A Glimpse of Massine
A Danish review from 1948: the design, music, drama, audience reaction, historical and political background of Massine’s Symphonie Fantastique.
Review by Henry Helissen
[Editor’s note: I discovered this review while researching a biography of the Danish dancer and balletmaster, Henning Kronstam, and found it so unusual that I decided to print it. It’s not only one of the most exciting reviews of a Massine work that I’ve read—Helissen’s writing has such a pulse and is so vivid, that he makes you think you saw the performance too—but the brief mentions of early performances of dancers known to American audiences, such as Erik Bruhn, Stanley Williams and Fredbjørn Bjørnsson in addition to Kronstam, are interesting. This review is quite different from anything we would read today. I was told that Helissen was not primarily a dance critic, nor even a writer about the arts, but a political writer. His knowledge of art and history is testament to the broad awareness of cultural and artistic matters once expected of the now-scorned “elites.” Helissen writes about design as though it is an integral part of the performance, not merely decoration, and he obviously sees the action through the music, not as choreography—both indications that the Bournonville aesthetic was still very much alive in 1948, nearly 70 years after that choreographer’s death.]
Episode from the
Life of an Artist Surprised and Impressed the Audience at The Royal
Last night in The Royal Theatre the audience was overjoyed at the opening night of Episode from the Life of an Artist with choreography by Leonide Massine to Hector Berlioz’ Syr-nphonie Fantastique. The ballet used more space [than we are accustomed to] and the very good male dancers of the company looked reshaped and different from the form they have had before. Let us try to keep the impressions in the order they come:
The curtain rises during the first notes of the Largo. We are with the young composer in his attic apartment in Paris. Through the open door to the balcony you can see the Notre Dome over the rooftops covered in smoke during the nightfall. The atelier is huge as the K.B. Hall [sports arena] ... well, that is necessary to make room for the many dancers. Niels Bjørn Larsen is the composer. He hasn’t made himself up as Berlioz with a red wig; rather, he looks like the young Frantz Liszt. He is dreaming under the influence of opium and the stage is filled with fantastic visions: Little by little women are pouring in with sunflowers and red bows on the light blue leotards—rarely have the Danish Ballet had to be as well shaped as in Episode—men in gray leotards with bouquets of violets and berets in purple corduroy, young girls in romantic white dresses and among them a single one in vieux-rose, very chic. Then on the balcony we see the dream of the loved one, Mona Vangsaa, Massine’s favorite ballerina [and Peter Schaufuss’s mother]; the passions, boys in sinful red and hair a’flame surround her. The orchestra changes the tempo to Allegro agitato e appossionato assai. Violins and flutes are crying the love theme, the beautiful melody, which Berlioz composed for the adored Estelle Duboeuf when he was barely 15 years old. Mrs. Vangsaa is dressed in innocent white, but her scarf made of tulle has the colors of the passions. Niels Bjørn Larsen fumbles around, while the dancers keep making new effective groupings and then again disperse. There’s a strong sense of dark forces here. Strong green spotlight on Niels Bjørn, only the mask like faces of the dreams are lit ... the picture drowns in darkness.
A dancing hall in the Paris of Alfred de Musset: red curtains, ice sculptures and champagne bottles in the light from the gas lit chandeliers.
Through the drapes in the ceiling a naked arm is pointing a bow ... is it Cupid or is it fate ready to strike? Young people are dancing the waltz. The ladies are coiffed as Miss Hanne Patges was when she married Johan Ludvig Heiberg and was painted by Monies [Johanna Heiberg was the pre-eminent 19th century actress of the Royal Theatre, later its Chief]. First cavalier is Henning Kronstam. Oh my God, you can’t help saying, still completely in the illusion from Peter Grimes where he plays the abused son of the fisherman, what will happen to the kid here? [This is the first notice of Kronstam as a dancer; he was 14. The reference is to the part that first brought him too the attention of the Danish public, the mime role of John in Britten’s opera, Peter Grimes.] But Henning Kronstam seems to have fun among the grown ups. He is still a baby. The composer turns up at the ball in tailcoat and believes to see his beloved among the dancing. Pour Niels Bjørn doesn’t have a second where he is not in ecstasy. He manages the job in style. As we know all too well, the distance between acting big and being laughable is very short. Niels Bjørn is good enough to stay within the limits. We don’t smile a single time.
Adagio. We are out in the nature. The decoration of Christian Berard back in the London version depicted the Roman Campagne with broken aqueducts from the imperial time. Pierre Roy (who was sitting in orchestra third row next to the most beautiful lady of Copenhagen) has chosen to point a Sicilian landscape: broken columns from the ruins of a temple are shining as amber in the green landscape. Fallen column heads are half buried. White summer clouds are sailing in the blue. The country-like feeling is heard through a duet between oboe and English horn. And in these surroundings Leonide Massine has composed a very beautiful theme: The young shepherd’s awakening sensuality. There are many wonderful supporting characters: A swallow (Tove Gabrielsen), resting on a broken midcolumn, a firefly (Inge Sand), who doesn’t tire of flying around among the humans. A porcupine (Anker Orskov) almost seemed like a real zoological being; in any case the audience is startled when he jumps on stage. But Erik Bruhn as the young shepherd still steals the picture from all. This is pay back time for the mishap the other night as the Hussar in Danube. For here all he has to do is be what he is: A beautiful boy! In his little shepherd dress he is almost as naked as Massine was in Passion of Joseph. Young women in classic dress with musical instruments take graceful positions. The shepherd doesn’t notice them: He is one with nature. A grasshopper (Erik Sjogren) jumps and the shepherd wants to capture it. But from the back row one of the women—Kirsten Ralov carrying a bouquet of anemones, an armful of beauty—gets in the way. Suddenly he sees her and in his heart a new feeling is awakened: Love. The dancing between these two perfectly shaped human beings is the impression of the evening that lasts the longest. The audience is touched.
Fourth scene, The march to the gallows is accompanied by a stomping, hollow rhythm in Allegretto non troppo. The music is a Funeral March without pain. Here is everything that should be there, quiet drums and sorrowful horns. All of this is probably from one of Hector Berlioz’ memories of the July revolution (which happened the same year as Symphonie Fantastique was composed), riot of the common people, hate, fear of death. In his nightmare the composer is convincing himself that he has murdered the beloved and in a big and cold gothic hall he is whipped with bloody whip by executioners dressed in top hat and tail, who remind you of Daumier. Threatening judges in golden red and ermine file by, the people, upper class men with bellies, their brave wives with crinolines, are transformed into furies, and when, in his opium high, the composer believes to meet his beloved, she too is not what she seems. She is the epitome of the revolution and the white romantic dress is hanging torn about her body. The hair is fire. The executioners and the hairy prison guard, Stanley Williams, lift the composer up into an invisible noose, he is hanging, lit by a spotlight, nauseatingly high up, and so the vision ends.
The last scene: The Sabbath of the Witches, the Larghetto in the big symphony. Under the pole light of the new moon we see huge monoliths: is it Stonehenge, the offering place of the Druids in England, that the evil rulers of the night have chosen as their meeting place? In any case the setting makes you think of the enormous stones at Stonehenge and similar temples in Bretagne. Witches and ogres, trolls and devils arrive and throw themselves into an orgy of wild rhythms and earsplitting sounds. There are fantastic beings with horse craniums and a skeleton with feminine hip movements, the caricature of a balletomone (very amusingly performed, unfortunately not credited). There are shadows without faces, emptiness where mouth and nose should be. Black hands, which are reaching for something but are not attached to a body. And in the middle of this Walpurgis Night (apparently inspired by Goethe’s Faust) in wanders a procession of monks. But the peaceful men have a devil in them, at least in their clothing: Demons are hidden in the folds of their dress. Bats are crawling along the ground carrying the composer: For a moment everybody is crawling like rats and mice along the footlights. The apotheosis is a sarcophagus created by the bodies of the monks on which the composer is laid out as dead.
Episode from the Life of an Artist surprised and impressed The Royal Theatre’s audience. Nothing like this had been seen before. Leonide Massine unfolded his fantasy with creative visions, and showed his phenomenal ability to create groupings and to vary them. He showed us feeling in the picturesque scene between the shepherd and the young woman. For the corps, Episode was a show of force. You had to ask yourself: How do these people have time to change costume? Not to talk about catching their breath between the dances.
The evening ended with Beau Danube with the cast from opening night, which means with Leonide Massine as the Hussar in silver gray. Only Svend Erik Jensen had given over his part as Gigerl’n to the young Fredbjørn Bjørnsson who just the other night had a big success in this part. A nice friendly gesture from Svend Erik Jensen, for he has already won so many glories, and Fredbjørn Bjørnsson loves his Gigerl’n. Happiness from life emanates from him, he can’t keep from jumping high, it is wonderful to be alive! [Note: at that time in Denmark, solodancers “owned” their roles and could choose to “give over” a part to a young dancer, or not.]
After Beau Danube Leonide Massine was celebrated by the audience and the company who presented him with two truckloads of bay leaves [sarcastic! - probably one or two big wreaths made of bay leaves, in Denmark the biggest show of honor] carried by Harald Lander and Jan Holme. Oy, these wreaths! How empty of poetry and of no use. Imagine having (as Massine) to carry them home to ones cook (Stew)!
The night passed with a ballet party. The young dancers who weren’t used on stage had big red carnations in the silk linings of their jackets. Valborg Borchsenius [Hans Beck’s partner, and the primary custodian of the Bournonville repertory of her time] aired lngenio et Arti.
[Editor’s note: Episode in the Life of an Artist received only a few performances in Copenhagen. The following season, Harald Lander had the sets painted over and repainted as backdrop for his staging, with Borchsenius, of Salut to Bournonville, a collection of divertissements that saved several small dances from extinction. It was seen by some as a signal that Lander had no intention of continuing to bring in outside influences to revive the repertory and Lander’s action is now thought to be one of the early causes of the coup that ultimately ousted him two years later, now known as the Lander Scandal. Beau Danube remained in the repertory for years.
Many thanks to Bjarne Hecht, a dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet from 1975 to 1986 and now an actor living in New York City, for his translation.]
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