The Danes in America -- fleet feet and light spirits
To Danish choreographer August Bournonville, dancing meant joy -- an expression of all that is positive about life. And the Royal Danish Ballet, on the occasion of his centenary anniversary this past November, celebrated that spirit with a festival devoted to his choreography.
The Danes -- for and about whom Bournonville created those exquisitely happy ballets -- brought that same joy to America in an eight-performance Bournonville Festival held here recently. From the intimate, 1,400-seat Royal Theater in Copenhagen to the 4,000-plus Opera House in Chicago, seven Bournonville ballets -- along with elaborate sets and highly detailed costumes -- underwent an American transformation.
The Danes were last in Chicago in 1965 and they have not been to the States since 1976. Since then they have seen a change of command, and it was at the suggestion of the new artistic director, Henning Kronstam (longtime premier danseur of the company and -- not coincidentally -- no stranger to Chicago, where he performed with the Chicago Opera Ballet from 1963 to 1968), that the Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen was launched.
Bournonville was unique in the age of romanticism, which saw so many male dancers reduced to the role of "porteur," with the equality his choreography allows the sexes. The men not only hold their own in pas de deux that stress more parallel movements than lifts and balances, but also display all manner of technical prowess in neat combinations that contain little of the flashy show too many American audiences have come to expect from the male danseur.
The result is a company of such luminaries as Niels Kehlet, Frank Andersen, Flemming Ryberg, and Arne Villumsen, who cannot be overshadowed by the presence of their two former colleagues -- Schaufuss and Martins -- who performed as guest artists with the company during the festival. (Both defected to America -- as have, at one time, Erik Bruhn, Helge Tomassen, Adam Luders, and, just this season, Ib Andersen.)
Audiences left the week with a growing love of the Danes and their choreography, with its positive attitude, uplifting buoyancy, and fascinating people of both folk and down-to-earth worlds -- and a feeling that the festival was much too short.
Bournonville himself expressed his feelings eloquently in these words, referring to his workaday efforts: "Nothing is immortal, least of all the fleeting figures of the stage." His friend Hans Christian Andersen once said to him, "Your dance is speech."
To prepare audiences for enjoyment based on understanding, the festival was preceded by a lecture on Bournonville by a Danish critic, Erik Aschengreen, and a demonstration of Bournonville technique explained by the company's associate artistic director, Kirsten Ralov. A panel on the accuracy and necessity of Bournonville reconstruction was moderated by Walter Terry, the American dance critic.
In Bournonville's story ballets, most of them dating from the 1830-50s, the forces of good -- unmistakably Christian in most cases -- win out against underworld creatures who can be engaging if frightening trolls and malevolent witches or enticing Blue Grotto naiads. During the 50 years in which he dominated the dance scene in his native Copenhagen, Bournonville created more than 50 ballets, of which only about 10 remain in the repertoire of the Royal Danish. The preservation of the works of this man -- designer not only of a choreographic style but also of an entire technique still taught in codified form at the ballet's school today, is partly what the festivals in his honor were about.
While "The Flower Festival at Genzano" pas de deux was reconstructed by Hans Brenaa and Niels Bjorn Larsen especially for the November festival in Copenhagen , the Chicago festival included the world premiere of an excerpt for three couples from the opera "Wilhelm Tell," not performed for 50 years, as well as the American premieres of "A Folk Tale" and the full-length "Napoli" (usually known only for its third act).
These last two are total delights -- with complex characterizations, clever plots, comedy from theatrical mime, fantasy settings, and staged magic tricks. While most of the "real" dancing gets under way in the third acts, "A Folk Tale" and "Napoli" are yet perfect illustrations of what makes Bournonville so intriguing to American audiences who are unused to his style -- his ballets are funm to watch. It's easy to get carried away in the story, tasting laughter (how often does ballet elicit that?) and empathizing with very believable characters at the same time.
"A Folk Tale" sports a part-Wagner, part-Gilbert & Sullivan story of the switching of a troll and a royal baby, which includes a bacchanalian revel to the misery of the refinedly spawned girl while she is forced to live in troll-land, and some hilarious bursts of very undecorous dancing (by the riveting Linda Hindberg) from the troll in surroundings more sophisticated than her birth warrants. Of course, everything (or one) gets put to rights at the end, giving occasion to an unusual and choreographically intricate septet in the finale.
In this section -- as in so many others during the ballet's Chicago tenure -- it was increasingly difficult to decide whom to watch. The company seems replete with mature artists of qualified technical ability.
And there's none of that star-system buffoonery that besets so many American companies -- i.e., you're apt to see last night's Sylphide in tonight's pas de trois -- which means no scrimping on the quality of the performance that every single dance segment gets in every ballet. You can count on a septet receiving the same careful attention the leading roles do. It's almost a redundancy of treasures.
There's the lissome Heidi Ryom and resilient Niels Kehlet in "Wilhelm Tell," Lis Jeppesen and Arne Villumsen (a handsomely assured artist in "La Ventana" as well), and Frank Andersen as Gurn in "La Sylphide" (whose strong legginess and security make his elevation seem as carefree as his facial expression). After seeing Mette Honningen and Linda Hindberg going through the rigid, academic paces of Bournonville's "schools" in "La Conservatoire," it's a surprising pleasure later to watch Honningen's emotionally rending yet airborne Sylphide and Hindberg's "Napoli" debut, which was secure while demanding just the right touch of sympathy for Teresina's plight.
Lis Jeppesen's doll-like innocence is endearing in "A Folk Tale" -- but then Mette Ida-Kirk displays a confidence to match her serenely youthful expression in the same role. Niels Bjorn Larsen (in the long tradition of theater mimes) suggested a more sinister Madge in "La Sylphide," whose vengeful presence was felt into the tenth row. As anticipated, Peter Schaufuss was impressive (if overbearing) in the leading role of "Napoli" -- but to see Niels Kehlet a few days later was to discover the true character of the desperate and later triumphant Gennaro.
So many different casts, indeed, lent new dimensions to every ballet on subsequent evenings. Just when you thought you'd seen the ultimate "Sylphide" in Peter Martins and Mette Honningen (a decision the Schaufuss-Jeppesen fans would contest) on comes Flemming-Ryberg with Honningen a few nights later, whose surprisingly moving characterization of James was yet no match for the perfect partnership displayed by Martins and Honningen, who clearly effected the tragedy of two creatures' attempts to be part of a world not their own.
The Danes' feet are indeed fleet and their spirits light, but their dancing in America will remain indelibly upon our memories, to be enjoyed again on their anticipated return in 1982.