The Royal Danish Ballet, 3rd Bournonville Festival [2005]

My recent visit to Copenhagen, and the amazing production of John Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet I saw there, sent me searching for something I wrote in 2005 for ballet.co in the UK (now DanceTabs). It was published in the ballet.co magazine in August 2005 as Royal Danish Ballet, 3rd Bournonville Fesitval, some personal thoughts.

As my ballet.co articles are not presently available online due to a server change, and also because I only recently found the text of the Bournonville article, which I thought was lost, I am re-publishing it below. Sadly, I do not have access to the images that accompanied the article, but I am including a wonderful photo of Erik Bruhn from an Australian production, which I mention in the text.

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I suspect there aren’t many choreographers whose 200th birthday is marked by a display of fireworks. But as we spilled out onto the square in front of the beautiful old Royal Theatre in Copenhagen on the final night of the 3rd Bournonville Festival, fireworks cascaded from the clear night sky. The square was packed with onlookers and the Danish royal family stood on the theatre balcony to watch. August Bournonville, ballet master, choreographer and theorist, whose work lives on in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet, would probably have been surprised. He is recorded as saying that he thought his work would quickly be forgotten after his death. It hasn’t, as nine days in Copenhagen between 3–11 June 2005 made clear.

Performances of nine different Bournonville works, plus a gala performance, gave a wonderful insight into the rich heritage that the Danes enjoy as inheritors of the Bournonville legacy. And pretty much every museum in Copenhagen, along with the famous Tivoli Gardens, had embraced the Bournonville festivities in some way and exhibitions and other events added context to the danced performances. To the large contingent of Danish and international press, the Royal Danish Ballet School also opened its classrooms, and the main company was more than generous with company classes to watch, receptions every night, a bulging press pack, and a host of guided tours—all to give us the best possible understanding of the nature of the Bournonville legacy.

I have to admit, however, to feeling a little Bournonvilled-out by the end of nine days. Quite honestly some of the Bournonville repertoire probably should be put out to pasture, or perhaps not paraded so publicly. In particular Far from Denmark, a work which describes how Danish naval marines hosted a party on board their ship to repay hospitality they had received while in Buenos Aires, sits uneasily (to put it mildly) in the context of the twenty-first century when it is not ‘done’ to stereotype others according to ethnic and racial characteristics. Gone are the days when people can black-up as Creoles and move a little like performers in a Black and White Minstrel show, or perform a ‘Red Indian’ dance as if at a pow-wow, without it looking embarrassingly out of place. Curiously, we can still go to an art gallery and look at paintings depicting events and aspects of life in ways that are now considered out of place. But put this kind of thing into dance, onto living, breathing twenty-first century human bodies, and it becomes inappropriate and, what’s more, laughable.

But there is, of course, so much about the Bournonville repertoire that is not like this. Two Festival performances of the best known of Bournonville’s still-extant creations, La Sylphide, would alone have been worth the trip from the other side of the world. In Australia La Sylphide is well-known to us, having been first staged here for the Australian Ballet in 1984 by Erik Bruhn, who then also danced the role of Madge in some performances. It has been restaged several times, most recently early in 2005.

Erik Bruhn as Madge in 'La sylphide', the Australian Ballet, 1985. Photo: Walter Stringer
Erik Bruhn as Madge in La Sylphide. The Australian Ballet, 1984. Photo: Walter Stringer Collection, National Library of Australia

So to see another staging, especially in Copenhagen by the Danes, was a much-awaited treat. Two casts, the first, led by Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, the second by Caroline Cavallo and Mads Blangstrup offered very different experiences. Thomas Lund is a breathtaking Bournonville technician, buoyantly soaring through jumps, beats and turns with apparent ease. And as James he alternated between bewilderment at what was happening to him and a passionate involvement with his Slyph. Bojesen, on the other hand, seemed not so involved, and not so easily able to connect with Lund as he was with her. With the second cast the roles were reversed, with Cavallo entering the role in a way that Blangstrup did not, despite his prodigious technique.

But perhaps most interesting of all with this Danish La Sylphide for me was the fact that the role of Madge, in both shows, was danced by a woman: Jette Buchwald in one cast, Lis Jeppesen in another. When the role is taken by a man it seems too easy for it to degenerate into pantomime and become sillier and sillier—certainly this has become the case with the Australian Ballet’s production where Madge seems to be less and less part of the Romantic duality of La Sylphide as time goes on. There was nothing silly or in the mould of pantomime from Buchwald or Jeppesen, just a quiet strength that allowed the story to move forward without unwanted distraction.

The presence of Buchwald and Jeppesen, who also appeared in senior roles in other performances during the Festival, was a reminder of the European custom of keeping older dancers on to perform character roles, and usually to teach as well. The other side of this custom was also noticeable in La Sylphide, although perhaps more so in Napoli. Bournonville choreographed for the children of the Royal Danish Ballet School as well as his company dancers, old and young. Almost any current dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet will regale you with stories of being ‘on the bridge’ as a child in the last act of Napoli to watch the onstage festivities as the two young lovers, Gennaro and Teresina, celebrate with their friends. It is so satisfying to see dance and its performance being shared across generations in this way

A conversation during the Festival with Royal Danish Ballet principal, Andrew Bowman, however, drew out a rather more political or perhaps nationalistic side of dancing Bournonville. Bowman was born in New Zealand where he received his early dance training from his mother. He completed his formal ballet training at the Australian Ballet School and was instantly noticeable when he joined the Australian Ballet. His attention to his partner was always visible, and still is, as was and is the huge pleasure he takes from being onstage. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and he still relishes telling the story of how he asked for a job after drinking tequila shots with Danish dancer and teacher Johnny Eliason in Brisbane, Australia, during one of Eliason’s coaching stints for the Australian Ballet. Now Bowman could easily pass for a Danish dancer so accomplished and at ease is he with the Bournonville technique. But during the interview Bowman reminds me, without bitterness I should add, that he will probably never dance the coveted role of James in La Sylphide. These leading Bournonville roles, with one or two notable exceptions— Lloyd Riggins being one, are reserved exclusively for Danes.

Beyond the performances one major, gorgeous-to-look-at, exhibition, called Tulle and Tricot: Costumes for the Bournonville Ballets, which was curated by Viben Bech of the National Museum of Denmark where it was on show, generated some philosophical questions. For example, how do you make an exhibition of dance costumes and related material come to life in the manner in which dance is alive? Can such a show ever capture the feeling of the live performance? Many costume exhibitions don’t even come close to being theatrical but Tulle and Tricot was a wonderful exhibition that engaged the viewer in so many ways. Costumes were hung so that they swayed gently in the breeze. Video footage showed them in motion in the ballets for which they were made. The space was lit beautifully. The captions were inviting. It was a real coup and deserves many bouquets.

And back to the Danish royal family: as an Australian I was of course fascinated when Crown Princess Mary, though now officially a Dane but always to us an Australian from Tasmania our ‘Apple Isle’, accompanied her mother-in-law, Queen Margrethe II to two performances at this Festival. The Queen herself attended every show and some of the receptions. She even received the press on one occasion. I couldn’t help but think how lucky the Danes are to have such prominent artistic leadership.

I look back on this Danish experience with much pleasure.

Michelle Potter, 14 August 2005

‘Romeo and Juliet’. The Royal Danish Ballet

11 March 2016, the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

What a pleasure it was to be sitting in the auditorium of Copenhagen’s beautiful, old Royal Theatre waiting for the curtain to go up on a production of Romeo and Juliet—John Neumeier’s version too, which I had never seen: such a sense of anticipation not just because for me it was a different production, but also because it was about ten years since I last saw the Royal Danish Ballet. What a sense of occasion too because just as it was time for curtain up Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, a true balletomane, appeared in the Royal Box and the audience rose as one to welcome her.

But to the show …

The Neumeier Romeo and Juliet is said to have been partly inspired by John Cranko’s production, so well known to Australian audiences during the period of Maina Gielgud’s directorship of the Australian Ballet.  And yes, there is a spectre of Cranko somewhere there. But on the other hand, Neumeier’s production is quite distinctive. Choreographically it is absolutely fascinating, especially in the way it contrasts the movements of the elders of the Capulet and Montague families and those of the younger folk across the social strata. Both groups are given what I can only say are beautifully eccentric movements, especially for the arms and upper body. The elders often use a highly formalised vocabulary, while the young people have a freedom that sometimes verges on the wild. Gorgeous. And how beautifully did the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet respond to this vocabulary!

Ida Praetorius as Juliet was completely entrancing. She showed off a stellar technique—the highlight for me came when she was refusing the attentions of Paris and at one point, in desperation, tossed off an amazing, perfect double turn in arabesque with arms flung upwards and body slightly tilted. But not only did she dance with such perfection, her characterisation of Juliet was brilliant. She played the role as it was written—she was a thirteen year old. She often seemed slightly awkward of limb, she often made her youth clear by seeming not to know how to behave in every situation, and her nervousness and vulnerability were clear, especially when she executed that wonderful stumble on the last few stairs as she entered the ballroom for the Capulet ball. But throughout, her youthful, slightly crazy love for Romeo was always obvious.

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Andreas Kaas and Ida Praetorius in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

As Romeo, Andreas Kaas was as ardent and dramatic in love as one could hope. His enthusiasm and desire for Juliet showed in his every movement. He rushed to her. He could scarcely hold back his longing for her. Kaas and Praetorius, together, made the two characters come alive in a way I have never seen before. It seems like a partnership made in heaven from both a dancerly and dramatic point of view.

Another stand-out performance came from Sebastian Haynes as Mercutio, dashing and charismatic as a character, thrilling as a dancer. His death scene was powerfully moving and made more so by the feisty way Romeo took on Tybalt after the stabbing. I also admired Susanne Grinder as Lady Capulet. She moved with such strength and such elegance, sweeping her way through Neumeier’s formal choreography and wearing her bright orange gown with style and aplomb—a true aristocrat. And I have never taken all that much notice of the entourage that enters the square to try to restore some peace to the conflicts between the Capulets and the Montagues. But in this production Poul-Erik Hesselkilde was a towering presence as the Prince of Verona. Mostly he stood still, centre stage, but he was so in command of the role that his power spread across the stage and out into the auditorium.

There were so many magical moments, too, inserted by Neumeier to make more sense of the story. The potion that the friar gives to Juliet, for example, we know is not a deadly poison but Neumeier introduces a group of street performers who, in a commedia dell’arte manner, mime the effect the liquid will have. Juliet and the friar stand motionless, in a kind of freeze frame, in the act of giving and receiving the vial.

As is usual in Royal Danish Ballet performances, the presence of children in the crowd scenes was always noticeable. I loved the way the adult dancers in the corps de ballet interacted with them, shielding them from fight scenes, making sure they hurried off during the more gruesome moments. And as for the corps, I loved that they looked as though dancing was their life and not just their job.

Costumes and sets were by Jürgen Rose, also responsible for the design of the Cranko production. But his work for Neumeier had a very different feel and was often unusual in the way Neumeier’s choreography was unusual. His striking red wedding dress with white turban for Juliet was quite startling, for example, and the church for the wedding, which was created as plain brown flats slid beautifully and noiselessly into place, had all the simplicity of a Cistercian abbey church. Nothing was overdone but everything contributed beautifully and economically to the unfolding story.

This Romeo and Juliet was such a striking production, so beautifully danced by the entire company and musically thrilling—it just took my breath away. The evening sped by and it was by far the most exciting and captivating performance I have seen for years, anywhere in the world.

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: Costin Radu

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas in Romeo and Juliet. The Royal Danish Ballet. Photo: © 2016 Costin Radu

Michelle Potter, 15 March 2016