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The Bournonville Archive

Bournonville:  2000

[originally published in Dance Magazine, June 2000]

by Alexandra Tomalonis
©  2000

August Bournonville (1805-1879) was banished from the kingdom, endured a period of exile, survived two rebellious ballerinas, the Revolution of 1848 and 50 years of backstage politics, and turned a provincial ballet company into one of the world’s greatest. He created over 100 ballets and divertissements, five generations of Royal Danish dancers, and an aesthetic that still clings to the walls of the Danish Royal Theatre at Kongens Nytorv.

Although he knew full well that ballets seldom outlive their choreographers, Bournonville was an optimist. When he retired, he prepared 16 of the ballets he thought most likely to last. Although about half of these, including the serious, mythological and historical ballets, disappeared in the 1930s, more of his work still exists in something resembling its original form than any other 19th century choreographer: seven complete ballets, excerpts from two more, and a half-dozen or so divertissements.

Bournonville’s ballets have endured fewer stylistic changes or “enhancements” than those of his near-contemporary, Marius Petipa. The two greatest Bournonville stagers Hans Beck, in the early part of the 20th century, and Hans Brenaa in the latter did make changes: the solos in the pas de six in Napoli, the divertissement in Kermesse in Bruges, a few deletions in the mime—but they’re so firmly in the style and spirit of Bournonville that they’re now indistinguishable from the original. The ballets that remain are mostly fairy tales and comedies and are unlike anything else in dance. They’re the product of a delightful imagination, full of beautiful classical dancing and inventive movement, clear and inspired storytelling, and dozens of very human characters. Bournonville’s ballets have survived realism, modernism, and the Nazi Occupation, but there’s now a real fear a theater bureaucracy determined to produce efficient art at all costs and the current trend towards internationalization that’s sweeping the ballet world like the ebola virus may finally do them in.

Bournonville’s importance to the company extends far beyond his ballets. There have been many world-class Danish virtuosos, but the company has been equally respected for fine performances in dramatic ballets, and this springs directly from Bournonville. The RDB has been a collection of interesting personalities unequaled in ballet in the past half-century. These dancers made the ballets live through their dancing, and returned again and again to the works through long and rich careers.

The actual style has changed over the years, of course—Bournonville’s beautiful curly line has been stretched and straightened—but there’s a set of dance values that’s remained: ballon; lightness and fleet footwork; a dramatic, yet modest, performing style. There are jumps, beats and small, quick footwork in Bournonville that have disappeared from modern ballet. The dances still delight, and still astound. Bournonville had very decided ideas about what he wanted. He used pointework sparingly, only when necessary to the plot; detested gratuitous virtuosity; insisted on clean execution; resisted supported adagio; and made his ballerinas sew a thread through their skirts between the legs to prevent them from showing off their high extensions. Such a lion is not easily brought to earth.

The Royal Danish Ballet honored its most important choreographer by presenting a Bournonville Week, dancing eight performances of five ballets January 20-30. This is the third such celebration. The original Bournonville Festival was held in 1979 in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death, and was designed by then-artistic director Henning Kronstam to restore as much of the Bournonville repertory as possible and revitalize the company’s classical dancing. The second, in 1992, under Frank Andersen’s direction, celebrated the 150th birthday of Napoli. The current Bournonville Week (not quite a Festival, as three of the extant ballets were not danced) was planned by the last director, Maina Gielgud, undoubtedly to try to get the company, once again, back in touch with its heritage. Gielgud did not stay in the job long enough to oversee what she planned; that has been left to the current director, Aage Thordal Christensen, who began a three-year term in August 1999. Unlike the 1979 Festival, which was a journey of discovery for both the city and 200 foreign journalists, or the 1992 Festival, which was one big, happy party, Bournonville Week was very low key, geared more to the city than to foreigners (comparatively few foreign critics attended).

While it’s always a privilege to have the opportunity to see a solid week of great ballets and many fine performances, Bournonville has not emerged from the upheavals of the past seven years, during which the directorship has changed hands four times, unscathed. None of the ballets were up to past standards. The one new staging, a rethinking of Kermesse in Bruges, was the most unfortunate, but the other ballets (Napoli, A Folk Tale, La Sylphide, Konservatoriet) have also seen better days.

The productions themselves were, for the most part, solid or at least salvageable. The problem was in the direction. Not only was the action muddy and unfocused, but the dancers often seemed lost at sea, unsure of their characterizations and sometimes resorting to clowning. Except for Kermesse, the company had rehearsed these works only for two weeks, and it showed.

If the mime sections often looked like structured improv, the dance sections were accurate, though stylistically bland. The dancing of the corps in La Sylphide and Konservatoriet showed that the RDB dances in GlobalGlot now; the Danish style, which has been slipping away for years, is all but gone. It’s not the dancers’ native language any more, but an accent assumed for special occasions. You can practically hear them thinking “Oops! Remember to round the arms”. Torsos seemed stiff and tight, the dancing itself big and loose; an unhappy combination.

The week began with the new production of The Kermesse in Bruges (1851).. Hans Brenaa’s staging of this ballet had been one of the hits of the 1979 Festival. Then, it was a rollicking comedy and a full-company showcase. Kermesse is a fairytale, the story of three brothers who are rewarded by a grateful alchemist with three gifts: one, a ring that makes its owner irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex; the second, a sword that will vanquish all enemies; and the third, to the youngest brother, Carelis (in love with the alchemist’s daughter Eleonora) a viola de gamba that makes everyone dance when he plays it. After a series of comic misadventures, moderation triumphs: the youngest brother wins love without trickery, and saves his family through the power of art. Brenaa saw this as a tale of the dangers of extremes and the restoration of harmony, and told it deftly and with an underlying subtlety that is missing from the current staging. In the new Kermesse, Dinna Bjørn (currently artistic director of the Norwegian Ballet, whom Gielgud had appointed as a Bournonville consultant); Anne Marie Vessel Schlütter, who currently heads the Royal Danish Ballet School; and Jan Maagaard, from the Royal Theatre’s drama department, restored some mime bits and two scenes that had been cut in previous productions when the ballet was tightened to make it more contemporary. A new dissonant and watery orchestration that deflated much of the ballet’s comedy and a new, rather bland divertissement by Bjørn (substituted for the old one that, while not by Bournonville, had been part of the ballet for a century) were not generally well-received.

A Folk Tale (1854), the soul of the Danish repertory, was, in some ways, in better shape than it had been in 1992 when it was new. The production is by Frank Andersen (a former director of the RDB) and Vessel Schlütter, with designs by Queen Margrethe II in children’s storybook style. The stagers returned to source material to examine what had been left out in recent productions and restored one lovely scene where the trolls, heartbroken that they have lost their beloved Hilda (the human child they kidnapped at birth) leave Denmark. In 1992, the first act was a bit frantic; it’s been calmed now. And several bright ideas scattered here and there that never quite worked have been pruned away. But the second act’s drunken troll betrothal party, was so coarse that at times it was actually lewd, the beautiful court dance at Hilda’s wedding to Junker Ove that closes the ballet looked as though it was dying to burst into a “real waltz,” and the famous pas de sept made little impact.

Napoli (1842) has deteriorated badly. When this production was unveiled two years ago, one Danish critic wrote, “Is This Bournonville’s Funeral Feast?” All of the beauties of the 1992 production’s first act, then staged by Henning Kronstam, are gone: its poetry and subtlety (the way the ballabile bubbled around the act like the sea, cresting and subsiding), the musicality of the mime, the boiling energy and taut, dramatic action have disappeared. The second act is another reconstruction by Bjørn (the original had been thrown out in the 1930s, supposedly because it had too much dancing in it). Bjørn has reworked this act since ’92, but retained her central idea, that Teresina is sexually attracted to Golfo in his Blue Grotto. Golfo is now more pop star than sea monster—sexy, but hardly frightening—and the act, with a very long dance for the corps by Bjørn, seems endless and is so loosely staged that the drama went underwater. Luckily, the third act was in relatively good shape, especially the tarantella. Some of the dancing of the famous solos, particularly by the women, was quite good.

If the ballets themselves were disappointing, there were some fine performances, chief among them: Silja Schandorff’s slightly wild, playful Sylph; Sorella Englund’s terrifying and tragic Madge; Kenneth Greve’s gracious, gorgeous Junker Ove, and Kirsten Simone’s warm and comforting nurse, in A Folk Tale; Rose Gad’s beautifully musical dancing in the Kermesse divertissement; Alexei Ratmansky’s fiery tarantella in Napoli. Lis Jeppesen’s Viderik, the sweet troll in Folk Tale (usually danced by a man) was convincingly boyish and in love, and her Fru Von Everdingen, the rich widow who falls for the cloddish brother in Kermesse, was beautiful and stuck-up, but also vulnerable. Peter Bo Bendixen’s performance as Geert (said cloddish brother) was the surprise of the festival. Usually cast as the handsome villain, Bendixen’s Geert was a bumpkin with a heart of gold. In small roles, Martin Vedel gave fleshed out performances in everything he did, and Marianne Rindholt, as the housekeeper in Kermesse, was a model of humanity and restraint, and a reminder of days gone by.

There are at least four dancers in their 20s who could ensure Bournonville’s survival for another generation. Thomas Lund and Tina Højlund were very impressive in a variety of roles (Carelis and Eleonora in Kermesse, in different casts; Gurn and Effy, solos in Konservatoriet and Napoli). Both are extremely musical dancers, and both create multi-dimensional characters, dancing as though they were living the roles onstage. Gudrun Bojesen has a pure technique and the grace and modesty of a Danish ballerina. Mads Blankstrup, who danced James, Gennaro, and Carelis as well as several solos, is a charming virtuoso with all the right instincts. Both Bojesen and Blankstrup seemed to lack only guidance to give great performances. Lack of good coaching has been the most consistent complaint of the dancers since 1993, and this week amply demonstrated why. The ballets were once guarded by dancers who could remember the steps, mime, and thousands of details, walk into a studio and stage them from memory. One frequently hears, “Hans [Brenaa] and Henning [Kronstam] are dead, and those days are gone,” but these two men were not the last Danish artists on the face of the globe, and there are several people, some actually still with the company, who have the artistry to take their place.

There were a few disappointments. Johan Kobborg, the most promising young dancer from the 1992 festival and now a principal with England’s Royal Ballet as well as his home company, danced his solos in La Sylphide and Napoli brilliantly, but seemed to disappear during the rest of the ballets. Caroline Cavallo, an American dancer who’s been with the company for 12 years and has risen to principal, was a sweet and charming soloist, but in leading roles (La Sylphide, Napoli, Konservatoriet), she seemed too straightforward and, sadly, not very interesting..

The biggest shock, though, was to see the ballets without the older dancers that were, for so long, part of the company’s glory and its identity. The pension age was lowered to 40 in 1992, and a mass “retirement” of more than 25 dancers that year not only created a huge hole in the roster that the school was unprepared to fill, but left dozens of ballets not just the Bournonville ones underpopulated. The two lovesick middle-aged spinsters in Kermesse aren’t as funny danced by younger women, and seeing young people with padded bodies and cotton in their cheeks was something one expected in small, new companies with no tradition, but never in Denmark.

Aage Thordal Christensen has inherited a company buffeted by change and dissension. In a very short time, he has restored morale. “Things are better,” Lis Jeppesen said. “It’s calmer now.” Christensen spoke of the importance of Bournonville to the repertory, saying, as Danish artistic directors almost always do, that “Bournonville is our great luggage” meaning it’s what they take when they go around the world, but with an implication that the ballets can be a burden. Christensen was not particularly known as a Bournonville dancer, and it’s too early to tell how the repertory will fare under his hand. There was a school performance one afternoon that showed well over a dozen promising children. Vessel Schlütter, one staff member who really does fight for Bournonville, is trying to keep his style and spirit alive there. But in company class, Colleen Neary (principal ballet mistress) was telling the dancers “bigger,” “stretch it out.” Perhaps this was because Neary was preparing the dancers for Symphony in C, a ballet that the Danes first danced in 1951. Then, under the guidance of Vera Volkova, they found a way to dance both Balanchine and Bournonville—and Ashton, Robbins, Petit, and a host of other choreographers of the day.

There were exhibits at museums and libraries. You could find Bournonville tucked in odd corners throughout the city a local newspaper lobby here, a photo gallery there. Reviews were mixed, with one of the leading critics being generally supportive; the other, and most of those writing for smaller papers, much more harsh. Local ballet fans had mixed opinions as well. “It’s better. It really is,” one said to me after the second Kermesse. “We’re on our way back up now.” Another, two nights later, took a more pessimistic view: “We’re giving Bournonville five years with this crew.” As is often the case, visitors who had never seen the ballets before were delighted with them, those who remembered the company from previous festivals were generally less so.

The Royal Danish Ballet has seemed determined to transform itself into The National Ballet of Anywhere Else for years now. The dancers are often ambivalent about Bournonville. There are more foreign dancers than ever before (about a third of the company); they have not grown up with the ballets, nor can they expect to grow old in them. The Danish dancers sometimes seem to find him an unwelcome limitation, but do understand what he’s done for them. As one Danish principal put it, “Without Bournonville, we’d be just another nothing little company.”

The company’s direction has five years to ponder that thought before the next Festival, planned for 2005 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Bournonville’s birth, when we’re promised all the Bournonville ballets, including the “minor” ones: The King’s Volunteers on Amager (one of the most perfectly constructed 19th century ballets still extant), Far From Denmark, and La Ventana, which has not been danced since the 1980s. If the company puts Bournonville back in the basement and only drags him out again five years from now, hoping the ballets will somehow stage themselves, it won’t be a very happy birthday party. There’s also a real danger that some of these ballets will disappear after that date. No other big anniversaries are in sight, and it will be all too easy to say that the ballets have outlived their time. Whether Bournonville will make it through the age of Video Coaching and globalization is now an open question. As they have been for more than 150 years, the company’s fortunes are inextricably linked to his fate.

first published in Dance Magazine
© 2000 by Alexandra Tomalonis




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