New look for Danish ballet classics

"The Royal Danish Ballet is synonymous with August Bournonville and, it could be argued, vice versa," wrote Frank Andersen, the Royal Danish Ballet's former artistic director. Two of the choreographer Bournonville's works and a more recent Danish ballet classic have now been re-staged – with different approaches to keeping the masterworks alive

August Bournonville’s legacy lives on at the Royal Danish Ballet, whose dancers continue to be trained using the ballet master’s techniques from the mid-19th century. Bournonville created around 50 pieces specifically for the ballet, of which around a dozen remain in the repertory today and have been danced here in an unbroken tradition since they were first choreographed.

These works for the stage all hold the distinctive character of Bournonville’s technique and style: his way of choreographing gives many quick and small steps for the dancers and relies on their acting skills. This style is different from that of the classical Russian ballets such as Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, which are best known for their acrobatic lifts, and gave rise to the twentieth century’s neo-classical ballet tradition that is most prominently featured at the New York City Ballet today.

The primarily French romantic ballets from the nineteenth century – of which Giselle and Coppélia are still widely shown at opera houses all over the world – also look quite different from the Danish ballets. Even if Bournonville choreographed in the same century, sometimes using similar otherworldly personnel in his ballets (such as sylphs, elves, sea demons) and the same long white tutus, the lively and expressive Danish ballet style remains distinctive. This makes Denmark one of only a handful of countries with their own, unique national ballet style and tradition.

No other choreographer defined the Royal Danish Ballet like Bournonville has, but there was one who came to considerable influence in the twentieth century: Harald Lander, in particular his work Etudes from 1948. “For a Danish ballet dancer,” wrote Nikolaj Hübbe about the piece some years ago, “Lander’s Etudes is almost like the national anthem”. Etudes was the piece that brought Lander international recognition and is today danced by some leading international companies. Thomas Lund, who headed staging for the production’s current Copenhagen version, has in the past years also staged Etudes in Boston, Vienna and Paris. The Copenhagen dancers perform this piece with impressive aplomb and principal dancer J’aime Crandall is fabulously cast as the leading ballerina. While Hübbe tries to add to or bring out something new in the Bournonville ballets, Lund and his team are entirely devoted to staging the abstract Etudes in the most authentic way possible.

Review 1: ‘La Sylphide’
Two of Bournonville’s most famous ballets recently premiered at the Royal Danish Ballet in new interpretations: La Sylphide and A Folk Tale. Both of these were re-staged by teams headed by the company’s current artistic director, Nikolaj Hübbe.

In this latest version, La Sylphide gets completely new costumes and scenography. Designer Bente Lykke Møller strips down the Scottish tale and makes La Sylphide appear in a guise that does justice to contemporary Scandinavian minimalism, rather than using the original stuffy tartan appearance. While this creates a jolly good look, the visual aesthetics clash with the rest of the ballet, which keeps the spirit of how it has been performed for decades.

The production’s potentially interesting new perspective on La Sylphide – that its male lead James obsesses about the other-worldly and unobtainable Sylphide due to his supressed homosexuality – is only suggested in the final seconds of the piece in a kiss between James and the witch Madge (played by Hübbe himself) that leaves the audience somewhat puzzled.

La Sylphide is one of the ballets that has been danced regularly at the Royal Danish Ballet since Bournonville choreographed it in 1836 and there is arguably a lot that isn’t particularly ‘up to date’ about it. Overall, this clash makes the contemporary look come across like a decorative, rather than actually interpretative feature of the new production.

The dancing, however, is divine and the supporting roles deserve a particular mention. Kizzy Matiakis does great justice to the ethereal fairy’s heavier, more folkloristic counterpart. In the role of Effy, the woman who James is supposed to marry when he instead falls in love with the Sylphide, her phenomenal stage presence makes the first act seem like it’s about her wedding tragedy, rather than the two main characters’ encounter. Alexander Stæger excels with charisma and splendid technique as Effy’s admirer Gurn.

Review 2: ‘A Folk Tale’
While La Sylphide appears in tones on a scale from charcoal to mousy grey, the new production of A Folk Tale features primarily pastel colours and black. It premiered on the big Opera stage in 2011 and re-appeared on the Old Stage at Kongens Nytorv in December 2014. The fairytale stage design, with structures inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s paper cuttings, works well on this smaller scale, and overall the design is creative. The dancing, again, is flawless and Gregory Dean’s dance out of bewitchment is particularly remarkable.

While this is perhaps all one should expect from a good ballet production, A Folk Tale’s antiquated moralistic undertones are hard to ignore: her unashamed materialism makes the noblewoman Birthe a clear misfit, just as much as her reckless eroticism; and all turns out well only when the lead couple can finally get married. There is undoubtedly a strong sense of Christianity in Bournonville’s ballets, but characterising the bad girl by means of her showing a lot of bare leg can strike a contemporary audience as somewhat preposterous. M


By Franziska Bork-Petersen

An academic working in Dance and Performance Studies, Franziska is employed by Stockholm University but lives in Copenhagen where she teaches dance theory at Statens Scenekunstskole.

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