May 30, 2015
Erik Aschengreen is the first Dane to have a doctorate in Ballet. He is also the founder of the first Danish university course in dance. He has written several books on Danish and International ballet, including a big biography on Harald Lander. He has reviewed ballet for decades and is the go to person for media and television when the need an expert comment. Erik Aschengreen Is now retired from the University. However, his engagement in ballet and especially Bournonville is as strong as ever.
In relation to the upcoming Festival, he is involved in not one, but two film projects, which will be shown in relation to the festival.
Although the festival present an amount of Bournonville, it is not officially named as a Bournonville Festival. It does appears 13 years since the last Bournonville Festival in 2005, which in its turn was 13 years later than the second Bournonville Festival in 1992, that followed 13 years after the first glorious festival in 1979.
”I have very fond memories of the first festival. Especially when Hans Brenaa´s production of ”The Kermes in Bruges” totally charmed the international panel of ballet experts. That production really sold Bournonville to the international scene. It also had an outstanding cast, led by Ib Andersen and Mette-Ida Kirk as the young lovers supported by fine cameos by Kirsten Simone, Niels Kehlet, Anne Marie Vessel and Dinna Bjørn,” Erik Aschengreen remembers.
However, Aschengreen own memories and knowledge of Bournonville and the Royal Danish Ballet goes much further back:
”Although Harald Lander wanted the RDB to primarily to dance his own creations, he at least had the dignity to preserve a significant number of Bournonville´s work.
His productions made significant cuts in the ballets, but at least they here preserved in a format suited to the audience of the period. The long mime sections was cut and the dancing given more room.”
Some decades later, Erik Bruhn with his book ”Bournonville and Ballet Technique” as well as in performances in the US not only started the international interest in Bournonville but also opened up for the discussion on how to dance and interpret Bournonville.
At home in Copenhagen, Bournonville was taught, but it was not explained or directed. The dancers knew the steps, but not necessarily the characters. Principal Kirsten Ralov did in 1979 an amazing job in getting the Bournonville schools and variations notated in both the Benesh and Laban systems.
Almost simultaneous with Harald Landers exile from Denmark in 1951, Vera Volkova, who had been hired by Lander, joined the RDB as a teacher. She did a tremendous job in learning the RDB dancers the Russian style. Having worked closely with Erik Bruhn, she had gained some knowledge of Bournonville. Although she primarily teached the Russian school, pupils like Principal Mette Hønningen stated that it was Volkova who brought the softness to the Bournonville style.
An impressively high number of Volkova´s key students including Kirsten Simone, Henning Kronstam, Niels Kehlet, Dinna Bjørn, Anne Marie Vessel and the starring team of the 1979 festival, Ib Andersen, Mette-Ida Kirk, Arne Villumsen and Lis Jeppesen are all Volkova trained.
The Bournonville Craze
The RDB had built up the Bournonville reputation though a number of international tours in the 1950ties and onwards. However, when Artistic director Henning Kronstam agreed to a Bournonville Festival in Denmark, expectations was not that high.
”The first festival became an outstanding event, and suddenly there was a market for anything Bournonville. It also led to new productions of older Bournonville ballets, almost forgotten,” says Erik Aschengreen. ”It became a bobble that would burst at one time.”
Frank Andersen, who became Artistic Director in 1985, was probably the one person most dedicated to promoting Bournonville. He had a new talented generation including Nikolaj Hübbe, Lloyd Riggins, Silja Schandorff, Rose Gad etc. for the second festival. All strong Bournonville dancers. However, it was difficult to reach the same high level as the first festival.
”Bournonville suffered a bit from overexposure. The best of Bournonville was still outstanding, however even a hit like ”Kermes in Bruges” suffered. It stopped being as charming and funny. New casts was not as spot on the first time around. Some of the added new productions did not have much to offer”, says Erik Aschengreen,” it became clear that Bournonville and the audience needed a break from each other.”
The period between the second and third Bournonville festival became one of the most difficult period in the company’s history. Following Frank Andersen came a list of short term Artistic Directors, Peter Schaufuss, Johnny Eliasen, Maina Gielgud and Aage Thordal-Christensen.
Peter Schaufuss brought in his own version of ”La Sylphide”, which failed to win the Danish audience over. In the end, Frank Andersen was brought back and a new festival in 2005 was scheduled.
This festival had the benefit on a strong group of Bournonville dancers. Principals Thomas Lund, Gudrun Bojesen, Mads Blangstrup, Kristoffer Sakurai and Gitte Lindstrøm as well as soloists Diana Cuni and Tina Højlund were all outstanding in the style and even though not all the productions were top notch, the qualities of the dancers saved the day.
In 2008 Nikolaj Hübbe, following a long career at home and at NYCB was appointed Artistic Director of his home company. Before rejoining RDB, he had directed a rather fine production of ”La Sylphide” for the RDB Company. Based on this production, it was expected that Nikolaj Hübbe would stand for a traditional view on Bournonville. That proved not to be the case:
”Frank Andersen have had talks with the American experimental choreographer and director Robert Wilson, known for radical treatments of standard works about a new Bournonville production. When Nikolaj Hübbe was appointed, he off course was asked to join the conversation.
However, he decided that he did not want to take the gamble on the Wilson project. It is very understandable. What Nikolaj Hübbe took over, was a company with much more limited resources than ever. Financial cuts was a yearly procedure. In addition, the expectations to him was than he could sell every seat at every performance. Traditionally, Bournonville has seldom been a full house supplier,” says Erik Aschengreen.
For his first season, Nikolaj Hübbe presented a collection of RDB classics: ”Romeo & Juliet”, ”Giselle”, etc. However, no Bournonville. My own interpretation was that Hübbe wanted to show that the company’s history was deep and not only based on Bournonville.
The Time Traveler
For his second season Nikolaj Hübbe made a totally new production of ”Napoli”, out with religion – in with a Fellini-inspired scenery. Love make the world go around.
”It was a bold strategy. Some key elements was lost. However, there was also several good elements. Even for a lover of the traditional second act, where Gennaro finds his beloved Teresina in the grotto of the sea king Golfo, the new take on the scene, including newly composed music, was interesting and touching,” says Erik Aschengreen.
Hübbe next Bournonville production, ”A Folk Tale” was also an agnostics and time travelling venture.
”There were also elements I enjoyed. Some of the modernizations worked very well,” state Erik Aschengreen.
However, Hübbe’s third production, again revisiting ”La Sylphide” became his most controversial production. The witch Madge became a male figure, who may have had a love affair with James. The designer Bente Lykke Møller threw out the enchanted forest and opted for a striking clean room for the second act.
”Her design was amazing. However closing the room and introducing a lighting design that did not favor the sylphs did nothing to bring the ballets qualities forward”, stated Erik Aschengreen.
Since then, Nikolaj Hübbe has hardly touched Bournonville. There has been a few productions of smaller and minor works, directed by primarily Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter.
Hübbe´s ”Napoli” has toured China and some other far away destinations. An evening with Ib Andersen´s strong production of ”Kermes in Bruges” and Gudrun Bojesen´s take on ”La Ventana” only got six performances.
A Festival with little Bournonville
When it was announced that there would be a festival this year, 13 years after the third Bournonville Festival, it was made very clear that although the festival might include some Bournonville, it should not be considered as the fourth in the row. This was a big downer for Bournonville fans like Erik Aschengreen and myself.
However, Erik Aschengreen did not take this news lying down. Instead, he got involved in the production of two film projects that will be shown at the festival. The first film showed to be a manifest on why Bournonville still should be a keystone in Danish and International ballet:
“It has been so enjoyable to work with the film maker Signe Roderik. It was my idea to include some of the international reviewers, who loves Bournonville. I think we made a strong argument for Bournonville.”
My own review read:
Making the case for Bournonville
Luckily, other forces and other artists are fighting to keep Bournonville alive and kicking.
Photographer and filmmaker, Signe Roderik followed a group of dancers at the Royal Ballet in 2015 when they performed a Bournonville programme at the The Joyce Theater in New York.
The great enthusiasm from the American audience gave her the idea of creating a film on Bournonville. The movie also includes inputs from reviewers Deborah Jovitt, The Village Voice, Alistair Macauley, The New York Times and Dane Erik Aschengreen, former reviewer at Berlingske Tidende and author of several books on ‘Bournonville and the Royal Danish ballet.
Somehow, the movie project ended up as two films. The first “Bournonville Today” focus on the current generation of dancers and Bournonville´s choreography. It includes three different Bournonville work, and each segment makes a very strong point for the quality and relevance for Bournonville then, now and in the future.
The Strengths of Youth
First out is RDB’s young stars, Ida Praetorius & Andreas Kaas in “The Flower Festival in Genzano Pas de Deux”, bringing all their youth and charm, as well as strong dancing skills. It appeared as charming and fresh as when Mette-Ida Kirk and Ib Andersen brought “The Kermis in Bruges” to live at the 1979 Bournonville Festival.
The athletic and masculine fight by Marcin Kupinski and Sebastian Haynes in the “Jockey Dance” followed. It looked as fresh as it could have been choreographed this month.
Finally, Sorella Englund and Ulrik Birkkjær performed the central confrontation of Madge and James from “La Sylphide” in practically normal clothes and no stage make up. It was mind blowing. It could have been a scene from an Ingmar Bergman movie.
In all, the three segments, supported by the reviewer´s comments makes the case for Bournonville.
He is as fresh, as talented and as indispensable as he has ever been.
The RDB at presently is subjected to cut downs, as the present government tries to reduce spending at national institutions.
For the RDB the cut downs includes that the characters dancers have lost their status of continuously employment. Instead, they will be hired for specific productions. The result so far has been that character dancer Lis Jeppesen, one of the strongest Bournonville cards have decided to retire. In the recent production of “The Nutcracker”, no character dancers was brought in. Instead, young company members performed Drosselmeyer, parents and grandparents. Two of our leading dancers actually did double duty as Sugar Plum´s cavalier and Drosselmeyer.
In addition, another issue might darken the future of Bournonville. The RDB School has had a dry spell in the production of primarily male dancers. This draught comes simultaneously with a significant number of our best male dancers choosing to go abroad. Luckily, the RDB has a strong pair of aces in the two versatile and outstanding male dancers Andreas Kaas and Jon Axel Fransson.
With the cut downs, Nikolaj Hübbe is forced to make every production a box office hit. The bureaucracy of being part of a big public institution also hits him. When RDB recently made a smash hit with Liam Scarlett´s “Queen of Spades”, it was not possible to prolong the run nor include it in the festival. Neither was it possible to include it in next season´s program. The audience will have to wait until the 2019/20 season to enjoy one of the best ballets made on the company.
However, Erik Aschengreen remained positive regarding the future of Bournonville:
“Looking back at history, we can see that even though there has been attempts on Bournonville and there have been many dry spells, still so far nobody have succeeded in killing him of. I, myself actually believes that leaving Bournonville rest for some periods is beneficial. So far, each generation, when given the opportunity, has managed to review him and add new value. Yes, looking at the present company, we see an international company, but we can also easily spot a strong group of dancers with flair for Bournonville.
I am certain Bournonville will survive and remain a key factor in Royal Danish Ballet. Taking part in the film projects, I am doing my bit for Bournonville and I hope the films will show how fresh, deep and interesting Bournonville ballets are.
Since the first festival in 1979, it has been clear that Bournonville is national and international heritage. It should not be treated like a museum object, nor should it be watered down by overexposure. The right doses should assure a healthy development. In that I put my trust.”
1.Erik Aschengreen by Henrik Stenberg
2. Nikolaj Hübbe by Christian Als
3. Gitte Lindstrøm and Ulrik Birkkjær in Napoli second act by Costin Radu
4. Gregory Dean in "La Sylphide" by Costin Radu
Copyright(s) Royal Danish Ballets and the photographers