Royal Danish Ballet: Bournonville Festival / Royal Theatre, Copenhagen / June 3-11, 2005

The evening of the final, gala, performance in the Royal Danish Ballet’s Bournonville Festival opened with Queen Margrethe II’s entering the Royal Box—as she had every night of the nine-day celebration—to smile down benignly at the audience that had risen in respectful silence at her entrance. Now she was accompanied by her consort, Prince Henrik, and, as she had been several times before, by one of her sisters, Princess Benedikte. The orchestra proceeded to play the Danish national anthem, followed by the imposing “March of the Gods,” from J.P.E. Hartmann’s score for Bournonville’s Nordic-mythology ballet The Lay of Thrym. Two significant realms of authority having thus been invoked, Frank Andersen, the Royal Danish Ballet’s artistic director, gave a speech before the curtain, which then rose on the company’s future—the children of its school, performing the elementary exercises of a profession Bournonville’s ballet-master father called “the most glorious career in the world.”

The dancing that ensued consisted of lively excerpts from ballets shown in the course of the Festival, but now, in several cases, with principals we hadn’t yet seen in the leading roles; short pieces that are all that remain of longer works, such as the beguiling pas de deux from The Flower Festival in Genzano and the cheeky duet from William Tell; and a sprinkling of historical curiosities. The brief numbers were danced, appropriately, before an enlarged engraving of the old Royal Theatre, where Bournonville did most of his work. (That house was torn down in 1874, upon the opening of the present theater, which has served the Danish ballet so well, though the new Operan, as I’ll explain in the final installment of “Total Immersion”—No. 15—now threatens to eclipse it.)

In another backward glance, fragments of film shot by Peter Elfelt in the first years of the twentieth century provided a glimpse of Bournonville dancing as it looked 100 years ago. Perhaps unintentionally (perhaps cannily), it reinforced the point that the Andersen makes over and over again when present-day Bournonville aficionados succumb to overdoses of nostalgia: The Bournonville style can’t be frozen in time but must move forward to suit today’s bodies, today’s technical capabilities, and today’s taste. (As for me, I’m guilty of the nostalgia and worried, in this death-of-poetry era, about the issue of taste.)

The program concluded with a rip-roaring performance of the third act of Napoli, with dancers of all ages crowding the stage at the ebullient climax, the most agile dividing the solo work among themselves; those of riper age taking their turn at a few phrases or banging an encouraging tambourine on the sidelines; and what appeared to be the entire student body up on the bridge from which, traditionally, the young pupils look down on the soloists performing the pas de six and tarantella and memorize their parts.

At its close, the program, broadcast live over Danish television, was greeted with a prolonged, tumultuous ovation. Balloons were duly let loose, and confetti, in the form of tiny Danish flags, rained down from above. Andersen gave the first curtain calls to the dancers. When he finally appeared for his bow, in front of the applauding ranks of performers, facing an audience that had risen to its feet (not an everyday occurrence in Copenhagen), if I’m not mistaken—I saw his face from a distance, in a dazzle of stage light—he was in tears.

I think Andersen had earned the adulation he received. Whatever quibbles one might have over some of the artistic choices (and I have several fairly serious ones), this Festival was a triumph simply as an event, and Andersen, though he has continually given ample credit to the stagers, dancers, coaches, teachers, and staff “without whom,” was the leading force in bringing it about. Who else would have thought of finishing the festivities with a glorious display of fireworks on the King’s Square, right in front of the Royal Theatre, spelling Bournonville’s name out in lights, as it were, and firing up the sky with a brilliant fantasy of explosions in which stars turn to flowers, and comets acquire rainbow tints?

Photo: Official poster for the Royal Danish Ballet’s 3rd Bournonville Festival, June 3-11, 2005, created by Peter Bonde

© 2005 Tobi Tobias