Dancing with the Danes
I’m not officially reviewing the performances of the small group of Royal Danish Ballet dancers currently visiting New York—in part because I wrote a preview for the Times—but I feel compelled to jot down some impressions anyway. (Patience!) Last night was the Danes’ opening at the Joyce, where they’re performing a program of Bournonville excerpts. And I can say this without reservation: despite the absence of live music or sets, and notwithstanding a touch of opening-night jitters, it was a most satisfying, even elating, night of ballet.
There is something almost moving about seeing ballets danced in a style that transports you to another time, filled with steps that have fallen into disuse, expressing feelings and manners both remote and perfectly legible. And to see them danced in a way that feels very much alive, almost familiar. Watching the Danes dance Bournonville isn’t like walking through a museum of ballet, each step explicated and treated with veneration. It’s the thing itself.
Experts will lament—and surely with some justification—that the Danes aren’t what they once were, that the style isn’t quite as clean or as vivid or honest as it was in the past. (This is an eternal truth in ballet, and happens all the time with Balanchine.) I don’t question the veracity of their memories. Nor do I think that excerpts are an ideal means to present the work of a choreographer who was mostly interested in telling stories. And yet, despite all this, what is left—the steps and the way they are danced— is enough to nourish the eye and the heart.
Last night we saw choreography of devilish complexity performed with ease and confidence. The feet never stopped moving; the legs beat together in the air in every possible combination. The dancers’ trajectories zig-zagged across the stage. They were never still. Each step or jump derived its impetus from the last, propelled by a springy plié that must come with a dose of caffeine for the muscles. Don’t they ever get tired? As Bournonville wrote in his memoirs: “So-called ‘difficult’ feats can be executed by countless adepts but the appearance of ease is achieved only by the chosen few.”
Danish jumps are buoyant and lilting; for the most part, they go up and they go down, rather than travel great long distances. Sometimes, a dancer seems to hover for an extra beat in the air, as if to offer the audience another chance to see all the marvelous things he is doing with his feet. You feel the movement in your own body, just as you feel the current of a Venetian canal while riding in a gondola. And the women do as much as the men. In fact, a particular source of pleasure is the incredible articulation of the women’s feet as they rise up on point or come down from it, or when they execute steps in demi-relevé. Their feet are as expressive as their arms, which have a sensitive, breathing quality.
This was particularly true of Gudrun Bojesen, the senior ballerina of the group (she will be retiring in a year or so). Bournonville flows through her veins. Her great aunt, Edel Pedersen, entered the Royal Danish school in 1908 and was a member of the corps de ballet, then a character dancer, for 50 years. She taught ballet to the Danish queen and her sisters when they were little girls. As Bojesen told me when I was doing research for my Times article, “these days, when the queen comes to the ballet, she puts her hair like my great aunt.”
All this aside, Bojesen’s rendition of the Sylph in the second act of La Sylphide had a lilting cadence and un-mannered purity that is rare in our time. Her arms sing, but the melody is beguiling and soft, without coloratura flourishes. Her fingers seem to caress the air. Her eyes speak. Every emotion is crystal-clear. The scene in which her beloved—but callow—James wraps her arms in a poisoned scarf, accidentally imprisoning and killing her, was wrenching. To sit there and watch this gentle creature’s wings fall off felt almost obscene.
Her James was the principal dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer, a very appealing dancer and the leader of this traveling band. Birkkjaer has natural stage presence and an eloquent face. And he phrases his dancing beautifully, stretching a movement to give it tension, using the transitions between steps to highlight the relationship between the choreography and the music. Another dancer with this ability is the younger corps-member Andreas Kaas, who performed the “Flower Festival in Genzano” pas de deux with Ida Praetorius (soloist). Both maximized the duet’s charming give-and-take. Musicality abounds among these dancers; two others who deserve mention in this respect are Femke Slot (soloist) and Caroline Baldwin (corps), featured in the finale from Napoli. The “Jockey Dance,” in which two men compete for our attention before galloping off into the wings, was performed with cheeky élan by the up-and-comer Sebastian Haynes and Marcin Kupinski.
Not every piece made the same impression. The opening number, a pas de sept from A Folk Tale was a little tight. Most likely the result of opening-night nerves. And the excerpt from Konservatoriet (a pas de trois) was too brief to make a case for the ballet as a whole. I missed the forest glade in Sylphide, and the full contingent of sylphs, as well as the wedding party at end of the ballet, proof that life goes on and that one man’s tragedy is another man’s path to happiness. As consolation, we had Sorella Englund, a veteran of the Danish stage, in the role of the spiteful sorceress Madge. This tiny woman filled the Joyce with her malice, forcing the bewildered James to his knees. There was no escaping her wrath. No, you don’t often see acting like this at the ballet.