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 opening scene of Tableau 4—‘The Apartment’—stages Hedda and Brack’s first round of flirtation as a pas de deux of acting in an armchair. Typifying the ballet’s adaptation of the play, the translation of words into movement results in no-holds-barred physical expression: the distances of desire, here, are reduced to a minimum. The tone is set in the very instant Hedda and Brack meet. Indeed, seated in an armchair, he rises from below the stage, a swagger in his attitude and a cigar in his mouth. Hedda approaches him from behind, snatches the cigar and takes a drag, then gives it back to him; he, in turn, takes a puff. And thus, through the mediation of the cigar, they engage in a ‘French kiss’1. (All the while, Tesman is typing at his desk in the background.)


1 – Speaking of French, let me say this in French: French kiss + cigare = pipe. Forcément, la scène suggère, non pas que Hedda va tailler une pipe à Brack, mais que cette simple possibilité, en effleurant l’esprit de l’un et de l’autre, leur procure un frisson de volupté.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Shane Urton & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Normally, in flirtation, ambiguity is the object of interaction. Each participant is aware of what’s happening but pretends not to be: they share an open secret and know they must not disclose it. Their playful behavior aims at generating sexual interest, but it’s understood there are boundaries that must be respected: flirtation is not a sexual relation, but a process of change towards one. Hedda and Brack both know the game, but each violates its rules. The harmless double entendres of the play here become unambiguous physical action. At first, vague caresses are accepted and rejected, bodies entangle and disentangle; later, a bit of nastiness creeps into the playfulness, as each hurts the other. Finally, when Brack tries to put his hand between Hedda’s legs, she smilingly pushes him away. And thus Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken and Shane Urton act out a flirtation that, in ‘breaking the rules’, reveals a psychosexual choice Hedda is making. Indeed, by ceding to a ‘compulsion to repeat’, Hedda could accept abuse from Brack (repeating the abusive scenario she acted out with her father); instead, she not only fights back, but shows she’d rather invert the roles than replay them: to be worthy of the General’s pistol, she understands she must wield it.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Shane Urton & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

The next scene is another theatrical vignette. Dreamily smoking a cigar,1 Hedda, in the armchair, swings her legs up against the back of the chair and lies on the floor. There’s arrogance in her negligence, eroticism in her nonchalance. As Thea, adult, enters upstage, Hedda, little girl, enters from the stage-right orchestra pit staircase. As she lies down—boots on chair, back on floor—next to adult Hedda, little girl Thea enters from the stage-left staircase. She seats herself on the edge of the stage, then takes her sandwich and bottle of milk from her school bag. Adult Thea approaches to observe her. All the while, upstage, Brack is tapping on the piano and Tesman on his typewriter. As adult Hedda and Thea look on, little Hedda, perpetrator, and little Thea, victim, then enact a scene of schoolgirl cruelty that, in three brief actions, says volumes about (little) Hedda’s character. As little Thea eats a bite of her sandwich, we see her cringe as little Hedda approaches: a telltale sign that this is the beginning of an established pattern of behavior. And then we witness a nasty piece of bullying in which little Hedda, having shoved little Thea from behind, takes her sandwich, breaks off a piece, and scrunches it into a pulp that falls into the school bag little Thea is holding open for her (another telltale sign of how the bully has ‘trained’ her victim, as a rider trains a horse). Little Hedda then picks up little Thea’s bottle of milk and steps to the other side of her victim. She holds it aloft, poised to be spilt; little Thea, following the script of the ritual, moves her bag to the other side where little Hedda empties the bottle of milk into it. She then exits downstage while little Thea, running, exits upstage.


1 – In Hedda’s psychosexual dynamics, ‘smoking a cigar’ is equivalent to ‘firing a pistol’. Here, celebrating her assertion of masculinity in her duet/duel with Brack, she is savouring her victory, a victory she doesn’t yet know is temporary.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Erle Østraat & Helle Flood

This scene, devastating in its impact, is far more powerful than the dialogue about hair-pulling (and threat of burning) in the other productions we’ve studied,1 dialogue that few directors and actresses treat as more than small talk. How to interpret little Hedda’s sadism? In my analysis of the previous scene, I suggested that Hedda could have ‘accepted’ Brack’s abuse, and in so doing she could have ‘reconstituted’ her relationship with her father: she was ‘abused’ by him as he conducted his campaign to develop her mastery (over horses, pistols, other people). Had she played the role of victim, Brack would have been cast in the role of father. Had she then made love with Brack, the transgression might have driven her mad: it would not have been mere adultery, but the realization of a childhood fantasy (its unconscious status showing the strength of the taboo). In this scene, Hedda is the abuser. As such, is she identifying with her father? If she is, then little Thea, as victim, would be cast in the role of little Hedda. So is little Hedda’s cruelty an attempt to get little Thea to rebel (as little Hedda could never rebel against her father)? All these questions are, of course, unanswerable. I raise them in order to show that in Hedda, as in all of us, sadism, masochism, and sexuality are intermingled. In acting out these drives, in being now perpetrator-active-rebellious, now victim-passive-acquiescent, Hedda is ‘forming’ the psychosexuality that, in her struggle with it, will make her ‘Ibsen’s glorious creature’.


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

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

The third and final scene of Tableau 3 is a pas de quatre with Hedda, Brack, Thea and Tesman. It corresponds to the scene in the play where Thea comes to ask Tesman to keep an eye on Løvborg, who, back in town, is flush with money and prey to temptation. Thea’s movements are modest and ‘introverted’; Hedda’s, sudden and extravagant. Brack seems to have gotten under Hedda’s skin: while he greets Thea as the sexual predator he is, Hedda is no more tender with Thea. The music’s insistent monotone is ominous, as is the on-stage action.

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

Tesman comes down from his study to extricate Thea from Hedda’s clutches, leaving Brack free to reclaim Hedda. Of particular interest is a choreographic sequence in which Hedda is supported, in turn, by Brack, Thea, and Tesman: in the air, it would seem, she is sovereign; on the ground, reality escapes her control. The pas de quatre plays out in a succession of struggles between Hedda, Brack and Thea, with Tesman intervening to protect Thea from the other two. As the scene concludes, Hedda sweeps Thea’s bag and coat off the piano stool and onto the floor: the seat is hers now. Like the preceding dance, this gesture alone translates dozens of lines of dialogue to far greater effect than did the acting and staging in the eight productions examined earlier. Indeed, in conveying, in ways at once bold and nuanced, the psychological intensity of Ibsen’s play, this scene, like the rest of the ballet, conveys a sense that Hedda’s fate concerns us. If dance is the apotheosis of the body and language the apotheosis of the mind, it would seem, in light of the tableaux we’ve looked at, that when it comes to staging Hedda Gabler, dance trumps language.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Eugenie Skilnand, Shane Urton, Philip Currell

Tableau 4, ‘Eilert Løvborg’s Return’, consists of two sequences, one of four scenes and the other of three. Sequence 1 scene 1 features two pas de deux, one with Løvborg and Thea and the other with Hedda and Brack. Dramaturgically, the scene, like the others in the sequence, is best understood in terms of triangular relationships. I repeat a citation from section 3 above:

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

These dynamics are communicated clearly in the two pas de deux here. Løvborg indulges Thea in a dance, but it’s Hedda he really wants (while Thea is destined for Tesman). Thea’s dancing is simple and pedestrian, befitting her character, while Hedda’s is at once highly balletic and fearlessly athletic. Reflecting his frustration, Løvborg’s partnering of Thea grows increasingly rough; he ends up manhandling her, to the extent of kicking her when she’s down. As for Brack, who’d always given flirting short shrift, he conceives of his partnering of Hedda as foreplay, aggressive and insistent. Hedda, for her part, is more interested in what’s happening between Løvborg and Thea, but that doesn’t stop her from giving Brack as good as she gets. Indeed, in refusing Brack she asserts her power, and power, for a woman, is an aphrodisiac2: besides its effect on Brack, Hedda’s power, her dancing suggests, precipitates her autoeroticism3. In these pas de deux, then, the shadow of a third person is always present.


1 – Charles R. Lyons, Hedda Gabler: Gender, Role, and World (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991) p. 43
2 – See Hedda Gabler Part 1, and in particular the notion of a structural ambivalence in female sexuality. For a detailed exposition of these dynamics, see Jacqueline Schaeffer, The Universal Refusal: A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Feminine Sphere and its Repudiation, translated by David Alcorn (Routledge, 2018). A condensed version is available in Jacqueline Schaeffer, ‘The Riddle of the Repudiation of Femininity: The Scandal of the Feminine Dimension’, in Leticia Glocer Fiorini & Graciela Abelin-Sas Rose, editors, On Freud’s ‘Femininity’ (London: Karnac Books, 2010) pp. 129-143
3 – Indeed, her dancing gives the impression that ‘self-love’, if not her preferred mode of sex, remains her fixation, as if she hasn’t gotten past the stage of adolescent experimentation. Again, see Hedda Gabler Part 1 for more instances of this.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Eugenie Skilnand, Shane Urton, Philip Currell

Sequence 1 scene 2 finds Thea, Løvborg and Tesman poring over Løvborg’s papers—his new book—laid out on a long black table. Hedda, looking on, bears an expression of bewilderment and disgust. Brack, his back to those busy with the book, leans against an end of the table. Hedda, smoking a cigarette, joins him there. Like a cock strutting around a hen, Brack can’t resist continuing his seduction. Hedda, on her back, slides her body to the centre of the table: Thea, Løvborg and Tesman pay her no attention. Brack takes Hedda’s cigarette from her fingers (the ambivalent complicity once again), and then Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken performs a tour de force of movement and mime to convey Hedda’s despair, now at a pitch of desperation. Starting on the table and ending on the floor, her movements veer from spastic self-grasping to epileptic seizure, from Charcot-hysteric attitudes to Kafka-cockroach crawling. ‘The quality of the dance is the quality of the dancer’: again, I am compelled to point out that Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, in addition to being an outstanding dancer, excels as an actress. On stage for almost the entire ballet, not once does she fail to fascinate. Indeed, her face is endlessly expressive, a distillation of frustration, anxiety, contempt and disgust; of self-possession, self-doubt, disbelief and indifference. Whatever the dramatic moment requires, she delivers it effortlessly. As for her dancing and movement, it would seem she has ballet in her blood and expressiveness in her bones. This scene, then, is far more convincing in conveying the complexity of Hedda’s emotions than anything the actresses playing Hedda in the productions I’ve studied were able to deliver. Once again, dance trumps language: Hedda will be body, or she will not be at all.1


1 – André Breton’s closing line from his Surrealist romance, Nadja—‘Beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all’—is literally enacted/evident in this scene, a scene that achieves the miracle of being at once intensely expressive and infinitely subtle, avoiding the pitfall of caricature through sheer conviction (if the acting is instinctive, it nevertheless shows astute judgement).

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Sequence 1 scene 3, a scintillatingly choreographed Hedda-and-Brack pas de deux, again leaves in the shade the idle flirting of the characters in the play, whether staged drawing-room style or minimalist post-modern. The sexual tension between the two infuses every move with meaning. We don’t know Hedda’s erotic scenario, but her dancing suggests a quick switch between push and pull turns her on. ‘Dominate me if you dare’, she seems to be saying to Brack, ‘my feigned submission is but a prelude to my attack’. The dancers demonstrate that eroticism has nothing to do with coy come-ons or sight lines to sex: negotiation of transgression, the overcoming of the self, is the name of the game. From chic nonchalance to knife-edge leaps, from utter abandon to strict control, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken bestows upon Hedda Gabler a dance idiom that dislocates ballet and reconstitutes it as a post-classicism at once timeless (‘movement given a character of gratuitousness, fluidity, and totality; movement made sculptural or architectural’)1 and contemporary (movement that resonates with the Zeitgeist). There are phrases that fuse moves from ballet and tango, that juxtapose naturalist and expressionist gestures, and that demonstrate, in partnering, wrestling-as-sex-play. This is perhaps Hedda’s happiest pas de deux in the whole ballet. One senses that, convinced she can push-and-pull with Brack at will and still stay in control, she has found, in her struggle with sexual difference, a kind of equilibrium that procures her a certain freedom.


1 – Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, translated by Edward Casey (Northwestern University Press, 1973) p. 78

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken & Shane Urton

Sequence 1 scene 4 corresponds to the ‘cold punch’ scene in the play. In a brilliantly choreographed pas de quatre in which Hedda is partnered, simultaneously or in turn, by Brack, Løvborg and Tesman, we vividly witness her plight. Indeed, the choreography makes it clear that if Hedda is seeking personal and sexual fulfilment, none of the three men around her correspond to the ‘third man’ who would fit the bill. Who is the ‘third man’? He’s the heroine’s ‘saviour’ in a typical love story structure. Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, offers a good illustration of it. The heroine, Bathsheba, is pursued by three suitors: William Boldwood, Sergeant Troy, and Gabriel Oak. Boldwood’s got the money, Troy the looks, and Oak the love. Bathsheba, a ‘proud beauty’, perceives she’d be pampered in Boldwood’s house but left unsatisfied in his bed. Troy’s got no house, but in his bed Bathsheba’s sure she’d be in heaven. As for Oak, she sees him as undistinguished, just too ordinary. She opts for sex and chooses Troy, but his flashy sword-play1 that so seduced her before now turns out to have no translation in bed. Boldwood in his jealousy makes a fool of himself, while Oak makes the best of bad times. Finally, after a period of crisis, Bathsheba realizes that the ‘third man’, Oak, is an honest man whose love is deep and steadfast. And so, reader, she married him.


1 – Equivalent, in a sense, to General Gabler’s pistol-play.

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

What this pas de quatre makes clear, then, is that although Hedda has three suitors, the ‘third man’, he who would see through her bitchiness to her desperation and love her—practically—into wellness, is missing. If Tesman corresponds to Boldwood and Løvborg to Troy, Brack, having understanding but neither love nor integrity, does not correspond to Oak. As Hedda at once asserts herself against and abandons herself to her three suitors, we sense that she is making the best of a bad situation. Dancing on a powder keg, she wants to get her kicks before it explodes. Captive in marriage, captive in society, captive in the toils of her own demons, Hedda, battled over and abused by her suitors, revenges herself by alienating in alcohol the one man who, though no Oak, might have loved her had he been able to love himself: Løvborg.

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

Sequence 2 gives us a glimpse into Hedda’s subconscious. Eleven dancers, in black from top to toe— hat-and-veil, long-loose dress, low-heeled boots—conjure a witch’s coven as they dance in syncopated rhythm. Stance wide, arms wings, balance shifting—rectangle, straight line, circle—through drumming boots and geometry of groups they harness chthonian forces. In the first scene of the sequence, Hedda, lost in the mirror of her mind, turns her back to the ‘witches’. Perplexed, she steps up the stairs and seats herself, there to observe the dancers reduce the distance between earth and underworld.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Samantha Lynch & female ensemble | Photo: Erik Berg

Scene 2 sees Aunt Julle unveil herself: it’s she who’d been leading the ‘witches’. Approaching Hedda on the platform, she grabs her by the ankle and drags her like a carcass. The two then dance a pas de deux, intricate in its choreography. Aunt Julle, rearranging the disposition of Hedda’s limbs, seems to be chastening her. Is she taking revenge for the indignities Hedda has inflicted on her? It would seem so. In the third scene, Aunt Julle conducts Hedda into the “witches’ coven”; the ‘witches’ encircle her. Is this an initiation ritual or the casting of a curse? Is Hedda, so good at hiding, finally being forced to confront herself? Outside the circle, Aunt Julle, performing a dance that reprises elements of her earlier solo, evokes the casting of a spell (tracing a circle on the floor, shivering and shaking as if in the presence of spirits). Or is she perhaps outlining a premonition, warning Hedda of the disasters to come (Løvborg’s botched suicide, her own ‘beautiful’ one)? Finally, the ‘witches’ expel Hedda from their midst, reform, and return to their abode (indicated by a red, infernally luminous rectangle in the back wall). Hedda returns to the stairs, there to sit stunned. And thus ends tableau 4, and with it Act I of this 2-act ballet.

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

Act II tableau 5 consists of one short scene which recapitulates General Gabler’s incitement of his daughter to suicide. This, of course, translates Hedda’s experience of him: a toxic presence in a military uniform who’d rather have his daughter dead than undistinguished. Or is it Hedda who holds this injunction and projects it onto him? Sitting on the stairs, weary of herself, weary of her world, she is about to fall into a recumbent position when her father appears: she sits up straight. As she is about to fall to the other side, he grabs her arm, lifts her up, then holds her unnaturally rigid body unnaturally. She assumes a fetal position in his arms: he drops her. Then, as if hauling a corpse from a body of water, he pulls her up by the arm. Attention! He straightens her out and adjusts her head. Standing behind her, he wraps his arms around her shoulders, grips her head in his hands, then lifts her off the floor and swings her: a pendulum on the pivot of his power. Then, lifting her arm by the elbow, he sets it in motion. As if hypnotized, Hedda, her hand formed into a pistol, swings her forearm in front of her face until the ‘pistol’ finds her temple: panic-struck, she gasps and covers her mouth. This is the second time she and her father have enacted this ritual. Is Hedda dealing with trauma, undergoing the compulsion to repeat? What does the return of the repressed indicate? The ghost of her father exhorting her to kill herself—would it kill her to realize that it’s not her father but she herself who is formulating this death wish? That this production raises these questions and leaves us to answer them is part of what makes it so powerful.

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

Tableau 6, ‘The Journey of the Manuscript’, breaks down into six scenes. The first one evokes a night-time world where daytime values don’t apply. We first see a myriad of fish-head masks, suspended like grotesque stars against the black sky. Then, like a slow-motion danse macabre, figures in black tail-coats, white shirts and black trousers, all wearing fish-head masks, evoke a world of debased male sexuality. This impression is reinforced by their tall black top hats that recall Manet’s paintings of Parisian bourgeois on the prowl for ballerinas at the Opéra. One man carries a riding whip, another a cane, while a third reads a newspaper. Tesman, for his part, is reading Løvborg’s manuscript. (We understand we are at Brack’s ‘gentlemen only’ party. We notice that Brack, though attired like the fish-head men, does not wear a fish-head mask, while Tesman and Løvborg are in their usual clothes.) Brack lords it over Løvborg who, though drunk, still has the wherewithal to grab his manuscript from Tesman’s hands and read from it. (Reading in a whorehouse a treatise on the future of civilization is, if not a stroke of genius, an instance of salutary wit.) As Brack diverts Tesman, Løvborg, alone, drops the manuscript. In the background, we notice a red-headed whore (Diana) approaching. Løvborg then sits down, legs apart, on the edge of the platform. Hedda, in the play, regretted that she couldn’t be a fly on the wall at this event. Had she been one at this scene, how would she have reacted? I leave you, dear reader, to your speculation.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Silas Henriksen, Philip Currell, Shane Urton


Scene 2 sees the whore emerging from below the platform to rise between Løvborg’s legs. Her hair is wild, her skin wan; on her forehead and jaw she bears bruises. Løvborg handles her roughly; their ‘pas de deux’ is a cross between wrestling and rape. Serpentine, animalistic, and human-all-too-human, their lovemaking continues: the push-and-pull of creatures wrestling in the arena of their despair. There’s something of Francis Bacon in the imagery (the open mouths, the blur of bodies, the atmosphere of nothing-left-to-lose) alongside an evocation of ancient Greek athletic competition (the whore restoring elegance to her body in a balletic pose after a half-willed, half-forced sexual contortion). From what do their respective orgasms offer release? Whatever it is, we know that the release will last no longer than the orgasms’ duration. Løvborg, just before he makes his way down the platform ramp, holds aloft the manuscript he’d recovered and drops it once again: the scattering of the pages is echoed by the fluttering of others, falling from the rafters. Tesman, having lingered in the background, comes to gather them up. Now, dear reader, how do you think fly-on-the-wall-Hedda would have reacted to this scene? My guess is the sex, precisely because it was sordid, would have turned her on: before you could say ‘Hedda Gabler’, she’d have had her hand between her legs (remember, she’s got a predilection for masturbation).1


1 – See – Hedda Gabler Part 1

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

Scene 3: As the lighting and scenography conjure almost instantly the Tesman apartment, Hedda approaches Tesman and, after a moment of surprise, takes Løvborg’s manuscript from him. Tesman runs to his study, wraps his scarf around his neck, and runs out.

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

Scene 4 stars with Thea, asleep in the armchair, rising through the trap door in the floor. Løvborg’s return awakens her. With Hedda, seated upstage on a platform, looking on, Thea opens Løvborg’s briefcase and discovers the manuscript is missing. The two then perform a pas de deux in which Thea, loving and solicitous, is repeatedly rejected by Løvborg, each time with more violence. Their dance is more athletic than balletic, more rough-hewn than fine-tuned, reflecting the fact that the two are now out of touch with each other. Thea, finally getting the message, exits downstage, while upstage, Hedda enters. As she goes to meet Løvborg, does she have any idea that her inability to assume her femininity,1 and the consequent perversion of her will-to-power, will make her not only a self-murderer, but the murderer of he who loves her?


1 – See Hedda Gabler Part 1

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Eugenie Skilnand & Silas Henriksen | Photo: Erik Berg

Scene 5: Løvborg, still under the influence, props himself up against the piano. Hedda, forthright and determined, approaches him. Facing him, she leans into him: bending his legs low, he bends over backwards until he collapses. Hedda, doing to Løvborg as he father did unto her, straightens him out, this way and that: he collapses again and again. She walks away in disgust: he pursues her. Unable to dance, he stands behind her, wraps his arms around her waist, and lifts her roughly: one, two, three times. And thus they perform their ‘last tango in Oslo’,1 a stop-and-go pas de deux, a now-or-never cry for help from the man to the woman. Hedda, self-imprisoned under the bell jar of her pride, remains death to Løvborg’s cry: incapable of an I-Thou relation,2 she can only instrumentalize others.3 From time to time he attempts a balletic step, but the best he can manage is to ‘fall with style’. In reciprocal entanglement they push and pull: again, he falls to the floor. Extravagantly contorted, he lies there all still, like a Hans Bellmer doll. A sequence with sudden changes in direction ensues, and then, already having nothing left to lose, he finds he’s got nothing left to give. Hedda now takes the man’s role, providing support in partnering, but whatever role she takes, Eilert Løvborg is now useless.


1 – A felicitous coincidence: Løvborg wears a camel coat very similar to the one Marlon Brando wears in Last Tango in Paris.
2 – Martin Buber, I and Thou, translated by Walter Kauffmann (NY: Scribner’s, 1970)
3 – Cf. The ‘beautiful death’ she wants Løvborg to perform for her.

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

Exasperated, Hedda goes to her desk and takes the gun case from the drawer; bringing it back, she opens it and offers Løvborg a pistol (‘as naturally as one man offering another a cigar’, as I wrote earlier, and exactly as her father offered her a pistol in tableaux 1 scene 1.). He takes a gun. Then, again doing to Løvborg as he father did unto her, Hedda (we understand) tells him: ‘Do it beautifully’. This scene again exhibits the fineness of Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken’s acting: before she goes to the desk to get the gun, we literally ‘see’ on her face the thought formulating in her mind: ‘A pistol, I’ll give him a pistol. I’ll tell him to do it beautifully’. No premeditation to murder, then, but a selfish incitement to suicide.

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

Scene 6, the final one of tableau 6, stages Hedda’s burning of Løvborg’s manuscript. In its stark simplicity, in its solemn setting, it is—thanks largely to Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken’s acting—far more effective than the ‘Now I am burning your child’ dialogue as staged in the other productions we’ve studied.1 For example, the simple gesture of picking up a page to burn it is performed in a stylized way (call it ‘supercilious seizing’) that is consistent with the balletic vocabulary the dancer developed from the very beginning of the performance. It is a vocabulary in which movement—at once sudden and graceful, elegant and fast—is natural enough not to be mannered and stylized enough not to be prosaic. I’ve said it several times, but—given the way Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken always goes the extra mile—it can’t be said enough: her dancing and her acting, both in and of themselves and in their artistic efficacy, are breathtakingly good. The tableau also exemplifies the clarity with which the director delineated the ballet’s dramatic arc. Marit Moum Aune, in transposing play into ballet, has structured an energy system in which, as in chess, one move provokes another, making for sustained forward momentum.2 A mise-en-abîme of the whole ballet, this tableau, in tracing such a clear line from Hedda’s psychosexuality to her impending suicide, is perhaps ‘the finest of the fine’.


1 – See Hedda Gabler Part 2 and Hedda Gabler Part 3
2 – See William Gibson, Shakespeare’s Game (NY: Atheneum, 1978). In this book the author develops the concept of a play as an ‘energy system’, and uses it to provide a brilliant analysis, from a structural perspective, of Shakespeare’s plays.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Tableau 7, ‘Eilert Lovborg’s Death’, consists of a single scene of about seven minutes. It corresponds to the scene in Act IV of the play in which Brack informs Hedda of the circumstances of Løvborg’s death. We are in the whorehouse again. Diana and three other whores are busy entertaining Brack’s guests and other clients, all moving in slow motion in their fish-head outfits. Gun in hand, Løvborg arrives, seeking to recover his ‘lost’ manuscript. Løvborg and Diana conduct a duet in which Silas Henriksen and Klara Mårtensson refine the vocabulary they’d developed in their first pas de deux: the acrobatics of inebriation, the poetics of despair—antagonistic, violent, erotic, at once balletic and contemporary.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Klara Mårtensson & Silas Henriksen

That Løvborg so treasures his ‘lost’ manuscript makes Hedda’s cold calculation to burn it all the more selfish. Solipsistic in her sexuality, narcissistic in her knowledge—I’ll say it again—she is incapable of any relationship that is not manipulative: only a demon lover could free her from the loneliness of her proud isolation. The tableau ends with Løvborg, having accidentally shot himself in the genital region (no accident), sliding down the platform, dead (or dying). The ground upon which Hedda and Løvborg could meet, given the difference between his character and hers, was always going to be a narrow one. To the extent that Løvborg was a ‘beautiful loser’ and Hedda a woman who never risked losing, their union as a couple was impossible.1 Yet the feeling lingers that he could have been her ‘demon lover’. Am I being overly romantic in suggesting that this ‘couple manqué’ (lost opportunity to attempt a life together) gives Hedda Gabler a tragic dimension?


1 – There is a sense in which Hedda too is a ‘beautiful loser’, but two ‘beautiful losers’, while they could make good friends, are unlikely to make a good couple.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Klara Mårtensson & Silas Henriksen

This scene prompts me, again, to highlight the excellence of the dramaturgy. Marit Moum Aune, in structuring the ballet, takes full advantage of the fact that dance, like cinema, is always in the present tense: it doesn’t report events, it expresses them. What’s seen on the stage is seen as happening now. In this scene, the immediacy of the onstage action is juxtaposed with Hedda’s wandering around the periphery of the stage: we understand that what we are witnessing is an aesthetic embodiment of her excited imagination as she listens to Brack’s words. In its interpretive amplitude and evocative richness, the scene is far superior to the corresponding one in any of the eight productions we’ve studied.1 Once again, dance trumps language: for communicating the mental time and space of Hedda psychosexual struggle,2 it beats dialogue any day.


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


2 – See Hedda Gabler Part 1

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Klara Mårtensson & Silas Henriksen

Finally, I’d like to highlight a little gem of dramaturgy in this scene. In front of the whorehouse, while the fucking’s taking place, Aunt Julla pushes Aunt Rina in a wheelchair across the stage. The alert spectator realizes this connects with Tesman grabbing his scarf, wrapping it around his neck and running out of the apartment in tableau 6, scene 3. It’s a brilliant piece of staging that exemplifies, once again, the director’s mastery of drama as ‘an energy system in which, as in chess, one move provokes another, making for sustained forward momentum’. The displacement and rearrangement of events in time, presented and not represented, is done with such intelligence that the dramatic impact of the whole is heightened (compared to the ‘baseline’ of Ibsen’s play).

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken, Samantha Lynch, Klara Mårtensson

The four scenes that make up tableau 8, ‘Hedda’s Fall’, compose the final sequence of the ballet. Again, the dramaturgy is outstanding: Ibsen’s content is conveyed fully yet concisely; the dance and gesture that express his prose attain the density of poetry. In scenes 1 and 3, Hedda and Brack dance a pas de deux in which Hedda ‘refuses to accept the inevitable’. Brack does his best to impose his will, but no matter how violently he tries, Hedda resists tooth and nail: ‘Unfree! No, I can’t bear the thought! Never!’. Their duet, indirectly, is a fight to the death. Brack’s demands are insistently sexual; his hand between Hedda’s legs, his lips against hers, constitute rape in all but the legal sense. The choreography captures this brilliantly, as when Brack, his knee in the fold of Hedda’s leg (blocking his access, as she lies supine, to the object of his desire), drags her across the floor. Brack, in the ballet, is the character who most often uses mime, and Shane Urton, to optimize the character’s self-expression, developed a gestural vocabulary that is particularly effective (we’ll see an example two paragraphs down). More than a vocabulary, Urton in fact developed a language, in the sense of a coherent system of signs, that is at once idiosyncratic (specific to the character) and legible (decipherable by the spectator), making it highly expressive.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Shane Urton & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Scene 2 opens with Tesman bearing a burning page of Løvborg’s manuscript. He confronts Hedda and is shocked at her confession, yet in his partnering as they perform a duet he still places her on a pedestal. Indeed, if Brack’s modus operandi with Hedda is debasement (much of their pas de deux takes place on the floor), Tesman’s is exaltation (much of their duet takes place with him lifting her into the air). Initiating her effort to seduce Tesman in order to dissipate his anger, she stuffs the burnt manuscript page into her mouth and chews it. (This action takes place on the floor: a bit of self-abasement to solicit her husband’s sympathy.) Tesman manages to extricate it. Hedda then kisses his hand, and after a series of balletic lifts courtesy of a grateful Tesman, she admits she’s pregnant. In celebration, Tesman partners her in a pas de deux of more complex phrasing than before, one that expresses exhuberance: Tesman is celebrating his fatherhood, Hedda the success of her deception.

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

Scene 3 opens with the arrival of Thea with a typewriter: she’s still got the drafts of Løvborg’s ‘lost’ manuscript. Tesman, aflame with enthusiasm, rushes to meet her. They set up their work space on the platform and begin sorting out the draft pages. Hedda, who’d thought she’d got Thea out of her hair, now finds out just how wrong she is: Thea is here to stay, and Tesman will be staying with her. She tries to slip in between them, but they leave her no opening. As Hedda is thrown back upon herself, predator Brack, lurking in the shadows, reappears. In a beautifully choreographed duet in which he again demands his due, the fight to the death continues.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Shane Urton & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

And then, as mentioned, things turn ugly, as Brack tries to have his way with Hedda, come what may. Shane Urton, playing Brack, has developed a signature gesture for the character. It goes like this: placing his left hand on his right cheek, he slides it across his neck, over his throat, down his upper arm, down his forearm and into Hedda’s face (throat, breasts, neck). It’s a gesture of menace, as effective as a pause in Pinter. He lays her out across his knees and drops her, as did her father before. She slaps him; he hits in the face and throws her down. He then coddles her in his arms: a gesture of tenderness favored by aggressors to spice up their routine.

Brack’s signature gesture: ‘a gesture of menace, as effective as a pause in Pinter’

Hedda goes into a ball like an armadillo; Brack breaks through her armour and opens her out. Hedda ends up face-to-face with Brack’s crotch, but Brack is otherwise inclined: he wants to possess her on his own terms. It’s one hell of a combat, and one can only praise the dancers and their choreography: they’ve taken Ibsen out of the drawing room and placed him in a space where truth, unvarnished, is given aesthetic form. In this regard, I’d like to make the following remark. If, as T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘Burnt Norton’, the first of his Four Quartets, ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’, then, I contend, the role of art is, in part, to present reality with lucidity and responsibility, that is to say within an aesthetic structure that engages the spectator’s thoughts and feelings and invites him or her to broaden and deepen their perception of reality. This is exactly what this production does: it refuses to dumb Ibsen down or make concessions to political correctness. In this it fulfills the primary aim of art: to leave the spectator with a heightened sense of being, free to assume their own responsibility.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Shane Urton & Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

Scene 4, the final scene of the ballet, begins after Brack has, in effect, had his way with Hedda. Having retreated upstage, he is now an elegant gentleman seated in a chair, being elevated to the platform where Tesman and Thea are working. Hedda takes the remaining pistol from the case and walks upstage. She moves around in the confined space under the platform. On her face, utter desolation, reluctant resignation; on her temples, a twitch of anticipation (of what? A cold metallic touch? A hot bullet piercing her brain?). The platform shifts horizontally, the base remains in place, compressing the space available for movement. As the top of the parallelogrammatic structure approaches the bottom, Hedda  lowers herself into an opening in the floor, brings the pistol to her temple, and pulls the trigger. Curtain.

Norwegian National Ballet, Hedda Gabler, Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken

The Norwegian National Ballet’s production of Hedda Gabler, as I  trust I’ve demonstrated, brilliantly conveys the fascination and excitement of ‘Ibsen’s glorious creature’. In this it is far superior to the other productions I’ve studied.1 Its success is due, naturally, to the excellence of the elements that compose it: its dramaturgy, choreography, dancing, lighting, music and scenography. In summary, the dramaturgy traces a dramatic arc from Hedda’s psychosexuality to her suicide. There is not a second of idle dancing in the whole ballet, not the least divertissement aiming to distract: every step and gesture has its place in ‘an energy system in which one move provokes another, making for sustained forward momentum’. The choreography and dancing have great coherence. The idiom is post-classical contemporary, consistently inventive and expressive, and it clearly delineates character. Again, however excellent the other dancers, it would be amiss not to make special mention of Grete Sofie Borud Nybakken. Her dancing, at once beautifully balletic and utterly contemporary, is exquisitely good, as is her acting. She has, as the French say, le feu sacré, that sacred fire that turns talent into grace (everything looks effortless), craft into art (movement has meaning), and character into charisma (vulnerability bleeds into invincibility), and all of this to the nth degree. In short, her dancing is the triumph of life, and it is breathtaking. Finally, the lighting, music and scenography replace discursive language with the resonance of symbol, and however beautiful they may be in and of themselves, they are all in the service of sustaining the drama’s forward momentum. As danced by the Norwegian National Ballet, then, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is a work of sublime beauty. I have nothing left to say, except ‘Thank you’.


1 – I would go as far as to say that discursive language cannot express psychosexuality artistically, whereas a bodily language that has the density and allusiveness of poetry can, as this production in dance and ballet proves. For the other productions, see Hedda Gabler Part 2  and  Hedda Gabler Part 3 (image links below).

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


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