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Situation at Royal Danish Ballet

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I'm posting a (l-o-n-g) Op-Ed piece I wrote that was published in the Danish newspaper, Politiken, last week (before the announcement of the new director's appointment), because several people who have seen it have said it should appear somewhere in English. So here is "somewhere"! I hope to receive later today an English translation by Politiken of a commentary by their dance critic, Alexander Meinertz, on the same subject and will post that, too.

Wanted: A Balletmaster at Kongens Nytorv

By Alexandra Tomalonis

(Politiken, June 2, 1999)

When one looks at the troubles of the Danish Royal Ballet these past seven years, one can lay the blame squarely at two feet: it’s all Hans Beck’s fault. When Beck became the Royal Theatre’s balletmaster at the end of the last century, had he proclaimed himself a choreographer and purged the repertory of the Bournonville ballets, the Royal Danish Ballet today would probably be just another mediocre national ballet company and no one would much care who directed it. But Beck had a broader vision. In one of the most selfless and heroic acts in the history of dance, Beck realized that he was not a choreographer of Bournonville’s stature and that filling the repertory with inferior works would lower the company’s technical and artistic standards. And so he became a conservator. In doing so, he gave his company a great gift, and a great burden: a legacy unequaled in ballet, and one that was as fragile and as crucial to its identity and its fortunes as Cinderella’s glass slipper. Beck restored and revived the Bournonville ballets, prepared classes that would keep the dancers in shape to dance them, and so insured not only that those ballets would survive, but that the Royal Theatre would remain a house for classical dancing. He threw down a gauntlet that few have dared challenge: unless you can choreograph something equal or better, don’t try. Someday, he reasoned, there would be another Bournonville, and when that day came, he wanted to be sure that the company would be ready.

Beck’s work as the company’s director is often underappreciated, even ignored, because he was not primarily a choreographer, but “merely” a balletmaster, and the demand for a resident choreographer in Kongens Nytorv since his time (he resigned in 1915) has been shrill and incessant. There have been two in this century: Harald Lander and Flemming Flindt. Neither produced an enduring body of work, though each was immensely popular in his day. Lander ruled the company, and the repertory, with an iron fist. He threw out nearly half the ballets Beck had cherished; ironically, compared to today’s tastes, it was mostly the weighty historical and mythological works that were deemed too ponderous for modern times and disappeared during the 1930s. But the ballets that he spared (nine Bournonville ballets and Beck’s staging of Coppelia) remained the core repertory in the same way Petipa’s did in Russia; the other ballets were nearly all Lander’s own creations. Flemming Flindt’s works were more theater pieces than ballets, and he introduced modern dance to the company, but these works coexisted with both the Bournonville repertory and other classical and neoclassical ballets, and Flindt had first-rate balletmasters on the staff to rehearse them. Beginning with Niels Bjørn Larsen, artistic directors who followed Lander built an interesting repertory of ballets that fit the company’s talents perfectly, such as Carmen, La Sonnambula, Miss Julie, Lilac Garden, Romeo and Juliet, and Onegin.

In the past few years, however, it seems the Danish ballet has lost its way. The company doesn’t look like itself any more, visitors to Copenhagen report. Productions of great works have been seriously under par, and many of the new works have neither fit the company’s personality nor measured up to its past. Most alarming to foreigners, the Bournonville repertory seems in danger of being pushed off to the side, consigned to a separate compartment, to be dragged out on special occasions, perhaps, but no longer a living repertory.

That is why the ballet world is watching Kongens Nytorv so closely this spring, as the Royal Theatre struggles to find a new director, its fourth in five years. We watch in fascination and terror, much as art lovers would eye a wrecking ball driven by an earnest apprentice lurch across St. Peter’s Square with the Sistine Chapel dead in its sights. Surely the driver knows to be careful. Surely he knows the damage he can do. Surely he’ll make that left turn just in time…but, of course, the administrators of the Royal Theater are no mere apprentices when it comes to choosing ballet directors.

The Danish ballet has a curious standing internationally. By virtue of the Bournonville ballets and its history (with Paris Opera and the Maryinsky/Kirov, it’s one of only three 18th century ballet companies with a continuous tradition), the company is ranked at the very top, one of the six or seven greatest in the world. This is an astounding achievement for a company from so small a country. It is often said that when the company is doing what it does best, it is unsurpassed. The company has had a particular genius for taking minor works that are lifeless when danced elsewhere and making them great through performance. Yet there have been those both in and outside the Royal Theatre who have wanted to change the company, apparently thinking that glitter dust is what it will take for the Royal Danish Ballet to attain international standard, as though not realizing that it already has. Unfortunately, often when it tries to make these changes, it goes about it the wrong way, discarding the traditions and the ballets for which it is honored and acquiring more of those to which it is unsuited. Of course, what the international ballet world thinks would be irrelevant if that opinion did not seem to matter so terribly much to the company, but, to put it bluntly, the Royal Danish Ballet will lose its international standing if it persists in emulating what is standard fare in Cleveland.

Many of the aspects of “international standard” to which the company and the Theater’s administration are aspiring are really sub-standards. Most ballet companies elsewhere are supermarkets compared to the Danish ballet’s exquisite boutique. They use assembly line methods to produce and stage ballets and, in many cases, seem to be dominated by the marketing department more than any artistic sensibility. Foreign ways are seductive. For the past fifty years, there has been a very vocal segment of the Danish intelligentsia pressing for revisions of the Bournonville repertory along the lines of what has been done to other 19th century ballets elsewhere, suggesting that the ballets should be periodically revived as Shakespeare’s plays and Verdi’s operas have been revived, by transporting them different places and times and adding Freudian undertones to the plots. But ballets are neither plays nor operas, and while novelty has its undeniable charms, changing a ballet -- moving Napoli to Hamburg or adding the odd rape scene to Folk Tale -- would be like painting tears on the Mona Lisa because one is tired of her smile, or cutting those four annoying notes at the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth: not a decorative, surface addition, but an alteration of their essential nature. Ballets are not merely plays with steps in them, but complicated mixtures of steps and gesture, music and drama, architecture and poetry, and tampering with one element without balancing the others is ill-advised. (It’s the choreography of the Bournonville ballets that is so admired outside of Denmark, not just the stories nor the charm of their telling.)

Although recent problems at Kongens Nytorv had been artistic rather than administrative in origin, administrators from outside the theater world were brought in to fix them -- which makes about as much sense as hiring plumbers to run the Ministry of Agriculture because of a drought. The New Team seemed to want to make a big splash, and so it hired a star, who brought with him the requisite revised stagings and international ways. But all artists are not cut out to work within the structure of an established institution, and that experiment ended rather quickly. After an interim period, during which careers flagged and ballets deteriorated, the Theatre brought in a director known for having stabilized a company in distress. This may have been ideal for a company that does not have traditions dating from the 18th century, but the Royal Theater is not a place that most outsiders could possibly understand in less than a lifetime, and so the “Help Wanted” sign has gone up again. Incredibly, to outsiders, the same people who’ve blundered so badly twice will have the chance to blunder yet again. This time, those who have lived with ballet at International Standard on a daily basis for some time now hope they will stop looking for a quick fix and select someone who can do the artistic work of the company and can lead it out of its present crisis: a balletmaster, and a Danish balletmaster, at that.

The craft of the balletmaster is a complicated one. Imagine an orchestra conductor who must teach each player his part note by note, coach him in phrasing and coloration, then not conduct the concert with the players seated, but arrange their movements to be pleasing to the eye. That is partly what a balletmaster must do in staging ballets. Only a balletmaster leader can reverse the bad, new trends. In companies elsewhere, dancers learn the steps from videos and get little or no coaching in style, or nuance, or characterization. In the Danish tradition, in the tradition of the Danish craftsman, ballets were set by hand. The balletmaster walked into the studio and put up the ballet, not from notation or videos (which began to be used elsewhere only out of necessity, in the absence of artists) but from his memory and experience. He taught the roles to each dancer, and he taught them whole: steps and style, musicality and drama, technique and atmosphere. Casting – the placing of the right dancer in the right role – has been the hallmark of the greatest Danish balletmasters, from Bournonville to Hans Beck, Harald Lander, Hans Brenaa and Henning Kronstam. Incisive casting isn’t choosing the quickest learner or fastest turner, but the person most suited to the role by temperament as well as technique. Danish balletmasters have been especially adept at creating dancers, and Danish dancers, for 50 years, have stood shoulder to shoulder with the very best dancers the world has to offer. The same cannot be said of dancers from, say, Berlin, or Australia.

While the drama and opera company directors may be primarily administrators (much like university deans), the balletmaster’s job is primarily that of an artist, and the major problem faced by the Royal Theatre for much of this decade has been the lack of balletmasters of the first rank. As recently as 1985, there were three: Hans Brenaa, Henning Kronstam, and Kirsten Ralov. By the fall of 1993, there were none. Brenaa died in 1988, Kirsten Ralov was eased out a few years later, and Kronstam was maneuvered out of the Theatre in the spring of 1993. Kronstam was the last great Danish balletmaster, and had been the central man in the studios at Kongens Nytorv for nearly thirty years. He has had no successor, and the diminution in the quality of what was seen on stage was evident from the time that he left. When he was there, however, few seemed to realize the value of what he did; it was as though the ballets somehow staged themselves. Recent stagings of Bournonville’s ballets should have put that notion to rest for all time. They have been messy, or watery, or frenetic or, if a ballet is particularly unlucky, a little of each. Some are little more than cartoons. Casting has seemed bizarre: in La Sylphide, for example, young Jameses dance Gurn and old Gurns, James. The “if you can do the steps you get the role” attitude that has spread through the ballet world like Dutch elm disease through the trees at Kongens Nytorv has also reached the Royal Theater.

At the Danish Royal Theatre, until the mid-1980s, the man in charge of the company was the balletmaster; or, to put it conversely, the balletmaster was the man in charge. He chose and cast the repertory, taught morning class (the necessary daily practice analogous to that of soccer players and pianists), and oversaw those productions that he did not actually stage himself. Administrative work was delegated, just as it would be in any organization: an assistant did the scheduling, secretaries handled correspondence. While artists may dislike administrative work (something often said about Kronstam, who hated going to meetings or making speeches, and was constitutionally incapable of complimenting naked emperors on their ties), disliking something and being incapable of doing it are very different things. It is a balletmaster who is needed now, someone who can begin the hard work of repairing nearly a decade of damage, and who will, one trusts, bring back to the company those artists still living who can help in the restoration and who can provide young dancers with badly needed models. If there is any hope of continuity, he should be someone who worked with Hans Brenaa and Henning Kronstam and Kirsten Ralov and who learned some of their secrets.

What has taken nearly 200 years to build and refine can be destroyed in a fraction of that time. There is a sense of urgency this spring. In another three or four years, nearly every dancer who has worked in any substantive way with a great balletmaster will be gone, and restoration will be all but impossible. The company needs an artist-leader now -- not a clerk, nor a p.r. man, nor a personnel manager, nor a big "name" who will use the company as a colony, nor an absentee landlord dispensing wisdom from afar, but someone who will put the company first, someone who can walk into those studios, clap his hands, and say, "Let's begin working." This time, the Theater cannot say, "But there just wasn't anyone, so what could we do?" The list of candidates has been published, and on it is at least one man, perhaps two, who have every qualification to do what is needed. There is a great fear that the Theater administrators, in their grand and proven wisdom, will not see him. The wrecking ball is geared up, poised for one terrible final blow. Is there no one in Denmark who will stop it?

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Thanks, but I doubt I'll have to worry about that! There was an editorial in the other big Copenhagen paper, Berlingske Tidende, so strong and bitter that it almost spat blood a few months ago, actually demanding the resignation of the Board chairman, Niels Jorgen Kaiser (whose term has nearly expired, but who apparently insisted on having a hand in choosing yet another ballet director) and the Theater Chief, Michael Christiansen, whose last job (this is not a joke) was Permanent Undersecretary at the Ministry of Defense. Both men are far too powerful and too well-connected to be affected by anything written in a newspaper. My only intention, to be honest, was so at least there would be a public statement that people were aware of what they had done.


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I'll just add a me-too here. I have learned so much from reading what you've written about the RDB, and where it is now. It's depressing as hell, but that's certainly no your fault.

I read about the situation in Denmark, and I think maybe, all things considered, Peter Martins has done a pretty good job here, after all.

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Just chiming in with the chorus of praise. Thanks very much for posting this. I think the point that a ballet master can lead the company without inundating the repertory with his own works is one that isn't emphasized enough these days. Please excuse my bringing a feminist issue in out of left field to say it would be nice to see a few more women in top management roles, as long as they're competent, of course.

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