writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Bournonville's Next Steps

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2004 by Alexandra  Tomalonis

In June of 2005, the Royal Danish Ballet will celebrate Bournonville’s 200th birthday with a Bournonville Festival, its third, at which it will present the surviving ballets. It will be a festive time, but also a sober one. This may be the last chance to make the case for Bournonville. There are no credible opportunities for another Festival for years to come. Will the Danish audience, and the Danish dancers, want to keep him around for another century?

Before the 1979 Festival, I've been told, the only ballets that were really respected were La Sylphide and the third act of Napoli. The rest were considered by many both in and outside the company to be past their shelf life. To many, Bournonville had become a bore and a burden. Then came Hans Brenaa’s rollicking production of Kermesse in Bruges which became the company's showpiece for a decade, and Kirsten Ralov’s Folk Tale with its very contemporary, non-storybook trolls. Bournonville was suddenly one hot choreographer. The 100th anniversary of his death turned out to be a rebirth.

In 1988 Hans Brenaa died. At the 1992 Festival, his and Kirsten Ralov’s productions had been replaced by new ones that weren’t their equal, save for three by Henning Kronstam that were (La Sylphide, Napoli’s first and third acts, and the dancing school act from Konservatoriet). It seemed that the Brenaa line would continue, but that did not happen. Kronstam died in 1995, Ralov in 1999.

The 1992 Festival was certainly a success, and there was a new generation of young stars, and quite a few rising soloists to admire.  But there were concerned voices, too, worries about stylistic erosions, internationalization, and the cartoonishness of some of the productions. In addition, at home there's long been a divide over whether the traditional productions should be kept in repertory or replaced by more experimental versions. One has the sense that, although no one would actually suggest throwing him out, there are some who wouldn't mind if Bournonville wandered away and got lost.

Now there is a third festival on the horizon. What will happen this time? What will be its legacy?

Four years ago, in January of 2000, there was a mini-Festival called Bournonville Week that was not Bournonville’s finest hour. There were suggestions in the Danish press that the current generation of stagers had had their chance, and that it was time for a new crew. After an unfortunate production of Kermesse in Bruges (to a revised, modern score), one Danish wag suggested that what was really needed was a Hans Brenaa festival. Not a bad idea.

Watching Napoli and La Sylphide this past week showed that the company now has a chance, and a choice. The difference between the two productions was stunning. After La Sylphide, the comments I heard at intermission were along the lines of “It looks like a different company!” And it did.

The current producers undoubtedly love Bournonville and are doing their best, but not everyone can be a great stager. Couldn’t old quarrels and rivalries be put aside and the dancers who can stage Bournonville or assist in the stagings, coach dancers, and advise on casting be brought in to help? (The first act of Napoli could be cleaned and coached and made fresh again with a few rehearsals, I think, from someone who knows how to direct the audience's eye and can "get it out of the dancers," as dancers there often say.)

In interviews with dancers, former dancers, and long-time company watchers over the past 10 years, several names continually arise as those whose talents and memories might save the ballets: Nikolaj Hübbe, Ib Andersen, Arlette Weinreich, Lis Jeppesen, Arne Villumsen, Niels Kehlet, and Thomas Lund. There may well be others, too, who could correct problems in style and musicality, sort out misreadings of the drama, and who, most important of all perhaps, could coach and inspire the dancers. A committee of 10 or 15 can't stage a ballet, of course, but each artist could contribute his or her talents to the good of the whole.  Idealistic, perhaps, but I've just seen a La Sylphide that's been exhumed alive from the grave, and so today, anything seems possible.

Hübbe has proven himself with La Sylphide. Will he be allowed to stage other productions? Ib Andersen, a choreographer who’s now also a successful company director (Ballet Arizona), worked with Brenaa on Kermesse and Far From Denmark and actually likes the ballets. His name is mentioned as the Danish choreographer most likely to be able to make something of the second act of Napoli. Arlette Weinreich has a phenomenal memory and a clear eye; she also understands Brenaa’s rules of casting, and casting has been one of the main problems over the past decade. (Put the right person in the right role, and half your work is done for you.)

As for coaches and teachers, Lis Jeppesen and Arne Villumsen danced many important roles in the repertory and Bournonville's musicality is in their blood and bones. I thought of both of them while watching Napoli. Could they not coach the dancers in their roles?

Niels Kehlet was the great Gennaro of his generation and a fine teacher of men. He’s staged Bournonville at Paris Opera and La Scala, though not at home. The young Thomas Lund is already a good teacher. He rehearsed the ballabile in the current production of Napoli, and he made it sing.

About 100 years ago, Hans Beck saved the Bournonville repertory, and that’s how he is remembered. He was the great dancer of his day, a beloved artist, and a fine teacher. But he gets into the history books as the man who saved Bournonville. Frank Andersen has the same responsibility now, and the same opportunity.

In 1978, Henning Kronstam revived the entire extant Bournonville repertory by bringing in the best people available and inspiring people to work together as a team, and he did it in one full season and three months of a second. Some of those ballets had been out of repertory for several years and were new to the dancers. On top of that, Kronstam had to "get the dancers dancing again" after several years of performing mainly in dance dramas, as he said in 1978 in one of his very rare interviews.  Andersen faces similar challenges today. Whether Bournonville blasts into the 21st century as the creator of a living, vital repertory, or his ballets are served up as fallen souffles doused with whipped cream and heavy syrup is on the line. La Sylphide or Napoli? Which will it be?

Alexandra Tomalonis is the editor of DanceView, and the author of Henning Kronstam, Portrait of a Danish Dancer.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 3
January 21, 2004

© 2004 Tomalonis




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last updated on January 19, 2004