"A Folk Tale"
The Royal Danish Ballet
Opera House, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 7, 2011
by George Jackson
copyright 2011 by George Jackson
Where to look? This "Folk Tale" keeps the eyes busy whether you've seen the story before or not. Sets, costumes and video for the current production (which premiered in Copenhagen this past March) appear to be costly, but nothing rhymes. Instead there's a clash of styles and fashions. Much of the drama and some of the dancing seem directed by whim. Could it be that the stager - company director Nikolaj Huebbe - had a troll's prank in mind? Unlikely, because at times the action coheres - due to the music with its pulse, lilt and depictive logic. In the cast were some very fine dancers, yet the leads didn't seem at ease in the Danes' singular Bournonville style and not every mime outwitted Huebbe's part pedestrian, part exaggerated notions of emphasis and pacing.
An example is the scene in which the false heiress, the troll changeling Birthe, has just had a fit when the true but lost heiress, Hilda, appears and begins to recognize her childhood home. In previous productions this elicited both laughter and sympathy. Birthe's fit was funny and sad, for it was caused not just by her bad will but by an impulse she couldn't help. Yes, she enjoyed abusing her servants at the start but her behavior became out of control. She, herself, was frightened by the spasms that took over her limbs. (Bournonville is said to have staged this as a pantomime passage; later, Harald Lander developed it into a poignant dance for Birthe). As presented on Tuesday, Birthe's dance is funny, wild, to such an extent that it is no longer touching. Hilda, returning home, has to be shown taking time adjusting to her memories. It should be gradual, done in increments (fear, astonishment, wonder, certainty), in order to take the audience along. The pacing was off on Tuesday, and the sequence dragged. Throughout the ballet there were similar passages lacking the right dynamic in order to resonate emotionally.
It used to be that Hilda was the ballet's heroine. Now, Birthe is nearly her equal and Alba Nadal was directed to take the role over the top. She was able to do so because she is a strong performer. Susanne Grinder is a lovely looking Hilda, but her length gets in the way of Bournonville balances and bounce. I thought that the Royal Danish teachers had been making progress in adapting Bournonville technique to more streamlined anatomies, but apparently not in Grinder's case.
The septet performed late in the ballet was evidence that the joy of bodies jumping, legs beating and strong equipoise still nourishes Danish dancers. Some, like Alban Lendorf, even have the old fashioned physique to go with the technique. As the hero of "Folk Tale", the Junker Ove who initially is caught between Birthe and Hilda, Marcin Kupinski was sympathetic and took to space boldly in the early solo Huebbe has added. His mad scene, like Birthe's fit, was too much and Kupinski didn't flatter himself by taking his shirt off.
The mime I felt had the most gravitas was the veteran Jette Buchwald, in the role of the Nurse. Some of those as the servant girls were auspicious. I was less impressed by the principal trolls (Mogens Boesen as Muri, the troll matriarch; Poul-Erik Hesselkilde as her nasty son and Lis Jeppsen as the nice one). Poor overall pacing might have hampered their performances.
Mia Stensgaard, designer of the decor and costumes, used fussy cut-out patterns for the first act and last (3d) act sets. In between, she was spare and more realistic. The costuming and behavior for the troll festivities is now quite sexual. Where, though, has religion gone? Bournonville used Christian ritual and symbols to typify human society and differentiate it from that of the trolls. Although it is necessary to convey the ballet's meaning, Huebbe has banished the cross.