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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Bare Bones Bournonville

The Principals and Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet
Prudential Hall
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Newark, New Jersey
January 29, 2004

by Nancy Dalva
copyright 2004 by Nancy Dalva

Since the 1950s, Denmark has been dispatching chamber troupes as dancing ambassadors to America, most famously to Jacob's Pillow. How fitting to see them on a freezing cold night in the depth of winter, when one could well appreciate August Bournonville's fondess for Italy, so lovingly depicted in Napoli. For the most part, the current troupe (directed by Peter Bo Bendixen) presented excerpts from the full length ballets of nineteenth century Danish master August Bournonville—pas de trois, pas de deux, and divertissements—in no particular order, on a bare stage, and without sets. Thus, the Bournonville is merely of academic interest: what the steps are, how the dancers do them, and the like; or merely of insider interest: how X looks substituting for Y, how B looks compared to C, how D is being featured instead of E, and so forth.

These nuggets of dancing were not designed as party entertainments, or little vaudeville acts, or as transposable units of showing off. (Bournonville was not an early Merce Cunningham, melding snippets of this and that into Events.) They are elements of a whole, and that whole is the story ballet. All the fun and unforced gaiety and naturalness and meaning is not merely gone in this kind of bare bones presentation. It isn’t there in the first place. In some places, notably Napoli, one can perhaps intuit what is going on, in the background folderol with the strolling girls and the tambourines, and the turning of one dancer to another as if to chat, but it appears distracting, and a distortion of the design, when in the framework of the scenery it is not. (For a visual correlative, see the accompanying photo and mentally remove the background. See what I mean?)

I wish I could say that these dancers were so effective that the story is simply embodied in their steps, because they dance with conviction and without irony, which cannot be easy if you are a short muscular man stuck in a pair of velvet short shorts and knee socks, leaping around with a perky village maiden. Yet there is Thomas Lund, a genuine and true exponent of the bounding yet modest Danish style, in need of a tailor in the pas de deux from WillemTell (dated 1873, which makes it very late Bournonville indeed).

A trio from Conservatory (1843) preceded this duet, and the Act II Divertissement from La Sylphide (1843) followed. Here, there was enough story to make clear the reason for the dancing, thanks to Nicolaj Hübbe, guesting with his native troupe, and enjoying himself mightily–or so it seemed, and that was all one needed to enjoy oneself.

The single best moment of Hübbe’s forthright and very handsome kilt-clad James was in his mime—specifically the fluttered fingers over the head that say to the sylph, “Can you fly for me?” You needed no knowledge of anything outside the action—no background in mime, no prior knowledge of the story—to know what he was asking. And fly Gudrun Bojesen did, in featherweight skimming jumps that effortlessly ascended, as if she could stay in the air for as long as she liked. Air was her element. She was not surprised to be flying; she was not showing off; she was merely showing what she was. The drama came not from her solo, nor in Hübbe’s, but in their contrast. His jumps were grander than hers, larger, and full of projection because for him, flight was an accomplishment, not an attribute.

Hübbe is one in a succession of Danish dancers to become a principal with the New York City Ballet, following Peter Martins, Adam Lüders, and Ib Andersen. They were all to one extent or another golden princes, with the exception of Lüders, the Hamlet of the bunch. (Sean Lavery and Peter Boal would seem to be their American cousins—that is, New York-bred Danes.) If for no other reason than to see what Balanchine saw when he worked for the Royal Danish Ballet before coming to America, the Danes are of interest to someone whose civic ballet is NYCB.

However, on this occasion in Newark, one saw more why the Danes wanted to get out of Copenhagen and get to New York. It was to dance something with some edge. This explains the new work thrown into the middle of the program. The new stuff is Tim Rushton’s, and it has all the tedious weirdness of so-called “modern ballet,” which is not modern, or really ballet, but simply contemporary.

One of these barefoot pieces, called Nomade (2001) was a grey-garbed ritual involving some kind of doom, with lots of Graham-esque contractions carried out by a corps hip thrusting in unison across the stage like a conga class gone Norse, and a bizarre passage featuring a quotation from (or amazing coincidence with) Balanchine’s Serenade, namely the part where the ballerina falls to the ground after letting down her hair. Same fall, same place on the stage, different composer. Here it was Arvo Pärt.

The second of these pieces, Triplex (2001), is a perky trio begun in silence, which was promising, and continuing to Bach. It couldn’t decide if it was Twyla Tharp in her Bix Pieces phase (which would have been heaven), or something along the lines of Eliot Feld or Heinz Poll. Rushton was born in England but danced with the Danes and lives in Copenhagen. His work happens to look good on a bare stage with only a colored backdrop for decor, and the dancers are invested in it.

They cannot have intended to make Rushton seem a more relevant choreographer than Bournonville. But they did. Theirs is a doomed mission, these stars of the Royal Danish Ballet taking Bournonville to the world in snippets, which they carry out credibly, and most charmingly. Is it their fault that Bournonville out of context is not Bournonville at all, and that they are all dressed up, but nowhere?

Photo: Napoli Act III, the Royal Danish Ballet, full company.  Photo:  Martin Mydtskov Ronne

Reviews of the Royal Danish Ballet's week in Washington, D.C.:

Napoli opening night
Napoli cast changes
La Sylphide
Bournonville's Next Steps; What's in Store For, and After, the III Bournonville Festival?

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 5
published February 2, 2004

revised February 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Nancy Dalva



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on February 2, 2004