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Film of Royal Danish Ballet Performing "Abdallah" at the Ken

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This might go better in Ballet History, as it is a film and not a performance, but this is the place for reviews, so I thought I'd put this here first.

The Kennedy Center is showing a series called "Lost and Found" in which it shows modern films of reconstructed ballets that were considered lost. The other two that will be shown are Excelsior and Die Puppenfee (The Fairy Doll). Monday, June, 2nd was supposed to be "Sylvia," but the war in Iraq interfered with negotiations between the Kennedy Center and the Paris Opéra.

Abdallah was choreographed by August Bournonville in 1855 in Vienna. It has been reconstructed by Toni Lander, Bruce Marks, and Fleming Ryberg from Bournonville's notes. In the last century, it has been performed at Ballet West, Boston Ballet, and the Royal Danish Ballet, being added to each time as new material was found. The film I saw was of the Royal Danish Ballet from the 1990s, and Abdallah will be performed at the Kennedy Center the next time the RDB visits in an even more accurate version, as new notes have been found in Vienna.

The plot rivals Le Corsaire in exoticism and complexity, and between acts I and II we were shown short film clips of Danish dancers from 1902-1906, so I am going to try to write this as accurately as possible, but I may leave some details out.

Plot Synopsis:

Act I:

The ballet takes place in Basra, a town in the Near East. The town square is filled with people as Abdallah, the hero of the ballet, enters. As he is talking to his friend, Irma, known as the "Gazelle of Basra" enters, and Abdallah asks her and her two friends to dance. They perform a pas de trois, and Irma and Abdallah fall in love. Irma gives him her necklace as a token of her devotion. Her mother, however, opposes the union and forces Irma to put on a veil and go back inside. After they reenter the house, an army invades the town, seeking to kill the ruler. They leave the square in search of the ruler, who enters the square and implores Irma and Abdallah to hide him. Abdallah takes him to a hiding place as Irma dances to distract the soldiers, who give up their mission and leave.

Act II:

The ruler of Basra is grateful to Abdallah for hiding him and wishes to thank him. Abdallah refuses money, so the ruler gives him a magic candelabrum with five candles. Each time Abdallah lights a candle, he gets a wish, but the ruler warns him that he must not light the last candle. The ruler leaves to resume his rightful place in the palace, and Abdallah lights a candle and wishes for new clothes. Four genies appear to grant his wish. He then lights the second candle and wishes for a palace with servants. For a while, he is satisfied as the servants lay a feast and dance for him, but then he lights the third candle and wishes for wine and a harem, which appear behind the back wall of the stage. The girls dance for him, and he performs a pas de chale with the main harem girl. However, Irma and her mother enter. Her mother is very impressed by Abdallah's apparent wealth and status and urges Irma to marry Abdallah. However, the harem girl appears, and Irma is unhappy at Abdallah's faithlessness. He tells her she can join the harem, but she and her mother will have none of that and Irma leaves distraught. Her mother, though, stays to scold Abdallah, and he lights the fourth candle wishing for her to disappear. She burns up and sinks into the floor. He celebrates with the harem girls and his servants and thoughtlessly lights the last candle. Everything goes dark. Because of his greed, he has lost everything and is restored to his former status.

Act III:

The ruler of Basra's palace.

Everyone is celebrating because the ruler has been restored. Irma and her friends dance a pas de cinq with two of the court gentlemen. They play with a servant boy, and the men dress him up as a girl. He dances with Irma, but the head servant soon enters and Irma throws a veil over the boy to hide him. He is discovered, and flees the room with Irma. Irma confides to the ruler that she is unhappy at Abdallah's faithlessness and he concocts a plan to reconcile the two. Abdallah is brought to the palace blindfolded. The blindfold is removed and he is shocked to see the ruler of Basra standing in front of him. The ruler tells him that he has found a girl for Abdallah to marry, and she has very beautiful feet. Irma is brought in wearing a wedding dress, veiled, and Abdallah inspects her feet. Not knowing it is Irma, Abdallah rejects her. She throws off the veil, and he recognizes her and gives back her necklace in repentance for being unfaithful to her. Touched by this gesture, she softens, and the two are reconciled and immediately married.

There were no credits, but we were told that the dancers were suspected to be Kenneth Greve as Abdallah, Heidi Ryom as Irma, and Silja Schandorff as one of Irma's friends.

The video clips from the early 20th century included the Reel from The King's Volunteers at Amager, performed by Valborg Borchsenius and (I think) Hans Beck, along with another woman. Next was a children's dance from a ballet with Elf in the title--can't remember the exact name. After that were two versions of the sylph's opening variation from La Sylphide performed by Ellen Price, then a dance by two women with unknown composer and choreographer. Then the Tarantella from Napoli by Valborg Borchsenius and Hans Beck, a "Jockey Dance," and a "gypsy" dance performed by Borchsenius. Finally, there was a grecian dance performed by four women from Orpheus and Eurydice.

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Thanks, Hans. What did you think of it :)

I would be surprised if Abdallah were Greve if this is from the '90s. It's possible, but he was with the company for only a year before "Abdallah" was out of rep for many seasons. He's six foot three, though, so that's a clue. The dancers who were cast in it when I was watching it were Hubbe (also blond) and Alexander Kolpin. I believe Arne Villumsen did the premiere, but was not in the ballet long.

This is such a reconstruction and pastiche that, despite some good scenes and variations, I don't count it as an authentic Bournonville ballet, I have to say. Shame about "Sylvia"

What did you think of the Elfeldt films? (There are some steps in the gypsy dance that Ashton used in "Les Rendezvous" I think.) All the dancers in them are in their mid-40s, and they were dancing in about a five foot square and couldn't move out of camera range, but it's among the earliest footage we have of ballet dancers, if not the earliest.

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I wonder which Puppenfee they put together? There are two. One is the original, entirely Bayer score, choreographed by Katti Lanner in Vienna. The other is a pastiche cobbled together by the Legat brothers from many musical sources including Drigo, plus some of the Bayer score. The libretti of the two are vastly different. Pavlova did that latter one with her company.

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It sure didn't look like Hubbe or Kolpin--and it definitely wasn't Arne Villumsen--but I couldn't be certain it was Greve. Irma looked more like Henriette Muus, and her friends seemed to be Petrushka (sp?) Broholm and Claire Still or Karina Elver. The Harem Queen looked like Caroline Cavallo. (Had the lights been dimmed and the focus sharpened, it might have been easier to put names to faces.) I was a bit disappointed the video wasn't allowed to run long enough to watch for credits, and Hans' plot description would have been helpful for those who were unfamiliar with the ballet prior to watching it since the narration was sparse. We were given some background information that was interesting, but it was likely not particularly helpful for those less familiar with the story itself or with Bournonville in general.

I very much enjoyed seeing the Elfeldt films again; despite the physical constraints, one does see the intention if not the full execution of the choreography. And it is always fascinating to see dancers previously only known by still photos "come to life" like that!

Still, I certainly agree it is a shame we will not see "Sylvia."

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Welcome, AG. You're obviously familiar with the RDB, so, as a Bournonville fan, may I give you a special welcome :)

Muus was the first cast Irma during this period, as I remember it. I must say I don't remember the friends. I just remembered that Lloyd Riggins (who'd be subtantially taller than Muus) danced Abdallah as well. Greve is so tall, and so blond, and so serious, that I can't imagine him in that role, but anything is possible. It's also very possible that Cavallo would have been the Queen of the Harem (I saw Mette Ida Kirk and Schandorff). (And Niels Kehlet and Kirsten Simone were notable in mime roles)

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GJ's PUPPENFEE film is prob. the same one he showed at a previous dance critics association, it asserts to be the reclaimed choreography by hassreiter, the guy who gave rise to all the variants after this initial production.

w/ vienna state op. ballet.

i forget the date of the restaging, but it wasn't that long ago.

it's definitely worth a look.

here's the detailing in nypl for the perf. arts:

Puppenfee : Chor: Josef Hassreiter; mus: Josef Bayer; lib: Josef Hassreiter and Franz Gaul; scen: Anton Brioschi. First perf: Vienna, Hofoper, Oct 4, 1888.

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Didn't post what I thought earlier because it was just too much typing :D.

I liked it, although it was filled with ballet clichés (I guess they weren't clichés when the ballet was choreographed). Irma had some beautiful, intricate steps, but (and I never thought I'd say this) there was too much dancing. In a printed introduction by Fleming Ryberg that was handed out, he explained that he had cut certain mime passages that he thought were redundant or incomprehensible to today's audience, thus leaving room in the music for more dancing, which he obviously imagined and is clearly not Bournonville. Several dances went on far too long, beyond all reason. It's a cute ballet, but the plot is not terribly logical or easy to follow--you need a synopsis or a good understanding of ballet conventions and mime to comprehend it, but I suppose that's the case with a lot of ballets. The last act was particularly incoherent.

I think it's worth keeping around, but perhaps does not show Bournonville to his best advantage, though there are some lovely choreographic sequences.

I was more interested in the film clips, which I'd seen before but couldn't remember very well. It struck me that in terms of technique, we really have not come very far at all in the last 100 years. All of the dancers had very clean feet and legs, and--I can't emphasize this enough--they weren't fat. Dancers back then (at least in Denmark) were apparently quite thin without being skeletal. Use of the torso was also much more apparent--the arms moved much more easily through the classical positions, relaxed but still well formed. The positions seemed natural, not affected the way they often do today.

Ellen Price was impossibly light as the Sylphide. I think it was because of the way she used her plié, as her heels were on the floor and she did not jump very high. Her pliés were very controlled, but not deep, so while her jumps were not spectacularly high, they had more of a weightless, floating quality that I have never seen in current dancer. Maybe Asylmuratova could do it.

I did not notice the small amount of space they were dancing in, except when the camera cut off the dancers' heads. The dancers used the space they had admirably.

At the end of the film we were allowed to ask questions, and I would like to highlight one in particular: A man mentioned that when the RDB brought another Bournonville ballet to the KC, it had been 90% mime and 10% dancing. Jackson replied that when mime was done well, it was dancing, the equivalent of recitativo in opera. Could we print that on fliers and send them to all the dancers in the world, please;)?

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Thanks, Hans -- I think the steps that look like cliches are the parts that aren't Bournonville. I agree with what you wrote -- and I think this ballet is an example of why reconstructing a long unperformed ballet can be harmful. While fragments of the ballet are by Bournonville, much is not, and his plots were never incomprehensible -- but they are if you cut the mime. (Actually, to be fair to the Danes, when I saw this live I had no trouble following the story.)

After the 1979 Bournonville Festival, there was a huge interest in Bournonville and several people tried to reconstruct lost works -- long lost, dead ballets, out of living memory. None of them have been successful. (Kronstam, who was the director of the company at that time, turned all the projects down. It was Frank Andersen who brought in "Abdallah" and the really awful reconstruction of Bournonville's greatest ballet, "The Lay of Thrym," which probably killed, for all time, the interest in reviving the old ballets that, some say, really COULD be revived, like "Valdemar" which is there, in the library, steps, music, costume drawings, set designs, ready to go. Dinna Bjorn has also "reconstructed" older works -- none of them live on stage. And the more this is done, rather than enriching the Bournonville repertory or his reputation, it waters it.)

I agree with your comments on the dancing, too. The plié was the key to Bournonville dancing, and got lost during the Lander years when the plié was shortened in favor of speed. (Volkova brought the deep plié back in the 1950s.) When I learned how small the dancing space had been, I was amazed at how well they used it, but Bournonville's original theater had a stage that was, according to Patricia McAndrews, only 24 feet wide -- think of "Napoli" with all the sets and costumes and a city's worth of people, and the amount of dancing space they had was tiny. BUT part of the tradition was, as Hans Brenaa would say, "dance big, use all the space available to you."

As for the bodies, there are dozens of photos in Knud Arne Jurgenson's excellent (very expensive) The Bournonville Tradition: A Photographic Record) and I was amazed at how slim they were -- the women have layers and layers of clothes and so look padded, unless you take the time to look at their arms, faces and necks, and they're quite slim, and the men could step on stage today, except that many of them were only five feet tall.

As for mime -- well, "Pantomime is the dance of the turned in feet." It was interesting that when the Danes brought "Folk Tale" the last time the peope I knew who liked it were the modern dancers. Many ballet fans find no dance in Bournonville. Modern dancers tend to view all movement as dance -- so did Bournonville :D But there are some stagings of Bournonville where the mime is very static -- there are only a few directors who know how to make the mime dance. Otherwise, it's stop and start: Mime. Dance. Mime. Dance. That's now considered "Russian style" mime, but could be another 20th century change, and not Petipa's fault at all.

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