A festival dedicated to 19th century choreographer August Bournonville packed a wallop.
The 2005 Bournonville Festival by the Royal Danish Ballet
By Debra Cash
Danes don’t cross their fingers for good luck. They hold their thumbs so that hope is held deep and privately inside their fists. Earlier this month, Frank Andersen, the director of the Royal Danish Ballet, staked his career on pulling off a festival that would honor the bicentennial of 19th century choreographer August Bournonville and prove that the artistry of the man who is the foundation stone of the Danish ballet could still sparkle brightly for 21st century audiences.
Luck was with Anderson and it packed a wallop.
Bournonville ballet is a style that joins irrepressible footwork, intricate and light as lace doilies, to an upper body that, as RDB balletmaster Lloyd Riggins explained, is “calm enough to drink a cup of tea.” For Bournonville, feet are the rhythm and arms are the melody. Bournonville’s ballets — created during Denmark’s Golden Age, between 1830 and 1877, a period which for the sake of orientation spans the period between the American presidencies of Andrew Jackson and Rutherford B. Hayes — were products of a Romanticism that strove for inner understanding amid a welter of potentially destabilizing emotions. They reflect bourgeois Biederemeier culture, a world of pianos in the parlor, masquerade balls, and leisurely drinks at outdoor cafes, complicated social engagements and harmless individual foibles. Generally, things end happily.
Still, the words written over the proscenium stage at the Old Theatre are “Ei Blot Til Lyst” (Not for Pleasure Alone). Bournonville took the challenge seriously. By filtering Danish sailors and trolls, kilts and kaffiyehs through his magpie collecting talent, the dances made moral claims for a na? 19th century multiculturalism. Some of the ballets reflect his travels (one, to Italy, taken when he had to scram after a lapse in protocol). Others were based on the excitement sparked by Spanish dancers Mariano Camprubi and Dolores Serral, who appeared in Copenhagen in 1840. Arabian Nights tableaux and Flemish paintings spurred sheer invention. Don’t ask where he got the nose-rubbing Eskimos and wild Red Indians in “Far from Denmark.”
While these “ethnic” variations make the second act of the “Nutcracker” look staid, each character in a Bournonville ballet is a person unto his or herself. At its best, each “native” culture is given a way to speak on stage that can, with effort, be understood, appreciated, and found beautiful in its newly harmonized balletic language.
With his masquerades and mistaken identities, cross-dressed cabin boys, listless maidens who become Spanish spitfires, and a human girl exchanged in the cradle for a tantrum-throwing troll, Bournonville celebrated self-invention and the realization of one’s true self. He was also arguing that true love WOULD grow out of the embrace of true identity. His dances celebrate a world that is bigger and more interesting than parochial Denmark. This expansiveness makes Bournonville’s art a tonic for jaded audiences confronted with today’s fragmented global environment.
The 2005 festival audience was multicultural, too, with spectators arriving from all corners of Europe and as far away as Israel and Japan. Veteran critics and historians who attended previous events in 1979 and 1992 discussed gaps in choices made in costuming, sets, and direction: Did the dancers in “The King’s Volunteers on Amager” have to be so post-modern that they walked through a door in a landscape full of cows?
I missed the opening weekend, but the festival was a glorious introduction to many of Bournonville’s ballets. “La Ventana,” “Far From Denmark,” “The King’s Volunteers on Amager,” the deliciously silly frame story around “Le Conservatoire,” and the trolls in “Folk Tale” were all new to me. These were in addition to the more familiar “La Sylphide” (recently performed by Boston Ballet, which was having its 783rd performance in the Royal Theatre), the pas de deux from “The Flower Festival in Genzano,” and the jockey dance from “From Siberia to Moscow,” performed by two women followed by an inadvertently hilarious but instructive 1902 film at the closing night festival gala.
Former Boston Ballet director Bruce Marks, the American who danced with the company and married into one of the Royal Danish Ballet’s most distinguished families, was on hand for “Abdallah,” the ballet he helped to restore in 1986 after nabbing the scenario in a Sotheby’s auction. As in a visit to a museum filled with nothing but Van Goghs, or Rodins, or Greek antiquities, juxtaposition brought details into focus and deepened echoed motifs. Variation among performers offered a clue to the Yeatsian riddle of how to distinguish the dancer from the dance.
The Royal Danish Ballet is a multigenerational, often dynastic organization. Children who train there and wave from the bridge in “Napoli” may find themselves graduating to “La Sylphide,” and then in older years dancing character roles or taking administrative positions. Two of the dancers were celebrating 40 years with the company; the age of retirement is 70. It’s an artistic ideal that creates a cohesive style but like the society of an insular village, it’s also a recipe for rivalries and resentments.
Andersen, who started his ballet training at the Royal Danish Ballet School when he was seven, was director of the company between 1985 and 1994. After a disastrous reign of five directors in eight years, he was brought back to run the company. His connection is a family one: his grandmother was a dresser with the company, his mother danced at Tivoli Gardens, his wife Eva Kloberg still performs character roles and his son is a RDB apprentice. Andersen’s time away from the company in Sweden reportedly honed his diplomatic and political skills. On his return in 2002, he told company members that 2005 was going to be Bournonville’s year. If they didn’t want to dance that repertory, they should make other plans. Some left; others stayed and muttered; others flourished.
Dancers like the angelic Gudrun Bojesen and the courtly, understated Thomas Lund, who grew up together in the school and then ended up sharing the stage as the leads in “La Sylphide,” have the Bournonville technique as their inheritance. Yet, some of the sweetest performances all came from dancers who grew up in China (Yao Wei), France (Marie-Pierre Grave), and the US (Caroline Cavallo). The temperaments and bodies of these dancers seem to be naturally suited to the Danish style. Still, immersion in a unified technique is something that American companies (other than New York City Ballet, anyway), with their randomly mixed repertories would do well to consider at least once in a dance company generation.
Andersen’s vision was rooted in a gamble that delving into the complete extant Bournonville repertory would do more than demonstrate a coherent national style. Mastery of these ballets would give a floundering company a sense of shared purpose. That it did. The most commonly heard comment, from visiting critics and local audiences alike, was that Bournonville had brought joy back to the Royal Danish Ballet — joy as evanescent as the sylphide’s wings. How often does joy last longer than a century?