and Hedda’s push-pull desire (red light-green light, stop-go-and-stop-again). As an erotic duet, it is just as effective, in its own way, as the full-on mating dance of Forsythe’s exquisite In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated3 and Balanchine’s Agon pas de deux, with its elegantly shifting man-in-control/woman-in-control dynamics. It begins with gestures, not dancing: Hedda’s expression of anxious surprise at Løvborg’s entrance, an expression that quickly gives way to a confident smile and a nonchalant walking away. Løvborg, for his part, enters in white trousers and tank top; showing he means business, he tosses to the floor the jacket he’d held in his hand. Both, then, are in white: ironic spit-in-the-eye of virginal innocence. He approaches her; side-by-side, holding each other’s gaze, they take several steps backwards, as if retreating into their past.


1 – Cf. Katherine Angel: ‘One night, as early morning light grew outside and we lay entangled, a blur of skin and limbs and mouths, I spoke dreamily of how I loved his big frame towering over me during sex; how much I loved his powerful arms around my neck while he came into me from behind; how I loved feeling the strength of him as he fucked me—yes, as he fucked me, because—let’s not be coy, or disingenuous—that is definitely what was happening.’
Katherine Angel, Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (London: Allen Lane/Penguin, 2012) p. 9
2 – See Hedda Gabler Part 1 for a discussion of the psychosexual dynamics at work here, namely le refus du féminin (the repudiation of femininity).
3 – See FORSYTHE in the World of Mara Marietta

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Silas Henriksen & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Taking the initiative, Hedda, at once playful and aggressive, gives Løvborg a shoulder shove. Positioning his body behind hers, he places his hands on her hips as she leans against him at a 45° angle; he pushes her, as one pushes a shovel to clear snow, to the other side of the stage. And now begins the balletic intertwining of limbs—on the floor, upright, in the air—as the would-be/can’t-be lovers entangle and disentangle their desiring bodies. Smartly executed, the movements and gestures—now angular and aggressive, now round and sensual—are precisely measured in their modulations: art, like sex, is not a natural act.1 Sitting on the floor, legs stretched, her back against his chest, he seizes her head in his hands: Enough is enough! She wrenches his hands off her head and stands up, bedazzled—What, in fact, do I want?—then lays her body upon his, her back to his chest again. Her back now arched, her head thrown back, in alternation she flicks up her legs from the knee—How I want him! Is this as close as I will get? Why can’t I just let him fuck me? Against her own desire Hedda rebels, escapes Løvborg’s clasp, then regrets her rebellion (which Løvborg wrongly assumes is directed at him) and seeks to get a dejected Løvborg to rise. He stands up in frustration. The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go entanglements—Hedda literally wrapping her body around his in multiple configurations—resume. Upon the attainment of an embrace where he, bending forward, feet planted on the floor, suspends her upside down between his legs, their mouths within kissing distance, she suddenly withdraws—I can’t go through with it, this is not how Daddy wanted me to be! Walking away, she descends an orchestra pit staircase. Left in the lurch, Løvborg, it would seem, is destined to ‘go home with his hard-on’2. But no—look!—it’s Hedda, naked, that has the hard-on: a pistol in her hand, she takes aim at Løvborg. Retreating, he picks up the tank top he’d stripped off in anticipation of a more amenable Hedda, and flees.


1 –  See Camille Paglia, ‘Sex and Violence, or Nature and Art’, in her book Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press, 2001) pp. 1-39
2 – Cf. Leonard Cohen, ‘Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On’ on his album Death of a Ladies’ Man (Warner Bros/Columbia, 1977)

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Silas Henriksen & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

In the end, this pas de deux, while obliquely reflecting Pina Bausch as much as Balanchine and Forsythe, expresses Hedda and Løvborg’s duet of frustrated desire in its very own idiom. All the moves are motivated, and yet the dance is free of illustration: that this paradox stands is a tribute to the dancers, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Silas Henriksen. Indeed, they seamlessly transition between gesture and dance, and lend each an air of spontaneity. There are no dead intervals, nor purely abstract logic, between choreographed positions, each of which, if only for a second, represents necessity.1 This scene concludes Tableau 1, the presentation of Hedda’s youth. It is followed by a brief transitional scene in which a naked Hedda, having driven Løvborg away by threatening to shoot him, walks across the stage, there to sit in the chair descended from the ceiling that, along with other lowered furniture, reconstitutes the apartment. Her back to the audience, she makes several movements on and around the chair, concluding with a ‘rond de jambe from a seated position’ of both legs. Its simple elegance highlights the quiet dignity of the scene, reinforced by the melancholic nobility of Nils Petter Molvaer’s solo trumpet. Movement, music, lighting and scenography combine to convey Hedda’s interior monologue. We don’t know its content, but it certainly concerns Hedda’s struggle with sexuality (hence her nudity), Løvborg, and her marriage to Tesman: the subject of the next tableau.


1 – ‘The pitfall of the pas de deux lies in its transitions’: Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, translated by Edward Casey (Northwestern University Press, 1973) p. 23.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Nils Petter Molvaer

In the pas de deux that opens Tableau 2, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken and Philip Currell offer a devastating portrait of Hedda and Tesman’s marriage. Mounting in intensity over its four-and-a-half minutes, it shows Hedda revealing first her boredom, then her sense of estrangement and entrapment, and finally, her desperation and despair. Bookended by alienated interaction—he pushes her, she pushes him; he touches her, she recoils; they sit back-to-back; they lean into each other—the two-part pas de deux begins with him taking her in his arms and doing two balletic turns while she keeps her body rigid and ‘lifeless’. Giving the moves of Balanchine’s ‘steadfast tin soldier’ or Saint-Leon’s humanoid doll1 an eerie, asymmetrical edge, Nybakken, as the duet continues, is frightfully convincing in her depiction of Hedda’s death-in-life marriage. At one point Currell manipulates Nybakken’s body in a manner reminiscent of some of the movements in the Agon pas de deux, but where the woman in Agon radiates agency throughout the man’s manipulations of her body, here Nybakken’s body conveys Hedda’s lack of agency: her beautifully executed arabesques and ronds de jambe convey nothing more than futile protest. Unlike the harpy-like Hedda seen in other productions,2 here Hedda’s suffering is made palpable. Towards the end of the pas de deux, for example, Tesman, holding Hedda in his arms as she holds a posture in the air, rocks her like a baby: in her helplessness she is vulnerable.3


1 – In Coppelia
2 – See Hedda Gabler Part 2 and Hedda Gabler Part 3
3 – In contrast, the permanently bitching Hedda of other productions, relentless in her expression of boredom, is, herself, very boring.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Philip Currell & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken | Photo: Erik Berg

This ballet’s blending of naturalistic movement and neo-classical vocabulary makes for an idiosyncratic idiom—’the qualities of dance are those of the dancer’—that is strikingly effective. Indeed, the four-and-a-half minutes of this pas de deux render Hedda and Tesman’s marital state—mutual estrangement, impossibility of disengagement, intimacy and alienation—far more effectively than any of the eight productions we examined earlier.1 Hedda’s inability to access her desire, already difficult in the context of her society, is further complicated by her ossified conjugal existence and her psychically incestuous father (instead of a baby-in-fantasy, he gave her a penis-in-fantasy and a gun-in-reality). To be unable to access one’s desire is to be condemned to a living death: that is precisely what this pas de deux shows. Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken’s Hedda Gabler is infinitely moving because she captures this state at the exact moment when Hedda’s resistance to going out of her mind with alienation is breaking down. In this respect, her long, silent scream at the end of the sequence can be read not only as an expression of pain, but also as an attempt to shore up her resistance and thus avert madness.


1 – See Hedda Gabler Part 2 and Hedda Gabler Part 3

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Philip Currell

The second scene in the ‘marriage’ tableau is a pas de deux with Tesman and Aunt Julle. That the scene is inserted in this tableau is entirely appropriate, for it quickly becomes clear that, much to Hedda’s dismay, Tesman is, in effect, ‘married’ to his aunt. Indeed, launching the scene, she emerges from his bed manically knitting a sleeve of the sweater he is wearing, a sleeve now three meters long. Right from the get-go, then, two key themes are struck: (psychic) incest and (maternal) excess. The three-meter-long sleeve is an umbilical cord, binding the orphan Tesman to his substitute mother. Anne Dufourmantelle:

‘Every mother is savage’ ‘savage in that she swears, unconsciously, to keep her child forever within her. To keep unaltered the tie that binds her to her child in that maternal matrix into which she herself, when small, was delivered. This oath secretly perpetuates itself, from mother to son and daughter. It is this oath that the child must break in order to become him/herself, to gain access to their truth, their desire.’1

Hedda’s marriage, then, was doomed from the start: alienated from her own desire, she married, mirror-fashion, a man who is alienated from his. As the dance shows, in the face of his alluring wife Tesman literally ‘hides behind his mother’s skirt’. Indeed, the choreography brilliantly captures these psychological dynamics.


1 – Anne Dufourmantelle, La Sauvagerie maternelle (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2001). Translated here from the French by Richard Jonathan.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Samantha Lynch, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Philip Currell

Samantha Lynch, as Aunt Julla, delivers a bravura performance, a performance all the more impressive for being done without bravura movements. Now spastic, now catatonic, on a dime she turns from repressed spinster, hunched up and bent over, to exuberant bride, dynamic and expansive. Staccato to legato, adagio to allegro, she switches between extremes with fluidity. What has got her so excited? Hedda, of course, who is now observing in resigned despair the mother-son duet. With every circling sweep of the legs or swift and compressed arm movement, Aunt Julle says, ‘Beware that woman’; with every pivot and chop-chop gesture, ‘She’s dangerous’. Unlike in Ibsen, this aunt does not turn the other cheek, however ironically: she hits back (as we’ll see later). What this pas de deux between ‘mother’ and ‘son’ communicates has much in common with the Pink Floyd song, ‘Mother’:

Roger Waters

Mother do think she’s good enough— for me?
Mother do think she’s dangerous—to me?
Mother will she tear your little boy apart?
Oooh aah, mother will she break my heart?

Hush now baby, baby, don’t you cry
Mama’s gonna check out all your girlfriends for you
Mama won’t let anyone dirty get through
Mama’s gonna wait up till you come in

Mama will always find out where you have been
Mama’s gonna keep baby healthy and clean
Ooooh babe, ooooh baby, oooh babe
You’ll always be a baby to me

The complicity, and indeed co-dependence, between ‘mother’ and ‘son’ is evident: equally evident is the fact that Mother’s the boss. Unlike in sexual pas de deux, where opposition is necessary to generate eroticism, here all is care and concord, spiced up with a touch of motherly discipline (‘pull up your pants’, ‘spit in her eye’, ‘catch me I’m coming’). The duet ends with Tesman getting a grip on himself, ‘escorting’ his ‘mother’, who is still wagging her finger in warning, to her exit downstage. He then walks upstage to meet his nominal wife.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Samantha Lynch, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Philip Currell

The next scene presents Hedda and Tesman’s second pas de deux. They dance a duet of anguish and anger, of tenderness offered, accepted, and ultimately rejected. Four piles of books punctuate the stage. Tesman bears Hedda from one to the other; in-between each, she, held aloft, performs a variety of arabesques and attitudes. Her silk robe, loosely tied, opens and closes as Tesman transports her; she does the splits, upside down, vertical, afloat in the air. Tesman licks the side of her neck: she violently rejects the gesture. He touches her belly: in anguish she recalls she’s pregnant. She beckons him to help her descend from a pile of books; he offers his hand: she rejects it. As she sits on the floor downstage, he picks up a pile of books and exits upstage. What is going on here? Does Hedda have, as Henry James in The Portrait of a Lady writes of Isabel Archer, a ‘beastly pure’ mind? Is that what the constant opening and closing of her legs, at once purely balletic (the vocabulary calls for it) and inevitably sexual (the ‘hinge of her thighs’),1 signifies? Is fire and ice the very nature of her eroticism? In placing Hedda on a pile of books, is Tesman placing her on a pedestal?


1 – Cf. Leonard Cohen, ‘In the rings of her silk, in the hinge of her thighs, where I have to go begging in beauty’s disguise’. From ‘A Singer Must Die’, on his album New Skin for the Old Ceremony (CBS Records, 1974).

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Philip Currell

Towards the end of the duet Hedda is overcome with lassitude and despair. It is clear that, faced with the unshakable facts of her existence, she is in an impasse from which her own efforts cannot extricate her. As for Tesman, his learning is not a sublimation of desiring, a refuge from Hedda’s eroticism (‘too hot to handle’),1 but rather an escape from his own individuality. Indeed, his dancing is limited to partnering: he shows no desire to dance for himself. This pas de deux could be titled, ‘The impossible intimacy of two alienated individuals who are blind to their own inauthenticity’. There’s a sadness in it that transcends its dramatic function as a ‘portrait of a marriage’. It is a sadness that resonates in the spectator, because it captures uncomfortable truths most couples will eventually encounter, namely:

1. The secret the couple have to keep—mostly from each other—is what they are hiding from (and that they are hiding in the first place).
2. One can never be someone else to one’s partner: we are so quickly typecast in our relationships.
3. How to be two bodies in public, consistently together, guardians of each other’s shame, looking the part?2


1 – Those who consider Hedda cold clearly lack psychological insight (and—dare I say it?—experience of women).
2 – Adam Phillips, Monogamy (London: Faber & Faber, 1996)

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Philip Currell

In three sub-scenes, the next scene presents Hedda’s recollection of her childhood with her father. It is critically important dramatically, for it reveals how the idea of suicide as an end to suffering came to get a grip on her. It begins with little Hedda adopting a virile stance that fails to please her father: he rearranges her shoulders, tilts her head, and aligns her arm with his as she takes aim, her hand substituting for the pistol that will, eventually, be her reward for learning his teaching.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat, Kristian Alm, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Manipulating her body like God his clay, General Gabler does a duet with his daughter. Hedda, adult, contemplates the scene with consternation.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat, Kristian Alm, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

The next sub-scene (Hedda’s second recollection) is a variation of the first: General Gabler in his military uniform putting his daughter through her paces: straighten up, turn around, this way not that. A puppet on a string, little Hedda cannot but obey her puppet master. Hedda adult, downstage left, walks towards center-stage, arm extended in the pistol firing position. As she retreats, her father walks to join her. There he takes her pistol hand and puts it to her temple. They then perform a duet in which he spins her around on the floor, lifts her into an aerial splits, then lowers her to the floor where her arabesque turns into pistol shooting. He then lifts her more roughly, making her movements less balletic. The miming of pistol firing is continuous. He tries to draw her hand to her head: she withdraws her hand. He tries again and succeeds. Hedda, bewildered, holds the ‘pistol’ to her temple. As her father leaves, Hedda, still holding the ‘gun’ to her head, is in a state of amazement: we understand the idea of suicide has been conceived (or is being conceived, if we consider the scene Hedda’s present recollection of the past, with her projecting her own injunction to kill herself onto her father).

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat, Kristian Alm, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

In the final sub-scene (Hedda’s third recollection), little Hedda and her father do a military-balletic ‘drill’. Adult Hedda, looking on, sees her vision multiplied with the appearance of other ‘Little Hedda-General Gabler’ couples enacting variations of what we’ve seen before. Hedda walks among them with a certain serenity, as if her will to resist has subsided. The ‘Little Hedda-General Gabler’ couples begin to exit. The last one  left on stage crawls, daughter on father’s back, to the trap door. As General Gabler descends through the floor, little Hedda walks away.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat, Kristian Alm, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

And thus ends the second tableau. We see that in just under seventeen minutes, director and dancers have brought out from Ibsen’s play a richness that very few productions achieve in their full duration. In the final scene, the theme of Hedda’s relationship with her father is developed in depth, making it far more interesting than in any of the eight productions we’ve studied.1 This contributes greatly to foregrounding Hedda’s psychosexual dynamics, which largely accounts for why, in this ballet, ‘Ibsen’s glorious creature’ thrives. To summarize the relationship of Hedda and her father as it can be understood from this scene, I offer the following citation (it refers to women in the nineteenth-century novel).

For how many women is it true that their whole energies seem spent in ever more complicated ways of pleasing their father? How many have the feeling that their proudest moments of independence turn out to be a communication with him? Some fathers desire a devoted and obedient slave, others a suffragette. In reality most probably want both at the same time—a fatal contradiction which daughters can spend most of their lives and ingenuity trying to resolve.2


1 – See Hedda Gabler Part 2  and Hedda Gabler Part 3
2 – Olivia Harris, ‘Heavenly Father’, quoted in Janice Haney-Peritz, ‘Engendering the Exemplary Daughter: The Deployment of Sexuality in Richardson’s Clarissa’ in Lynda Boose & Betty Flowers, editors, Daughters and Fathers (John Hopkins University Press, 1989) p. 181



Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Kristian Alm


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