The Andersen/Vessel staging of "A Folk Tale" is the most problematic in the current Bournonville repertoire. "A Folk Tale" is a masterpiece with a grade A score. As many Bournonville ballets mirror contemporary novels and plays, so "A Folk Tale" is the mirror of the Danish national play, "Elverhøj," and the storyline, about elves and children switched at birth, set in a 16th century setting, is very close to that of the play. The first scene is also very close to the hunting scene in "The Sleeping Beauty," created nearly 40 years later. Maybe the link was made through a Swedish dancer and pupil of Bournonville, Christian Johansson, who ended up in Russia.
The Andersen/Vessel production was built around the PR stunt of having Her Majesty Queen Margrethe designing the sets and costumes. The piece puts so many demands on the decorations that is unlikely that even a gifted amateur like the Queen can rise to the occasion. But the major problems are not the décor. (And to be fair to Her Majesty, this week has shown work by professional scenographers that's not any better.) So for the last 14 years we have had to live with a substandard production of the most Danish Bournonville ballet.
Even though tonight's performance was graced by fine performances by Kenneth Greve as the haunted nobleman, Junker Ove; Tina Højlund as his temperamental fiancée Birthe, who is really a troll; Gudrun Bojesen as the heroine Hilda, the human child raised among trolls; and Peter Bo Bendixen and Lis Jeppesen as the troll brothers, Diderik and Viderik, it is difficult to overlook the problems in the staging, which is done with a very large brush. When Frank Andersen and Anne Marie Vessel talk about Bournonville today, they come across as knowing and considerate Bournonville experts. They may indeed have deepened their skills and knowledge in the last 14 year. But the production still resembles their original and cannot not really be saved even by good individual performances
Where Andersen and Vessel's staging goes wrong is firstly by not really understanding the plot. "A Folk Tale" has never been dramatically coherent. The relationship between the trolls and the elf maidens whom Muri summons to attack Junker Ove has always been a bit unclear, and this production has managed to muddle things even further. For instance the two trolls doing the baby switch should clearly be a younger Diderik and Viderik, not the present little helpers.
Neither does the production give sufficient direction and room for the principals, who seem to have been left to their own interpretations. Birthe is often played as slapstick farce. Tonight, Tina Højlund used a deeper understanding of the dual minded Birthe without losing the comedy, but this is a rare interpretation. Often it looks like the principals are simply forgotten and some of their solos and defining moments are marred by demi-soloists and corps members breaking rank and grabbing the attention, like the fat troll joining Hilda’s solo in the betrothal scene.
Andersen and Vessel simply do not understand the functions of the corps. "A Folk Tale" includes some of the best Bournonville folk dances, but this is not enough for the stagers. They are hell bent on expanding the merrymaking by letting the corps dominate and run all over the scene. One minor character—Else, the Cookery maid (actually Vessel’s own role as a dancer)—has been expanded beyond any logic. Dressed in an obnoxious red and black costume she dominates every scene she is in with pranks, including hijacking the attention during Hilda’s solo. The choice to make the trolls in the second act represent every aspect of supernatural beings mars the scene and you cannot focus on where you should focus.
If something is good, expanding it can kill it. The dancing highlight of "A Folk Tale" has always been the glorious pas de sept. Andersen/Vessel has expanded the piece into oblivion and marred the starring parts by sharing the solos. It used to include two male star turns and a wonderful part for the leading female soloist, which is now split between two dancers. Spreading the dancing is not keeping up the quality. Although very well performed by Thomas Lund, Andrew Bowman and Nicolai Hansen with Diana Cuni, Amy Watson, Lesley Culver and Femke M. Slot, it proves that more can be less. The focus is gone.
Instead of being a poetic tale "A Folk Tale" is now an overpopulated farce without any relationship to Bournonville's ballet. I do not know what the future holds for "A Folk Tale". What is needed is a new production that can recreate all the nuances and tender moments that were a key part in the success of "A Folk Tale" at the first Bournonville festival. It will demand a director who is strong on getting the poetry and deeper meaning to the surface. Nicolaj Hübbe has been suggested as the ideal choice. Please let us not wait another 13 years for a new production. It may then be too late.
by Martin Mydtskov Rönne:
3, No. 21