The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has a knack for paying homage to European dance masters who have set the barre, so to speak, within the classical dance tradition. One such figure is August Bournonville, whose Royal Danish Ballet graced the Pillow stage on July 11, 2007, after a 21-year hiatus from any performing in the U.S. The company’s diverse program raised an important question: can the old and new coexist amicably, especially within an established ballet company?
The Bournonville choreography featured in the program (“The Flower Festival in Genzano,” “Jockeydance,” “La Sylphide,” and the third act of “Napoli”) testified to not only the talents of the dancers, but also to Bournonville’s technique. The nuances of his codified style—intricate footwork and buoyant jumps—provided clean lines despite the speedy footwork and athletic choreography. Although the dancers seemed born and raised on Bournonville, their artistic integrity was not lost in the countless jetés and pirouettes. For example, Kizzy Howard and Thomas Lund’s “The Flower Festival” pas de deux had a flirty innocence that can be captured only in this snapshot of young love through bashful glances and an energetic embrace.
Although the program featured pieces primarily from the 19th century, it also included Tim Rushton’s 1999 work, “Triplex,” and the world premiere of “My Knees are Cold,” choreographed by Royal Danish Ballet dancer Louise Midjord. “Triplex” showed a playful conversation between Sebastian Kloborg, Alexander Stæger, and Diana Cuni. Due to the two-against-one trend in the choreography—including the men passing Cuni back and forth amidst tricky lifts and throws—the gender dynamics suggested both light-hearted frolicking and disturbing manhandling. For instance, her legs flailing wildly as the men carry her along an entire diagonal illustrates such obvious victimization. Nevertheless, as Cuni claps her hands bossily and the men collapse to the ground at the dance’s conclusion, the woman ultimately triumphs. “Knees” addressed choreographic issues also found in “Triplex”: ho-hum phrases; perfunctory “tricks”; and pedestrian movements, such as jogging and strutting, which attempted (and failed) to provide a post-modern edge to the choreography. This biker shorts-clad quartet (Elisabeth Dam, Christina L. Olsen, Alexander Stæger, and Sebastian Kloborg) offered unrehearsed movements that seemed more like class combinations than a finished piece. The unsteady transitions in and out of lifts also contributed to the work’s amateur image. The dancers’ athleticism provided some surprising movements, such as the women jumping into a crouched pose and the men catching them in mid-air. Despite such moments, the piece left ideas undeveloped. This world premiere was disappointing because it gave the impression of existing on stage, in the Ted Shawn Theater, merely for the sake of being new, different, and modern amidst Bournonville’s old, albeit timeless and far from boring, masterpieces.
Are works such as “Triplex” and “Knees” attempts to broaden the image of the Royal Danish Ballet, stuck—quite beautifully, I daresay—in the nineteenth century? Is it wrong to be “anti-modern” amid such seamless ballet technique? While any company will inevitably flirt with artistic reinvention and welcoming in the “contemporary,” one hopes that the Royal Danish Ballet ultimately preserves the rich ballet tradition with which it has been blessed. Any other road would seem almost sacrilegious. The American writer Henry James writes of the timelessness of his literary predecessor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose “characters and images remain for us curious winged creatures preserved in the purest amber of the imagination.” Capturing and preserving the master works of past centuries, as if in amber, is vital to remembering where the new came from. And, amid the bombardment of the new for the sake of being new and nothing else, the old seems all the more precious.