Royal Danish Ballet Dancers Display Exuberance in Bournonville Tribute

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bournonville Celebration: Royal Danish Ballet Soloists and Principals, Peacock Theatre, London. 9.1.2015. (JPr)

Ulrik Birkkjaer and Susanne Grinder in Napoli (c) Costin Radu
Ulrik Birkkjaer and Susanne Grinder in Napoli (c) Costin Radu

Dancers: Ulrik Birkkjær, Gudrun Bojesen, Diana Cuni, Gregory Dean, Susanne Grinder, Sebastian Haynes, Andreas Kaas, Marcin Kupinski, Kizzy Matiakis, Femke Mølbach Slot and Amy Watson

Pas de sept from A Folk Tale (music by Niels V Gade)
Pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano (Music by H S Paulli)
Jockey Dance (From Siberia to Moscow, music by C C Møller)
La Sylphide Act II (Music by Herman Løvenskiold)
Pas de trois from The Conservatory (Music by H S Paulli)
Pas de six and tarantella from Napoli (Music by H S Paulli)

A decade on from their last visit to Sadler’s Wells eleven dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet – not all principals and soloists as advertised – perform a short mostly uplifting programme allowing these representatives of this internationally renowned company to showcase the work of August Bournonville, the nineteenth-century Royal Danish Ballet choreographer and ballet-master who created more than fifty works for the company. In his own words he described how dance ‘can with the aid of music rise to the heights of poetry. On the other hand, through an excess of gymnastics it can also degenerate into buffoonery. So-called “difficult” feats can be executed by countless adepts, but the appearance of ease is achieved only by the chosen few. The height of artistic skill is to know how to conceal the mechanical effort and strain beneath harmonious calm.’ Humbly I totally agree with this, but am always conflicted whether classical ballet, in particular, should be evolving and not treated as a museum exhibit. The audience expectations are different in the twenty-first century and the fitness and technique of the dancers has also made tremendous advances.

Bournonville himself believed that beauty is forever modern and the Royal Danish Ballet and other companies still perform his ballets today, 136 years after his death, and it proves that his belief in this sense of beauty is still very much alive. The Bournonville style is distinctive because of its precision, neatness, lightness, easy elegance and joy of life. Repeatedly, we see bouncy jumps, many small quick steps and speedy footwork with beats done while the upper body is held still and arms are often in  Bras bas (or preparatory) position. The latter involves both arms being down and rounded with both hands just in front of the hips, fingers almost touching and this occasionally gave the impression of Irish dancing – whilst when arms are raised in Fifth position it all seemed a little more like Scottish country dancing.

When I was first welcomed by Ulrik Birkkjær by email to this performance I was unaware he was one of the dancers and also doubled-up by being involved in the promotion. His initial headache was having to accommodate one of his star dancers, Alban Lendorf, crying off at the last moment. He had guested the previous evening for English National Ballet in Swan Lake and must have been injured. Considering my comments on their physical abilities above, I doubt whether ballet dancers are like modern footballers who seem unable to play two 90-minute games in a week and I am sure Lendorf would have appeared if he possibly could have. His other problem must have been the relatively cramped performing space, since the Peacock Theatre – which is now surrounded by the London School of Economics – seems more than ever a utilitarian campus theatre. I can’t imagine the Royal Ballet performing in Copenhagen at somewhere like this with harsh lighting, no scenery and simply a backdrop either off-white or blueish.

Worst of all was the use of recorded sound which for classical dance is the equivalent, for me, of a singer miming. It removes the opportunity for spontaneity and the chance for the steps to breathe when everyone is rushing around to catch up with the music. During a rather downbeat farewell tour in his later years Nureyev performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack and then it was regarded as near heresy … now it can often be the norm for presentations such as this. I suspect Bournonville would be spinning in his grave!

That by the end of the evening the hard-working Birkkjær and the other 10 dancers brought a smile to my face – and I had been happy to have seen them – was because of the sheer exuberance they brought to their dancing. This was evident from the opening joyous pas de sept from A Folk Tale (a romantic ballet from 1854) which displayed Bournonville’s famed equality between male and female roles that was a hallmark of everything else we were to see in the remaining extracts from his ballets. Andreas Kaas – a member of the corps de ballet – replaced Lendorf in the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano and partnering Diana Cuni it was danced with gaiety and assurance. There was then some wonderfully exuberant prancing from Marcin Kupinski and Sebastian Haynes in the brief Jockey Dance (Bournonville’s ironic take on the love of the English for horse racing) which was exhumed from his last 1876 ballet From Siberia to Moscow. The second act of the 1832 La Sylphide suffered from the lack of any sets to make sense of all the mime and other emoting for those unfamiliar about the tale of the hero, James’s, love for a sylph and her tragic ending. Gudrun Bojesen perfectly embodied the romantic spirit of The Sylph, the Royal Danish Ballet’s veteran character dancer Sorella Englund appeared as The Witch and with her scenery-chewing performance – albeit with no actual scenery! – the story made sense and the fleet-footed Ulrik Birkkjær – perfect embracing the Bournonville style – excelled as the lovelorn, and ultimately grieving, James.

After an interval, the hard-working Birkkjær returned and together with Diana Cuni and Gudrun Bojesen they were the essence of refined classicism during the pas de trois from the choreographer’s 1849 The Conservatory. The final work was the pas de six and tarantella from the 1842 Napoli. This is part of Act III that is considered ‘the calling card of the Royal Danish Ballet (and) perhaps the happiest stage picture in European ballet tradition.’ With all the available dancers on stage at the same time – and despite the constrictions of the performing space – happiness is what they achieved and it was a joyously confident conclusion. Having mentioned the Scots and Irish earlier; this became increasing, reminiscent of ceilidh dances as pair of couples dance in formation but with each couple often exchanging position or partners, whilst remaining perfectly in step with the beat of the music.

Because of how they performed so well in such straightened circumstances, I hope it will not be too long before the full Royal Danish Ballet can return to London in a more appropriate way.

Jim Pritchard

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