Since its inception, the New York City Ballet has had close ties with the Royal Danish Ballet, which I saw recently at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in a week devoted to the performance of five ballets by its marvelous nineteenth-century choreographer August Bournonville. The most obvious connection between the two companies lies in the NYCB’s annexing Denmark’s world-class male dancers – among them, over the years, Peter Martins, Ib Andersen, and Nikolaj Hübbe – as well as the influential RDB instructor Stanley Williams. Today, however, the connection between the two institutions also lies in a shared predicament. Each company faces a dilemma – and perhaps loss of faith – concerning the custodianship of its incomparable inheritance.
Just as Peter Martins, in his current role as head of the NYCB, declares in a curtain speech, “This is Balanchine’s house,” the RDB pays nervous lip service to Bournonville – the surviving ballets and their unique, ingratiating style – all the while neglecting or misrepresenting both. RDB dancers, native as well as foreign imports, are not regularly schooled in the style, and there are no longer people who know how to mount the surviving ballets with authority and élan. Unfortunate shifts in leadership at the RDB have aggravated the erosion, while the Danes’ fatal desire to perceive themselves and to be perceived as forward-looking has resulted in a reversal of the adage “If you can dance Bournonville, you can dance everything.” Today one looks regretfully at the Royal Danish Ballet and says, “If you dance everything, you can’t dance Bournonville.”
The centerpiece of “Bournonville 2000,” as the showcase week was called, does not bode well for the master’s fate in the new millennium. A rethought staging of the 1851 Kermesse in Bruges, a romantic comedy with folkloric coloring from the Lowlands, was done by Dinna Bjørn, an RDB alum who is the company’s official “Bournonville consultant,” along with a companion in arms, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, and the theater director Jan Maagaard. Though Bjørn is one of the handful of Danes knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Bournonville style, she’s unequipped to create a theatrical experience with any panache. She has all kinds of ideas about Kermesse, but ideas are for program notes; they don’t make a show.
No doubt correct in her perception that past revisions of the ballet veered too far in the direction of farce, Bjørn has attempted to restore its moral dimension by resurrecting two discarded scenes involving the alchemist Mirevelt, the heroine’s dad. This fellow, burdened by an outsize, mangy fur coat, is assigned chores like explaining in mime – he doesn’t dance – his desire to plumb the secrets of the universe, not for self-aggrandizement but out of devotion to the glory of the cosmos. Try doing this in your living room and see if the cat understands. Presumably to keep the narrative “meaningful,” the celebrated duet between the young lovers is broken up by incursions of the populace on the town square. Needless to say, this destroys its aura of luminous intimacy. In place of the old divertissement, admittedly neither part of the ballet at its inception nor particularly effective, there is a new one – to newly composed music – that calls attention to itself in all the wrong ways, such as being set in an era conspicuously later than the time of the main action.
The most disastrous aspect of the ballet in its new version, however, is the rape of its music. The composer Kim Helweg has revamped H. S. Paulli’s score – apparently to raise its level of sophistication. In the course of the makeover, the unassuming, eminently danceable music lost an essential rhythmic coherence, frequently dissolving into unholy, shapeless sound. This misguided treatment – all too typical of the RDB’s latter-day approach to its legacy – made even the few dancers still deft in the buoyant Bournonville style lose their once-confident footing.