writers on dancing


Letter from Copenhagen
The Third Bournonville Festival

What now Bournonville?

by Eva Kistrup
copyright ©2005 by Eva Kistrup

The third Bournonville Festival at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen June 2005 was a surprise hit and a confidence booster for the Royal Danish Ballet. Following a turbulent decade of bad choices of ballet masters and repertoire, the company rejuvenated itself and is today within reach of the goal of being a top five company and the world's leading storytelling ballet company.

But although the festival showed the company in good shape, there is still reason to question the artistic choices. The new productions ordered for the festival are frankly not up to scratch, casting is sometime questionable, and the bulk of the success must be credited to the core values of the Bournonville works. He simply made damn good ballets.

August Bournonville was born in 1805, the son of the Ballet Master of the Royal Danish Ballet, and educated in Paris. He became the dominant figure of 19th century ballet in Copenhagen and the creator of a large number of ballets that miraculously have survived, whereas most of the Romantic ballets of the Paris opera have been totally forgotten. Bournonville was here, there and everywhere in Europe. He created his own version of “La Sylphide,” saw the general rehearsal of “Giselle,” knew Richard Wagner very well and directed his operas. He left a heritage of ballets and a dancing style that has ever since been the background of The Royal Danish Ballet. The 10 ballets still in repertoire shows the wide range of Bournonville as a storyteller and a choreographer, but as we must remember, the side of Bournonville’s work most admired in his own time— the national historic ballets—have not surveyed and we are left in a position similar to that of knowing Shakespeare only by his comedies and not his tragedies.

Tradition in question

There is no question that the RDB should dance Bournonville, but there has been, and continues to be, discussion on how to present the master. Following the successful 1979 festival, Danish critics pressed for new interpretations and the traditionalists, Henning Kronstam and Kirsten Ralov were called "custods" (caretakers). Unfortunately the risk of being called "custods" is so scary for the directors of two of the new productions—Anne Marie Vessel's "The King Volunteers" and Lloyd Riggins, "Kermesse in Bruges"—that their productions come very close to destroying Bournonville's own carefully constructed plots, rhythm and mis en scene. It is not that Vessel and Riggins have that much to add, but they are hellbent on doing something new, and instead end up by almost throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Lloyd Riggins is clearly influenced by his new mentor, John Neumeier, whom he now serves as a premier dancer, and his take on "Kermesse" is truly “Neumeiereque”. Unfortunately by sacrificing the style and comedy of "Kermessem in Brugge" in search of deaper meaning and personal relevance, the ballet looses what it does best: being a light comedy in a glorious picturesque setting. The "Kermesse in Brugge" was the signature success for the first Bournonville Festival in 1979, in a elegant and witty production by Hans Brenaa, with Ib Andersen, Mette-Ida Kirk, Niels Kehlet and Kirsten Simone leading a perfect cast. But with time and cast changes (and the death of Brenaa in 1988) it was difficult for the company to maintain the high level and "Kermesse" lost its sparkle. Dinna Bjørn tried to remake the ballet, keeping the décor for the Bournonville Week in 2000, and tried to bring out a darker and deeper content in the work. Riggins and his scenographer Rikke Juellund have chosen pale colors and dull fabrics, which makes it difficult for the main characters to register, especially in contrast to the noisy red band of jesters Riggins has turned the slovanka dancers into. All is not bad, there are fine and tender moments for the lead couple, danced by newcomers Kristoffer Sakurai and Susanne Grinder, but unfortunately Riggins wants to present a personal statement—Riggins' Bournonville rather than Bournonville's Bournonville—and comes up short. He cannot deliver even Neumeier's Bournonville. The sad thing is that the artistic management has not been able to advise him better and has accepted what must have been clear very early on to be a misguided attitude to directing Bournonville.

Much of the same attitude is present at Anne Marie Vessel's version of "Kings Volunteers on Amager". But unlike an outsider like Riggins, Vessel is touted as the most important in-house Bournonville expert. She is the mastermind behind the newly published dvd on the Bournonville Schools and an eager spokesperson for Bournonville. Yet she expressed a lack of belief in the ballets she has been asked to produce at the introduction matinee before the premiere earlier this year.

The lack of confidence in the material has prompted the scenographer into creating scenery and costumes that oversimplifies the style and character of the ballet.

In order to make "The King's Volunteers on Amager" "more relevant," Anne Marie Vessel has added a dream sequence, done in Cranko's style, to show the audience that Eduard is a Don Juan. But there is not one scene in the original ballet that could lead you to think otherwise. The new section adds nothing save confusion and a change in style, and with a very fine cast, led by Silja Schandorff as Eduard's wife Louise, who teaches him a lesson, and Peter Bo Bendixen as the philandering Eduard, no interpolation is needed at all. The material is strong as was the acting and very fine dancing from Kristoffer Sakurai, Susanne Grinder and foremost Diana Cuni in one of Bournonville's best pas the trois.

The believer

I cannot help comparing Vessel and Riggins approaches to that of Nicolaj Hübbe, who is in charge of "La Sylphide." His version is, save for few details, the Brenaa and Kronstam version of the late 1970s. His coup is the work he has done with the dancers, helping each one to find a personal interpretation of his or her role and, of equal importance, he has rejuvenated the dancing.

Bournonville's "La Sylphide", the copy that survived the original French Romantic ballet about the young man who leaves his mortal fiancée to dance with his dreams in the forest, is to the Danish ballet scene what "Hamlet" is to Royal Shakespeare Company. The leading roles can be interpreted in hundred different ways. Each James and Sylph will find their own interpretation. We got the chance to see two casts, but unfortunately not the reigning Sylph Silja Schandorff, who, though cast against type, is a magnificent dramatic Sylph.

First cast Gudrun Bojesen plays the Sylph as sweet girl. Thomas Lund's is a timid and burdened James, It is the dancing rather than the acting that is the strength of this couple. Bojesen and Lund are natural Bournonville dancers and so experienced in the style that they can maximise the impact of any phase and each movement. In an open stage rehearsal prior to the premiere last year we saw Hübbe teach Bojesen and Lund how to use light and shadow in their dancing as well as how to syncopate their movement in the first act walk downstage to gain a more dramatic feel. Lund's strengths in jump sequences were especially fine during the festival and everything was landed precisely. The alternate James, Mads Blangstrup, used his gifts for big, passionate, dramatic acting and was also spot on in his dancing, strong, elegant and high-flying. It is the details and the total absorption of the character that marks his as a truly great James. Caroline Cavallo as the Sylph is a strong dancer with a very soft phrasing but dramatically she is no match for Blangstrup.

As the witch Madge Lis Jeppesen is still testing out interpretations, but although she lacks the towering presence that Madge must present in her vital scene everything is done with total conviction and belief in the value of Bournonville's work. The production boasts two good Gurns in Morten Eggert and Nicolaj Hansen. Both are fine dancers who cannot seem to get into the really meaty parts.

Unsinkable Napoli

Bournonville's most well known ballet and perhaps his finest work, "Napoli." proved itself in excellent form. The story about a poor fisherman Gennaro and his fight both in the real and surreal world to win his beloved Teresina, concluding with the exploding dancemania III act, never fails to deliver. It survives restaging after restaging; the present one has no less than five directors name to it. It also survives a Gennoro cast distinctly against type. Thomas Lund is currently our finest Bournonville dancer and he is working for the Bournonville cause wherever he can. It is only fair that this festival should be his festival. When he first did Gennaro several years ago, I realised that I have never seen a dancer understanding the part better, but he lacks the masculine sex appeal that is vital for Gennaro and he disappears in certain scenes and is overshadowed in the pas de six, this time danced by tall dancers. Tina Højlund, who luckily had a full serving of Bournonville roles during the week, was a fine and fiersty Teresina. Højlund's strength is that she is totally different from any other dancer and always presents her own interpretation of a role, and she dances Bournonville remarkably well. The major flaw in the performance is that the six male mime parts was not cast very well and a few of them were disastrously miscast. Save Flemming Ryberg as Peppo, none of the men managed to fill the character and most of them were cast against type—Poul Erik Hesselkilde as the monk, for example, simply lacks a pious face.

Regarding the third act it was more polished than in 1979, but the polished look is paid for by lack off nuances and playfulness and virtuoso moments. If you look at the 1979 televised production the three "Abdallah girls" were totally uncordinated but dancing big and three-dimensionally. Today they are in perfect sync, but boring. The reason may well be as stated by Vivi Flindt in Anne Middelboe Christensen's book on dancing Bournonville that someone haschanged the step sequence to make it easier for the girls to be in sync. She rightfully questions the decision. Siimilarly, when you compare the first male variation danced in 1979 by Ib Andersen and on closing night by Thomas Lund, in order to save the finish, the tempo has been reduced today, thereby diminishing the impact of the chorography and the burst of energy it represents. It demonstrates a wrongly conceived strategy that to make Bournonville more safe and polished, it is ok to downgrade the difficult bits. There are many more tambourines on stage today, but I suppose most of us would prefer the energy and joy to come from the dancing rather the props.

Tale or farce

Frank Andersen and Anne Marie Vessel's "A Folk Tale" remained the most problematic of the current productions, which is a problem as they are the self- proclaimed in-house experts. The Andersen/Vessel production which originated in 1991 had scenography by Her Majesty Queen Margrethe which was a major PR coup, but certainly not a good choice as far as what the ballet need. In fairness to Her Majesty, it must be mentioned that some of professional scenographers presented this week was not any better. This production is a pump-up-the-volume take on Bournonville that cannot be saved even by good individual 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.

But although the volume is pumped up, the impact is lessened, because the balance is obscured. The principals’ key moments are marred by semi-soloists and corps stealing the limelight. The corps is instructed to go overboard in merriment and even the brilliant Pas de Septs fails by an attempt to make it longer. In the second act, Her Majesty has designed the trolls not as a corps but as an assembly of highly individual creatures of all kinds. It might work in Sreck but it kills the real drama of" A Folk Tale."

The minor works

Save the 4 – 6 established classics, the rest of the Bournonville repertoire is unfortunately not played outside the festivals. It is a pity because each of them have roles and challenges that would help the dancers, and especially character dancers, gain experience and some of them are very good ballets. Ballet Masters in Copenhagen are cautious not to do too much Bournonville as it said to bore the dancers. My take is that if the repertoire outside Bournonville is first rate, no one should have a problem with dancing Bournonville regulary, and if dancers are bored by Bournonville maybe they should not chose RDB as their company in the first place. "La Ventana" had not been danced since 1981 and neither "The Kings Volunteers" or "Far from Denmark" had been shown since the 1992 festival. The reconstructed "Abdallah" has had an equally long rest. This is not fair on the ballets, nor the dancers.

"Far From Denmark" is generally considered the weakest Bournonville ballet. It may lack choreographic highlights but it does show how well Bournonville can build a dramatic situation and create character dances. The story is about a Danish naval visit to Argentina, where the young liteunant Wilhelm is charmed by the exotic Rosita so that he almost forgets his fiancée back home, and Rosita likewise forgets her local suitor Alvar. Around this intrique the Danish sailors— some of the female dancers posing as young cadets—and the Argentines dance variations on folk dances. The role as Wilhelm tests the dancer’s skills as a dramatic dancer. He has to convey a love triangle with one lady missing. Mads Blangstrup is one of the bests Wilhelms I have seen. He has a talent for dualistic acting and his acting and dancing are totally intergrated. He is well matched by Marie Pierre Greve as the spoiled Rosita, who makes it very clear that she too gets her heart broken, before she settles for her local suitor, Alvar—well acted by Jean Lucien Massot.

The casting principle during the week has been: be very democratic. All principal dancers, save Kenneth Greve, had a meaty role and most of the soloists and featured corps dancer get a fair shot at showing their potential. Unfortunately this principle short-changes a few of the ballets, which do not gets its best cast. The main sufferer is "La Conservatorie" (now a reconstructed version of the original two-act ballet), where only Gitte Lindstrøm remains from the first cast and Yao Wei and Jean Lucien Massot substituted for Thomas Lund and Gudrun Bojesen. Massot, Especially, was in deep water and the piece suffered for it. The dancing school from "La Conservatoire" is a key piece in understanding Bounonville and a true marvel that should be performed as regularly as NYCB dances "Serenade." The role of Alexis the ballet master should be the epitome of Bournonville style and elegance, but Massot lacks both and although he is effective in the reconstructed second act pantomime, the magic is gone.

Another reconstructed ballet, "Abdallah," as a sort of Persian "Napoli," fared better but lacked Gudrun Bojesen as the heroine, Irma. Amy Watson, another import, acts well but is very unprecise as a dancer. Morten Eggert shows in the title role his skills as demi-character dancer and actor. But "Abdallah" is simply performed too seldom to gain a persona of it own. It remains therefore the step child in the family.

Finally Frank Andersen and Eva Kloborg has tried to expand "La Ventana" from a divertissement into a real ballet without adding any real substance. Expanding by reusing the best steps simply kills the variations. "La Ventana" was performed twice, with different casts, with Gitte Lindstøm, Diana Cuni and Gudrun Bojesen as the stand out performances.

Looking back

During the festival it was possible to see the film "Dancing Bournonville," following the preparations of the 1979 festival, at The National Museum. Several of the reviewers from abroad could not help remarking about the difference between then and now and the high quality of the dancing in 1979. The 1979 festival happened at a very strong period for the company, one year after Henning Kronstam's appointment as Ballet Master, when the focus turned more classical and when a strong generation consisting of dancers like Arne Villumsen, Ib Andersen, Mette-Ida Kirk, Lis Jeppesen, Annemarie Dybdahl, Linda Hindberg etc really made their mark, and seniors like Mette Hønningen, Flemming Ryberg and Niels Kehlet were still dancing at full force. But as well as strong dancers and artistic direction, the 1979 line up included world class mimes. Compared with 1979, there is room for improvement today in all categories.

Firstly and most importantly the team behind the first Bournonville Festival—Kirsten Ralov, Hans Brenaa and Henning Kronstam—were an unbeaten combination. Ralov was an expert on the correct style, Brenaa could make the performance live, and Henning Kronstam could interpret all elements in each role and reach the emotional depths in the material. It is especially the skills of Brenaa and Kronstam that are the missing ingredients in the current line-up. In her book on dancing Bournonville, Anne Middelboe Christensen demonstrates how carefully Kronstam, Ralov and Brenaa taught the dancers the small details: how a ten year old should interpret her role as a small scots girl differently from when she was nine; how the chamber maid in "A Folk Tale" should be slightly more refined than the kitchen maid. It is details like that that makes the tradition live. It is significant that very few dancers from the 1979 generation are part of today's team of directors and teachers, even though they have shown great abilities. There are few dancers in the company that have worked with Brenaa, and there will soon be very few who had experienced Kronstam and Ralov. It may prove a fatal decision to not support the linage. Nicolaj Hübbe shows himself as the one capable of assuring that the lineage is not broken and that theatricality and emotional depth still can be reached.

It is not my opinion that Bournonville cannot be subject to changes and experiments . On the contrary. Hans Brenaa experimented and changed a lot during his production. But his changes were founded in a deep respect for Bournonville as a choreographer and not as a marketing tool. When the changes are brought about because Bournonville is not considered interesting enough, or by trying to make the steps easier, the productions fails.

The older generations of dancers and directors did not analyze Bournonville. They learned from their predessors, added character touches, and believed in the material. This is how the tradition was kept alive. Today's Bournonville experts use an almost academic approach and are trying to define the correct version of each step. An worthwhile project, but it must never be forgotten that Bournonville is a dramatic choreographer and by easing out all the bumps you could end up with a uniform boring style.


Regarding dancers the 2005 festival strongly favored homegrown talents Thomas Lund and Mads Blangstrup on the male wing and Gudrun Bojesen, Tina Højlund and Diana Cuni among the girls. But save for Blangstrup and Bojesen, the rest are underutilised in the rest of the repertoire, which favousr mainstream types like Kenneth Greve, Blangstrup, Andrew Bowman, Marie Pierre Greve, Gitte Lindström and Silja Schandorff, all of whom save Blangstrup had little stage time during the festival. Today almost 30% of the dancers are foreign and even though the company seems to have learned how to assimilate the foreigners into the company, their presence is changing the profile of the company. Gone is the lifelong commitment between company and dancer and there is some danger that RDB will be more like a traditional European Company. The foreign wing is led by Andrew Bowman, New Zealand; Caroline Cavallo, Atlanta; and Marie Pierre Greve and Jean Lucien Massot, France. They are strong mainstream types who can dance most things, but save for Greve, limited in the all important dramatic skills.

Two newer imports are clearly marked as Bounonville material—Dawid Kupinski from Poland and Tim Matiakis, educated in Sweden and later from Royal Ballet. Kupinsky has fine lines and is able to build a character. Matiakis is a fine spinner and has the build and face of a character dancer. He can nail a difficult solo in "Etudes," but he still has majors flaws in his Bournonville technique, primarily in hsi arm movements, which are stiff and unorganic. However this does not prevent him from getting several Bournonville roles, which leads me to the conclusion that the directors do not care that deeply about dancing Bournonville in the correct style.

During the week, Kristoffer Sakurai was made principal dancer at the end of a very strong season. Sakurai is very elegant and has a wonderful third dimension in his dancing. He is very musical and although not a grade A virtuoso he has developed to a level where he can handle most challenges. He has shown promise as a timid Gennaro and it may be expected that other major dramatic parts could follow. In addition Susanne Grinder, Izabela Sokolowska and Yao Wei were appointed Soloists, a clear indication of whom the management believes in.

There are some danger that instead of being in the forefront of the company the Bournonville dancers will be a specialty act, brought on at state functions and festivals. It is not that dancers like Højund, Cuni and Lund cannot deliver the mainstream repertoire. To the contrary, they are very good interpreters of Balanchine and others, but they dance their non-Bournonville parts with the strengths and convictions learned in Bournonville, and that is not favoured by the traditional stagers of the mainstream repertoire.

Another area needing urgent attention is the mime. As has already been pointed out several times during the festival, Bournonville's ballets are a combination of dance and mime, and if standards in the mime are slipping, that will have serious consequences for the ongoing tradition. The Festival performance of "Napoli," where at least six male character dancers are needed, showed that talent is growing sparser. The company has not been able to hold on to the greatest mime dancers like Sorella Englund, and have likewise failed to produce outstanding new talent and the tradition is in some danger.

That it may not come to that was shown at the Court Theatre demonstration, where Morten Eggert and Mads Blangstrup showed how good they are in the miming department and how well they integrate mime, body acting and dance. But it is vital to develop the character dancers and reach the level that is presently only held by Ryberg and Jette Buchwald. As the Royal Danish Ballet is dancing very well, more focus on the mime is vital if the company is to regain its position as a major international troupe and the world’s leading story telling company.

Success but not much confidence

During Frank Andersens first tenure in the mid-80s, the late great ballet critic Henrik Lundgreen wrote: “Frank Andersen is not the cause behind the RDBs troubles, but neither is he the solution”, but the surprise decision to rename him to the post, following four shortlived wrong choices, has proven a relative success. This time around, Frank Andersen has managed to create calmness, restore discipline, is casting more considerately, and has taken but a few chances regarding repertoire. In short, he has relied on well-known dancers, choreographers and productions. The strategy of backing sure winners also probably led to the decision of launching the festival, remembering the boost of the 1979 festival. So once again Bournonville is brought to the rescue and once again he delivers big time.

All in all, the festival week was a great success and showed that both Bournonville and The Royal Danish Ballet are very much alive. It will give the company a needed confidence boost and hopefully stir more interest abroad and, most importantly, at home, where it is most needed. Danish society needs to be reminded that we have one of the world's leading companies with a world class tradition and that it is worthwhile to go and see it—and indeed to sponsor it. The Theatre is faced with budget cuts (because the new opera house has been more costly than was projected). Ticket sales for the ballet have been dwindling. The school has had problems attracting children and producing dancers in the required numbers and quality, hence the large intake of foreign dancers into the company.

The ballet has been playing second fiddle to the opera for a long period. Hopefully the success of the festival will attract a bigger audience, but there will be precious little Bournonville to see next season. The year 2018 is mentioned for the next festival, but Bournonville will not survive being put in the attic until then. It is important that a critical mass of his ballets is performed regularly and some new productions should be scheduled for the next seasons, "A Folk Tale" being the most pressing. If the RDB wants to be the world's leading storytelling ballet company, it can only achieve its goal by keeping Bournonville up front and let Bournonville himself do most of the directing.

First:  August Bournonville, a drawing at the time of his death, courtesy
Second: Alva Nadal and Jean-Lucien Massot in the new "dream sequence" from "The King's Volunteers on Amager." Photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne
Third: Flemming Ryberg and Kenn Hauge in "Napoli."  Photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne
Fourth:  Jean-Lucien Massot and Gitte Lindstrøm in "La Ventana."  Photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne
Fifth:  Mads Blankstrup and Caroline Cavallo in "La Sylphide."  Photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne

Volume 3, No. 21
August 29, 2005

copyright ©2005 Eva Kistrup



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