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Classic Danish Dances, Back in New York

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Jan 08, 2015

It's hard to think of dancing more guaranteed to warm an audience in the depths of winter than the program the Royal Danish Ballet's Principals and Soloists bring to the Joyce Theater next week. They will perform excerpts from the ballets of August Bournonville, the 19th-century choreographic master whose creations---the RDB's longtime calling-card---are both charming and technically demanding.

Even as the company, which has been directed by the former New York City Ballet principal Nikolaj Hubbe since 2008, has been expanding its repertoire of works by such 20th-century icons as Balanchine, Robbins, and Tharp---and commissioning contemporary ballets---it has never abandoned the multi-layered Bournonville works that have long been at the heart of its repertory. In fact, their U.S. tours (they last performed in New York in June 2011) have been dominated by those pieces, since they represent the RDB's unique heritage.

"I think all dancers who encounter Bournonville's choreography find it very difficult, a real technical challenge," says Ulrik Birkkjaer, the RDB principal dancer who is leading this touring ensemble. "Growing up in the Bournonville repertoire also teaches you a lot about how to be a real person on stage. The Bournonville style is choreographically very intricate and a big coordinational challenge. To make the phrases of movement sing, and to explore Bournonville's incredible musicality, is forever inspiring to me. It's real dancing."

Birkkjaer continues, "When dancing Bournonville I feel almost like a musician, where my body is my instrument. That is my inspiration, and then of course there are dramatic challenges. James in La Sylphide is a great dramatic part where the possibilities of interpretation are endless. Initially I didn't want to do it. I was scared of it. The ballet is such an important work for the RDB, and it has so much history."

La Sylphide, in which a Scotsman (James) forsakes his bride when lured away into the forest by the Sylph, an elusive floating figure in white, was choreographed by Bournonville in 1836 and has remained a mainstay of the RDB. It is his best known work, performed by companies worldwide. (In fact, Peter Martins will stage his 1985 production for New York City Ballet this spring, on a program with Bournonville Divertissements, a compilation first seen in 1977 but long absent from the repertory.) The Joyce program includes the central Act Two dancing for James and the Sylph, as he breaks free from his conventional domestic life to revel in the natural world she embodies.

Birkkjaer, 29, joined the company in 2004. Like all RDB dancers who trained in its school (which he entered at age six), he experienced Bournonville's ballets from his earliest student years, performing in their many children's roles. In the gloriously celebratory third act of Napoli, an 1842 piece marked by sunny Italian charm and many vivid characters, the young Birkkjaer stood on the bridge observing and waving to the dancers below. The Joyce program's most substantial excerpt offers the festive dances from that final act.

The 13 RDB dancers on this tour (which began in London) range from leading principals to young performers who hadn't yet joined the company at the time of its 2011 New York season. Birkkjaer says, "I of course asked those whom I think are the best Bournonville dancers in our company, and also wanted to give some chances to younger talents who are uniquely gifted. Remembering myself at their age, I craved any kind of challenge. So I want to give them that."

As a prelude to the Joyce season, the eminent Danish dance critic Erik Aschengreen will give a free talk, "August Bournonville and the Danish Joy of Dance," and present an overview of the Joyce performances, on Monday Jan. 12th at Scandinavia House. Aschengreen has just authored a lavish book, Dancing Across the Atlantic: USA-Denmark 1900-2014, documenting the many connections and exchanges between Danish and American dance.

Since he retired from NYCB and returned to direct the company that launched his career, Hubbe has been expanding the RDB's contemporary repertory, but also mounting new productions of the Bournonville works that significantly alter the traditional timeframe and setting, psychological motivations, and some of the dramatic elements. (New York has not yet these often-controversial productions, which are not reflected in the excerpts in the Joyce programs.)

Birkkjaer, who danced James in Hubbe's recent rethinking of La Sylphide, says, "Nikolaj Hubbe is not a man afraid of reactions. Which is very freeing, especially for an old tradition. I don't think the new productions are radical, as he keeps the steps and the spirit of the pieces intact. What he does give is fresh air. With any tradition there are good and bad sides to it. Hubbe throws it all up in the air. Of course he can't be right in all decisions, but I think the experimentation with the tradition is very valuable, not only as an artist today but also for the continuation of the art form."


Susan Reiter is a journalist based in New York City

Photo by Costin Radu

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.