Ballet Stars
Frank Andersen coaches Stattsballett Berlin corps member Alicia Ruben during a rehearsal of "La Sylphide." Yan Revazov, Courtesy Stattsballett Berlin.

Inside the sky-lit Studio 1 at Staatsballett Berlin, Frank Andersen is just like a kid in a candy store as he leads an Act I rehearsal for August Bournonville's La Sylphide. Passing gleefully from dancer to dancer, he assigns each with a specific story to tell. "Whatever you do," he tells Alicia Ruben, a Berlin-born corps member learning the role of Effie, "don't look in the mirror. Trust me, you'll be fine. Your eyes say everything."

Since leaving his post as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet in 2008, Andersen and his team, who include his wife Eva Kloborg and longtime colleague Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, have staged Bournonville ballets for companies throughout the world. Last week, just before the Berlin premiere of La Sylphide, we caught up with Andersen to hear about his passion for sharing Bournonville's legacy, the rewards and challenges of staging Bournonville abroad, and his hopes for the future of Danish ballet.

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News
Kelsie Nobriga and Matthew Pawlicki Sinclair in rehearsal for August Bournonville's "Napoli." Photo by Yi Yin, Courtesy OBT.

This week marks a milestone achievement for Oregon Ballet Theatre: October 6–13, the company will unveil Danish choreographer August Bournonville's full-length Napoli. OBT is only the second American company to perform the full-length version (Ballet Arizona was the first, in 2015), and it is the first to build a production of Bournonville's 1842 ballet from scratch by investing in its own sets and costumes. In addition, a "dream team" of stagers with deep Royal Danish Ballet roots has come to Portland to stage the work.

Artistic director Kevin Irving notes that OBT currently only owns two full-length productions: Nutcracker and Swan Lake. He felt Napoli, which follows the love story between Teresina and Gennaro, a young fisherman, would make a popular addition to the repertoire. "It's a simple journey to a culmination that celebrates coming together in a community, and I think that's what makes it timeless," he says.

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Ulrik Birkkjaer and Susanne Grinder in Bournonville's Napoli." Photo by Costin Radu, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance.

On June 20, Royal Danish Ballet will open the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with a weeklong run in the historic Ted Shawn Theatre. The celebrated relationship between the Copenhagen-based company and the Pillow dates back to 1954, when leading RDB soloist Inge Sand stepped in to replace a dancer from another company at the last minute, resulting in her U.S. debut. Her popularity led to the company's inaugural U.S. performance at the festival the next summer. According to the Pillow's director of preservation, Norton Owen, this was also the first time that works by August Bournonville, the famed 19th-century Danish choreographer, were seen in this country. Following its success at Jacob's Pillow, RDB made its New York City debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1956, and in 1957 the King of Denmark knighted Jacob's Pillow founder Ted Shawn for his role in bringing Danish ballet to America. Over the next 20 years, soloists from RDB returned to the Berkshires frequently to great acclaim; their most recent visit was in 2007.

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Viral Videos
HM Queen Margrethe II of Denmark and dancer Fenella Cook. Photo courtesy TIVOLI, Copenhagen.

The realms of fairy tale ballets are filled with imaginary queens.

But in Denmark, the nation's real-life, reigning monarch, Queen Margrethe II, fills the stages of fairy tale ballets with her original costume and decor designs. In fact, she's been the in-house set designer for the Pantomime Theatre of Copenhagen's famed Tivoli Gardens since 2001. Her most recent work can be seen in Yuri Possokhov's Cinderella, which runs through August 27 at the Pantomime Theatre. The production is performed by Tivoli's dance company, Tivoli Ballet Theatre, which features an international roster of 18 classically-trained dancers.


HM Queen Margrethe II of Denmark watching rehearsals of "Cinderella." Photo courtesy TIVOLI, Copenhagen.

The queen is a devoted fan of ballet. She regularly attends performances and has taken lessons as an adult. She's also created artwork for decades and even illustrated the Danish edition of The Lord of the Rings. Her first ballet costume and set designs appeared in the Royal Danish Ballet's 1991 production of Bournonville's A Folk Tale.

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Ballet Stars
Alicia Alonso in "Giselle." Photo by Frank Alvarez, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Over the years, many companies have premiered works or made their U.S. debut at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and some of the world's most famous ballet dancers have performed there. This week I will give some more insights from the Pillow's extensive archives into the dancers that have graced this world famous festival's stage. Click on the links below to watch video footage of their performances.


Alonso and Bruhn performing "Giselle" in 1955. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

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News

Imagine learning a 150-year-old ballet with nothing more than the choreographer’s yellowed, handwritten notes and an unfamiliar score to go on. Now, imagine that choreographer is none other than August Bournonville. For the last month, that’s exactly what the dancers at Royal Swedish Ballet have been up to as they prepare for the October 21 premiere of Ponte Molle, lovingly reconstructed by a team of Danish Bournonville experts.

Nathalie Nordquist in Ponte Molle. Photo by Markus Gårder, Courtesy Royal Swedish Ballet.

There likely isn’t a person alive today who’s seen the complete Ponte Molle. Choreographed in 1866 for the Royal Danish Ballet (where Bournonville was director), it was last performed in its entirety in 1911. The score, by four different composers, has been stored in the basement of a library since. The two-act ballet centers on a Danish painter named Alfred, who, along with two other artists, rents a room from a widow in Rome. When the landlady’s daughters are unable to marry their impoverished suitors, Alfred devises a plan to help them out. “It’s kind of a vaudeville ballet,” says Bournonville producer Frank Andersen, who along with Dinna Bjørn, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, helped piece the ballet back together. “The first act is mostly mime. The second act is a huge celebration, with lots and lots of dancing.”

August Bournonville's handwritten notations for Ponte Molle, from 1866. Photo Courtesy Dinna Bjørn and Frank Andersen.

Reconstructing the ballet from scratch has been a painstaking process. Yet the team has one major advantage: Bournonville’s own handwritten notations. Bjørn inherited them, along with those of several other ballets, from her father Niels Bjørn Larsen, a former director of the Royal Danish Ballet. But while the legs and the floor patterns were recorded, the port de bras was not. “That’s where the four of us, who have been dancing Bournonville for 40 years, can add our expertise,” Andersen says. “We know that if a step is like this, the head and arms will probably be like that.” The dancers, too, have been allowed to offer their input in rehearsals. “It’s been an exciting ping-pong process—they see it coming alive.”

Bournonville's notations include spatial patterns and steps for the legs, but not port de bras. Photo courtesy Bjørn and Andersen.

 

In an effort to prevent Ponte Molle from looking like a museum piece, the Danish team has updated it to allow today’s technical standards to shine through. For instance, pointework as we understand it today did not exist in 1866 Denmark. “It was just quickly up-down, up-down,” says Andersen. Most of the women's choreography, therefore, was on demi-pointe. “But we will of course dance this on pointe today.” Spotting technique, too, hadn’t been developed; as a result, Bournonville’s dancers typically sailed around for one or two pirouettes. Obviously, this would not fly with a modern audience's expectations, so the choreography has been adjusted to allow for multiple rotations. “But everything will be done exactly in the Bournonville style,” says Andersen.

 

The reconstructed ballet will not be an exact replica, but there’s no questioning the importance of keeping Bournonville’s rarely seen works alive. Kudos to the Royal Swedish Ballet for commissioning this reconstruction, and for preventing Ponte Molle from slipping through the cracks. I, for one, hope we get to see this dusted-off gem the next time they tour to the U.S. In the meantime, check out the trailer below.

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss another issue.

Ballet Stars
Corps member Andreas Kaas and soloist Ida Praetorius rehearsing The Flower Festival in Ganzano. Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

Before Balanchine and Petipa, there was Bournonville. A key figure of ballet's Romantic era, August Bournonville directed the Royal Danish Ballet for 43 years during the 19th century, choreographing around 50 ballets. After his death, his successors codified his teachings into a formal pedagogical method that's still used at the Royal Danish Ballet School today. Bournonville's distinct style—highly intricate petit allégro, low and rounded port de bras, a head that follows the leading leg—aligns with his credo, in which he states that “the height of artistic skill is to know how to conceal the mechanical effort and strain beneath harmonious calm."

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"I have accomplished something and enjoyed my artistic career,” wrote the great Danish choreographer August Bournonville in the introduction to his memoir, My Theatre Life. The year was 1846, and he had been choreographing and directing the Royal Danish Ballet since 1829, but was retiring from dancing at age 41. “Now, since I have passed the halfway mark in my journey through life, I find my footprints so faint I fear they will soon disappear…. What a cruel thing it is to be forgotten!”

He needn’t have worried. This year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Royal Danish Ballet is presenting its third Bournonville Festival, June 3-11, in Copenhagen. Events include performances of nine of the master’s ballets, a closing-night gala, demonstrations of the six daily classes (which will be made available for the first time on DVD during the festival) and exhibitions in museums and libraries.

This year’s festival is an opportunity to show off what the company is famous for, but it’s also a chance for RDB Artistic Director Frank Andersen to prove that the company is back on track after a period in the ‘90s when the company endured a succession of artistic directors. 

“It has been of immense importance that we could devote two seasons to really get into our ballet’s father’s soul,” says Andersen. “It was a necessity to use some time to concentrate on his style—the ballets, steps and classes—and on the way he is taught and rehearsed, as well as on the way he is performed. To really dig into it and have every single dancer in the company feel him, feel the hardness of his steps, the difficulty of his combinations. All of their calves are hurting, but we have begun to know him.

“I’m happy that I am having the opportunity to do this because I love Bournonville. It is in my heart. For me, it’s not so much a matter of whether the tradition will go forward. I think it’s more about where ballet will go,” he adds, noting that Bournonville’s works should not be frozen in time, but should speak to succeeding generations.

This is an important moment for the RDB. These days, the company employs dancers from many countries, and its rep includes works by 20th- and 21st-century choreographers as well as Bournonville. For Andersen, maintaining tradition means keeping alive a particularly Danish way of working. Bournonville ballets have an emphasis on humanity that puts a great deal of responsibility on the individual dancers to keep the work pure.

“You can talk about it in different ways,” says principal dancer Thomas Lund. “But what Bournonville was most interested in was being honest about what you do in everything. You have to have clean work in the legs to show the musicality, and you have to have easy, very held arms on the top. That kind of technique also shapes the way you interpret your part onstage.”

The Bournonville style is all about a simplicity of presentation that doesn’t let the performer hide behind grandiose gestures.

“I think that what is so special here is not just Bournonville,” says dancer Silja Schandorff, a principal since 1992. “You have this special feeling about all of the ballets, because you have seen them and you have been a part of them since you were so young. You begin as one of the little girls and then you are one of the corps and you keep going up. It is your home, your history.”

It is not so unusual to begin at the bottom and work your way up in a ballet company—the difference in Denmark may be how early a dancer gets started on that journey. Bournonville himself began dancing as a child at the Royal Theatre (his father, Antoine, was director there). And still today, most dancers in the company enter the Royal Danish Ballet School as children. In the first act of Napoli, one of Bournonville’s most famous works, the stage bursts with human vitality. The scene is a village square in Italy where suitors vie for the hand of Teresina, the village beauty; old people warm themselves in the sun and children play. Many company members began their careers as those children.

“When I was 6 years old, and I stood on the bridge [in the first act of Napoli], I looked down and I saw [the ballerina] dancing Teresina,” says principal dancer Gitte Lindstrøm “I could never imagine being down there.” Now, she’s the one that the little ones look to with stars in their eyes.

In Napoli, a tale of the triumph of good over evil, Teresina, drowns in a storm at sea, is held captive by the sea spirit Golfo and his nymphs, but is finally saved by the faith of her true love.

“Bournonville’s ballets reflect the human story of being trapped between the mundane and the world of our dreams—our yearning for the unattainable and for pure, exalted love,” says Andersen. He encourages the dancers to aim to be “the best company in the world telling stories.” Students in the school are given mime classes, but once in the company, they receive guidance from “character dancers.” (At the RDB, selected dancers over the required retirement age of 40 remain to perform the mime roles that are in every Bournonville ballet.)

“A lot of tips and traditions get passed on that way from people like [former RDB ballerina] Kirsten Simone,” says principal dancer Caroline Cavallo, who joined the RDB in 1989 and is one of several Americans in the company. “[One of them will] pull you aside and help you out a little bit. ‘Know what you are saying,’ they’ll remind you, ‘have it in your head as a sentence.’”

But it’s not just the mime that makes the storytelling work. Because their bodies have grown up in the choreography, the dancers are free to focus on what the story is about.

“For each of us, there is a core moment,” says Gudrun Bojeson, who was promoted to principal in 2001. We build up to it and explain that more clearly. “For me in Napoli, it’s when Teresina listens to Gennaro’s [her true love’s] heart in the second act.”  (In Act II, the drowned Teresina has been turned into a Naïad, one of Golfo’s nymphs; Gennaro has come to rescue her, but she does not remember him.) “I was told that Naïads don’t have hearts, so I think that when she hears that his heart is beating, she realizes that she must be one of his kind.”

Whether it’s through the work of Bournonville, or choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky or John Neumeier, who recently created a full-length Little Mermaid for the company, telling stories that reveal that we are all of the same kind—that’s what the RDB is really about. The festival, Andersen promises, will show that the Danish master’s footprints are clearly etched in everyone’s minds. “The thing that is important for the
people who come,” says Andersen, “is that they can see that we are taking care of Bournonville and that he is alive and kicking in his own house at the Royal Theatre here in Copenhagen.”

For more information on the festival, including programming, performance schedule, as well as other events, go to www.bournonvillefestival.com.

What Is Bournonville?

August Bournonville (1805-1879), Danish dancer, choreographer and former director of the Royal Danish Ballet, created a style of dancing ballet that endures to the present. A virtuoso dancer at a time when the male dancer’s role was being reduced to just supporting the ballerina, he created parts for men that equaled those of the women.

“The whole essence of Bournonville style should be the joy of movement,” says Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, director of the Royal Danish Ballet School. “The stream of a movement never stops. I call it filigree—the feet do beats and a lot of small things, and on top are beautiful easygoing arms. It should look light, not exaggerated in any way.”

While it should look easy, it is in fact extremely difficult. To preserve Bournonville’s style, one of his successors, Hans Beck, assembled six classes, one for each day of the week except Sunday, from Bournonville’s teaching and choreography. Until 1932, these classes were used for daily training in the Royal Danish Ballet School. Now daily class is comprised of some Bournonville mixed in with the Russian/Anglo/English classes brought in by Vera Volkova in the 1950s.

Dancing peasants in traditional costumes often signal a Romantic ballet. However, they don't always consist of a three-act narrative. Divertissements are short ballets created to feature a dancer’s technical skill. August Bournonville choreographed many, including this folkloric interpretation of Gioachino Rossini’s opera William Tell. The dancers don't appear as characters, but rather perform to express the underlying joy in Rossini’s score. Darci Kistler masters this intention, seizing the stage with an unyielding connection to the music. 

 

As Balanchine’s last hand-picked ballerina, Darci is a legendary figure in the ballet world. She first danced this pas de deux in 1979 for a workshop performance at the School of American Ballet. She reprised the role as a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet in this episode of the PBS series “Dance in America: Bournonville Dances” in 1982. (Yes, she went from student to principal in three years.) Don’t be dissuaded by the simple steps of her entrance. Watch her careful attention to detail and technical ability emerge in her solo variation. Each jump contains astonishing levitation (especially in the coda) proving her ability to capture an audience through simplicity and subtle attack. 

A quintessential Bournonville piece, Flower Festival in Genzano was originally a one-act ballet choreographed in 1858 for the Royal Danish Ballet. Although the full ballet was inspired by an Alexandre Dumas tale, today only the pas de deux survives. Nevertheless, the charming love story is still apparent in this flirtatious duet, which includes an entrance, two variations and a coda.

 

In this video from 2001, a young and playful Maria Kochetkova performs the female variation from this pas de deux in Moscow. Even without her partner, Kochetkova exudes a coquettish demeanor. Just as her dainty brisés perfectly suit her petite physique—not to mention her Bournonville ballon—her endearing épaulement takes viewers in from the moment of her first preparation. Even at this early age, it is no surprise that Kochetkova would go on to become a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet only six years later. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!

Hyltin in Bournonville's La Sylphide. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

 

Tomorrow, New York City Ballet presents the company premiere of the quintessential Bournonville ballet La Sylphide, staged by ballet master in chief Peter MartinsNYCB principal Sterling Hyltin will dance the lead role of the Sylph on opening night. For Pointe's bi-weekly newsletter, we spoke with Hyltin about embodying the timeless classic.

What has embodying the Bournonville style in rehearsal been like? 

It has been wonderful from beginning to end. I admit the first week was really tough, because we're not used to dancing exactly this way. To achieve the airiness, you have to jump without your arms because you're supposed to lift them on the descent. You're really taking it all in the legs.


How would you describe your character of the Sylph? Do you feel like you relate to her in any way? 

The Sylph is innocent and pure. And she's all positivity. In general, I'm a really happy person, so I do relate to her in that sense. But I'm human, I have my bad days, so it's a little bit of mind over matter. You want to think about the positive instead of concentrating on the negative.


What are some of the challenges and hallmarks of the ballet? 

You do need to have an extra awareness of the feet at all times, and always be on your guard about articulation. Something that's been really wonderful is getting to do more pantomime. To concentrate on not just meaning love, but "Do you love me? I need to know." I'm finding little nuances that I can add to my other roles--it will really trickle into all of the repertory.


What advice would you offer to other dancers who are learning a role for the first time? 

My advice, which applies to me as well, is to enjoy every second of it. It's easy to get caught up--you want to do well, you're nervous--but you have to remember that this is why you work so hard every day. This is the fruit. You can't shy away from something you live for. Embrace it and enjoy it.

 

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