A Danish Treasure Trove

Bournonville's worlds of realism and romantic fantasy seen in new light

A sign in a Copenhagen elevator warns that it can hold 10 people and 900 "gods." In the split second it takes me to understand that gods is a measure of weight, I conjecture that several hundred Danish gods probably could fit comfortably in that space, so much a part of the Danish character are politeness, modesty, and and a love of coziness.

At the third festival given by the Royal Danish Ballet to celebrate the choreography of August Bournonville (1805-1879), those among the more than 100 visiting journalists and festival guests (of which I was one) who didn't already know of those values discovered them over the course of eight performances by the RDB, lectures, exhibits, open classes, excursions, demonstrations of the Bournonville daily classes (formulated in the early 20th century by ballet master Hans Beck), and parties. In no other country I can think of would the reigning monarch attend every festival performance as did Queen Margarethe II (who designed the current production of Bournonville's 1854 A Folk Tale). I can't imagine another artistic director of a major ballet company who would, like Frank Andersen, join other distinguished male colleagues to prance in a black tutu through a hilarious take on those famous little ballet swans (this to climax an otherwise dignified post-performance reception celebrating Anne-Marie Vessel Schlüter's 40 years with the RDB as child performer, company dancer, and now director of the school).

That sense of family reflects Bournonville's stage world. The choreographer—whose centenary is being celebrated along with those of two of his friends and colleagues, Hans Christian Andersen and composer J.P.E. Hartmann—was a well-traveled man, studying and performing in Paris, dancing and/or choreographing in Naples, Vienna, and Stockholm, but he cherished home and hearth. This is especially evident in Far from Denmark (1849) and The King's Volunteers on Amager (1871), in both of which, during the whirl of festive masquerade parties, a man away from home and tempted to philander realizes he must stay true to to the love of his life. In La Sylphide (1836), the Bournonville ballet best known outside Denmark and his only surviving tragedy, when friends and family of the Scottish hero James raise their glasses and join in a wonderful highland dance in honor of his imminent wedding, you almost wonder how he could throw all that away for an elusive, teasing dream of a winged female he can never possess.

Marie-Pierre Greve in Far From Denmark
photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne
Marie-Pierre Greve in Far From Denmark

Bournonville's surviving or reconstructed works (nine and a few fragments out of some 50) afford the closest glimpse we're likely to get of European ballets of the Romantic era, with their orientalist fantasies, supernatural heroines, witches and demons, transformation scenes, potions, spells, and talismans. Yet his skill as a dramaturge, his comedic flair, and a warmth and sweetness of tone infuse his ballets, and all, whether exotic dramas or domestic ones, are moral tales about surmounting temptation and the redeeming power of love and faith. A certain Biedermeier charm infuses even the fantasy ballets. The trolls of A Folk Tale are a funhouse mirror of humanity, with devoted parents, squabbling kids, etc. The eponymous hero of the 1855 Arabian-nights Abdallah (reconstructed in 1985 for Ballet West from Bournonville's notes by Toni Lander Marks, Flemming Ryberg. and Bruce Marks) has a mother-in-law-to-be from hell; no wonder he wastes one magic wish getting her sucked into the floor.

The Bournonville stage teems with fleet young people bursting into dancing, children, fine character dancers, and extras, whether the scene is, say, a quayside in Naples, as in the choreographer's masterpiece Napoli (1842) or a Breugelesque village (The Kermesse at Bruges, 1856). Everywhere you look onstage, something is happening. Maybe you catch two rumpus-y little boys on the sidelines hugging each other in delight at the festive goings on in Amager, or look in another direction and notice Flemming Ryberg (a great solo dancer turned character dancer), deep into grumpiness, having to be dragged through a group romp.

Stylized ballet mime—rooted in the playlets that still draw crowds at the Pantomime Theater in the Tivoli Gardens—carries the plots. The dancing conveys celebration, magical worlds, and buoyancy of spirit. Bournonville perfected his style before the stiffened pointe shoe became common for females. His enchainements for both men and women don't emphasize poses. They're springy, full of jumps both big and small—sailing leaps juxtaposed to rapid little beating steps of all kinds. A just-released DVD of the Bournonville classes underscores the intricacy of the footwork—little conversations with the floor and the surrounding air. Yet the dancers mustn't offer their virtuosity with a bravura flourish. They often hold their arms low, calling attention to the feet while underplaying the necessary skill and endurance. The best performers look as if they were playing with the steps for their own pleasure and for that of their friends—and as if they count the audience among those. In the last act of Napoli, when Thomas Lund, a superlative Bournonville actor-dancer, plays the fisherman hero Gennaro, he explodes forward in a typical leap (front leg straight, back leg bent, arms opening, palms up), as if reaching to embrace the married state that he's just entered. You feel as if your heart, too, will burst with happiness.

Under Andersen's direction, the RDB has been acquiring an ambitious contemporary repertory (the 2005-2006 season includes works by John Neumeier, Kenneth MacMillan, Twyla Tharp, Angelin Prejlocaj, and new pieces by Scandinavian choreographers like Tim Rushton). And, since the first Bournonville Festival in 1979 (the second took place in 1992), several of the master's ballets have been given new productions. The Danish public, the critics, and the company dancers are, we're told, a little bored with Bournonville, and some refreshing was needed.

Changes in scenery, costume, and direction aroused some controversy. In several new sets, painterliness seemed the object. Why was there no window in Christian Friedländer's set for the short-and-sweet 1856 La Ventana—a window through which a Spanish lady could toss and receive a rose? She seemed to inhabit not a chamber and a courtyard but a picture gallery. The view outside the window in Michael Melbye's oddly palatial house for James in La Sylphide is not the alluring forest domain of Melbye's front scrim and second-act set, but something that looks like desert rock formations. A minor anomaly in a Sylphide coached to bring out the passion by Nikolaj Hübbe, a splendid James during his years with the company.

Rikke Juellund, who designed the new production of the lusty folk tale The Kermesse at Bruges (sensitively directed by another ex-RDG principal, Lloyd Riggins), drastically simplified the look of the ballet. Her Bruges is a series of dark, free-standing silhouettes of buildings , where almost everyone wears plain-lined, solid-color costumes—some pale, some a vivid scarlet. The stage looks like a handsome illustration for a children's book, abetted by Jesper Kongshaug's Vermeerish lighting. One cavil: Without his study crammed with musty books, the heroine's benevolent magician-father hardly appears a candidate for burning at the stake. Most of Karin Betz's primarily red-and-blue designs for Amager also have an airy, uncluttered charm, even though they're odd in some ways (distant blurry videos of sledding and a slow wagon at the back, a small house-shaped folk-art painting with a practical door in it). The lovely layered red cutouts (like stencil-templates) that frame the stage recall H.C. Andersen's cut-paper artwork. More than unfortunate, however, are Betz's dresses for the forgiving wife, Louise, and her friends; they appear to be wearing salmon-colored negligees instead of Napoleonic era winter attire. There are more pink-clad women in a new, awkwardly staged scene concocted by the ballet's director, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter—probably to provide more "dancing." We hardly need the hero's vision of drifty remembered women to tell us what we already know: he's a Don Juan. Karen Lund Nielsen has designed fine new costumes for the lecherous undersea king, Golfo, and his Naiads in the second-act of Napoli, and Dinna Bjørn, who re-created the vanished second-act for the 1992 Festival, has further improved this Blue Grotto scene of temptation and magic transformation. No more male sea divinities hoisting papier maché boulders to crush the hero. The rest of Napoli remains unchanged, and was so whole-heartedly performed that I shed tears of joy after every act.

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