Royal Danish Ballet: Bournonville Festival / Royal Theatre, Copenhagen / June 3-11, 2005 / Operan, the Royal Theatre’s new house for opera and ballet

With the Bournonville Festival, the Royal Danish Ballet looked back to the past and offered telling examples of how it intends to preserve its singular choreographic and stylistic legacy. Appropriately, the Festival performances took place at the Royal Theatre’s Gamle Scene (Old Stage), the ornate, perfectly proportioned opera house on the King’s Square for which Bournonville restaged some of his best works when it opened in 1874, towards the end of his career. Just last fall, however, the Royal Theatre opened a brand new, forward-looking opera house—sleekly modern in design, ultra-modern in its technical facilities—that has significant implications for the Royal Danish Ballet’s future.

The Opera (Operan), as it’s called, is not intended to replace the Old Stage—which has sheltered both Denmark’s national ballet and opera companies for over 125 years—but to complement it. The dimensions of its stage and its spectacular technical capabilities are considerably grander than those of the Old Stage, and its seating capacity of 1700 is more generous too. The Royal Theatre’s opera company will transfer itself lock, stock, and barrel to the new location, while the Royal Danish Ballet intends to perform in both houses—the old and the new. Bournonville’s ballets and others requiring an intimate setting will be given in the old house; “big” ballets, both old (Swan Lake, for example) and new (such as John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, recently created for the RDB) will take advantage of the spaciousness and mechanical wonders of the new quarters.

It might be observed that the Royal Danish Ballet ranks among world-class troupes for its custodianship of the Bournonville oeuvre. It has never distinguished itself internationally through productions of the nineteenth-century Russian classics. In the past it has had neither the size nor the dancers bred for the particular strength and style the job requires. Its virtues, remarkable ones, lay elsewhere—in the realms of buoyant grace, the subtle observation and communication of human feeling, and an élan that glows rather than attempting to dazzle. But, inevitably, times have changed, and the company’s aspirations are now heroic in scale and avid. The big question remains: If the RDB, responding to the opportunities and challenges the Opera offers, sets its sights on producing a Swan Lake or a Sleeping Beauty that will rank with the stagings of, say, the Paris Opera Ballet or the Kirov, will it still be able to give Bournonville his due? At the moment, it’s pleasanter to leave this troublesome question in the background and experience the Opera as a piece of beguiling architectural theater.

If, from the entrance of the Old Stage, you walk down the picturesque canal street of Nyhavn, you’ll see the imposing Opera across the water, on the island of Holmen. You get to it by boat. The ride across the water takes exactly three minutes, and the boat is merely a small ferry, but still . . .

The building itself, with its curvilinear shape and an overhanging roof that seems to float, makes you think “ship.” This is only appropriate, since the formidably costly structure was the gift of a man, one A.P. Møller, whose family made its fortune in ship building and transporting cargo over the water.

The Opera is masterly in its command of space and light and typically Danish in its harmonious juxtaposition of materials: glass (miles of it, it would seem), stone (in subdued shades of grey and sand that give it an eerie lightness), steely metal, and lovingly treated wood. The interior of the building continually echoes the curved shape of the façade. At the hub of the public space is a gigantic bowed form clad in glowing maple veneer. Fantasy suggests it’s the work of a violin maker operating on a Brobdingnagian scale. Exquisitely varied in its grain, burnished to a rich copper sheen, the wood looks as if each piece had been chosen for its singular beauty and placed so as to make a spectrum of subtle contrasts with its neighboring pieces. The convex side of this structure is the spatial and decorative heart of the building’s tiered promenades. Functionally—as if it were there merely to be useful—it forms the outer shell of the auditorium. Discovering its double life is a small but very particular delight.

At every level of the promenades—there are four of them over the ground floor—you can look out over the water, through the horizon-wide curved windows, setting your drink, libretto, or glittering minaudière on the narrow steel shelf placed at ship’s-rail height, and pretend you are on a pleasure cruise, sailing for the destiny of your dreams. You can dine on the promenades too; one malcontent observed that the Opera was conceived as a bar/restaurant with entertainment. The audience likes it, though, and dresses up marvelously to be players in the scene—the elder and wealthier in an expensively tasteful mode Scandinavian fashion has brought to a high and perfect pitch, the young with unquenchable rakish imagination.

Like the best Danish design for the home, particularly the sublime “Danish Modern” furniture of the mid-twentieth century, the Opera manages to be both austere and welcoming. Its sole concession to a lower-brow yen for glitter rests in a trio of round chandeliers—more than ten feet in diameter, I’d guess—that are suspended over the first tier. Faceted like supersized Swaroski crystals, the globes gaudily refract tones of silver, cool gold, rose, and ultramarine. A grid inside them is studded with tiny lights on stems—for all the world like a giant’s matchsticks.

From the promenades, gangways lead to the auditorium’s seating areas, adding to the visitor’s general impression of being on a luxury ship, safely ensconced in elegance, with a view of the world outside that he or she is blithely gliding past. The most splendid view of that world is to be had at the two highest tiers. That perspective best reveals the small ornate towers of Old Copenhagen, springing up from the otherwise modestly low cityscape, as if they were cunningly fashioned pop-up toys.

After reveling in the extravagant light and space of the public areas, you’re shocked by the enclosed darkness of the auditorium. The contrast constitutes a theatrical coup in itself. The interior is paneled with a Japanese-style arrangement of slatted wood in two tones of brown—deep and deeper. The wood is pierced with little lights so that, once seated, you can actually read your program, but the room as a whole, with its balconies seeming to embrace the stage as you look towards it, instills a feeling of intimacy. In this it declares its cousinship with the Royal Theatre’s Old Stage.

Turning your back to the stage and casting your glance upward, however, you see the auditorium’s second coup de théâtre. The depth of the four curved balconies creates a sense of immense sweep. This impression of vastness is augmented by the overarching vault of the ceiling (clad like the walls in striated wood). Everywhere the dark wood is pierced with tiny dots and fine lines of light, suggesting the elements that sparkle from an immense distance in a nighttime sky. The whole creates an effect of galactic grandeur.

In the intermission you can stroll the long swath of a curving outdoor promenade and, at this time of year, early June, watch the sun go down. The last fiery rays drop below the horizon just before 10:00, yet the sky remains luminous and the water graciously reflects it. This coup de théâtre by Mother Nature, co-opted by the Opera’s architect, Henning Larsen, makes you feel the universe is holding its breath.

Photos: Lars Schmidt

© 2005 Tobi Tobias