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Bournonville’s A Folk Tale revisited

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When I saw the first run of Hübbe’s new staging of A Folk Tale back in 2011, I was rather disappointed. Because of the visually spectacular scenery with its huge, ornate set pieces, sometimes looking like papercuttings sometimes like a bombeshelled ghosthouse, it was like the story had drowned in the oppulence of the setting, which also made the dancers look oddly small. Also, like many others have pointed out before me, this kind of ballet with more mime than dance is very ill suited by the large dimensions of the new opera house. This season they have been so wise as to move the production to the more intimate old theatre, thereby making some changes to make it fit into the smaller stage. But it still looked great, though not all to my taste – the trolls’ hill for example is far to small (and it looks too much like cardboard and perspex, when it opens).

The production was sent on tour to Aarhus between Chritsmas and New years Eve, with three performances in all, and with three different casts. I saw two of them.

My overall impression this time was that of a performance which had come to life. No matter what you think of the ideas behind the staging, no matter whether you like the scenery or not, you couldn’t help being taken in by the dancers’s highly spirited performances. Their vivaciousness and sheer joy of performing transmit to the audience with a force you can’t resist. This is a quality the RDB possesses when it is at its best: They can fill every corner of the stage with life, down to the most subordinate parts: no one is just “hanging around”, waiting for his or her turn to dance or do something.

Hübbe has wished to shed more light on the trolls than has been the case in former productions. As a consequence he pushes above all Birthe into the very centre of the drama, to the point that she and Hilda get an equal share of interest. She is even allowed an appearance and a (new) solo at the very end of the ballet, where she has finally found a place in life, where she can find an outlet for her wild troll’s spirit: as a dancer!

The RDB has at the moment a truly gifted character dancer and mime in Kizzy Matiakis, who was the Birthe of the first cast. Her “troll-ness” is coming towards us as a sheer force of nature, which she by no means can control herself. We believe her, when her body and mind involuntarily and up to the point of senseless rage revolt against the nice manners of the noble society around her. She leads a terror regime, a hated but also a very lonely person, to whom only the old nurse has emotional access (played with much delicacy by one of the senior members of the corps, Charlotte Khader). You actually feel a bit sorry for her – it is no fun being a troll among humans… When she finally meets the other trolls, it slowly dawns on her, that she belongs among these odd creatures, at first only intuitively feeling a kinship but moments later realising with a mixture of horror and relief that they are like herself. You could read all this in Matiakis’ face, a truly masterful display of mime!

Alba Nadal was a very different Birthe, focusing more on the character’s wild temperament and rebelliousness. She hasn’t the same wide range of expressions at her disposal as Matiakis, but if I hadn’t seen Matiakis first, I think I would have loved Alba Nadal’s less sophisticated and less mad troll unreservedly.

It is a matter of taste whether Birthe and the trolls in general take up too much space in this version of a Folk Tale – most of the first scene is dominated totally by Birthe, even during the peasants dance divertissements. Like in Hübbe’s new Sylphide the peasants dance stiff and joyless because they do it on the command of Birthe and under the control of two armed gendarms (one of Hübbe’s inventions). Probably in order not to spoil all the dance interludes of the scene by converting it into purely mechanical dancing, the solo dances are performed by members of a professional dance troup engaged by Mr. Mogens, Birthe’s suitor and husband-to-be. These dancers will later reappear in the pas de sept in the finale of the ballet. Alexander Stæger has created his very own concotion of slyness and slimy charm, as Mr. Mogens which made him a perfect macth for Matiakis’ Birthe. Jonathan Chmelensky made a more elegant but less significant of Mr. Mogens in the second cast.

The other trolls of the first cast were performed by Morten Eggert as Muri, Sebastian Kloborg as her elder son Diderik (in both casts) and Elisabeth Dam as her younger son Viderik. In the second cast Cedric Lambrette took over Muri and Tobias Praetorius was Viderik. I’m happy to see that Kloborg has developed into such a fine mime. To express the troll’s nature he had furthermore invented an almost acrobatically distorted body language which was hilarious to watch. Kloborg’s only weakness is that he tends to overdo things. It makes no difference who is performing Muri, as the costume is so enormous that it nearly stands between the audience and the character, only the brutality of the character comes over. But who is doing Viderik makes a big difference. Elisabeth Dam, who has created many lovely minor characters in the Bournonville repertoire over the years, is very much in line with Lis Jeppesen’s cute and softhearted Viderik. The young Tobias Praetorius has a more straightforward approach to the character, which was quite refreshing.

Hilary Gusweiler and Gregory Dean were Hilda and Junker Ove of the first cast. They match each other nicely, both tall and lean dancers with a natural air and with beautiful long lines, though Gusweiler technique is less fluent than Dean’s. Dean has a natural gift for the danseur noble roles, adding to them an endearing boyish charm, which makes them more human and emotionally accessible for the audience. In the second cast he danced in the pas de sept and did so brilliantly (only did the conductor nearly spoiled one of his solos by establishing a much too fast tempo which made it nearly impossible for him to execute the steps – maybe that was the reason why he looked so unhappy at the curtain calls afterwards).

The Hilda of the second cast was Caroline Baldwin. She has the sweetness of “the girl next door” and is a more lively and warmer stage personality than Gusweiler, who still has to work at varying her expressions. Gusweiler on the other hand is more believable as a nobleman’s daughter, her hight and beautiful long neck giving her a more “aristicratic” look.

Baldwin’s Junker Ove was the young Sebastian Haynes, whom Hübbe has given a lot of chances lately, among other things the role of Madge in the latest production of La Sylpide. A recruit of the Royal Danish Ballet School he entered the corps less than 2 years ago. That he is a dancer of extraordinary potential is without a doubt. A longlimbed dancer, who at the age of 20 has already acquired the technique of a mature dancer, powerful yet elegant and with a soaring quality to his jumps. As an actor, though, he still has some developement to go through before his acting equals the maturity of his dancing. He made a sympathetic character of his Junker Ove but still lacks the ability to establish a three-dimensional stage character. But it is, admitted, much harder to play these princely types than to do a character role. Unfortunately I didn’t see his Madge – but according to Eva Kistrup (DanceViewtimes) he actually made an interesting figure. It will certainly be interesting to follow him over the next couple of years.

Some new music has been added (taken from other works by the ballets two composers Gade and Hartmann). Some of the additions are quite harmless and fits well into the context, but one of them are a bad mistake: They have needed some more music for the scene, where Hilda calls Junker Ove back to life. For this use they have taken some of Hartmann’s music to Bournonville’s ballet “The Valkyrie”: An orchestral piece with solo harpe, solo flute and solo violin which originally accompanied a tableau of 12 maids coming out of greek temple.The sound of this music is so different from the rest of the music, that it almost hurts the ear. Many ballet scores from this time was a patchwork of music from many different sources and different composers, sometimes taken form already existing works – popular opera tunes, dance tunes etc. In a ballet like that it wouldn’t do so much harm, but A Folk Tale is, in spite of being the work of two composers, a very homogenous work, and the two composers and Bournonville collaborated closely in order to establish coherence and to aggree on musical themes that should go through the whole ballet. Therefore one should be more careful with additions than in any other of his ballets.

The choreography for this pas de deux is of course new, too. Adding choreography has been a well known practice all days, and many dancers of the company are so familiar with Bournonville that they can create steps in his style. In this case Hübbe has apparently wanted to make something more free of Bournonville, with many lifts, which you never see in a Bournonville ballet (he thought of man and woman as equals, and therefore theyshould also dance “on the same level”, so to speak). Worse, though, is the new choreography for Junker Ove’s solo just before the troll’s hill opens. It developes slowly,showing him brooding over his future, but it ends in an almost russian manner with a show off of big jumps and a series of grand jetés round the stage, as if we were in the middle of the Corsaire. Hrmpf!

In the printed programme the musicologist and art historian Ole Nørlyng, who has been Nikolaj Hübbe ’s dramaturge and artistic advisor on the production, sets out the ideas behind transfering the story of the ballet from the early sixteenth to the late nineteenth century. According to Nørlyng, the starting point was Hübbe’s association to the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi when listening to the music of Hartmann and Gade: ”There is such a beautiful light in that music. It is like the light in Hammershøi’s paintings – the dance of the dust motes...” (my translation). He is refering to a very famous painting by Hammershøi with the title ” Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams” [Danish title: Støvkornenes dans i solstrålerne]:

Hammershøi's painting

The inspiration is clearly seen in this stage photo from the 3rd act:

RDB picture gallery: A Folk Tale

It is no farfetched association, and I can easily relate from the music to the myriad of fine colours shimmering in the dust motes of the painting. It is the same light you find in Mendelssohn’s music, by whom Gade was highly influenced. But is that enough? If you transform a piece in such a radical way, you need some very good arguments, or else it is just a whim. The arguments brought out by Ole Nørlyng are not convincing and full of incongruities: He and Hübbe have settled for the 1880’es, and many of the costumes are with precise hints to this exact period and its tense political situation. An example are the soldiers in act 1, who wear the blue uniforms of the much feared government police guard which existed from 1885-1894. Hammershøi’s interior paintings, on the contrary, date from 1900 and onwards.

The same problem occurs with another source of inspiration: The paintings of the Danish painter J. F. Willumsen (1863-1958): ”A Physicist” [En Fysiker] and ”The female mountaineer” [En Bjergbestigerske], which according to Hübbe and Nørlyng should be the new Junker Ove and Hilda. The paintings are from 1904/1912 and can be seen here: Willumsen's paintings

I simply can’t relate these two modern and very 20th-century-ish people to the dreamy Junker Ove and the Hilda we see on stage. Neither do their costumes indicate anything of that kind - and I’m glad they don’t! Why then bother to write it in the programme? It is just noise.

Two other sources of inspiration mentioned by Ole Nørlyng are more clearly present in the production:
1. Freud’s theory of hysteria (and the discovery of the unconscious) (1902) and 2. Nietzsches proclamation of the death of God (1882):

The first one you see clearly visualized in the world of trolls and elfs in act 2, who display a wide scope of sexual and mental abnormities belonging to the psyciatric ward, and in Birthe’s wild fury against being forced into “normality”. The hip long slit in Birthe’s dress and her obscene display of legs tells the same story – or, more correctly, tells us what problems the society has with its own supressed sexuality. This is made further clear by the parallels drawn between the nobility and the trolls: The dress of Muri for example is a distorted version of Lady Kirstine’s dress. It is fine that they have tried to make the troll’s world more dangerous than the former production from the 1990’es, but they shouldn’t have brought it so far away from the sphere of the music and the spirit of Bournonville as they do in the party of act 2 (Hübbe calls it a rave-party): It is more like a freak show, and their cruel tormenting of three elf maids in the end (maybe they even kill them) goes far beyond anything expressed in the music.

The second one, the Nietzsche element is marked by the absence of anything religious. Like in Napoli Hübbe has replaced religion with love. To Bournonville I’m sure those two elements were not mutually exclusive. Hübbe might be right about his observations about the hammerhøisian light in the soft and colourful music of Gade and Hartmann, but it is hard to hear Nietzsche and Freud in it – really! And if the music was the main inspiration to Hübbe, or as Nørlyng puts it “the starting signal to a flood of pictures”, maybe he should have kept listening to the music and not exceed the aesthetic and emotional limits of it.

It is a strange characteristic of modern staging, that the stagers feel a need to eliminate what they don’t like themselves or what they cannot relate to personally. If the core values of Bournonville are so much against Hübbe’s own perception of the world, maybe he should leave the interpretation of his Bournonville’s ballets to somebody else, as the Danish critic Henrik Lyding put it lately..

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And if the music was the main inspiration to Hübbe, or as Nørlyng outs it “the starting signal to a flood of pictures”, maybe he should have kept listening to the music and not exceed the aesthetic and emotional limits of it.

It is a strange characteristic of modern staging, that the stagers feel a need to eliminate what they don’t like themselves or what they cannot relate to personally. If the core values of Bournonville are so much against Hübbe’s own perception of the world, maybe he should leave the interpretation of his Bournonville’s ballets to somebody else, as the Danish critic Henrik Lyding put it lately..


Thank you so much, Anne, for your detailed review, the discussion of the program notes, and for the contextual analysis.

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Thank you for your review Anne. I have to allow that I might be persuaded in the theater, but most of what I read about Hubbe's productions of Bournonville fills me with as much concern as curiosity. It does sound as if the company continues to have some wonderful dancers.

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Oh, I know, but I love those kind of unintentional giggles. I saw another one today, when predictive spelling correction said that taking more B12 would eliminate someone's margarines. (migraines)

And I think we've all seen those old advertisements for movie theater concessions that featured dancing snacks -- my favorite was the hot dog kickline.

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