The Bournonville Legacy (dancers from The Royal Danish Ballet)
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
July 9, 2019
La Sylphide (Act II); “A Bournonville Square” (the Pas de Trois from The Kings Volunteers on Amager, the Jockey Dance from From Siberia to Moscow, The Streetsinger from Napoli, the Pas de Deux from Kermesse in Bruges, and the Pas de Six and Tarantella from Napoli)
It sounded like a good idea. Gather select artists from The Royal Danish Ballet and send them on a tour to perform a specially created program of classic dances that exemplify the choreography of August Bournonville, who led the company for fifty years during the middle of the 19th Century, and who created over fifty ballets for them.
And it was a good idea. In January, 2015, under the rubric “Principals and Soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet,” a group of … principals and soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet presented an evening of Bournonville excerpts at New York’s Joyce Theater. It was a glorious performance, which I gushed over in a subsequent review.
Now, in a program presented by former RDB Principal (and now San Francisco Ballet Principal) Ulrik Birkkjaer, another group of RDB dancers has returned to the Joyce with a very similar program of Bournonville excerpts, titled “The Bournonville Legacy.” As displayed on opening night of its week-long run, however, the end result isn’t the dynamite presentation of four years ago. While not a bad evening at all (on the contrary, it was still great fun), it wasn’t quite the same – and the problem isn’t with the choreography.
That being said, these are the Danes (mostly) and the choreography is Bournonville, and that already places it several levels above the norm. More than any other choreographer – including Balanchine and Petipa – the Bournonville Style is instantly recognizable (jumps springing off the stage floor without any apparent preparation, a relatively rigid-looking upper body with arms rounded and held downward, and, most significantly, audience-facing jumps during which the dancer’s arms spread outward from his or her torso, as if welcoming the audience and concurrently spreading joy outward. This is not choreography that might bring the audience in by the nature of the subject, the music, or the creation of intimacy with what’s happening on stage; this is choreography that directly engages the audience through the nature of the movement alone. Regardless of the setting in which it’s presented, Bournonville choreography has more exuberance per square inch than that of any other choreographer, and the feeling is contagious. And although it differs from Balanchine, Bournonville style has much in common with Balanchine – particularly, speed. This (as well as the connection that Balanchine himself had with RDB) may be why so many Danes made the transition from RDB to New York City Ballet so seamlessly, and why the Danes appear to have a special relationship with New York dance lovers.
In this program, dubbed “The Bournonville Legacy,” nothing except the choreography itself is authentic. Rather, this presentation is a sampling of Bournonville, with all except Act II of La Sylphide presented within an artificial framework (given the title: “A Bournonville Square”) that creates the semblance of relationships between the dances that doesn’t really exist beyond having a common choreographer. And the program began with Act II of La Sylphide, restaged sans set and corps, which makes little thematic sense to one unfamiliar with the ballet. Only the second act was presented in the 2015 program as well, but I don’t recall the setting, or lack of it, having the same impact. Be that as it may, and even though the program was highly enjoyable, the entire presentation left a different, less riveting impression than had been the case in 2015.
Considered the first Romantic Ballet, La Sylphide at its core is a morality tale. Our hero, James, loses his heart to an irresistible and unattainable sprite who may be a figment of his imagination, and in the process loses everything, including his life. And it has a secondary theme: be nice to old ladies seeking shelter from the cold; they may be witches. As presented here, all that background is lost, and we just have this evil witch conspiring for no reason to kill a man who’s fallen in love with a sylph. We also have James looking back at the life he’s lost as his former fiancée Effie strolls in a post-nuptial processional with her husband, James’s conniving best friend, except nothing’s there. In this production, James is looking back at empty space.
But this program focuses on Bournonville’s choreography, so I suppose the setting in which Bournonville’s choreography was presented doesn’t matter – and I’m aware that many efforts, to my knowledge unsuccessful, have been made by RDB itself to present La Sylphide in a distilled, stripped down, Spartan setting (perhaps a misunderstanding of Balanchine distillations in general, and his Scotch Symphony in particular). Be that as it may, Act II as presented consists of six dancers: The Sylph (Ida Praetorius), James (Birkkjaer), The Witch (Sorella Englund), a First Sylph (Astrid Elbo), and Two Sylphs (Camilla Ruelykke Holst and Marina Minolu).
Englund appeared as Madge in the 2015 program as well. [Identifying her character as “The Witch” rather than “Madge,” especially while retaining the name “James,” doesn’t make any sense, but it is what it is.] Like many other RDB dancers who appeared with the company in New York in the 1970s, she was a very special stage presence, and still is. Age takes its toll on all of us, but Englund has weathered the passage of time very well.
More importantly for this performance, she can act as well as she did in the same role in 2015 (and in appearances in the role before that). Englund’s isn’t a cartoon witch; her Madge is a force of nature. It’s still a volcanic portrayal, and watching her execute the role is a priceless experience.
When the company as a whole last appeared (to my knowledge) in New York, in 2011, they brought with them a program that began with Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson. What an awful piece (in terms of subject matter) with which to begin a long-awaited return engagement! But the saving grace was the appearance, as the teacher’s central victim, of a dancer who at the time was only a company apprentice. I remember vividly the impression that Praetorius made in that first encounter. She had a sweet, child-like face, and a child-like body to match – narrow as a pencil and 99% legs, displaying inherent radiance and ‘Bambi-in-toe shoes’ innocence. When she returned as a soloist in 2015, she still appeared as sweet-looking and radiant as she was then (and as pencil thin). Now a Principal (since 2016), her appearance hasn’t changed a bit.
Her Sylph here, at least as presented on opening night, is not yet fully developed (at least in comparison to other RDB Sylphs I’ve seen, including Gudrun Bojesen who appeared in 2015, and, of those I’ve seen, the one who set the standard, Lis Jeppesen). But I recall reading within the last month or so that she was finally rehearsing for her first La Sylphide. It’s difficult to believe that Praetorius hasn’t danced this role previously, but assuming that’s the case (there’s no indication on the RDB web site that she has), her performance on Tuesday, even if less than perfect, was quite remarkable. Although she appears taller than many I’ve seen in the role, her qualities of sweetness, innocence, and radiance, together with highly competent execution of the choreography, makes her Sylph particularly engaging. I look forward to her return – in the complete ballet.
The other noteworthy performance, on a much less demanding scale, was Elbo’s First Sylph. You can’t tell very much from that limited role beyond basic competence, but she has a compelling stage presence that draws eyes (even more apparent in the Bournonville excerpts that followed). Currently an RDB soloist (promoted in 2018), this was a very fine first impression.
Birkkjaer’s danced James in 2015, and his performance at that time was memorable, displaying what I then described as lightning-fast footwork. This outing wasn’t quite as successful. His entrechats / double tours, for example, though fully completed, consistently landed off the mark, indicating either less than adequate speed or height. And although he displayed sufficient buoyancy in his jumps thereafter, they lacked the excitement I recall from 2015. That being said, combined with stellar characterization even within the confines of this stripped-down Act II, his performance overall (including his partnering, his characterization, and his mournful staring into the void of the life he abandoned) was quite moving.
The idea of grouping the subsequent Bournonville excerpts into one umbrella gathering – that concept of a Bournonville “town square,” in the abstract, has much to recommend it, but my impression as I watched this concept evolve visually is that it didn’t work well here. To me, it all came across as a mishmash of mismatched costumes and disconnected choreography. However, I admit to being of two minds about it. There’s a lot to be said for the concept of a “gathering” during which the disparate dances are grouped together around what could be a common theme or environment (a la Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering), rather than presenting the excerpts individually, and sequentially. For one, it all flows together – although combining all the choreographic ingredients into one pot looks a little strange here because the individual components were not intended to fit together into a common whole. Individual excerpts presented sequentially tend to look like a series of divertissements, or, worse, a gala, so maybe Birkkjaer is onto something.
But there is one clear benefit to this concept: no matter whether the individual elements look right together, the Bournonville pulse, the excitement based on the common choreography, builds to a frenzy of exhilaration as the final excerpt is presented. It’s not so much a Bournonville Square as a Bournonville Celebration, and even though the participants and the dancers may not all appear cut from the same thematic (or at times choreographic) cloth, they’re all there to party.
Although much of what was presented here was identical to the 2015 program, there were a couple of less familiar excerpts. For example, the series opened with the Pas de Trois from The Kings Volunteers on Amager (a/k/a The King’s Lifeguards on Amager), a jaunty dance that quickly (too quickly) displays what appear to be bits and pieces from popular local dances; it has a sense of vitality, but no sense of meaning beyond that. Liam Redhead, a tallish dancer with the appearance of a stretched rubber band, was the focal point for the pas de trois. A Canadian trained at the National Ballet of Canada, he joined RDB in 2014 and is now a soloist. Redhead successfully conveyed the Bournonville enthusiasm, as did his partners, Ruelykke Holst and Emma Riis-Kofoed, but his effervescence translated into a lack of control. It’s fine to be the center of attention; it’s not so fine if there shouldn’t be a center of attention.
Later in the presentation, Tobias Praetorius, outfitted in an intentionally rumpled suit, hat, and spectacles, danced “The Streetsinger” from Napoli. Essentially, this Streetsinger mouths words, sometimes decipherable, sometimes not, to built-in trombone (or trumpet) word-sounds as, at least here, he plays the crowd in the town square. It’s clever and funny and Praetorius’s pseudo-pompous attitude was perfect for the role. That he managed to blend into the gathering seamlessly afterward, however, was an equally noteworthy accomplishment.
In between, costumed jockeys who’d wandered onto the stage to join the gathering danced the “Jockey Dance” (from From Siberia To Moscow). The dance is in the form of a competition between the two jockeys, and it’s a fabulous little tour de force, as it was when it was presented in the 2015 program. Marcin Kupinski, a Principal since 2011, repeated his knock-out performance then, this time joined by Alexander Bozinoff, another RDB soloist born and trained in Canada. Both, but particularly Kupinski, displayed the flourish and pseudo-aristocratic stiff-upper-lip panache that the piece requires. It looked odd to me that these jockeys would simply show up at this gathering in costume, and stick around after their dance and, while still in their jockey suits, participate in other dance excerpts, but I’ll admit that no one except me seemed to care much.
The Pas de Deux from The Kermesse in Bruges is a lovely dance that Bournonville created in 1851, and restaged in its current form in 1865. It makes no thematic sense separated from its source, and the character’s names are meaningless. But even without knowing that Carelis is one of three brothers who received gifts from the local alchemist (as it turns out, the one that matters most – his gift brings happiness to all) and that Eleonore, to whom he declares his love, is the alchemist’s daughter, it’s a thoroughly engaging duet. Stephanie Chen Gundorph, an RDB soloist (promoted this past year), was a delightfully sweet Eleonore, but as Carlis, Jon Axel Fransson, a Principal (who also was promoted this year) provided the Bournonville shot in the arm that the evening up to that point lacked. Every aspect of the Bournonville controlled explosiveness for the male dancer was evident in his performance.
The evening ended with the most justifiably famous of Bournonville excerpts, the Pas de Six and Tarantellas from Napoli, in which the entire cast participated. Created in 1842, Napoli is, according to the program note, Denmark’s national dance. Given its sense of boundless joy, it’s easy to understand why. As exciting (and as well-received) as this rendition was, however, it would be impossible for any of the current cast to erase the memories I have of the first Napoli Act III performance I saw, which included Arne Villumsen, Johnny Eliassen, Frank Anderson, and the particularly explosive Niels Kehlet.
And that raises a final point. The dancers in this program are in no way deficient, and that’s not the sense that I want to convey. However, in the last four years – at least based on those dancers in this program, and with the exception of Praetorius, Fransson and of course Englund, something that made the Danes the Danes seems to have been lost. This is a small group and may not be representative of the company as a whole (and it’s quite possible that a measure of jet lag affected this opening performance), but it would be unfortunate if RDB diminishes the value of its Bournonville heritage as it becomes more international in its selection of dancers and more contemporary in its repertory. The same challenge has been faced by other companies with established legacies, including NYCB. But in a process that began less than ten years ago, NYCB regained its Balanchine / Robbins edge, and for a time became the most exciting ballet company in New York. It did so under the leadership of Peter Martins, a Dane.