When more than 100 dance writers and practitioners descend on a small city like Copenhagen—running into one another at the Bournonville Festival performances, receptions, specially arranged tours, restaurants, hotel breakfasts, the remarkably calm press office, and on the street—shop talk is inevitable. You’d be surveying the curving glass facade of architect Henning Larsen’s monumental new opera house from within, say, or stuffing yourself at a quayside herring buffet (all you can eat for just under $15), and people nearby would start comparing the present performers and productions in the beautiful old Royal Theater to ones of the past. One person would suggest that when a man—Fredbjørn Bjørnsson at the 1979 Bournonville Festival, say—played A Folk Tale‘s shy troll brother, Viderik, the balance was clearer and more believable between that character and his sibling, Diderik, whose every step is a growl. Well, maybe, another Bournonville fanatic would admit; now, in 2005, with Lis Jeppeson (once entrancingly mad as La Sylphide‘s eponymous spirit-siren) cast as Viderik, the sweet troll becomes almost Disneyesque in his big-eared fragility. Then they’d both agree that Jeppesen was wonderfully nuanced in her interpretation—a joy to behold. Then they’d complain that the brothers’ little assistants no longer reflect the respective personalities of their masters. And we’d all nod and sigh.
The Bournonville experience is riddled with nostalgia, some of it productive, some not. Because the 19th-century repertory is unique (except for La Sylphide, which Bournonville based on Filippo Taglioni’s 1832 trend-setter for the Paris Opera), the fear of erosion must inevitably be balanced by a willingness to accept tasteful changes. What may seem fusty to some spectators, Danish critics, and company dancers comes to us outsiders as fresh air miraculously blown from a (perhaps mythical) 19th century. And yet, we know that the ballets have changed since their premieres, although fairly subtly. Some of the Bournonville ballet costumes over the centuries, on display in an enlightening exhibit, Tulle and Tricot, at the National Museum, display only minor variations between the date of the various premieres and today. However, in the 19th century, female dancers’ slippers didn’t promote long balances on pointe, and it would have been indelicate for any ballerina to lift a leg high enough to show her bloomers. Today’s balletmasters and dancers can’t provide exact historical replicas, and, if they did, we mightn’t like what we saw. Arguably the purest Bournonville-style dancing on view all week was in the demonstrations of the school exercises (now available on DVD and in two volumes supervised by Anne-Marie Vessel Schlüter—one describing the steps, the other providing the music), and even that doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the early 20th century when Hans Beck codified the technique.
For many years, members of the RDB had all come up through the company’s school, beginning as children, being accepted (if lucky) into the corps de ballet, and perhaps going on to become soloists, solo dancers, and finally character dancers. Now the company includes members who trained in almost every country in Europe, plus New Zealand, Mexico, America, and China. The international profile fits the international repertory that the company performs more often than the Bournonville ballets. On the other hand, the most delicately sly and airy Sylphide is Caroline Cavallo from Atlanta, who behaves as if James, the doomed hero, were her private plaything; her dancing has the right 19th-century perfume, and her acting is so subtle that when the eager James binds her arms with a magic scarf, hoping thereby to possess her entirely, she seems to go through several states of mind in a few seconds: delight, surprise, apprehension, terror. And one of the loveliest young dancers on view, just promoted to soloist ranking, is Yao Wei, who only joined the company in 2002. How did she learn to shade her obviously superior technique so sensitively in order to capture the requisite Bournonvillean modesty and soft attack?
Copenhagen balletgoers will tell you the members of the Royal Danish Ballet don’t always perform with zeal in August Bournonville’s works. If that’s the case, they took fire from the enthusiastic international audience. Napoli was especially superb, and there were notable performances all week. Thomas Lund was a wonder in everything: a passionate James in Sylphide, a temperamental Gennaro in Napoli, a charming boyish rogue in the duet from William Tell (1873), performed with Diana Cuni at the final Gala. He also made an excellent debut as a comedian, playing the middle, slightly simple-minded brother in The Kermesse at Bruges. Mads Blankstrup is more the ballet prince—tall, golden-haired — and I thought him a bit stiff and one dimensional as the young Lieutenant in Far from Denmark and the Spanish suitor in the one-act La Ventana, but his James was splendidly ardent. Andrew Bowman, Nikolai Hansen, Morten Eggert, Kristoffer Sakurai, also danced with distinction, and Tim Matiakis spun and leaped with knife-sharp precision. Jean-Lucien Massot, a dramatic figure onstage, has a powerful technique, but not much subtlety. Dawid Kupinski is a comer.
Women dancers in Bournonville’s ballets have to soften their pointework to make it look simply like an extension of everything else they do. Occasionally some of the current dancers’ feet look almost too soft, and a number of them don’t seem centered in their pirouettes, which is surprising. Willowy Suzanne Grinder, surely a potential Sylphide, was the main offender. Disappointingly, one major dancer, Rose Gad, didn’t appear at all, and another, Sila Schandorff, was seen only as the forgiving wife in The King’s Volunteers on Amager ( a beautiful, tender performance) and in one variation in the Napoli excerpt at the final Gala (where roles were multiplied deliriously, and everyone’s favorites danced). Gudrun Bojesen—a joyous sylph and a radiant Hilda in A Folk Tale—is clearly the company’s golden girl, a beauty of a dancer. Tina Højlund, spunkily charming as Teresina in Napoli made Folk Tale‘s troll-maiden Birthe poignant as well as comical and scary in the wonderful solo in which Birthe’s twitches sabotage her attempted gentility (Hilda and Birthe were switched in infancy by the trolls, and each returns to her rightful place in the end.) Gitte Lindstrom, Diana Cuni, and Izabela Sokolowska, robust in their dancing, are perfect Bournonville soubrettes. Amy Watson was lovely as Irma in Abdallah. Femke M. Slot has much potential; she’s just not yet a person onstage.
The children and the character dancers are a vital part of Bournonville’s world, where rich and poor, pious and venal, old and young mingle. The older dancers have a wealth of experience. No young performer could be as convincingly fussy and vain as Poul-Erik Hesselkilde in Le Conservatoire or as powerfully vindictive as Jette Buchwald, playing Madge the witch in Sylphide. Like little Ida Praetorius, beguiling as the hopeful young ballet student in Le Conservatoire, and her brother, Tobias, who was the impish slave in Abdallah, these dancers started out as children and passed through the company; some who were once major stars, like Kirsten Simone and Flemming Ryberg, turn even tiny roles into multi-dimensional characters (a single gesture of Simone’s can say worlds, Ryberg is a master comic). As Diderik, the uncouth, foul-tempered troll brother who hopes to marry A Folk Tale‘s Hilda, Peter Bo Bendixon (about to make the transition from solo dancer to character dancer) creates a subtly hilarious number off to one side as he practices make-nice strategies to offer Hilda the engagement ring he’s made.
The dancers may have repertory in which they can show their contemporary chops, high-noon extensions, and sleek, athletic bodies, but they’ll rarely look more endearingly human than they do in these perennially fresh ballets.