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Etudes and Danish Classicism

by Alexander Meinertz
copyright by Alexander Meinertz

One of several reasons why Harald Lander´s Etudes (1948/52) is held in such high regard and still retains its popularity with Danish audiences is that it was only the second Danish tutu-ballet ever to enter the repertory of the Royal Danish Ballet, preceded singularly by another Lander ballet, Festpolonaise (1943). To this day, Etudes, in fact, remains the sole Danish work based on twentieth century classicism, the primary work to display and expose dancers and dancers´ techniques. Although a most unusual work in a repertory dominated by Bournonville and narrative work—the principal characters are called Ballerina, Prinsen, and Soloherren (lit. solo men), not Victorine, Hans, or Emil—Etudes is nevertheless recognized as a ballet signifying something essentially Danish.

In Paris, Etudes is considered a signature work of the Paris Opera Ballet. After leaving Denmark in 1952 Harald Lander restaged and rechoreographed Etudes for the French company and, alongside Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc (1943), the ballet now enjoys a status with the POB similar to that of The Sleeping Beauty of the Royal Ballet and Serenade or Symphony in C of the New York City Ballet; a good many connoisseurs feel that Etudes epitomizes French classicism.

Yet, traditionally, Etudes has been received with less enthusiasm in America; usually, it has also been less well danced. Educated, enlightened, and spoiled by the works of George Balanchine, Americans have become accustomed to appreciate and value choreography and, indeed, the art of ballet by the standards dictated by the Balanchine repertory. Arlene Croce gives the reason for the failure of Etudes in a 1979 review of the Bolshoi Ballet (not that the Soviet company dances Etudes; it does however give in to the same »pathetic fallacies« in its Ballet School by Messerer): "The ballet Etudes should have proved once and for all that classical forms have a structural coherence but are no more intrinsically dramatic than the harmonic series in music. The choreographer, Harald Lander, justly equates classroom combinations with Czerny keyboard exercises; the result is a smashing non-ballet."

So, what is Etudes, a Danish ballet, a French ballet—or indeed a non-ballet? The answer is, of course, that it may be many things, depending on the staging and the performance. Although roughly built on the same text, the London Festival Ballet Etudes has been nicknamed the »circus« version as opposed to the POB Etudes which is the »diamond« one; cold, hard and brilliant. The ABT performances of Etudes that I saw in 1993 definitely were circus ones. Etudes in Denmark, however, is more of a family affair, a very intimate experience; the dancers don't force projection, they don't compete or show off in the frenetic way you can see other companies do. According to Henning Kronstam, who knows the ballet intimately from dancing it and from staging it for more than twenty years, Etudes must be performed in the best spirit of "pure Danish style," meaning in a simple, clean and unobtrusive manner.

So, as much as Croce dislikes Etudes she does, however, also seem to miss the point of it; it is not a symphonic ballet, it is not an abstract or a plotless piece and it was never intended to be one. If one chooses to look at Etudes and judge it as a bad Theme and Variations, then, naturally, it's terrible. For the most part you don't even get choreography in a compositional sense, rather you have the natural progression of a series of arrangements of academic exercises, classroom, and combinations. The theatricality of Etudes has been downplayed over the years—the venerable rehearsal room decorated with busts of ancient ballet masters Noverre, Galeotti, and Bournonville has been replaced with a bare stage—and possibly that's one of the reasons for mistaking it with a plotless ballet. Try to imagine this scene: "After a short musical introduction, the stage grows lighter, revealing a large, white hall, lit by candelabra reflected in mirrors causing the busts of celebrated maitre de ballet to be duplicated. Near the footlights stands the ballerina, who begins her adage. After awhile, two male dancers join her; finally, the whole company walk in and perform the adage, now modified by the soloist."

It was the composer Knud-Åge Riisager who first thought of Etudes. Walking down a Copenhagen boulevard one fall morning, passing an open window Riisager heard a child playing the Carl Czerny scales end etudes. As the wind caught hold of the autumn leaves in the street, he recognized the dancing qualities of the music. Harald Lander was taken by the idea and together they worked out the scenario of juxtaposing the training exercises of pianists and dancers. The ballet would be a demonstration of a dancer's vocabulary, depicting an idealized vision of the life of a dancer and a dancer's career.

At the time, in Europe and Denmark at least, it was not a bad idea. Still struggling with the legacy of Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, ballet repertory continued to emphasize narrative or conceptual work and little attention was given to academic dancing as such. In Denmark, the Romantic ballets by August Bournonville, naturally, reigned supreme, supplemented only by Lander´s own character ballets—Football (1933), Bolero (1934), Seven Deadly Sins (1936), Quarrtsiluni (1942)—as well as by the odd Ballet Russes piece as they were staged by George Balanchine and Leonid Massine or adapted by minor Danish ballet masters. Concerns for choreography and technique were purely professional, members of ballet companies were thought of as artists rather than dancers, and technique was considered a means to an end; as part of a dancer's craft, technique remained her secret.

Etudes, consequently, was a revelation to Danish audiences, a sort of "from of all of us to all of you" experience, the dancers taking the audience into their confidence. As described by the Danish critic Svend Kragh Jacobsen, the 1948 production of Etudes underlined the »private« aspect of the ballet much more than what is done today. It designates the audience as voyeurs: "Behind a thin drop curtain which, at first, makes the set's white hall seem like a modest rehearsal room, we see the people of the dance begin a day's work."

The renowned British critic and scholar Cyril Beaumont also described the action at length: "The barres are placed in reversed figure 7, and in succession a spotlight falls upon the different groups of dancers as they execute battements tendus, battement frappés, grands battements and so on, executed in the form of a fugue. Black-out. The barres are changed to form a diagonal and now various ronds de jambe are executed, a quarter of the dancers taking the movement à terre, then another quarter join in, then all take part in a grand rond de jambe, concluding with a demi-fouetté. Black-out. The last part of the exercises at the barre is executed with the silhouette of dancers performing stretching exercises, a port de bras in the center by a special group, and relevés by three girls; in this last part the lighting is directed upon the legs alone. Black-out."

Clearly an exposition of technique, a sort of situation where our attention is directed not at any specific dancer—quite the contrary, in fact, since they remain spotlighted legs or silhouetted bodies—but at the vocabulary itself. Today the principals perform all of the solo variations, the pirouette, foutté, and brisée variations in the center, for instance, but previously they, too, were done by "students," members of the corps de ballet. Consequently, the idea of the classe de perfection has been lost in favour of opportunities for stars to shine.

In the ’40s and ’50s ballet was in for a renaissance and national companies were being established or rejuvenated. In England, Ninette de Valois was building the Royal Ballet, Serge Lifar, in France, was working with the Paris Opera Ballet and in Denmark, Harald Lander too was trying to catch up with the development of dance in the twentieth century. Lander, who had studied with Fokine and Cecchetti, introduced elements from the Russian and Italian schools into the curriculum of the otherwise Bournonville-oriented training system; with Etudes :Lander was making a statement. He not only demonstrated the progress his dancers had made, but proved to skeptics how Russian classicism didn’t have to be alien but was rather something that could be adapted and found in themselves. According to Kronstam, Lander worked from the school when choreographing Etudes: "He built it out of the classes. They worked on it for a year, the aspirants classes and the company classes and they hated it; imagine doing those exercises over and over, without much variation. But he wanted to see what dancers really could do, how much a ballerina could do."

Although the premiere was danced by Margot Lander, Lander clearly had Toni Lander in mind for the ballerina role. In 1951, Lander presented his second version of Etudes (the version he set for the Paris Opera in 1952 was the third and final version) highlighting the longer line and more classically proportioned body of the younger ballerina.

To Kronstam Etudes is nevertheless about more than just technique: "It was really about Margot Lander as a personality. She was not pompous or anything like that, and the audience loved her. The ballet still is not for the ballerina who can best do the steps, it is for the most beloved ballerina."

The mirror dance of the ballerina-sylph provides the link to the artistry. It is often thought of as a direct reference to other historic "mirror ballets"; the 1802 Galeotti ballet, The Mountain Peasants´ Children and the Mirror, the 1856 Bournonville ballet, La Ventana, or the 1934 Børge Ralov ballet, The Widow In The Mirror. In fact, it is an image of the ballerina stepping through the mirror. It is the act of moving from the classroom to the stage, a recapitulation of the exercises in the ports de bras section showing how an artist shapes and uses that material and how she inspires the full company. Svend Kragh-Jacobsen: "...eventually she has conjured eleven images from the mirrors, all of them dressed exactly like her. Like white feathers they fill the stage in gracious winding lines before disappearing once again."

Kragh-Jacobsen, Beaumont, and Kronstam are talking about the »old« Etudes, the 1948-version which was known in Denmark as Etude and which was markedly different from the version Lander created for Paris. Etude, presumably, was more Bournonvillean in spirit—lighter, warmer, and more generous in an unpretentious way—but the style, grace and atmosphere of a contemporary RDB performance of Etudes continues to reflect the original cast members and ideas.

For the women, at least, the choreography was more en l´air than à terre in 1948, there was less pointe work. The ballerina´s variation, which is now made up from lots of passées, piqués, fouettés, pirouettes and arabesques, was described by Beaumont: "The next dance, the Ballerina's solo, is a kind of résumé in which she repeats the steps and performs several variations, e.g. fouettés jétés. Next follow a number of pas battus, brisés, entrechat trois et quatre, sissones battus, etc. This variation completes the rhythmic combinations. The Pas de Deux Romantique, which was created in Paris and which is now the most extended choreographic scene of the ballet, was then a "fiery pas de trois" for the ballerina and her two partners.

Fascinated by national dances, Lander used character elements even in academic dancing and the key to his style really is to be found in the pas de Mazurka, the first of Etudes´s multiple finales where Lander lets go of his restraint and builds an exhilarating crescendo: It is in the »stammering«, the double stepping in the male solo with the snapping of the hands, and in the battements done to the side with perfectly pointed feet, which, when done in real character, has the heels clicking. When the Ballerina re-enters she does the same stammering and then leads the other leg forward (in a simultaneous phrase with her cavalier). The step is then done by the white corps de ballet. The repeated use of the hand on the hip when the other arm streches forward, reaching for the first soloist, it's pure gypsy.

"The roaring dance ecstasy of this crescendo is beautifully followed by the redeeming, soothing, decrescendo, which becomes the graceful, final note of Etude: Margot Lander’s deep reverence to her audience, surrounded by the company for which she is the model, the dancers that she herself has brought to us as her mirrored images." Still central to Etudes is the "Grandes Diagonales," as described above by Svend Kragh-Jacobsen. In Paris, however, they wanted "a finale with a bang" and Lander moved this particular section of the ballet. Now placed just after the exercises à la barre and the Pas De Deux Romantique, it is a calm moment of stretching where the full corps draw a diagonal line across the stage, girls in black tutus intersperse with girls in white tutus, making a direct reference to an ebony and ivory piano keyboard and the very idea of the ballet. It is also a poignant reminder of the things that Etudes are really all about and the qualities that remain essential for stagers and performers to understand and bring out in order for the ballet to succeed.





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