Royal Danish Ballet

June 6, 2005

Royal Danish Ballet in Le Conservatoire. Photo by Martin Mydtskov Rønne.

Royal Danish Ballet, Bournonville Festival
Royal Theatre, Copenhagen, Denmark

June 6–11, 2005

Reviewed by Clive Barnes


After a period of vicissitudes, during which time the Royal Danish Ballet had more artistic directors than the average banana republic had presidents or even bananas, the return of Frank Andersen as artistic director in 2002 heralded a new period of stability.

It is difficult to assess the quality of the company simply on the way it dances Bournonville—even if that way is the specialty of the house—and it is significant that during the entire 2005–06 season the company is scheduled to give only two Bournonville ballets, all the other programming being more contemporaneously engaged.

Yet for this festival it was Bournonville all the way, preaching, as it were, to the delightedly already converted. It is a remarkable experience to watch a time capsule that transports one back to the 19th-century Romantic ballet night after night. Here is what remains of the old French Vestris style of dancing, including choreographic references to the ballet d’action going back to Noverre, virtually untouched by the Russian and Italian influences that dominated ballet in the latter part of the 19th century. Bournonville provides a unique window into ballet’s past, for very few other classics have been preserved from that period—even Giselle and Coppélia have come down to us in Petipa’s versions. So Copenhagen truly is the site of a balletic Holy Grail.

Almost all of the Bournonville canon has been cleaned up during Andersen’s second term in preparation for this 200th anniversary of the choreographer’s birth. Most of it looked in pristine condition; in fact, some old-timers might have missed the patina of well aged, sometimes shabby authority these ballets had half a century ago. Many of the ballets have been updated, and all have been refurbished within the last four or five years. But, in large, the legacy has been claimed and heritage maintained.

I didn’t care for the modernist scenery and costumes by Rikke Juellund for Lloyd Riggins’ brand-new staging of The Kermesse in Bruges, and Mikael Melbye’s settings for Nikolaj Hübbe’s recent La Sylphide are too baronial in the first act and too picture-postcardish in the second. But as pointed out in a perceptive article by Viben Bech in the festival’s souvenir program, keeping Bournonville design both in period yet up to date is a continuing problem.

But forget the trappings—what is important for the Danish Ballet is how it dances Bournonville, or rather how it has preserved the Bournonville Franco/Danish style in the larger context of the contemporary international style needed for its general repertory. And here Andersen, Eva Kloberg, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, Dinna Bjørn, Flemming Ryberg, Riggins, and many more are doing a splendid job. In a worthwhile innovation, the formal daily Bournonville classes (a different one for every weekday, devised by the great Danish ballet master Hans Beck around the turn of the century) were presented to the public every night before the performance.

With a classic repertory such as Bournonville (or Ashton or Balanchine), the dancers are as good as they understand it, and as good as they can perform that understanding. It seems as if the company’s understanding of the sometimes chafing Bournonville tradition runs deep.

Today’s supreme Bournonville male stylist is Thomas Lund, who gets better each season. Certainly the most distinguished exponent of Bournonville since Riggins (American by accident of birth, Danish by acquisition of style), his reticent purity, flavored with a flash of drama, recalls older dancers such as Poul Gnatt and even Beck’s last celebrated pupil, Borge Ralov, a link back to Bournonville himself. The other senior male dancer set firmly in the old style is Mads Blangstrup, a splendid performer more flamboyantly Romantic than Lund yet less effortlessly elegant. The company has an abundance of good men, including the New Zealander Andrew Bowman, Kristoffer Sakurai (promoted to principal during the festival), soloists Morten Eggert, Nicolai Hansen, and Tim Matiakis, and corps member Dawid Kupinski.

The women as always are beautiful, bathed in Baltic sunshine and often with a fairytale touch of Hans Christian Andersen. But for some reason (training, culture, something deeper or darker?) they have never seemed quite as interesting as the men. The latest aspirant for glory is Gudrun Bojesen, a thistledown Sylphide as buoyant as Kirsten Simone but without the ironic sense of pending tragedy that made Margrethe Schanne, performing 50 years ago, so far still matchless.

Talking of La Sylphide, I must admit I find Hübbe’s “youthful” casting of Lis Jeppeson, Jette Buchwald, and Mette Bodtcher, as Madge the Witch, odd and inappropriate, especially when one recalls the great and fiercely melodramatic Madges of the past, from Gerda Karstens to Erik Bruhn. That apart, I very much enjoyed La Sylphide, although I preferred Silja Schandorff as a partner for Blangstrup rather than the blandly competent Caroline Cavallo.

There were so many highlights in this festival to remember and treasure. I was delighted to encounter for the first time the complete version of Le Conservatoire, Or A Marriage Proposal by Advertisement, a ballet I had known only from its world-famous Dancing School scene. The complete ballet is a charmer, and it was a special pleasure to be present on the occasion of the 40th stage anniversary of the mime/character artist Poul-Erik Hesselkilde, playing the role of Monsieur DuFour.

Both A Folk Tale and The King’s Volunteers on Amager came up well. In the former, Bojesen was exquisite as the heroine Hilda, Tina Højland brilliantly shrill as the troll-princess Birthe, Kenneth Greve (although no Bruhn or Henning Kronstam) handsomely noble as Ove, and Lis Jeppeson (looking like Dopey in Disney’s Snow White) all scatty enchantment as the kind-hearted Troll, Viderik. In King’s Volunteers, I admired the bluff good humor of Peter Bo Bendixen as the fickle hero, Edouard, the delicacy of Silja Schandorff as his wife, and Sakurai, Hansen, and Kupinski as Volunteers. Eggert, alternating with Hansen as Gurn (both admirable) in La Sylphide, took his chance to shine alongside the American Amy Watson in Abdallah, the reproduction of an 1855 Bournonville now staged by Sorella Englund, Ryberg, and the project’s original initiator, Bruce Marks. All the steps are Bournonville, but somehow it lacks authenticity.

From the opening to the delicious closing gala, this third Bournonville fiesta was a riotous success. We are promised another in 13 years. Why wait so long?

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