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Royal Danish Ballet

The Bournonville Festival -- 'A Folk Tale'

by Cassandra

June 10, 2005 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

Let's hear it for the trolls!

When, on my last night in Copenhagen I went to see “A Folk Tale” I had no idea what to expect, just a vague idea of happy peasants dancing in a Danish rural paradise, a bit like "La Fille Mal Gardee". I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This ballet delighted me because it was quite unlike any classical ballet I had seen in the past. The story uses that old fairy story device of babies swapped at birth -- in this case a human child and a troll child, the only clue to their true identities being their natural dispositions that make them cuckoos in their respective nests. We first meet Birthe (Tina Højlund), a member of the local aristocracy and an heiress to boot, she is a spirited girl with bright red hair and with need for a course in anger management as she has a short fuse and loses her temper with all and sundry – yes, you’ve guessed it, she’s the troll. Birthe is betrothed to her cousin, handsome Sir Øve (Kenneth Greve) but she doesn’t care for him and is clearly uncomfortable in his presence. She does have a love interest though; a chap called Sir Mogens seems more to her taste.

Doing a spot of solitary brooding in the forest at sunset – always a dangerous practice in fairy stories -- Øve is astonished when the hill opens and out steps the angelic looking Hilda (Gudrun Bojeson). She is out to recruit unwary passersby with a goblet filled with a magic potion, although tempted Øve refuses to drink. The hill closes and suddenly he is surrounded by elf-girls who dances around him near naked: he is seriously disorientated.

In Act 2, we see something of Hilda’s home life with the trolls under the hill. Ruled over by Muri the troll matriarch, her two sons Diderik, a big lumbering troll played by Peter Bo Bendixen unrecognizable as the babe-magnet he portrayed the night before, and funny little Viderik (Lis Jeppesen), compete for the affections of the delicate Hilda (the human if you haven’t guessed by now). Muri decides that Diderik is to marry Hilda and summons up her fellow trolls for a celebration. For those who saw the film the "Addams Family", the troll gathering is remarkably similar to the scene where a party is thrown for the extended Addams family. Walking tree trolls, three headed trolls and even a trio of trolls in tutus put in an appearance among others. They celebrate in style and get filthy drunk, while they carouse Hilda makes her escape with the preferred Viderik.

The final act has Hilda meeting up again with Øve and eventually being acknowledged as the stolen child after Birthe is revealed as a troll; and the last scene is the wedding of Hilda and Øve, enlivened by a fantastic pas de sept by a group of gypsies led by the incomparable Thomas Lund.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that everyone loved the second act with the trolls. Every face in the interval was wreathed in smiles, with the English contingent in particular getting rather excited over what they’d just seen. For all of us ‘been there - seen it’ types we were getting to see a ballet completely outside the usual ballet spectrum. If some enterprising impresario were to take this to London over Christmas, I reckon it would give “The Nutcracker” a run for its money. There are so many striking images apart from the trolls’ party; such as Birthe jumping on the children’s’ swing and being pushed way across the orchestra pit with her frothing skirts recalling ‘The Swing’ of Fragonard, those scantily clad elf-girls terrorizing Øve and the unexpected entrance of the colourful band of gypsies that turn up at the wedding.

The characterizations were outstanding with Bojeson looking the very essence of goodness and purity as Hilda and as her troll counterpart Birthe, Tina Højlund almost stole the show. Naughtiness is just so much more fun to watch than niceness! But there was one other character that struck me even more forcibly than Tina Højlund and that was Lis Jeppesen in the role of Viderik. Many people regard Jeppesen as one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century, people whose judgement I trust, so it was a great source of regret that I had never seen her dance. There were two other Danes that in the past I had also deeply regretted not having seen: Eric Bruhn and Henning Kronstam.

But fate decreed that eventually I was to see both those great dancers, not in classical roles but as outstanding character dancers. Now I have seen Lis Jeppesen as a character dancer too. Playing the part of a male troll seemed to come easily to Jeppesen: she was adorable. The trolls of course are supposed to be the villains of the piece.  After all, they did swap the babies, but little Viderik was an endearing troll, in love with Hilda and bullied by his bull-in-a china-shop brother, his gentle little face with the comic turned up nose gazed up so lovingly at Hilda that I found myself wishing for a different ending.

That last act is less than perfect in structure, though, and no love duet for Hilda and Øve leaves something of a vacuum, which isn’t adequately filled by the seven gypsies – wonderful though they are. Also the lack of actual dancing for Øve is another disappointment: the couple of steps that Greve did get to perform left me hungry for more. These are quibbles though and in no way detracted from the huge amount of pleasure I felt watching this highly individual work.

This was the first ballet I’d seen designed by a reigning monarch, as no less a person than Queen Margrethe II was responsible for both sets and costumes, and they looked wonderful to me; but those in the audience familiar with earlier productions found the settings a little too pretty and felt that earlier versions had had a darker edge that suited the ballet better.

The after show reception on this occasion was not held as usual backstage, but in the theatre’s grand reception room, aglow with chandeliers and 19th century grandeur. This time we were all spruced up, and on our best behaviour because joining us for the evening was Denmark’s affable balletomane Queen. It was a wonderful occasion to round off a remarkable visit to Copenhagen.


Edited by Staff.

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