Red-haired, freckled and subversively unconventional, Pippi is the nine-year-old heroine of Lindgren’s famous stories translated into 70 languages and published in 100 countries.
Mischievous pig-tailed Pippi lives alone in a ramshackle house with her monkey and horse, speaks loudly, wears colourful and ill-fitting clothes and turns the stuffy world around her upsidedown with her absurd stories and daring adventures.
The Pippi stories have previously been adapted for film and TV, theatre and musicals but never ballet, until Lindgren, shortly before she died in 2002, gave her blessing to the Royal Swedish Ballet’s production which opened in Stockholm on Thursday.
“It’s the first time that Pippi is allowed to dance,” spokesman Torbjörn Eriksson told AFP.
And she makes the best of the privilege: From the moment she appears on stage, she wreaks havoc, scandalizes the small-town guests at a straight-laced birthday party, brings chaos to an orderly classroom and jives to South Sea rhythms.
The performance of 36-year-old dancer Anna Valev, who plays the rebellious Pippi, elicits shrieks of delight from the audience, particularly when she demonstrates girl power, quite literally, by trapping robbers, overwhelming policemen or lifting up her horse on outstretched arms.
“I’ve had more fun dancing Pippi than in any role before,” Valev, who has been with the ballet for 18 years, told AFP.
“It’s very special. Generations of people have read the books and seen the films and I’m very honoured to be the first one to dance as Pippi,” said Valev, who has a nine-year-old daughter “which helped to imagine being that age again”.
Mr Nilsson, Pippi’s monkey, is played by Rufus, a 10-year-old Stockholm ballet school student whose droll movements immediately endeared him to the children in the audience.
The ballet is loosely set in the 1950s, the decade that best represents “the society in which Pippi was trapped”, when girls were expected to be quiet, neat and obedient, said chief choreographer Paer Isberg.
“If we had set it in the present it would have been less effective, because everything is allowed today,” he told AFP.
Isberg confessed to having been worried about the risk of tackling a cultural icon in front of a very knowledgeable audience whose every member has an idea of what Pippi should look and be like.
“She’s like a saint in this country. I think I’m going to be punished,” he laughed. “But if you want to achieve something you can’t play it safe. You have to take the plunge.”
He needn’t have worried: “I recognized Pippi very easily,” said one young boy in the audience.
Scenes of conventional Swedish life are accompanied by impeccably classical music and steps, whereas every eruption of Pippi on the scene is set to rhythmic, jazzy music and choreography borrowed from hip-hop and streetdance techniques, contributed by Sweden’s most famous streetdance choreographer, Karl Dyall.
“The greatest challenge was to weave well-known children’s melodies into the score so that everyone would recognize them,” said co-composer Georg Riedel, adding that his target audience was “children from five to 85” who, in Sweden at least, are intimately familiar with the Pippi theme song.
Riedel said a long collaboration with Astrid Lindgren herself got him interested in writing children’s music, including the music for Pippi feature films.
Riedel was in charge of the jazzy bits in the ballet score, whereas fellow composer Stefan Nilsson, who has written the music for feature films including Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror, adds a more fluid cinematographic touch.
“Some scenes feel like a movie,” Nilsson said.
Astrid Lindgren, who was born in 1907 and died in 2002, was famous for her books, but also for her defense of the rights of people and animals. She used her writing talent to express her concern for the welfare of children and because of the high regard in which Lindgren was held her views often influenced Swedish legislators.
In 1958, Lindgren received the most prestigious international award in children’s literature, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and the International Book Award from UNESCO in 1993 but, some think unfairly, never the Nobel prize for literature.
She wrote a total of 80 mostly successful books, but none brought more fame than the Pippi Longstocking stories, which scandalized many parents when the first book appeared in 1945.
But Lindgren herself once said that she did not try to educate or influence the children who read her books.
“The only thing I would dare to hope for is that my books might make some small contribution towards a more caring, humane and democratic attitude in the children who read them,” she said.