Bournonvilleana – Quite So!
What a wonderfully sounding word is Bournonvilleana!! This was the title that the Royal Danish Ballet gave to the Gala that closed the 3rd international festival of Bournonville choreography on Saturday 11th June 2005. This word conjures up images of joy, of high spirits and festive moods, and so it was for those of us lucky enough to be in Copenhagen during this festival. “The Dance can, with the aid of music, rise to the heights of poetry” indeed Mr Bournonville.
For someone like myself, who had previously seen and adored only a very limited amount of Bournonville repertoire (primarily La Sylphide, Flower Festival and the last act dances from Napoli seeing as this is all that is ever performed outside Denmark), the thought of packing six ballets into four days with five of them being completely new to me was too good an opportunity to miss. So off I went to Copenhagen with a friend on the trip, knowing that there were other friends there already to meet up with, discovering Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Ballet Company and this entire Bournonville repertoire for the first time.
It soon became clear that we were in for a lot more than just four evenings of performances; this really was a true festival in full swing! There were talks, lecture demonstrations, open classes, exhibitions, absolutely everything you can think of going on, “everyone” that was “anyone” in the ballet watching world was there, I could see immediately that this was going to be both fun and enlightening all at the same time. The organisational skills, generous hospitality and sheer willingness to bend over backwards to do anything for the guests and patrons from the theatre staff was breathtaking, and all credit for this festival must go to the theatre and its staff for working so hard and for organizing it so brilliantly. You could even pick up your own free copy of the “Bournonville Daily” newspaper every day in the theatre to keep you up to speed with the latest news in the Bournonville universe – a publication of light articles and short interviews, an inspired piece of harmless fun for those that wanted a break from scholarly books to get a dose of “Bournonville light”. The air around the theatre was positively buzzing Bournonville, we were all living for Bournonville, it absolutely took me over the four days I was there, and I was on the whole a totally willing victim.
The centerpiece of the activities outside the performances was the presentation of the “Bournonville Schools” for six evenings at 6pm. These are a collection of various exercises and enchainements that represent and hone the Bournonville style and technique, and are codified into the six Monday to Saturday schools. These schools act both as a component of training for children and also as a constant challenge to dancers within the company to assist them in maintaining and developing Bournonville technique. They also exist as a means of preservation of the style, and the festival was keen to demonstrate that it saw these schools as such by releasing all six complete schools on DVD.
The Bournonville schools were actually put together formally not by Bournonville himself, but by his succeeding ballet master Hans Beck in the early 1890’s, who felt it vital to preserve Bournonville’s step combinations as used in the master’s own training classes. So these are very much the real thing, even though Bournonville did not compile and order them into the Monday to Saturday classes himself. They have been passed down through the Royal Danish Ballet over the last century, and as is natural with such an oral tradition various minor changes and differences of emphasis and interpretation have taken place. An attempt was made during the festival and with the DVD to record what is now considered to be the standard content of the schools and all credit to such a worthwhile exercise. Interestingly enough though Thomas Lund speaking at one school explained that where difference of opinion or preference exists they have kept flexibility, such as in one instance with the height of the working leg against the supporting leg during pirouette – this can vary anywhere between ankle to knee height, depending on the exercise concerned and to a certain extent personal preference or specific circumstance. There may be some parts of the syllabus where an exact position is insisted upon, but in other cases it will be freer and open to the interpretation of the teacher or dancer concerned. Via this approach the Royal Danish Ballet has succeeded in saving these wonderful Bournonville enchainements for posterity without simultaneously snuffing the life out of them as living and breathing vehicles, which will enable dancers to really dance them for another hundred years.
Each school was presented in live performance and I attended the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday demonstrations. Each session opened with a talk from a well respected Bournonville scholar or former member of the company, recalling anecdotes connected with the schools or telling stories of interest about Bournonville or the music accompanying the exercises. Each event was compared stylishly by Anne Marie Vessel Schluter, the Director of the Royal Danish Ballet School, and some basic steps were demonstrated by her pupils who did her proud with their energy and enthusiasm. A selection of company members were on hand to demonstrate the more complex combinations, and I felt Diana Cuni was particularly impressive in these schools as many of the enchainements required a demonstration of exquisite epaulement, and her upper body “sings” with a seamless, mellifluous movement quality, a feature essential for a true execution of the Bournonville style. One in fact witnessed and learnt just as much (if not more) about what constitutes and defines the Bournonville style from the presentation of these schools as from the performances of the ballets themselves. Bournonville talks of surmounting and disguising physical effort via the appearance of a “harmonious calm”, and it is indeed an ability to project harmony despite the fact that very often body parts will be working independently and sometimes even in counterpoint that is central to the technique. These schools test and refine the dancers ability to progress through an entire movement without breaking its inner chain from beginning to end, which should develop the appearance crucial with Bournonville that the dance must always appear to be moving even when in moments of preparation, stillness or interchange. The movement of kinetic energy is continuous in Bournonville; it remains constantly free and forward flowing, it is not phrased with the same sub division of display points as is more so with Petipa. What a revelation these schools were in laying bear to me what the Bournonville style and technique represents, I leant so much during these three hours. I may not yet have a fully developed understanding from a technical, aesthetic and academic point of view as some others and would not claim to, but these schools took me further on my own personal Bournonville road map than I have ever traveled before.
One of the other extra curricular activities that myself and my friends took part in was to watch a morning company class - oh boy, oh boy was this good! I had heard that Danish male dancers were something special, and watching a boys class, as taught by Niels Balle with great vivacity and constant interest in issuing detailed corrections to individual dancers in relation to correct upper body posture, served to confirm this reputation thoroughly. The class consisted of a smallish group of boys including principals Thomas Lund and Andrew Bowman, soloists Nicolai Hansen and Dawid Kupinski and a menagerie of corps de ballet boys including Ulrik Birkkjaer, Cedric Lambrette and Alexander Staeger. One was struck immediately by their collective qualities of plasticity, and also their instinct to use the classical technique as their source of physical strength rather than allowing it to appear in any way a drain on power, gaining their physical strength very much from the rigidity of classicism itself and using its forms as their springboard for movement. They had clearly been trained in a very “classical” way, a very musical way, and harmony was again present, particularly in the petite battement exercises towards the end of the class when they demonstrated an ability to sing with the whole body, not just the feet where the focus is. Hitherto seeing this class I had rated only Russian male dancers as being above all others, now for me the Danes have also joined these elated ranks, streets ahead of the home team here in London, and joining the Russian boys as part of another, albeit very different but equally impressive collective!
There was one boy throughout the week that particularly impressed me and I have to give special mention to him. Seems I am not the only one to have noticed him, seeing as Dawid Kupinski, a Polish dancer who joined the company in 2002, has recently been promoted from corps de ballet to soloist. He is blessed with perfect physical proportions, longish legs that are fully in control rather than wild and which are thankfully matched and complemented by an upper body in perfect proportion to the lower. I very often find male dancers of this build (though certainly not girls) to be the ideal exponents of classicism as they can make long and bold but perfectly balanced lines and posses a quality that suggest reaching out for the ultimate ideal through these lines, very much as does classicism itself. That is not to say that all male dancers possessed of this naturally applicable build will know how to use it. In Dawid’s case though he clearly knows how to use what he has been given. I appreciated his musicality, the beauty of line, the bold dynamics of the shapes he makes in the air, the softness of movement and above all else the expressive quality of the entire upper body, which was extraordinarily striking. It particularly bothers me when the upper body is mute in a dancer with nothing to say; Dawid however really got talking! I feel that Kupinski knows how to express something through movement (I could see him making something special of the lead man in Emeralds). He is a beautiful dancer, one who will increasingly make his audience feel his movement as well as just see it, and I think he may well de destined to go far. All the boys in this company are pretty stunning, Dawid Kupinski is particularly so.
So now onto the ballets themselves…
The first one to hit me was Abdallah, a three act exotic adventure, rather in the vein of something like Le Corsair with its improbable story, constant jolly dancing numbers in places where you would least expect them to be dramatically (a dancing band of shoemakers in Act 1 was great fun but hardly the kind of behavior you’d expect from Islamic shoemakers) and in the propensity of vision scenes of a rather exotically erotic nature. It seems Bournonville choreographed this ballet in 1855 largely with a Viennese rather than Danish audience in mind, for it was destined for a showing in Vienna soon after the Copenhagen premiere. With that in mind he included far more dance numbers than was usual for Copenhagen where mime was of superior importance to the dance itself at that time, and consequently it was a failure. Upon learning this little potted history of Abdallah having been a failure because it had too much dancing, my friends and myself were not yet to understand the full irony of that fact upon ourselves that was to manifest itself the following night, as will become apparent further below!
So what of Abdallah today? It exists now in a reconstructed form having had just 18 performances including its 1855 premiere until it was revived by Bruce Marks, Toni Lander and Flemming Ryberg for Ballet West in Salt Lake in 1985. They based their reconstruction of story and steps on the original libretto purchased at auction by Marks and on Bournonville’s own annotations of movements as registered on his own copy of H.S. Paulli’s charming and melodious score. Marks confessed that he did cut Mr Bournonville and I have to say that the action moves at a satisfyingly cracking pace over three short acts, with no moments of padding or slowdown to contend with. Whilst the narrative itself is not entirely credible and one or two scenes seemed a little contrived, it is on the whole a perfectly delightful ballet, full of some beautiful choreography. Some rather spectacular stage effects delighted also, especially with the flame bursts that led the transformation from Market Square in Basra to the wonderland of Abdallah’s imagination. Give a guy four wishes in this type of ballet and they are bound to lead us to a harem type transformation scene with plenty of harem type corps girls, food, wine and all other exotic pleasures on tap. I found the choreography here for the corps of girls slightly disappointing, a bit too prim and stiff, lots of beautiful decorative formations taken on the raised platform at the back of the stage, but very little I thought to commend the movement patterns when the female corps were dancing, which rather made me think that choreographically Bournonville (or perhaps Marks and co) missed the point here considering what was supposed to be uppermost in Abdallah’s mind in this scene. The entrance into wonderland was taken via an exciting corps dance for the boys as male slaves serving Abdallah, a spectacular few minutes display of the technical prowess and beauty of the male corps in the Royal Danish Ballet if ever there was one, as the slaves dance in unison in parallel rows across the stage, firing entrechat, petite battement and jumps at us with unabashed joy and in near perfect unison.
The dances and the dancing for the protagonists and their associates was a bit of a mixed bag of oranges. Indeed there was even a dance with an orange for Irma, Abdallah’s betrothed, and her obligatory friends in Act 1. As Abdallah Morten Eggert stood out with his exemplarily clean and stylish dancing, a beautiful dancer possessed of a particularly light balon and full of the speed and lightness essential for Bournonville. He also has a wonderfully big and vibrant personality that you notice immediately with his eye catching stage presence, and his portrayal of Abdallah (and later Gurn in La Sylphide) was full of delightful detail of character, his reaction to every dramatic situation was alive and vibrant, he communicated so much with wonderfully expressive eyes and used constant inclinations of his head and neck to say so much, I think completely naturally without even thinking about it, which was why he was so convincing. I found him the most talented mime artist of the younger generation within the company during the whole week, it was a triumphant performance beautifully acted and beautifully danced.
I was less happy with the two women in his life during this ballet. American soloist Amy Watson took the role of Irma, and I have to say I felt she took the role in a rather American fashion, full of capability technically from the lower body point of view but somewhat stiff in the upper body and framed with a rather soulless and empty presentation. Amy had her moments and there is some delightful choreography within her role, such as the dances that she distracts the Captain of the Guard with in Act 1, but I found no real special quality in her plastique of movement, personal taste on the night perhaps although I did speak to other balletomanes that were equally cool about this interpretation. These issues and more however were multiplied further when Abdallah met his chief temptress Palmyra, the Leader of the Harem, as played by another American dancer Haley Henderson. She is a corps member since 2000, but I felt that she had not yet managed to absorb the Bournonville style, and it may have been a case of a prominent role a bit too soon being given. Again I detected the same issue of stiffness in plastique, and of a muted sense of the need for the dance to sing with a lyrical, continuously moving impulse.
Interestingly enough two supporting female roles were superbly taken I thought. Diana Cuni was beautiful as one of Irma’s friends, this was my first sight of this gem of a dancer seeing as at this point I had not seen a Bournonville school, and I found her utterly breathtaking. Her quality of movement delivered within an appropriate technical and aesthetic style was clear and beautifully executed, and this was to be the first of many occasions during the week when Diana impressed. Her fellow friend, Camilla Ruelykke Holst, did not sadly fair so well, handicapped by long lower limbs that just did not seem to be doing as they were told. The other great discovery for me that night was corps member Yao Wei who played one of the Sheik’s daughters Selime in the last act. I remember sitting there as the combinations for the daughters started, probably thinking to myself here we go again with some more pretty little numbers, only to suddenly find myself wide eyed as soon as Yao began to dance. She took me somewhere else immediately and I was transfixed on her for the major part of that act. She is a beautiful dancer, possessed of a tangible spirituality, an almost poetic quality of movement plastique; softness, poise, expressiveness, musicality, it was all there. She is quite something, and I hope she rises above the corps before so long because she is special, and I found myself watching her with delight for much of the week.
Abdallah had thus provided a really good introduction for me to the unknown (to me) Bournonville repertoire. Someone said to me afterwards that it was ironic that I saw this first, as it was really untypical of Bournonville. What they meant became acutely apparent the next evening during the double bill of Far From Denmark and Le Conservatoire. These could not have been further removed from Abdallah in terms of leaving behind the slightly glitzy, exotic feel of the Iranian epic with its stage effects and stunningly opulent scenery and costumes. After the double bill I found myself thinking that in Abdallah whilst the choreography was clearly Bournonville in style, the production itself was a bit like a Hollywood epic, certainly in comparison to the mood and feel of most of the other works I was to see.
So to Far from Denmark. Well if I am honest I have to confess that during its performance I rather wish I had been in that very position, i.e. far from Denmark! This was the only work during the whole week that I actually disliked, and would never be inclined to see again. To be blunt, it bored me to tears. It is a two-act work and was performed continuously, lasting for what seemed like hours. This work more than any other reminds us that the job of ballet in Copenhagen in the mid 19th Century was to express a narrative through use of mimic pantomime, and that dance numbers were considered secondary to mime passages and simply there to support the main action of narrative and to decorate with divertissements. So different from Abdallah, and it came as a bit of a shock to a Bournonville novice like me! There was literally no dance at all to speak of in the whole of the first act which must have lasted at least 40 minutes, apart from a ridiculous and embarrassingly silly hand waving number for the blacked up slaves Jason and Medea at the end (I know, but I read somewhere that naming the slaves as such actually illustrates female power over men, which is the theme that drives the story of a faithful naval lieutenant who is tempted by a powerful woman, only to regain and assert his masculine power to defeat the temptation and subdue the corrupting female power at the end). I found the endless mime of the first act difficult to cope with, characters would come in and out repeatedly and mime to each other desperately, only to walk off and be replaced by another combination of characters and more hectic miming. The whole thing became contrived for me, I guess maybe in ballet I do find it difficult when the characters don’t feel inclined to dance their emotions to me at some point, and as a consequence I did not believe in or feel sympathy for any of these characters at all and they became cardboard stereotypes. That’s not to say that the players did not present them with complete conviction, and of course the company is made up of brilliant mime artists that have mime as part of their blood. However for me act one of Far from Denmark proved perhaps that you can have too much of a good thing. And certainly too much of a bad thing, including some of the crudest stereotype portrayals of foreign nationals I have ever seen.
By the time we moved into the second act I had become so irritated that I really just wanted the ship to sink and the costumed ball to be cancelled, although I at least thought that at last we would get some dancing. Well actually it was still rather a long time coming, as we had to go through all sorts of naval parades and military line ups, raising of flags, polishing of bells, not to mention that the sailors had to choose what to wear to the ball, some of them turning up in drag (male cross dressing seemed to be a recurring theme in some of the works, not sure why Mr Bournonville went for this so much although in Far from Denmark it did have a direct relevance to the theme of men needing to reassert themselves over female power which had got the upper hand). When the dancing did come it consisted of a couple of very naff national stereotype sequences (Eskimos and Chinese being the victims here on a far greater scale than anything ever seen in Nutcracker), and things at last only livened up and became interesting choreographically with some Spanish numbers which included some lively combinations executed stylishly by Marie-Pierre Greve playing the temptress Rosita. The performances of Mads Blangstrup as Lieutenant Wilhelm and of Jean-Lucien Massot as Don Alvar were admirable and completely convincing on their own terms, but within this setting nothing really mattered to me one jot. I had been thoroughly unengaged by what I felt was a minor work that had probably been one of the small number to survive simply by chance. When I saw my friends in the interval we all looked thoroughly depressed. We had read that Far from Denmark was recognized as a minor work dramatically in comparison to masterpieces like Kermesse, A Folk Tale and La Sylphide, but nothing had prepared us for this. We headed back to our seats for Le Conservatoire with great trepidation!
We were all however enlivened by what we saw in Le Conservatoire, which was performed in the fully restored two-act version, and not just as the divertissement school section that has a historical performance tradition on its own terms. This ballet is a delight and it was superbly performed. Poul-Erik Hesselkilde as the ballet schoolmaster proved himself to be a superbly comic character actor and was in fact celebrating 40 years on the stage that was duly marked by long curtain calls at the end. I found the structure of the work slightly odd with its clear distinction between mime and dance sequences rather than any attempt (as was later seen in say A Folk Tale) to bring the two disciplines closer together within an overall texture, and with its feel of being made up of several large and disparate chunks (such as the completely mimed first scene, the school divertissement, the mimic vaudeville style second act) which had been sown together with a little untidiness at the joins and not enough thought to achieving a balance between these extremely contrasting sections. The second act thus felt too long in comparison to the danced school section, and one was left feeling like this was very much a reconstruction that had been rather lumped together and needed a bit more thought to even it out. The second act set in the park was again full of mime, though it was entertaining and the story and its characters were engaging and totally believable, so it was not at all problematic for the viewer in the same way as Far from Denmark. And it was permeated with interesting dance sequences, including a lively jockey dance from Tim Matiakis.
The dancing school divertissement should feel like the centerpiece of the work, although for me it did not quite achieve this status due to the imbalance created by the long and top-heavy second act. Nevertheless it is a self-contained gem of Bournonville enchainements in its own right and was a delight to watch as executed by the children and artists of the Royal Danish Ballet. Excitement and tension builds up throughout the class, especially via group / corps sequences and those for multi numbered soloists in unison. There are some wonderful solo variations, for the girls in particular, some of which must be fiendishly difficult to execute with their quirky shifts of balance and their typically Bournonvillian challenges presented via the actual choice of combinations of steps and the accents placed upon them. Again Yao Wei shone out here, whilst Dawid Kupinski was wasted playing the non-dancing role of a first prize violin player, as opposed to a first prize dancer from the ballet school. Mind you, Le Conservatoire had restored our faith in one first prizewinner, namely Bournonville himself as being a first prize-winning choreographer.
The next day I read to my friends a note I had found talking about the importance of mime in The King’s Volunteers on Amager, which we were all due to see that evening!! We became depressed and worried again that we might be in for another mammoth mime session, and there was a particularly comic moment over lunch when we were all stirring our tomato sauce into our tuna pasta, murmuring to each other (and our respective bowls of pasta) that we really couldn’t face another hour of pure mime! “Oh no, I really can’t take it if it’s going to be like Far from Denmark” I told my pasta, but no advice was offered in return, and we had a collective moment of comic depression that really did feel like “Carry on Bournonville” in the making. Bearing in mind that Bournonville himself had said “the art of mime encompasses all the feelings of the soul…the dance, on the other hand, is essentially an expression of joy” we were desperately wanting to up the joy and play down the soul! In the end we need have worried not, for The King’s Volunteers was a delightful ballet from start to finish, certainly full of mime, but also full of the most wonderful dance sequences and choreography all sown into a unified dramatic texture. I think on reflection I enjoyed this piece most of all out of the new repertoire I saw all week, and it was such a joy I can’t wait to see it again.
The story of yet another Lieutenant who has his head turned whilst away on duty sounded dangerously like Far from Denmark, but is so much more believable than in its previous incarnation because all the characters are so real, they are not ciphers, they are completely three dimensional and totally engaging, and you feel sympathy for their plight and engage with them throughout their physical experiences and emotional journey. I think it works so well for me precisely because the characters actually dance what they are going through and feeling, as well as miming it, it is all in the dance and therefore speaks volumes. A case in point is the early dream sequence when Lieutenant Edouard imagines the appearance of four female temptresses during a romantic reverie at the piano. This seems choreographically to be more like Cranko than Bournonville and I read somewhere it was an interpolation into the production, so I am not sure how authentic this is, but it works brilliantly. The chastisement of the flirtatious Amager girls by their men in a combined dance and mimed genre is another example of this, with great use made of the music. Throughout the piece mime and dance seem balanced in perfect harmony and tell the story in perfect unison. This was a late work of Bournonville from 1871 and perhaps by this point he had achieved a clearer integration. He had certainly by this point moved away from the issues of romanticism towards an interest in more naturalistic social settings. Thus we have a genuine dilemma here presented in simple terms, without any overt suggestion to place this dilemma, as would have done the romantic movement, within a dramatic context of good verses evil and corrupting forces, metaphors of the danger that striving for the unknown brings to man and such like. On Amager we do not need to have emphasized such romantic messages, and as a consequence recognition, remorse and resolution between the tempted Edouard and his revealed wife Louise all happen within the space of a minute or so with no need to muse on the profound implications. The joyous dance sequences flow madly around this central denunciation. The new production works very well with attractive set and costume designs, and a physical layout allowing entrances to take place via a door at the rear center stage from outside to in, whilst at the same time leaving in view an exterior panorama at the back of the stage beyond this central door in order that various snow ball fights and comings and goings can be fully witnessed. Dramatic tension is raised in this way, for example with the arrival of the Lieutenant’s wife, seeing as we see her coming before he does.
Performances were extremely fine. Peter Bo Bendixen is superb as Edouard, Silja Schandorff dances beautifully during her variations at the ball when she is tempting her own husband in disguise, clearly underneath the disguise is a very talented dancer, a beautiful mover. The piece contains some remarkably joyous and exciting choreography, particularly in all the celebratory dances at the ball. I was enchanted by the wonderful hoop dances and the skipping sequences over these hoops for the children, the way the company took with delight the happy sailors reels and military dances, and especially the fantastic pas de trios, brilliantly danced by Diana Cuni and Kristoffer Sakurai in particular, the later absolutely stunning in his virtuoso solo which he presented with great aplomb. What a superb dancer he proved himself to be, and in this pas de trois Bournonville also proved himself to be a master choreographer, giving us a sequence of pure delight. When all said and done I loved this ballet and its presentation by the company as a whole, who gave it collectively with great joy and complete conviction. I was on a high it was so breathtaking, as indeed were my friends, and we had to make a real effort during the interval to calm ourselves down from the cloud we were flying high on after all this high spirited dancing to get into the right frame of mind for the following ballet, the much more somberly profound La Sylphide.
With Bournonville’s masterpiece La Sylphide we are of course plunged back into the world of romanticism, and in contrast to events on Amager we are forced to view James’ reveries with the Sylph in a more consequential and significant light. This is serious stuff and it needs to be performed in a serious way. I was on the whole extremely happy with Nikolaj Hubbe’s production, the only issue for me being that the lighting in the second act forest was far too bright for my tastes. I do prefer my forest dwellings for both Sylphs and indeed Wilis to be more eerie and mysterious through atmospherically darkish lighting and I did feel that this issue impacted enormously on the atmosphere of act two. Mads Blangstrup was impressive as James, dramatically convincing enough to be commendable and in the first act particularly impressing us with some finely strong and spirited dancing; the first act variation was brilliant, the second act ones I thought a little less so, and the usual notable exit of James off stage within the act two pas de deux with a series of lightly sprung angled clips of the feet was completely omitted.
Caroline Cavallo’s Sylph was by comparison more even throughout the whole ballet and in many ways she gave a remarkably beautiful performance. She is clearly a ballerina of prima status, possessed of a beautiful movement plastique, which the Sylph requires and exposes almost more than any other role in ballet. There were a few fleeting moments in the second act particularly when I wished for something even more special in terms of quality of movement, she was by no means the ultimate perfection in the role that I would imagine let’s say someone like Kolpakova would have been, but she did offer a Sylph of great refinement, musicality and expressive lines with appropriate stylistic detail. Cavallo has the delicacy in the upper limbs and the expressive wrists that the role requires and she was alive with the experience of being the Sylph and the excitement of the encounters with James. This was shown both in the carriage of her body in act one and also in her eyes. But here in lay a problem of interpretation for me that was manifest throughout. As soon as she saw James in act one I realized that in Caroline Cavallo this Sylph lacked innocence, she was excited and enthralled with the encounter, as indeed she should be, but at the same time she was worldly, you could see in her eyes that she understood the impending risk of the encounter but she did not care, she knew the danger into which she was leading James but she was so enchanted by him that it mattered not. Cavallo’s Sylph was never truly innocent and therefore for me the tragic element of her destruction by Madge is largely nullified. The role of course is open to interpretation and Cavallo may have been intentionally worldly. I have a personal preference for a vision of the Sylph that centres heavily on innocence and naivety, a creature that is enchanted by James and curious about his world, just as he is of her, without any comprehension that she is playing such a dangerous game. This vision makes the fate of the Sylph all the more heartbreaking, for she is an innocent victim, and that is truly tragic. Clearly Cavallo does not view the role that way. This lack of innocence in Cavallo’s Sylph duly noted hers is nevertheless a beautifully danced performance in which there were some truly breathtaking moments both physically and at times even spiritually.
Of the supporting cast Morten Eggert was once again superb as Gurn, so true his deep felt love for Effy, with vibrant mime and dramatically vivid and sincerely acted reactions to the various events of act one. And this is not to mention his wonderfully kilt-flying rendition of Gurn’s act one solo. The Effy was perfectly passable and danced very well, although a little lacking in dramatic volume and projection I thought. The Madge of Jette Buchwald was wonderfully vivid with some notably spot on physical timing in relation to the music within the mime passages. The female corps of Sylphs was beautiful, although somehow whilst extremely impressive by most standards they did not for me on this evening reach the pinnacle of physical perfection and spirituality that I had hoped for seeing as we are talking here about the Royal Danish Ballet in La Sylphide, and which we still see frequently with the Kirov female corps. This white act exposed some minor variance in movement dynamics between different dancers, perhaps a product, as with many companies now, of taking dancers of different nationalities some of whom have not been through the company’s school from a young age.
Our last evening in the Royal Theatre was spent watching A Folk Tale, a three act narrative ballet described on the festival web site as “an enchanting comedy of mistaken identity”. Enchanting indeed, we thought it would make a nice festive alternative to endless Nutcrackers and Cinderellas as a family ballet, there was plenty of colour to entertain the children, and plenty of morality to take heed of for the adults. In truth, despite its sunnier and less overtly tragic appearance compared to La Sylphide, Bournonville’s world in 1854 at the time of the creation of A Folk Tale was still allied to romantic thinking, and this work illustrates the common romantic theme of known human existence presented in contrast to the temptation of an alternative and unknown universe that could more than likely lead to destruction. Happily for the ballet’s hero, Junker Ove, such a cataclysmic fate is averted and we end in resolution and triumph. The tale is told through a texture that seamlessly mixes both dramatic and decorative dance with traditional Bournonville mimic pantomime. The role of Ove is in fact rather slight, considering that he only appears in act one, with mainly all mime sequences, and then again at part of the way through act three. Indeed when he reappeared in act three I realised I had even forgotten all about him since the end of the first act, and in truth the audience finds itself much more engaged with the dilemmas of Hilda, rather then her groom to be. It is her story that carries us along. Twice we are reminded of the romantic dilemma as faced by Junker Ove, at the end of act one he faces a corps de ballet of threatening female elfs in parallel formations that chase him around the stage rather as the Wilis do to Hilarion in act two of Giselle (I am perhaps assuming a direct inspiration here for Mr Bournonville), and in act three his deluded wanderings suffering from “elf-shock” illustrate the consequences of straying too far. Apart from these two instances Ove’s only other function is to share in Hilda’s triumph as she reclaims what is rightfully hers. In such a shallow role Kenneth Greve certainly made an impact such as he could, a strong imposing stage presence, clear and detailed acting and a wonderful boldness in the air when he did finally get to dance with Hilda in celebration of his recovery from elf-shock in act three.
Hilda is the protagonist in this work and in taking the role principal Gudrun Bojesen I felt was near perfect. She was utterly engaging, a thoroughly loveable and humble character, gentle in all her dealings with those around her, such as in her firm but compassionate rejection of the earnest attentions of the younger troll brother Viderik. Here was a woman who practiced righteousness, and as such I was with her every step of the way, desperately wanting her to succeed in her quest. Moreover Gudrun’s dance qualities were also placing her in the winning team. I found her dancing to be expressively lyrical, beautifully phrased and musically alert. A principal now since 2001 and a company member from 1992, Gudrun is a beautiful and engaging dancer, and I felt regret that I had not also seen her Sylph four evenings previously – someone had said to me that whilst Cavallo was superior from a physical point of view in terms of balon and plastique, the interpretation of Bojesen was infinitely more sympathetic, certainly based on her portrayal of Hilda I could well believe that.
Of the supporting roles there are some special mentions to be made. The Birthe of soloist Tina Hojlund was superb, particularly in the semi mad scene within the third act, and whilst I am not totally convinced that Bournonville really did choreograph quite such a number, Tina presented its modernistic hysteria and high jinks with aplomb. If ever an illustration were needed of the impeccable mime and character tradition possessed of the Danes, it was certainly to be found within the troll brothers of Lis Jeppesen and Peter Bo Bendixen. They were both fantastic, it was the most vivid and engaging mime artistry and acting I had seen in the whole week, indeed probably in my entire ballet going career. Lis Jeppesen was extraordinary as the naive and childlike Viderik, wide tearful eyes constantly engaging our sympathy both in moments of sadness and joy, an expressive face that enchanted and delighted. And so vivid it carried right across the auditorium to the depths of the back rows so I was told. Much the same sentiments for Peter Bo Bendixen’s Diderik, of course a very different, more oaf like character, but in places his expressions were absolutely hilarious. One of the great final joys at the end of the performance was the presentation of the great pas de sept for four girls and three boys in celebration of Midsummer’s Eve. What a masterpiece of choreography this is, a sequence of unashamedly joyous solos and combinations that sent my heart rate right through the roof of the Royal Theatre. I have to confess to being on (yet again) a cloud during this sequence, what fantastically exciting and beautiful choreography was I witnessing, I simply cannot describe how wonderful it was. And of course, what execution! Particularly from Thomas Lund who gave us a stunning solo variation, Diana Cuni again notably shining, Nicolai Hansen vibrant and Andrew Bowman breathtaking for his sheer physical power in tour en l’air. After the excitement of this pas de sept I was expecting a resolution pas de deux for Hilda and Ove, but to my regret it never came. For me this would have rounded the story and the ballet off appropriately and harmoniously, and whilst I appreciate that it is Bournonville’s aesthetics and not Petipa’s that we are dealing with here I somehow felt cheated by the lack on one in this work more than any other I had seen. It did not feel right to me, a bit like Ashton’s La Fille or Sleeping Beauty would feel like without their resolution and summation duets for the lovers at the end. Mind you, quite how you would follow such a fantastic pas de sept with a pas de deux from a choreographic point of view God only knows!
So what of the production itself, the set and costume designs the work of no less than H.M. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark in person, a lover and great supporter of the company. Well no fear of “off with his head” for this writer, for the production was utterly enchanting, beautifully designed with vibrant scene painting and dynamic use of colour from start to finish. The second act set within the inner realms of the troll hill was wonderfully atmospheric, and the Queen’s understanding of the possibilities of deftly applied stage craft was clear, for example in the thrilling opening of the troll hill at the end of act one and also in the crystal clear staging of Hilda’s dream sequence in act two via a raised platform at the back of the stage. The costumes throughout were super, particularly so with the hilariously dressed gallimaufry of wedding guest that arrive to celebrate the nuptials of Hilda and Diderik in act two. This was a splendidly camp parade of creatures including A Bird Nest Troll and her husband, Three Tutu Trolls, a Marsh Crone and such like, and I have to say that I felt decidedly underdressed later in the evening when I discovered I was not in fact wearing a gigantic yellow flower pot on my head.
A Folk Tale was the conclusion and the summation of my visit to Copenhagen and the Bournonville universe. Notwithstanding my newly acquired taste for yellow flower pot hats, I had learnt so much about the great master and had at last become fully acquainted with one of the greatest ballet companies in existence, and some of the finest dancers in the world today. Diana Cuni, Dawid Kupinski, Yao Wei, Thomas Lund and Morten Eggert had all made a particularly strong impression on me personally. My friends and I also had some fun along the way (enlightenment opens doors to pleasure after all), a particularly giggle filled train journey to and from Bournonville’s house in Fredensborg sticks in my mind, including an encounter with a ticket inspector who’s misery and dejection would have evoked pity I think from Madge herself! The festival was positively buzzing with people who were learning, absorbing, enhancing, whilst at the same time also laughing, amusing, enjoying.
My thought had most certainly been intensified, my mind had clearly been elevated, and my senses were most definitely refreshed. I guess Mr Bournonville himself may have been very pleased with that outcome.
Last edited by Simon Clark on Mon Jun 20, 2005 5:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.