Bournonville’s Folk Tale Enchants at the Royal Danish Ballet

DenmarkDenmark  Niels W. Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann, Et Folkesagn [A Folk Tale]:  The Royal Danish Ballet and the Royal Danish Orchestra,  Carolyn Kuan (conductor), Operaen, Copenhagen. 21.1.2012 (NS)

Choreography: Nikolaj Hübbe and Sorelle Englund after August Bournonville
Music: Niels W. Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann
Set and costumes: Mia Stensgaard
Lighting design: Mikki Kunttu
Video design: Martin Reinwald and Sebastian Eskildsen
Dramaturgy: Ole Nørlyng
Staging: Nikolaj Hübbe
Staging assistants: Sorelle Englund, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter and Claire Still (children)

Hilda, an elf-girl: Susanne Grinder
Miss Birthe, heiress to Højgården: Amy Watson
Muri, a sorceress: Mogens Boesen
Diderik, her son: Poul Erik Hesselkilde
Viderik, her son: Lis Jeppesen
Junker Ove, Birthe’s fiancé: Marcin Kupiñski
Mrs Kirstine, Birthe’s aunt: Mette Bødtcher
Sir Mogens, a chamberlain: Mads Blangstrup
Cathrine, Birthe’s nanny: Jette Buchwald
Else, maid: Elisabeth Dam
Dorthe, chambermaid: Alba Nadal
Pas de sept: Caroline Baldwin, Diana Cuni, Camilla Ruelykke Holst, Christina Michanek, Jonathan Chmelensky, Nicolai Hansen and Alban Lendorf
Servants, trolls, peasants, nobles, elf-girls, bridesmaids and troll children

The elves emerge from their hill and surround Ove. Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen

August Bournonville’s ballet A Folk Tale is perennially popular in Denmark, and at its 579th performance by the Royal Danish Ballet it was easy to understand why. Bournonville’s trademark style with rounded arms, a mobile upper body and fast footwork is incredibly graceful and looks much easier than it is to dance. The current production (premiered in March 2011) is faithful to this tradition and displays the talents of the Royal Danish Ballet at its best.

Part of the credit must also go to Mia Stensgaards fantastical scenery, which is visually beautiful and perfectly captures the atmosphere of Danish fairy tales, haunted as they are by various supernatural creatures. The costumes are elegant, except for those of the trolls whose masks and various incredible get-ups show a wide-ranging imagination. (The trolls’ party in Act 2 has to be seen to be believed!)

Like almost all of Bournonville’s works, whatever difficulties the characters suffer during the course of the ballet are resolved and it ends happily ever after. Ove is engaged to Birthe, an attractive but moody and cruel young woman who is heiress to a substantial estate. In Act 1 she holds an open-air luncheon party near a hill said to be home to the local trolls. During the party she and Ove don’t get on and Birthe finds the company of Sir Mogens, an old rake with an eye on her fortune, more congenial. When the party goes home, Ove refuses to follow and remains in thought by the hill. But as dusk falls, the hill opens, revealing Hilda, a beautiful elf-girl who immediately fascinates Ove. Unfortunately, his grumpiness means that he refuses to hand back the goblet she offers him, insulting the sorceress Muri who whisks Hilda away and dispatches a bevy of elves, who drive Ove to madness.

Susanne Grinder was immediately striking as Hilda, dancing with spirit, elegance and above all expressiveness throughout the ballet. Ove (Marcin Kupiñski) was not quite so outstanding but really blossomed in the final scene of Act 1 and in the opening of Act 3, where Hilda’s love cures his madness. Amy Watson’s Birthe has a more angular dance style, which fits her character well.

In Act 2, Muri’s sons Diderik (Poul Erik Hesselkilde) and Viderik (Lis Jeppesen) squabble as they make jewellery for Hilda. Both act wonderfully but the younger Viderik is particularly sympathetic. The unfortunate troll manages to lose Hilda twice. First, his mother Muri decrees she is to marry Diderik. She organises a lavish engagement party where trolls of all descriptions have a riot of a time, and watch Hilda dancing beautifully. As the hostess and guests become drunk Hilda is able to flee with Viderik, who she much prefers to the oafish Diderik.

The trolls’ party. Photo: Per Morten Abrahamsen

Unfortunately for Viderik, it doesn’t take long before Hilda comes across Ove, who stumbles madly around clutching the goblet he took from Hilda in Act 1. He collapses and Hilda rushes to revive him, resulting in an understated but beautiful pas de deux. Meanwhile in the background, Viderik is touchingly miserable but diverts himself by causing havoc when Sir Mogens tries to set the gendarmerie on Ove and lock him up in an asylum.

At home Birthe becomes uncontrollable, causing consternation among her maids and for her nanny Cathrine. But then Ove arrives with Hilda, and Cathrine recognises the goblet she is carrying as one that disappeared when she was nursing the baby: Hilda is a changeling, exchanged for the troll child Birthe as an infant. Birthe is expelled and a wedding is prepared for Hilda and Ove. Birthe is reunited with her mother Muri and with the aid of a chest of gold convinces Sir Mogens to join her in the trolls’ underworld. Everyone apart from Diderik and Viderik live happily ever after.

Hartmann and Gade’s music is cheerful nineteenth-century romanticism, though in Hartmann’s case tinged with darker and rougher Nordic material appropriate for the trolls’ underworld of Act 2. Carolyn Kuan and the Royal Danish Orchestra were on top form, producing toe-tapping music from the first bar.

One of the real pleasures of seeing the Royal Danish Ballet is the excellent quality of their ensemble dancers. In this performance they were a joy to watch as elves, peasants, trolls and wedding guests. In particular, the pas de sept (who performed both at the beginning and the end of the ballet) were impeccable. The current run of A Folk Tale is now sold out, but there are still several opportunities to see this superb ballet company performing other works this season. Get a ticket – you won’t be disappointed.

Niklas Smith