writers on dancing


Letter from Copenhagen
The Third Bournonville Festival

Opening night:
“La Ventana” and “The Kermesse in Bruges”

by Eva Kistrup
copyright ©2005 by Eva Kistrup

[Editor's note:  Eva Kistrup covers the Royal Danish Ballet for Danceview magazine; her interview with the great Danish dancer Arne Villumsen appeared in our Winter issue. She will be reporting regularly from this week's Festival in Copenhagen. Please check back often for new pieces. Readers may also want to check the official web site for the Bournonville Festival, which has lots of background information on the ballets and on Bournonville.]

Danish Ballet tradition is spelled and pronounced August Bournonville. Born in 1805, the son of the Ballet Master of the Royal Danish Ballet, and educated in Paris, he became the dominant figure of 19th century ballet in Copenhagen and the creator of a large number of ballets that miraculously have survived, whereas most of the romantic ballets of the Paris opera have been totally forgotten. Bournonville was here, there and everywhere in Europe. He created his own version of “La Sylphide,” saw the general rehearsal of “Giselle,” knew Richard Wagner very well and directed his operas. He left a heritage of ballets and a dancing style that has ever since been the background of The Royal Danish Ballet.

In 1979, balletmaster Henning Kronstam produced the first Bournonville Festival. It was a revelation that showed the world not only what a fine and multifaceted choreographer August Bournonville was but also The Royal Danish Ballet as a unique group of dancers and dance actors, with individual dancers on a world class level. It fully demonstrated the richness and value of a tradition stretching back more that 150 years and explained how such a small country could produce so many outstanding male dancers.

The second Bournonville Festival in 1992 could not help being a pale imitation of the first. The new productions were not particularly good, some of the legacy productions had lost their sparkle. Dancers seemed less assured of their heritage, and in spite of a few individual stars, it looked like the Bournonville tradition was on a downward slope. It was difficult to pinpoint directors of talent. The ballets were either too nitty gritty, directed with too much reverence to history and too little attention to the theatrical side, or painted with a large brush and little understanding of their complexity.

After the Festival, from being on a downward slope, the company took a full tumble. Following Frank Andersen’s first tenure as Ballet Master, which had actually included some fine productions, like Cranko’s “Onegin” and Helgi Tomasson’s staging of “The Sleeping Beauty,” the management board of The Royal Theatre decided to go for an internationalisation of the company and chose Peter Schaufuss as Andersen’s successor. Schaufuss’s reign was short and unfortunate, and he was followed by a string of other poorly judged appointments; the RDB had four ballet masters in six years. Finally, in a surprise move, Frank Andersen was reinstated; this has given the company some calm and a strategy aimed to position the RDB as the world’s leading story telling ballet company. This time around, Frank Andersen is a much more careful ballet master. Gone is his mantra on concentrating on the younger dancers. Gone is the tendency to put inexperienced dancers on in larger parts without proper rehearsal and little consideration for their technical ability to do the part. Looking at the RDB today, it is a company dominated by an experienced (and very talented) group of dancers in their thirties: Silja Schandorff, Rose Gad, Christina Olsson, Caroline Cavallo, Gitte Lindström and Gudrun Bojesen on the female site and Kenneth Greve, Mads Blangstrup, Thomas Lund together with imports Andrew Bowman and Jean Lucien Massot in the male wing. The soloist category includes no dancers under 23 and the supporting parts are shared by a small group of dancers. The hierarchy is back and people have to wait their turn almost to a fault, actually.

Compared to the second Bournonville Festival the third one has been well prepared. There have been investments in new productions, even of ballets which are only presented in a festival year. The key question is has the RDB been able to find the directors who can carry the mantle of Henning Kronstam and Hans Brenaa, who together with Kirsten Ralov directed the bulk of the first festival

“The Kermesse in Bruges”

The centrepiece of the opening night program of the 2005 Festival was a new production of “The Kermesse in Bruges” by Lloyd Riggins, which had been given its premiere on May 21, 2005; this was its fourth performance. As Riggins was more or less promised the job as Ballet Master after Frank Andersen, when Andersen was reinstated three years ago, his production of “Kermesse in Bruges” was eagerly anticipated as a test of whether he could deliver the goods as director on the same level he did as a very popular dancer, before he defected to John Neumeier and the Hamburger Ballet approximately ten years ago during the short reign of Peter Schaufuss. Unfortunately his years as a Hamburg principal in the Neumeier repertoire seems to have made more impression on him than his tenure at the Royal Danish Ballet, and what he chose to present was a Neumeieresque take on a Bournonville classic. Not an appealing sight.

Riggins’ take on “The Kermesse in Bruges” has passed through the John Neumeier grinder for updating a ballet. And indeed the first act especially was full of Neumeieresque effects, like turning the slovanka dancers into a band of jesters. For preparation Riggins has spent time in Bruges trying to capture the feeling of the city to bring into his version, but apparently no one had explained to him, that Bournonville had no relation to Bruges, nor had he any intention of creating a piece about Bruges. What Bournonville wanted was to use Flemish paintings as backdrop for a light comedy. The story is a simple fairytale: three brothers are given, respectively, a magic sword, which can defeat anyone in battle; a magic ring, which makes every woman he meets fall in love with its owner; and, to the youngest brother, the simplest and most important gift: a magic fiddle that makes people dance.

Riggins is very well aware of the great 1978 version by Hans Brenaa with costumes by Lars Juhl; he had danced the role of Carelis as handed down from Ib Andersen, Brenaa's original Carelis. The Brenaa version was the toast of the first Bournonville Festival, an elegant, witty and extremely well cast ballet with Ib Andersen, Mette-Ida Kirk, Niels Kehlet and Kirsten Simone leading a perfect cast. It might be matched but it could not be bettered. But after the original cast outgrew their parts, it became difficult for the company to maintain the high level and suddenly the ballet lost its sparkle. An attempt to change “Kermesse” but keep the costumes failed. That production, by Dinna Bjørn shown during the Bournonville Week in 2000, was built on an effort to bring out the darker and deeper content of the work.

So enter Riggins and scenographer Rikke Juellund. Like the last attempt, Riggins tries to downplay the comedy. He also tries to simplify the glamour, a fine theory but forgets that “Kermesse” does not deliver substance, but style and details, and when you cut down on those, there is little left. The pale colours makes it difficult for the main characters to register, especially in contract to the noisy red slovanka dancers. Neither do pastel-clad noblemen register when hiding in the back wings. From the best intentions, Riggins deals his cast a very difficult hand. He is not alone in his wish to distance himself from the successful Brenaa production. In the catalogue entry in the current exhibition on Bournonville costumes, Anne Marie Vessel is critical of the opulence of the 1978 Brenaa/Juhl production, but like Riggins misses the point that the steps demand volume. When Trutje parades her daughters downstage, you need three full skirts to build the picture, but now you have a small long shirt and two 1950 styles suits and it neither registers, nor helps the dancers make standout characters.

I cannot help compare Riggins’ strategy to Nicolaj Hübbe’s. Hübbe respects the tradition and builds on it in his production of “La Sylphide” (which will be presented later this week); Riggins wants to challenge the tradition, but has little to offer other than turning the ballet into a copycat Neumeier work. Riggins has however reinstated some of the elements from the Brenaa version, including the pas de deux and divertissements attributed to Gustave Carey, a contemporary of Bournonville. Unfortunately Riggins and Rikke Juellund decided to dress the divertissement à la greque, which means that the soloist (Caroline Cavallo) and her corps were made to wear tunics that made them look like the chubby dancers of the late 19th century captured in silent films, and Andrew Bowman struggled with the elegant and difficult male variation in white bicycle pants and a pleated shirt. This and, I am sorry to add, the costumes for the leading couple Carelis and Eleonora, danced by Kristoffer Sakurai and Susanne Grinder at the Festival opening night, made it very difficult to present beautiful classical Bournonville dancing. This latter pair could really have used the help of a well made costume to sell an earnest but not totally brilliantly danced Pas de Deux.

It may be said that “Kermesse” shares traits with “Klodshans,” a fairy tale by Bournonville’s friend and contemporary H.C Andersen, but the naïve character should not be Carelis but his brother Geert. However, Rikke Juellund has dressed Carelis as the country lad. Thomas Lund reprised his finely tuned Geert, but is as little helped by the costumes as the rest. There is no visible difference in the costumes he wears before and after the change in his social fortunes. Christina Olsson is the rich widow who falls for his magically improved charms; it’s a downplayed character, and again you really miss the tours de force of the Brenaa version.

After the performance the applause was limited, but was raised when Frank Andersen and RDB's director Michael Christiansen came onstage and appointed Kristoffer Sakurai to principal dancer. There has probably been little doubt that Sakurai would become the next male principal, but I could have wished it had happened on a night where he was dancing on top of his game instead of after a somewhat lacklustre performance. I would not be surprised if Sakurai's alternate Carelis, David Kupinsky, gets his place in the soloist category.

"La Ventana"

The evening had opened with “La Ventana,” but although the decor was striking I could not help noticing that the title prop of the ballet “La Ventana” (the Window) was strangely missing. The Décor was heavily inspired by Spanish painting and the senorita must be from a wealthy family, as her boudoir included several paintings by Goya. “La Ventana” has not been presented since the early 1980s and it is a welcome return, but as directed by Frank Andersen and Eva Kloborg, too much effort is put on quantity rather than quality of the movements. Gitte Lindstrøm is capable but not outstanding as the senorita; Jean Lucien Massot is too sturdy and angular to reach Bournonville heaven. In the pas de trois Gudrun Bojesen, who will take most of the leading female parts this week, showed beautiful dancing and has the personality to sell Bournonville. Caroline Cavallo fought hard to make an impression in the second female part. (Eric Bruhn danced that solo himself when he once restaged the pas de trios for two men and a woman, the other dancers being Cynthia Gregory and Rudolf Nureyev). The man’s solo was danced by newcomer Tim Matiakis, who joined RDB from Royal Ballet, and who supplemented this pas de trios by adding characters touches that really reminded one of Frank Andersen himself in younger years.

In short, I must conclude that Bournonville made two ballets inspired by Spanish dancing and Flemish painting, and the Royal Danish Ballet has just presented the two pieces as inspired by Spanish painting and Flemish dancing.

Read Second night : “Napoli”, Bournonville School DVD and miming lecture

First (and on front page): the official festival poster, by Peter Bonde.
Second:  "The Kermesse in Bruges"; photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne)
Third:  Trutje and her daughters. From left, Tina Højlund, Jette Buchwald, Marie-Pierre Greve; photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne
Fourth: The pas de deux from "Kermesse," Susanne Grinder and Kristoffer Sakurai; photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne
Fifth:  Gudrun Bojesen in "La Ventana"; photo by Martin Mydtskov Rönne.

Volume 3, No. 21
June 4, 2005

copyright ©2005 Eva Kistrup



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last updated on May 30, 2005