There exists a brief snippet of La Sylphide's opening solo as performed by Ellen Price in 1903 (see above). The film might be of low video quality but the lightning fast footwork, the effortless ballon, and the charmingly modest épaulement are immediately apparent.
How does one preserve the Bournonville hallmarks of charm, grace, fast and fleet footwork, and effortless elevation in a ballet climate that now favors big jumps and flashy pirouettes? This question has been plaguing the Royal Danish Ballet since time immemorial but the miraculous thing is, for the most part, the Bournonville tradition lives on. This was apparent in the Royal Danish Ballet's brief tour to NYC this week.
I caught the final performance (1/18), a Sunday matinee on a miserably soggy, rainy day. The tiny Joyce theater was fairly packed -- a tribute to the loyalty the Royal Danes engender, despite the fact that the Mariinsky are also playing in a sold-out week at BAM. There was no scenery, no live music, just 13 dancers (and two of their biggest stars, Amy Watson and Alban Lendorf were out with injuries). But by the end of the Tarantella in Napoli the audience responded exactly how they've always responded -- almost limp with joy.
The program could have been entitled "Bournonville's Greatest Hits." All of the usual suspects were there -- the ubiquitous Flower Festivals of Genzano pdd, the pas de sept of A Folk Tale, Jockey Dance from From Siberia to Moscow, Act 2 of La Sylphide, Conservatoire pas de trois, and finally, Napoli Act III.
For the most part the dancing seemed trapped in a time capsule (in a good way). You noticed the modest arabesques, the emphasis on fast, direction-changing jumps rather than huge Russian-style diagonals, the wholesome stage manners. This was as apparent in the vets of the company (Diana Cuni, Gudrun Bojensen are both near mandatory retirement age) as the newer stars (Ida Praetorius, Sebastian Hayes). You might have thought you'd seen Flower Festivals of Genzano pas de deux too many times, but watch the joyous flirtatiousness of Diana Cuni and Ulrik Birkkjaer as they perform this chestnut and try not to smile. It's impossible.
But behind this idyllic performance were forces of change. Nikalaj Hubbe is the artistic director of the Danes and he's made it clear that he considers modernization necessary. We got a hint of this in La Sylphide. Hubbe has created a new production that's taken away the colorful kilts, the woodsy scenery (it's now set in a clinical white room), and (most importantly), the tradition of playing Madge as an old, bitter woman. In the clip from La Sylphide we saw that James was no longer in a colorful plaid kilt -- he was now in severe black. And Madge is no longer a woman. Instead, he's a male dressed in a modern gray suit. The story seems to be one of an affair between Man-Madge and (gay?) James. The ballet ends with Madge (Sebastian Hayes) and James (Marcin Kupinski) engaged in a passionate lip-lock. Madge got his man back.
The sad thing about this not just that Hubbe is abandoning one of the most beautiful, classical productions ever created, it's that none of these "new ideas" are fresh or innovative. James' attraction to the sylph and his relationship with Madge was plenty ambiguous before Hubbe's "new" take. Is James attracted to the unattainable? Exotic becomes erotic? And why does he listen to Madge? Now it's all spelled out in the most obvious way -- James is gay. Madge is his former lover. The sylph -- don't know who she is anymore. Effie? Oops. They're all distractions in this Brokeback Sylphide.
But what was remarkable was that despite the cosmetic changes Hubbe has made to the company, the style is still there. Sebastian Hayes in his dancing excerpts displayed all the hallmarks of Bournonville style: the proud ballon, the dizzying abilities to change directions mid jump, the erect posture and port de bras.
The Danish ballet-master's spirit lives.