A reel of one's own
THERE is a Scottish reel in the first act of the ballet ``La Sylphide,'' but if you tend to confuse this ballet with ``Les Sylphides'' to Chopin's music, you won't remember a reel. Even having seen the right ballet, you may still have missed the reel . . . . Danced by the corps de ballet, it comes at a dramatic moment, when the sylph of the title is trying to lure the hero James away from his bride-to-be.
I overlooked the reel several times. But now that I have danced that reel -- and in the company of professional dancers -- I feel that I own a few steps of ``La Sylphide,'' and the next time I watch the ballet, it will be with a proprietary interest in the reel.
How I as a nondancer came to dance the reel requires a little digression into dance history.
The original version of ``La Sylphide'' premiered in Paris in 1832, and it was memorable as the first ballet in which the ballerina danced an entire role calling for pointwork.
The version we know today, however, is Danish. Produced in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Ballet, it celebrates 150 years of continuous performance this year, and it is the Danes' major contribution to the international ballet repertoire.
The very essence of the early Romantic movement in Europe is captured in ``La Sylphide'' -- the longing for faraway places and unattainable ideals, combined with folkloristic color, which in this case is the reel. The ballet also represents a style of dance and a school of training that were developed in Paris and that have been preserved to this day in Copenhagen. It is a style in which repose of the head, arms, and torso contrasts with continuous virtuosic footwork, quick changes of direction, and sudden leaps which seem effortless. With no pause for bows, the dance line serves a dramatic context and never the dancer's personality.
The creator of ``La Sylphide'' was August Bournonville, the Danish-born son of a French ballet dancer who settled in Copenhagen and became director of the Royal Danish Ballet.
Following truly in his father's footsteps, young Bournonville completed his own ballet training at the Paris Op'era and remained with the company for six years, becoming acclaimed as a solo dancer. Returning to Copenhagen where he, too, became director of the ballet, Bournonville wanted to produce ``La Sylphide'' -- not least of all to showcase his own dancing.
Lacking funds to rent the original musical score from Paris, Bournonville commissioned a new one from a Danish composer and made changes in both the scenario and the choreography. He didn't avoid charges of plagiarism but he created a work that history has validated.
Hans Christian Andersen, a lifelong friend and artistic colleague of Bournonville, wrote scenarios for several of his ballets. Bournonville's father had rejected the teen-age Andersen as an aspirant to the ballet, and it was in August Bournonville's home, years later, that Andersen met and fell in love with the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind -- who also rejected him. Andersen did, however, have the satisfaction of seeing his fairy tales translated and known throughout Europe, whereas Bournonville's ballets were largely unknown outside Denmark during his life.
In the film ``Hans Christian Andersen'' starring Danny Kaye, Hollywood offered a charming, if fictionalized, biography. It did, however, include one authentic and auspicious touch -- a young Danish dancer named Erik Bruhn, who partnered French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire in a three-minute sequence.
The following year, 1953, Bruhn vaulted to international stardom as James in a London performance of ``La Sylphide.'' He was to become the definitive James and the definitive male dancer of his generation. He was also the first of a wave of young dancers to leave the Royal Danish Ballet, bringing Bournonville's style and repertoire to a worldwide audience and eventually becoming directors of six major com-panies.
The Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet, a touring group formed 10 years ago in Copenhagen, have also earned wide acclaim in Bournonville works, during summer tours of Europe, Asia, and North America. Two years ago, while performing at the Matrix: Midland Festival in Michigan, they established the Bournonville Summer Academy to introduce their dance heritage to North America.
This summer, the Soloists returned to Midland to focus on ``La Sylphide's'' sesquicentennial, with classes in the ballet's solos, mime sequences -- and the reel.
Soloists Anne-Marie Vessel and Flemming Ryberg (himself a notable James) taught the reel, graciously asking each observer to lay aside notebook and pencil and join the dancers for three sessions. Not until the last day did we learn that they were including us in the evening's gala finale.
``Before dinner we entertain you,'' explained Flemming. ``After dinner -- you entertain us.'' When he put it that way, how could we decline?
Twelve couples were too many to teach on the stage at one time, so we had learned the reel in two separate classes, without seeing the completed formation until the ``performance.''
I was depending on my partner, dance critic and lecturer Erik Aschengreen, to lunge emphatically at the proper moments. But Erik had been practicing with a dancer in the second group and he chose to partner her instead of me.
From the dinner table, mime instructor Niels-Bjorn Larsen rushed over to partner me, and as I put my hand on his shoulder to begin, I heard him murmur, ``I haven't danced this for 20 years . . . .'' And sure enough, where I needed him, he turned and went the wrong way.
In the grand right and left, Ole Norlyng, the Danes' music history lecturer, made his customary charge for Erik, who was not in the very front of the formation. Ole's maneuver led three couples into uncharted territory, scrambling the rest of us. By the time the music reached its final ``da-dum, thrumm -- DUM,'' there were 24 dancers in search of a pattern, and the Danes were doubled over in laughter.
Flemming finally raised his hands and summoned us back. ``All right, you have rehearsed. Now you can dance it.''
And we did. Shorn of pride and inhibitions, we let the pulse of the music and the pattern of the reel guide us through our rows and turns and circles and gather us home to our partners. With arms raised in the final triumphant flourish, we faced the applause of the Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet.