by John Percival
Following its seasons commemorating Rudolf Nureyev ten years after his death and George Balanchine on his centenary, London’s National Film Theatre has come up with a bicentennial celebration under the title “Dancing Bournonville”. This comprised four programmes, each shown twice, spread through the month of August.
The opening bill was fascinating for its inclusion of ten short films made a whole century ago, in 1902-06, by the Court photographer Peter Elfelt using, amazingly, a camera he made himself, by hand, from his sketch of one seen at the Paris Exposition. Of course they were made in silence, but a piano accompaniment by Elvi Henriksen has been added, and the film is projected in a version with every second frame printed twice to alleviate the flickery effect usual in early movies. It’s great to see fragments from “La Sylphide”, “The King’s Volunteers” and “Napoli” given by such historic names as Ellen Price, Valborg Borchsenius and Hans Beck, but perhaps even more so to catch unknown dances from “Il Trovatore” etc. including numbers by Beck and Poul Funck (who he, you may askI certainly did).
With this were given two television films: the 1978 BBC recording of the dancing class from “Le Conservatoire” led by Flemming Ryberg (wonderful stylist), Annemarie Dybdal, Linda Hindberg and Ib Andersen, and the 1979 Danish TV documentary “Dancing Bournonville”. The latter includes Hans Brenaa restaging “Kermesse in Bruges” with Mette Ida-Kirk (delicious) and Ib Andersen, and Kirsten Ralov coaching Flower Festival at Genzano, plus parts of a class by the illustrious Erik Bruhn.
Best of all the programmes, arguably, was “Napoli”. This comprised the full ballet as marvellously staged by Poul Gnatt in 1978 for Scottish Ballet, and filmed two years later with their charming ballerina Elaine McDonald partnered by guest artist Peter Schaufuss on fine form. The company’s director Peter Darrell was a great believer in Bournonville and they did several of his works; this film confirms my memory of how good they looked in them.
The production is sharp, clear and eloquent, with a stronger than usual treatment of the grotto scene (at the premiere it benefited from Paul Russell’s playing of Golfo). And it isn’t only the principals who shine. Male solos from Vincent Hantam and Kit Lethby would have stood out in any company, and Gordon Aitken’s amorous lemonade seller Peppo is only the best of many good acting contributions. There was no real embarrassment in following this with a 1957 BBC record of our Queen Elizabeth (on a state visit) and Denmark’s King Frederick watching an all-star cast of the Royal Danish Ballet in the “Napoli” finale, beginning with an immaculate solo by Kronstam and including Mona Vangsaae and Borge Ralov exuberant in the leads.
Sadly, a problem over transmission rights necessitated dropping the planned programme of “Far from Denmark” and “La Ventana”. Enterprisingly, the season’s organiser Jane Pritchard managed to put together a substitute programme at short notice, comprising large chunks of the new films of the Bournonville classes as devised by Hans Beck, together with fragments of other works; but I can’t pretend to have enjoyed this anything like as much as the other programmes.
There was, luckily, still “La Sylphide” to come. This too was affected by the issue of transmission rights, so we couldn’t have the complete Danish recording with the divine Margrethe Schanne and Flemming Flindt. But it was planned all along to show also extracts from the excellent Ballet Rambert production mounted in 1960 by Elsa Marianne von Rosen, filmed in 1961 with Lucette Aldous a lovely sylph and, again, Flindt as James such a fine dancer and actor. So the whole of this was given, plus two passages from Schaufuss’s (for me, less convincing) 1979 staging for London Festival Ballet. The latter had Niels Bjørn Larsen as Madge, the hag much acclaimed, but I think the role is best played by a woman, and Rambert’s Gillian Martlew does it particularly well. Praise, too, for Shirley Dixon, most engaging as James’s sweetheart Effie.
Altogether, an exhilarating month of screened Bournonvilleana, in spite of the enforced changes. London also had, verlapping this, a repeat of Matthew Bourne’s “Highland Fling”, returning to Sadler’s Wells to end a national tour. The music comes from Bournonville’s “Sylphide” plus some oddments of modern music, but the plot is changed to life among druggies in 20th century Glasgow. Unfortunately Bourne is not a great story-teller in dance, and the enlarged version he has made doesn’t work as well as his miniature 1994 original.
And that itself wasn’t a patch on Bournonville. Still, we are told that he is taking large scale contemporary dance to a wide audience, and the packed house was enthusiastic. So what matters my boredom with the outcome? And at least we shall get the Bournonville ballet at Covent Garden in a few weeks.
Volume 3, No. 33