“A Folk Tale”
The Royal Danish Ballet
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
June 8, 2011
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2011 by Alexandra Tomalonis
The Royal Danish Ballet has suffered more than its share of troubles in the past 15 years: six changes of directorship, each director with a different philosophy and none particularly gifted. The dancers, once all trained in the company’s very specific style, are now an international group – half of the current corps de ballet was trained elsewhere. The company’s Bournonville repertory – the basis of the RDB’s international reputation – was in disrepair. The state of the Royal Danish Ballet is of unusual interest to ballet lovers and historians because half of what we know about 19th century ballet has a Danish accent – a fact that now seems resented by the company, which routinely speaks of Bournonville as a “burden” -- and there were worries. In addition to messy stagings, changes in style and, most troubling, the miming – telling a story clearly without words, and the ability to make the tiniest character interesting, a Danish trademark – had fallen into disrepair as well.
It’s long been the Danish tradition to refresh works rather than change them. Here, Hübbe has trod firmly -- and rather clumsily, though with great panache -- down his own path. “A Folk Tale” was the ballet that stunned the international audience at the first Bournonville Festival in 1979. The two things that were mentioned over and over about Kirsten Ralov’s production from that time was that this was the one 19th century ballet that seemed to have a truly intellectual idea at its center: that of nature versus nurture, surely a rare notion in 1854 which was long before twin studies; and that the first act looked amazingly similar to the hunt scene in “The Sleeping Beauty.” Other foreign visitors had recognized "Folk Tale's" power as well. Michel Fokine, who came to Copenhagen after he parted ways with Diaghilev, was said to have commented that “A Folk Tale” was a great ballet, though the company couldn’t dance it. George Balanchine, who also came to Copenhagen and worked there for awhile in the 1930s, admired the ballet as well – so much so that he stopped off in Copenhagen to watch rehearsals of the 1979 production on his last trip to Europe, watched rehearsals again in New York when the company brought the ballet to the States in the early 1980s, and was considering staging it for New York City Ballet shortly before he was hospitalized. It’s a shame he didn’t. It would have done wonders for the ballet’s reputation.
The current production, designed by Mia Stensgaard, is mostly in black and white, with pink and orange in the troll scenes, and deep red costumes for the dancers of the last act’s pas de sept. When the curtain goes up on that black and white world, it seems a brilliant idea – and an instant correction to the cartoon like 1991 production that had followed Ralov’s, and its whole era. This will be an adult version of the ballet, the designs proclaim. No question. It’s sophisticated. It’s handsome. A new sensibility is in charge. But problems begin when the dancers start moving. If nearly everyone is in white against a white set, it’s hard to read what is going on, and it’s hard for individual dancers to make an impression (the lighting here didn’t help). The sets – cut-outs, that look like lace, or like moths, depending on where you’re looking – are lovely, but mean that there are no trees, no nature, no indication that it’s midsummer, with all the troubling emotions and magic that implies. The midnight sky in a later scene – deep blue, the sun clearly still shining, though muted, with beautiful clouds – is absolutely gorgeous and one of the few genuinely magical aspects of this production.
Although the designs and atmosphere are very different from the 1991 version, there are a few dramatic elements that are hangovers from that production that I wished had been retired. Two of the most unfortunate are having Birthe (the very vivid Alba Nadal) act Very Very VERY Badly from the second she’s on stage; the other is making Viderik, the sweeter troll brother, be a preadolescent boy so that he can be danced by either a man or a woman. Both of these changes get laughs, but both alter the ballet. If Birthe enters, stomping, hitting peasants with her riding crop and generally taking over the stage completely, how in the world did her fiancé, Junker Ove, put up with her up until this time? Birthe was once a more subtle character, a Danish Scarlett O’Hara. She’s spirited and the belle of the ball; she wants to behave like a lady, but alas, it is not in her nature. She’d make little slips, get carried away by a funny idea, and then try to control herself. It was much funnier, but more subtle. As for the troll brothers, Viderik and Diderik were both adult men, both in love with Hilda, who was raised with them. Making Viderik a little boy changed that balance and removes an edge from the troll scenes. They’re much more dangerous with grown men as the trolls. For Hilda, it would have been like living with wild dogs.
Despite this, and despite the disposal of the Christian symbolism that Bournonville used as a metaphor for Hilda’s humanity and was crucial to the plot and the “nature vs. nurture” core of the ballet, the production is still “A Folk Tale” and could be adjusted to more accurately reflect Bournonville’s “ballet poem.” (Not saying they’d want to, of course). This would not be a small matter to Bournonville, though, who was very proud of his “ballet poems,” as he called the libretti, and who believed that one could not call oneself a choreographer if he couldn’t write his own. Changing his ballet poem is like changing the steps in another choreographer’s work.
Most of what we think are Bournonville’s steps are in this production, though several new dances have been added. The choreography is not specifically credited in the program and the additions are not very interesting, but whoever choreographed them seems to have tried very hard to keep them in the Bournonville style. The interpolations change the pace of the ballet, though. Watching them, one is acutely aware of how incredibly tightly structured his ballets are. The mime passages were similar to musique parlant as distinct from musique dansant; they have a different purpose and rhythm, but both are music, and the balance between dancing and miming was very carefully calibrated. Inserting a new dance stops the ballet, and it takes a few minutes for it to recover. An interruption can be dramatic as well. The most jarring here is having Birthe, who had left Denmark with her family and new fiancé in Bournonville’s version, suddenly make a comeback in the middle of the ballet’s one big classical dance, the wedding scene’s pas de sept, which stops it cold. Opening night, the dancers could not get the energy back. At the second performance on Wednesday, they did better, but it’s a very needless diversion for the audience and hurdle for the dancers.
The other major changes are to add solos for Junker Ove and a pas de deux to replace the scene where Hilda returned Ove to sanity by filling the stolen cup with holy water from a sacred spring. Junker Ove was a legendarily impossible role. Both Erik Bruhn and Ib Andersen said it was their most difficult role – because there was no dancing in it. They weren’t being funny. It’s extremely challenging to be a powerful, passive presence. Ove has to hold the stage for long passages without having anything to do except think, and he has to make us know what he is thinking. Ove was the Blue Knight; Petipa used the term to describe his danseur noble roles, like Siegfried and Prince Desire, and Ove is obviously their Danish cousin. Watching the two young dancers we saw here this week made it clear just how difficult the role is, even in its cut down, danced up guise. Ove’s first act mime scene -- where he thinks through Birthe’s behavior at the party and desides that he cannot marry her – is now very rushed. He no longer sits on a tree stump to think about his loveless future (as there’s no one else of his class he can marry and he’s dooming himself to a life alone) until the earth moves under his feet (you know this by his reaction). Now he mimes that he won't marry, and then immediately goes into a big solo, dancing very happily, but the dance doesn't say anything more than, 'I get a solo! I get a solo!" Watching this, I wondered if one of the inspirations for all the changes and added dances is to mask the fact that the current generation is not able to do the mime scenes convincingly.
Ulrik Birkkjær, who danced Ove Wednesday night, could hold the stage in that way (not saying he’d want to). Birkkjær has all the right instincts. He maintained a quiet presence during the opening scene, even though he had to compete with Birthe’s antics while standing still or walking thoughtfully around with a melancholy grace (he’s been given a book to show he’s an intellectual; he doesn’t need it, and he doesn’t need the giant mooning projection of his face during Hilda’s dream scene that reminds Hilda she met this really cute boy the other night). Birkkjær’s hardest test is in the third act’s mad scene. Ove doesn’t throw fits, but goes quietly mad, locked inside his head, as a result of his encounter with the elf maidens. He also has to make the audience remember him, be present when he is offstage, which is some trick. The scene is not very clearly staged, and Ove slips in from the wings rather than enters from the back, clutching his cup, oblivious to anything or anyone around him. Birkkjær was a bit tentative here, but it's easy to imagine him becoming more confident and effective with more performances.
Hilary Guswiler was not at all tentative as Hilda and had a clear view of her character. She was one of the few women on view here who danced as though the style really is her natural language. Guswiler was very impish and lively in the troll scenes,though, more demicaractère than neoclassical (Hilda was one of Bournonville’s rare surviving neoclassical roles, and long cast that way). Her role has been simplified as well, with the existential elements removed, and it's to Guswiler's credit that she could make a vivid character out of so little.
The troll brothers were wonderful. Jean-Lucien Massot (who proves that a foreigner can become a fine Bournonville mime) was Diderik, the nastier, and hence, of course, the more beloved, son of Muri (strongly mimed by Morten Ekkert). Massot had a wickedly apt sense of timing and made every gesture and emotion clear. Thomas Lund, the great Bournonville dancer of his generation, gave an extraordinarily rich performance as Viderik, the sweeter of the brothers. His is an example of how to create a character and fill a musical phrase that one hopes younger dancers will study.
This production does retain the troll orgy (thank Whosit!) and, although the trolls could be drunker, there was one scene that was paticularlty well staged and made a major point. Hilda dances to entertain the guests who have been invited to her betrothal to Diderik. After her solo, she goes over to Viderik to tell him she cannot go through with the marriage and wants his help to escape. Get them drunker, she tells him. The guests are not finished with her, though. They want her dancing to continue, and stomp commandingly on the floor to get her attention. She returns to the center and dances another solo to, as the cliché goes, “appreciative applause.” Then Diderik gets up and shows them real dancing, with great self-satisfaction. His idea of great dancing is absolutely awful, of course, but the guests recognize it as their own and join in. They want to watch Hilda, they know she’s better than they are, and the family knows that all the other trolls are jealous of them for having her -- but her dancing is not what they’re used to. They recognize a real dance when they see one; it’s simple, it’s familiar, it’s one they can also do.
This scene made me think of Jantelaw, the Nordic version of the principle that no one can stand out, that the biggest sin you can commit is to think you are special. Jantelaw is a term from the 1930s, but it wasn’t a new idea, and Bournonville had to contend with trolls in his day. That conflict is deeply buried, but it is at the root of “A Folk Tale.” I kept thinking of Jantelaw as I watched the ending Wedding Waltz. Hilda is dressed in a standard late 19th century bridal gown, looking like every other bride, no longer the Lady who marries the Blue Knight and who with him may well change the world. All of the changes to the production -- the sophistication, the shaking things up, the added dances -- have had the opposite effect. We're left with yet another love story (of which ballet has about 587) and "A Folk Tale" was more than that. This production gives the audience what it wants, and a look with which it is comfortable, but little subtlety or magic. It may get a great ballet through a bad period, but I hope some day someone will look at what was there and make it come to life again. That’s as hard as dancing Junker Ove the way the role was conceived, but it has been done before.