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Bournonville Week
Style, tradtion and character: the Bournonville Tradition in Copenhagen, January 2000

by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2000 Mary Cargill
Spring 2000

Though reports of their recent trip to Paris were not uniformly positive, there was much to enjoy during the latest Bournonville celebration, held in Copenhagen January 22-January 30. It is always a pleasure to see ballet in the warm, inviting, and perfectly scaled theater. The horseshoe shape embraces the audience and the wonderful variety of the decorations in the auditorium, rich without gaudiness, make the atmosphere so welcoming; so many American theaters seem leaden and lifeless by comparison. I suppose Europeans, with all their nineteenth-century opera houses still standing, can not really appreciate the difference the smaller stage makes, allowing the audience to see and savor so many details and nuances lost in our larger houses.

The comparative intimacy of the stage needs dancers who do not overwhelm it, and the Bournonville style (or what has come down to us as the style) with its softness, ease, wonderful small jumps and overall modesty, is perfect for that stage; steps can not shout or they look out of place. The current emphasis on “bigger, stronger, higher,” seen in the company classes that visitors had the opportunity to attend, does not really work in that theater; the audience can see any jaw tightening or determined look before an unnecessary extra turn or distortingly high extension.

Except for the excerpt from Konservatoriet, none of Bournonville’s shorter ballets were given; I only hope that this does not mean the company does not think Far From Denmark, with its gentle humor and detailed mime, or The King’s Volunteers on Amager, are not worth preserving. The King’s Volunteers, especially, would be a terrible loss; its wisdom and under-standing make it a balletic version of The Marriage of Figaro, a ballet by adults for adults, and it creates, like all Bournonville ballets should, a perfectly realized world.

It seemed, when the curtain rose on the opening ballet, Kermesse in Bruges, that the self-contained, utterly believable world of the Bournonville ballets might be gone. Instead of the pot-bellied, capering fool entertaining the crowd at the fair, there was a virtuoso showing off his turns for the audience. Morten Eggert and Gábor Baunoch both did a fine job with the dancing, but it looked like an audition for a particularly egregious jester in a very bad Swan Lake.

The Paulli music, too, has been reorchestrated by Kim Helweg. Reportedly the orchestra had objected to the plinky-plink of the previous orches-tration, and the new one tried for a more sophist-icated approach. But Kermesse is a comedy and needs a clear rhythm and sharp accents, which the new orchestration does not provide. It was also late in arriving and the orchestra was sight-reading on the day of the performance; the first night was essen-tially a dress-rehearsal, and the timing was a bit off. It was much better during the second performance, but I do not think the new arrangement is an improvement.

A new divertissement has also been substituted in the second act to newly composed harpsichord music. Dinna Bjørn, the producer and credited choreographer (several critics found the choreo-graphy very like bits of Arthur Saint-Léon’s La Vivandière) explained that she wanted to create a ballet which Mrs. von Everdingen (at whose house the dance is given) would have seen. Since Kermesse takes place in the seventeenth century and since the dancers wear eighteenth-century costumes and modern point shoes, this is an peculiar justification. But worse than time-jumping, its languorous phrasing and slow pace sank over the scene like a big gray sponge, sucking up much of the sparkle and gaiety. However, it did give the audience its only chance to see Rose Gad, a wonderfully clear and elegant dancer, who made the choreography glow. The other dancers went through it with fixed smiles, as if Kermesse were an obscure brand of toothpaste they were supposed to sell. (Excessive, characterless grinning seems, unfortunately, to be increasing.)

Kermessen i Brügge, to give the ballet its Danish title, is rarely toured, but it is one of Bournonville’s brightest works. Bright does not mean shallow; Bournonville’s stories may be simple but like all good folk tales, the implications and undertones are wonderfully complex. It is the story of three brothers (Adrian, Geert, and the young hero Carelis) and their girlfriends, the weepy Joanne, the firm Marchen, and the innocent Eleonora. As a reward for saving Eleonora from two lecherous noblemen, Eleonora’s father, the alchemist Mirevelt, gives the brothers three magic gifts; an invincible sword, a love-potion ring, and a viola de gamba which makes everyone dance. This magic proves deceitful and dangerous, and harmony is restored when everyone returns to their proper places. But the moral is not overstressed, and the ballet is full of life, though the pace of this new production was somewhat slowed by the restoration of several scenes. Geert, who has the ring which makes him irresistible, especially to rich widows, now has a scene where, during some endless parading, he is discovered by Mrs. von Everdingen and transformed into a dandy. Changing clothes on stage is never graceful, and the older production, which begins this scene with Geert already enjoying Mrs. van Everdingen’s hospitality, was much sharper. And Mirewelt’s “I could, dare I say it, rule the world” scene in his study is just confusing.

Comedy, which needs a light touch and perfect timing, is extraordinarily hard to do, and I can’t help feeling that those who missed Ib Andersen and Mette-Ida Kirk in the 1979 production will never understand the real meaning of the word “joy”. But Thomas Lund, the opening night Carelis, is a wonderful dancer, with springs in his legs and an elegant line; his slight melancholy air and eloquent face raise him far above mere technical prowess. He was also cast as Gurn, the farmer in La Sylphide, and as Geert in the second performance of Kermesse. This is an odd repertory, and seems to suggest that the company is not sure how to use his unusual and magnificent gifts.

Though he was very good as Carelis, I thought he was more successful as Geert, whom he played as a pleased but puzzled and gentle clown, using his wonderfully expressive face so subtly it was difficult to watch anyone else when he was on stage. His sigh of relief when he gave up his troublesome ring captured so much of Bournonville’s moral in a single gesture.

Peter Bo Bendixen was the Geert to Lund’s Carelis. He, even in his cloddish wig, is quite handsome, and the transformation from peasant to boy toy wasn’t quite enough of a contrast, though he was very funny in a fine, delightfully underplayed performance. It was an interesting take on the story to have the alchemist’s gifts reinforce the brothers’ natural tendencies, rather than to transform them, but this angle could have been worked out more distinctly.

Bendixen’s besotted widow was Lis Jeppesen, the charmer of the 1979 festival. Her pure, guileless eyes have not changed, and I think this worked against the comedy of the role. The audience loves and trusts her so much that she cannot look ridiculous; if she wants something it must be worth having. Mette Bodtcher, a more sophisticated beauty, was more in keeping with the Kirsten Simone interpretation, and she made even the drawn out dinner scene sparkle.

The opening night Eleonora was Gudrun Bojesen. She is a clear dancer, if a little too thin (the soft Bournonville arms don’t go with knobby elbows). It is not really fair to judge her opening night, given the problems with the music, but she seemed to dance the role too brightly, missing the gentle shyness so important in a true Eleanora; she even gave the two evil noblemen a friendly smile. Tina Højlund, the second Eleanora, with the clear and open-hearted Mads Blangstrup as Carelis, was the female find of the season. (Their other true ballerinas, Silja Schandorff and Rose Gad, were familiar from the 1992 festival.) If Højlund seemed slightly more knowing that a perfect Eleanora, her dancing had a directness, a softness, and an honesty that was refreshing; she can smile with her heart and not just her mouth.

The first night Marchen and Johanne were Henriette Muus and Petrusjka Broholm; they were wonderfully funny, Muus with her bossy exasperation at the self-satisfied Geert, and Broholm, with her lovely dark eyes, was a wonderful contrast as the weepy Johanne. The second performance had Christina Olsson as Marchen and Diana Cuni as Johanne, and they, too, were very good. Mirevelt was Flemming Ryberg, somewhat underpowered for a Danish mime, and Tommy Frishøi, whose natural nobility (he is wonderful as the monk in Napoli) worked against the ambiguity of Mirevelt’s character; after all, it is the alchemist’s misguided generosity and dangerous magic that causes all the problems.

There was one other unfortunate change in the production; at the end during the infernal gallop led by Carelis’ magic viol, the final hilarious gasp used to come when a cripple twirled helplessly on his crutch. I suppose in our enlightened time this seems cruel and tasteless, but it was very funny.

La Sylphide is Bournonville’s best known and least typical ballet. Its hero, James, does not avoid temptation, and everyone suffers. (There is some confusion as to whether he dies or just faints at the end, but he is clearly not happy.) The first night sylph was Silja Schandorff, tall for a Danish sylph, but absolutely luminous. She played down the more giggly aspects of the role, which would look silly with her height, but she made it clear that the sylph was charming, capricious and desirable, yet not really human. Her mime was beautifully developed; her pride at catching the butterfly, incomprehension at James’ reaction, and fascination when it flew away were made clear in just a few seconds, and perfectly conveyed the sylph’s nature. And her death scene, with her pathetic, beautiful eyes, was deeply moving.

Her James was Mads Blangstrup, in a very different role from the sunny Carelis. James, possibly unfairly, seems to me to need a dark-haired dancer to be most effective, but Blangstrup did a fine job. He seemed dazed by the sylph, and this made the scene where he throws Madge out seem creditable; he seemed fearful rather than bossy. With experience and coaching, he should be able to develop more personal touches.

As in so many Bournonville ballets, La Sylphide is not just about the lead dancers, and the opening night Gurn and Effie (James’ unfortunate fiancée) made the ballet a four-way tragedy. Lund’s Gurn was not the usual Hilarion clone; Lund made it clear that he too, had a moral choice when urged by Madge to lie about finding James’ hat, and that he failed and knew he failed. This good, true-hearted boy will have to live with the knowledge that he only won Effie by deceit, and in those few seconds Lund created a real person who the audience can imagine growing more and more bitter.

The Danish Effie is a much more important character that the “I don’t wear toe-shoes, so I don’t really count” version of so many companies. A strong and individual Effie heightens James’ dilemma and gives his decision to leave much more drama. Tina Højlund was a warm and generous Effie, very believable in both her joy and her despair. The only slightly jarring note was her final wedding scene; after her humiliation at James’ behavior, she has to marry Gurn. Højlund just looked happy, which made her seem a bit flighty. Yes, in that community, she must have been relieved to be married, but she hadn’t wanted Gurn.

The opening night Madge, the beggar/witch whom James insults and who exacts such a tragic revenge, was Sorella Englund, who was astounding. She, a famous sylph of earlier days, is still small and very female, which made her power at the end so overwhelming; her Madge is nothing but rags and fury.

The later cast, despite the guest appearance of Johan Kobborg as James, was somewhat disappointing. Caroline Cavallo’s dutiful, by-the-numbers interpretation of the sylph had all the required elements but little of the spirit. She is far too thin, with her prominent elbows and hollow face; the sylph should not look like she exists on coffee and cigarettes. Kobborg, though his dancing was wonderfully clear and sharp, just didn’t seem romantic enough to throw away all his worldly goods for a dream. Jean-Lucien Massot’s Gurn was brash and unsubtle, especially after Thomas Lund’s sensitive and imaginative version; his mime seemed only capable of saying “I am Gurn and I have a solo.” Kirsten Simone, too, was somewhat unthreatening as Madge. She could not completely overcome her incomparably gracious stage manner, and at times seemed almost comic, as if Grace Kelly were trying to be Joan Crawford. Her triumph at the end would have been outstanding in another company, but by Danish standards was more a performance than a force of nature. Only Diana Cuni, who played Effie with a slight melancholy edge, as if she feared her love for James was hopeless from the beginning, gave a truly individual performance.

The evergreen Napoli opens on a busy wharf in Naples, where fishermen are returning to sell their catch. The curtain rises in mid-dance, and a good performance takes the audience immediately into the lives of these Italian peasants, with their passions, their gossiping, their love of excitement, and their trusting religious nature. At times this version seemed a bit too frantic, with everyone, including the little altar boys (who should have some dignity) running on as fast as they could; Napoli is not a cartoon. It is the story of the fisherman Gennaro and his fiancée Teresina, who apparently drowns when Gennaro’s boat capsizes. He looks for her (protected by a medallion of the Madonna given to him by a sympathetic monk) and finds her in the Blue Grotto, transformed into a naiad by the sea monster Golfo. Gennaro’s prayers and the picture of the Madonna restore her memory, and the last act is a glorious celebration culminating in an infectious tarantella.

The second act is the most problematic; Bournonville’s original choreography is lost and it has been reworked several times, but never, I suspect, as ineptly as in the current version. Even such an important stage effect as Teresina’s transformation into a naiad (signified by the magical change of her costume) is placed front and center, so the audience can see the naiads unzipping her dress, and when she returns the naiad costume is clearly different, letting the audience know she has changed off stage. This is a minor infraction, but it seems to signify a lack of respect for the magical illusion so necessary in the second act.

More significantly, Golfo is no longer a creature, but is played as a sexy hunk. Peter Bo Bendixen was magnificently attractive, if wrongheaded, in the role, but he looked like a rock star surrounded by groupies. He danced lustfully with a somewhat compliant Teresina; the original choreography may be lost but inserting a MacMillan pas de deux is no solution. Bournonville’s Grotto scene is about the loss of Teresina’s soul, not her virtue. Even after Gennaro’s prayers have returned Teresina to him, the producers have her hesitate between Golfo and Gennaro. This is pseudo-adult nonsense; Napoli is Bournonville’s love letter to life and Teresina would no more think about staying with Golfo than Hilda would consider staying with the trolls. There certainly could be an interesting ballet about a female James, torn between two worlds, but the producers should choreograph one themselves, and not distort Bournonville.

There were two Teresinas, Cavallo and Gitte Lindstrom, neither of whom were completely convincing as the Italian peasant. girl (The ability to make the audience see a person and not a dancer was one of the glories of the Royal Danish Ballet.) Cavallo, as always, looked dutiful and diligent, but her charm seems canned rather than fresh. I suppose her technical facility makes her a dependable and adaptable dancer, but seeing her among Danish dancers is like being served Cool Whip during a visit to the world’s best dairy farm.

Her Gennaro was Kobborg, who danced magnificently, but who seemed to need more work on his characterization. In the (admittedly bizarre) Grotto scene, he seemed to be giving the other naiads the once-over, as if saying to himself that if he didn’t find Teresina, someone else would do. This fit the new, hotted up second act, but didn’t do much for the drama. He produced the medallion somewhat sheepishly, as if he were asking a group of cynical adults to clap for Tinkerbell, and the magnificent moment of triumph didn’t soar.

The third act of Napoli is the Dane’s signature piece, bright, colorful, and filled with classical and folk dances. Though it is often performed on its own, it gains a certain richness when set in the context of the first two acts. Teresina’s “well, like, whatever” attitude in the second act slightly muted the gaiety (if she would have been just as happy with Golfo, why celebrate?), but only slightly, and the dancing, led by the bounding, joyful Kobborg, was wonderful. Alexei Ratmansky, with his lively dark eyes and his snap, was especially exuberant in the tarantella.

The other Napoli cast, Lindstrom and Blangstrup, were much more in character in the first two acts. Blangstrup was single-minded in the Grotto scene, brushing aside all temptations to find Teresina, and his scene with the medallion was particularly fine, combining triumph and gratitude with a humble spirit. Lindstrom was able to use her eyes to convey the disappearance and reappearance of her soul, letting them go from animation to a glassy, pleasant emptiness in the whisk of a dress. She downplayed the lust, fortunately, but her cheerful little wave as she was leaving looked more like Clara saying good-bye to the Land of Sweets than Teresina returning home. Unfortunately in the third act she seemed to succumb to Kitri Disease, where a solo becomes a competition, every balance a race against the stop watch, with style and character be hanged. I never thought a Danish dancer performing Bournonville could look provincial. The program teased the audience with pictures of Tina Højlund as Teresina; she would seem to be a natural for the role. She did dance the last solo in the pas de six, and her gentle, airy sideways jumps, with her modest charm and understated, though very strong, technique, were one of the highlights of the evening.

Though Napoli was probably Bournonville’s greatest triumph, he considered A Folk Tale his best ballet, and it is always a privilege to see that haunting and elegant work; just the thought of that beautiful music inevitably casts a silvery-blue haze over the everyday world. Set in sixteenth-century Jutland, it is the story of Junker Ove, a nobleman engaged to Birthe, a somewhat bad-tempered flirt. Upset by her behavior and alone, he sees Hilda among the trolls where she lives with Muri and Muri’s sons Viderik and Diderik. Muri bewitches Junker Ove, who disappears for the second act, and we learn that the trolls switched Hilda and Birthe as children (the changeling myth). Hilda escapes to the outside world with Viderik’s help, cures Junker Ove, and everyone returns to their proper place.

The magnificent tranquillity of the ending is just as exalting, if slightly less grand, than the final scene of The Sleeping Beauty. Indeed, there are similarities between the two ballets; the first act of A Folk Tale has a formal dance for the nobles, a peasant dance, and a game of blind man’s buff, in which the hero refuses to take part; Desiré and Junker Ove also stay behind as the others leave, disappointed in their fiancées, and both see a glimpse of their true mates. (Bournonville and Petipa were old friends, and it is possible that Petipa was aware of A Folk Tale.) Bournonville’s first act is actually more theatrically constructed than Petipa’s, since every dance illuminates the characters. The noble dance defines the world to which Birthe is expected to conform, contained and dignified, while the peasant dance, which she instigates and leads, show her true, disruptive nature. Petipa’s peasant dances, lovely though they are, are really only filler.

A Folk Tale has long been regarded as a ballet in which the hero does not dance. In fact, when it was first choreographed (in 1854) Junker Ove did have several solos, according to Knud Arne Jürgensen’s The Bournonville Tradition. However when Waldemar Price took on the role (he danced it for over thirty years), Bournonville gradually reduced the dancing to match his diminishing physical abilities until the role was completely mimed; for Bournonville, apparently, style was more important than steps. This mimed Junker Ove lasted for 100 years, but gradually some dancing has been reinserted.

The present production gives him a brief solo and pas de deux with Hilda after he has recovered his senses in Act III. But more important, it has Kenneth Greve as Junker Ove. Greve is a true danseur noble, a type of dancer almost extinct in the U.S., where the Prince is usually treated as the Jester’s older brother. It is not only that he is tall, beautifully proportioned, and incredibly handsome; he has the weight and authority to dominate a scene standing still. His pain and embarrassment at Birthe’s behavior in the first act and his silent pleading with her to love him cut through all the boisterous activity. His scene alone when he mimed his loneliness was so much more personal and affecting than the generic, droopy solos so often inserted for Siegfried and Desiré. I should think anyone wanting to do a real Swan Lake would be lining up to sign this magnificent dancer.

The role of Hilda, on the surface so simple, is really very difficult to portray. She must embody purity, salvation, and an eternal innocence, yet make it clear that she has grown up a troll. (Bournonville gives her a wonderfully subtle touch, when Hilda is troll enough to love the gold jewelry Viderik gives her but human enough to give it away—environment versus heredity in 1854.) Gudrun Bojesen danced well, but she was not an ideal Hilda; she was both too young and too knowing. She seemed too young to be convincing as Junker Ove’s salvation, and her grin during the wedding scene was too worldly. Hilda hasn’t just caught her man, she has recovered her soul, and her looks should convey a transported awe, not just triumph.

Birthe, the poor troll maiden substituted for Hilda, is also a complex character (not, as she is sometimes portrayed, a slapstick comedienne). Raised in a world to which she cannot conform, her helpless rage possibly speaks to our more rebellious time than Hilda’s purity. Christina Olsson’s performance was very powerful, both in her anger and in her agony. Her terrible fear when she discovered her troll origins was brilliant; she managed to combine denial with relief, finally understanding what was wrong. And then, just as she was about to follow the trolls underground, she caught sight of the shrine, and simply by stiffening her body and using her eyes, she let the audience know that she understood that she was losing her chance of salvation, but then walked away, as if firmly shutting the door on her past. In this haunting scene, Olsson approached tragedy.

There are so many wonderful roles in A Folk Tale; Kirsten Simone was so warm and so loving as Catrine, the nurse who first recognized Hilda. Viderik, the poor put-upon troll brother, was danced by Lis Jeppesen. Viderik is in love with Hilda, but his more generous nature allows him to help her escape, and he sadly gives her up when he realizes she loves Junker Ove. (Bournonville’s wild creatures are rarely purely evil.) Jeppesen, with her delicate frame and youthful face, played Viderik as an adolescent boy with a crush on an older girl, and was wonderfully detailed and vivid—Cerubino of the Trolls. I missed some of the more mature pathos of the great FredBjørn Bjørnsson’s incomparable performance, but Jeppesen’s eagerness and clumsiness and sincerity were very winning.

These wonderful ballets are certainly in better shape than anything else from the nineteenth century; the French choreography has largely vanished, and the Russian repertory is not kindly treated, with Nutcracker either a Freudian extravaganza or a cash cow; poor Swan Lake’s neck has been wrung so many times it is hardly breathing; and The Sleeping Beauty is either poorly designed, inadequately danced, or both. Even though none of these productions had the definitive “I’ve seen the best there is” feel of so much of the 1979 Festival, they were all recognizable and very enjoyable, and some of the dancing was extraordinarily good. With a bit more attention to details and casting, they should be in fine form for the Bournonville birthday party in 2005. But they are not war-horses to be trotted out periodically, but must be lived in to develop all the nuances and details that make them so vivid.

The style, too, seems to be a bit less distinctive that I remember; legs lifted uncomfortably high, and less graceful hands and effortless arms. Of course, by most standards, their arms are models of elegance, but on that intimate stage, inconsistencies are magnified. It was also odd to see a separate listing in the program for eight older “character dancers”. This would be an admirable idea for a regional American company, but there was a time when all the dancers had character. Of course, many of them still do, and I was especially struck by Mette Bodtcher as Giovanina, who was able to portray Naples’s town flirt just by walking across the stage, and Jette Buchwald as Teresina’s distraught mother, frantic in her grief. And it was always a pleasure to find Henriette Brondsholm in the sometimes bland faces of the corps and see Scotland, or Italy, or Bruges reflected in her eyes. Efficient technicians are easy to find, but dancers like Brondsholm are unique to Denmark. It would be a real loss if the Danish ballet were to take Bournonville’s instructions too literally and destroy the magic viol of their unique heritage and replace it with some generic regional internationalism.

 

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