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Bournonville's Sylfiden

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[Note by A.T. I've broken these posts off from a thread Paul Parish posted on Dancers, called Dancer and the Dance. I'd written that I'd like to see Juliette Price de Plane dance the Sylph from Bournonville's Sylfiden; I'd seen bits of it on film.]

Alexandra, where did you see that Elfedt film? Who was Juliet Price de Plane? Does the film still exist?

You know, dancers can make tremendous effects by making hte costume move fascinatingly -- there's a majestic Flamenco dancer, Merche Esmeralda (I'm sure I've spelled htat wrong), who's as big as Jessye Norman and moves (in hte videos I've seen) very small, but hte effect is regal, shimmering and FASCINATING....

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Paul, I saw the Elfeldt films at the Bournonville Festival in 1992. They showed them on a lifesize screen, hung above the very stage on which they had danced, which was especially fun. Elfeldt was the court photographer in the early 1900s. He got a moving picture camera and walked around, looking for something to shoot, so the story goes, and decided to shoot some dancers. (On one of my walks in Copenhagen one day I went through a passageway about six blocks from the Theatre and there was a little plaque on the door that said Elfeldt, Photographer. I THINK there are still some Eldfeldts there (it wasn't a memorial plaque) but have never investigated it.)

There were several sessions between 1902 and 1908, so they are among the earliest films of ballet dancers anywhere! They were filmed in a TINY space -- the camera was on a stationary tripod, so you can imagine. And the dancers are all old: in their mid-40s. They were the stars of the early 20th century: Hans Beck, Valborg Borchsenius and Juliette Price de Plane -- also some children in the children's dance from Elverhoj (the Danish national play, choreography not by Bournonville). They have Napoli tarantella, two bits of La Sylphide (the Sylphide's solo), the reel from Lifeguards, the Jockey Dance, and some solos from opera.

Ellen Price de Plane was the niece of Juliette Price, Bournonville's favorite ballerina, who taught Price de Plane the role. (She's also the model for The Little Mermaid.)

And the Prices (pronounced Preez-uh in Danish, but Price in English) are a 400 year old theatrical family that started out in England and wound its way through Europe, ending up in Copenhagen. Juliette had two cousins ("Pas de Trois Cousines" was made for them) and Bournonville discovered them dancing at a fairgrounds performance and thought they had talent, so took them into the school. There were dozens of Prices in the Danish Theatre for the next 100 years or so, and although there none still dancing, there are two in the drama department now, I believe.

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Second photo: (The blue is the page bleeding through the photo -- sorry. I'm working with a primitive program and don't know how to fix that easily.)

These are still shots from the Elfeldt film. They are taken from Knud Arne Jurgensen's "The Bournonville Ballets: A Photogrpahic Record 1844-1933" and anyone interested in 19th century dancing should have this book!


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Well, the skirt is obviously much shorter than I remember -- I haven't seen the film in quite awhile, and what I remember are the feet!

Paul, I agree with what you say about costume. I've seen quite a few modern dance choreographers use costume as part of the dance -- one has a sense of seeing clothes dance. But I can't think of many examples in ballets created during my ballet-going days. Once, standing in the back of the Theatre watching Kermesse in Bruges, which is a very carefully matched kaleidescope of colors, I was especially struck by the last scene, where the boy with the magic fiddle that can make everyone dance uses it -- and everyone dances. Monks, cripples, old widows, peasants, even the people lashed to the stake awaiting execution. Watching it from the front, the scene is a hoot. Watching it from the back, it's a moving painting. And it suddenly dawned on me that THIS is what Noverre meant when he said that dance was a painting. It's not that it has to have programmatic content, that you take a picture and set it to life (although it can be that) but that it's a three-dimensional, moving painting. You could watch that scene, choreographed in the 1850s, as abstract art. And I wondered if Diaghilev and his friends as schoolboys had watched from the back, or high above, and seen the colors dance, and if that was the impetus, or one of them, anyway, for modern art. (There are Danish reviews as late as the 1930s that write about color as part of the ballet in the same way an art critic would write about color.)

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Another one, 1913. This is Elna Jorgen-Jensen, obviouisly posed, but so pretty I thought it worth a look.

What's interesting to me is that neither of these women are doing imitations of the Taglioni lithographs (which they would have known.) And Bournonville danced Sylphide wiith Taglioni, so he knew how she moved. He adored her -- but he didn't have his ballerinas imitate her.


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One more. This is of Hans Beck, c. 1882, when he's quite young. He is the man who saved Bournonville. Listen, for this is a hopeful tale :) He never worked with Bournonville; they missed each other by a couple of years. But he had a sense of the ballets. The repertory was in horrible disrepair -- nothing new, the old stuff done badly. Around the time of this photo, there were only six ballets given that season, and 10 ballet nights. Beck convinced the directorship to give him the company, and he revitalized it. He improved the standard of dancing, tried to save bits of Bournonville's choreography by incorporating the steps into a set of classes that were danced, one each day (Monday Class, Tuesday Class, etc.), and restaged the ballets so beautifully that even Bournonville's wife (whom Johanna Heiberg, Denmark's leading actress called "a cat of a wife" and sounds as though she would have been hard to please) thought they were good and wrote him a letter saying "You have saved my beloved man's ballets!" Beck, humble man, thought he wasn't a good choreographer -- he could do solos, but he couldn't make ballets. So he didn't choreograph (only one ballet, "The Little Mermaid" and some solos). He thought he was not Bournonville's equal, and so saved the master's ballets instead of making his own. The solos in "Napoli" are by Beck, not Bournonville. Define choreographer!

There's a story to this photo. I showed it to Henning Kronstam, who was the great James of his day (dancing it 1956-1970) and he said, "I KNEW that was the right gesture!" He had learned it in the mime classes at the theatre when he was an aspirant, but when he came to dance the role, Hans Brenaa (an exemplary stager) was directing the production, and asked Kronstam what he was doing. Brenaa thought the gesture was too effeminate and told Kronstam to drop it. (The text says "James is enraptured with delight and admiration.") So it was dropped.


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The photos are wonderful---they are so alive--they jump out at you. I also loved the photo of Hans Beck---and I have seen that clasping of the hands in the photo on men who would never be considered effeminate---to me, it's the pose of a man deep in thought.

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You're welcome, grace -- glad you liked them.

That lost gesture is a good example of what can happen with the "telephoning" that Mel was talking about on another thread (something passed from dancer to dancer, with a bit of information getting lost or distorted in each transmission.)

Brenaa was, by all accounts, a superb Bournonville stager, and he had an excellent memory -- and that gesture was being taught in the mime class as late as 1950; Kronstam first danced the role in 1956, when Brenaa was a relatively new stager. (Kronstam's James, by all accounts during this period was an adventurer, not a poet, and critics of that time went to great lengths to say how "virile" he was on stage, so I don't think Brenaa was reacting to the way the gesture was performed -- just its existence.)

I can't resist putting up this photo, Gerda Karstens, who taught that mime class to Danish aspirants between 1949 and 1955 and influenced and inspired a generation of Danish dancers. She was the Madge of Madges -- and from photos, she had an Act I Madge (a frail, harmless-looking old woman) and an Act II Madge, which I offer you below: (children, be good or Madge will get you!)


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