Review: Royal Danes Deliver Fresh Shots of Bournonville

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas of the Royal Danish Ballet in August Bournonville’s “The Kermesse in Bruges.” The pas de deux shows how free of sexism this mid-19th-century choreographer could be.

BECKET, Mass. — Some paradoxical time capsule hovers around or within the Royal Danish Ballet. Although the choreographer August Bournonville (1805-79) didn’t create the company, he bequeathed it such a wealth of touchingly human choreography that it remains his.

The Royal Danes, as they’re known, also perform other ballets, like “Giselle” and new creations. These vary in excellence: In 2011 it brought three modern horrors to New York before winding up with Bournonville, where suddenly the world looked right again. This week, they’re performing repertory by Bournonville and others here at the Jacob’s Pillow festival, where they’ve visited since 1955. (Their last appearance was in 2007.) Nikolaj Hübbe, himself a Pillow student in 1985 and an unforgotten principal of New York City Ballet from 1992 to 2008, was visible in the audience; he’s now completing his 10th year as the company’s artistic director.

It would be wrong to say that the Royal Danes have kept their mastery of Bournonville free of all corrosion. To name just the two points most obvious this week: Its ballerinas used to wear softer point shoes (with memorably quieter landings); and some of its bygone male dancers used to deliver double air turns alternately to right and left, a wonderful skill that has a kinesthetic effect on the viewer.

Bournonville is by no means exclusive to the Royal Danes: I’ve admired performances of his ballets by companies around the world. But the way his Copenhagen heirs deliver his work reveals a wealth of understanding that feels close to the heart of dance. These ballets make exceptional challenges on technique, yet that never seems the point. Principally they express brio, phrasing, musicality, wit, line, feeling. Some of the world’s oldest extant choreography often feels the freshest, the most innocent.

Eleven members of the company are dancing at the Pillow, in excerpts from four Bournonville ballets “La Sylphide” (1836), “Napoli” (1842), “The Kermesse in Bruges” (1851) and “A Folk Tale” (1854). The program also includes items from other ballets (“Swan Lake,” “Giselle”). The Bournonville numbers, though, are by far the danciest and most nuanced.

Also often the most modern. The pas de deux from “Kermesse” shows how free from sexism Bournonville could be. The young sweethearts Eleonore and Carelis (Ida Praetorius, Andreas Kaas, two of the most marvelous Danish dancers today) truly cooperate. They begin doing the same steps like mirror images of each other. Later, it’s often she who — sweetly, blithely — takes the initiative. On one occasion, she revolves him as he holds a statuesque position — something that’s still too much for many 21st-century choreographers but which recurs in two other Bournonville ballets.

You hardly have time to notice this because the choreography so abounds with steps. Jumps proliferate: a wonderfully diverse array, all timed to the music and presented in space so that you notice not effort but poetry. This is true of all the Bournonville ballets. At the apex of one jump, a dancer stretches his raised arm and upper body sideways as if catching a wave. In the air, the legs make beats, circles or crisscrosses that match some rapid figure in the strings. The outstretched arms that accompany those sideways leaps are kept below shoulder level, expansive but modest.

At the Pillow, the company dances to taped music, a drawback to which you grow accustomed. The program ends with the perennial pas de six and tarantella from Act III of “Napoli,” a sustained cornucopia of dance ebullience: The extroverted spontaneity of southern Italy is encapsulated by Danish classicism. Ms. Praetorius and Mr. Kaas return in this number, as do Amy Watson and Marcin Kupinski (who danced the “Sylphide” pas de deux earlier), and seven others.

It’s remarkable how Bournonville keeps the dancers looking unaffectedly themselves, whereas in other repertory elements of constraint and artifice creep in. J’aime Crandall and Meirambek Nazargozhayev bring no special insights into the familiar choreography of “Giselle” (what’s listed as a pas de deux from Act II is really a suite of dances from various parts of that act), but the Romanticism of “Giselle” isn’t too far from Bournonville: They at least maintain its drama and atmosphere.

I had less patience with the two pas de deux from “Swan Lake” on the program. The dancers — Kizzy Matiakis, partnered by Mr. Kaas in the so-called “White Swan” (choreography attributed to Lev Ivanov), Holly Jean Dorger and Jonathan Chmelensky in the so-called “Black Swan” (Marius Petipa) — looked both glib and tense. The choreography they used is, in both cases, a Soviet mid-20th-century choreographic adaptation: It reduces the poetry to standard effects. (That’s true too of American Ballet Theater, dancing “Swan Lake” this week at the Metropolitan Opera House. But the best Ballet Theater artists redeem the material’s flaws.)

A rarity was “Dvorak pas de deux,” choreographed, in an amalgam of classical and Czech folk styles, for television in 1966 by the Danish ballet master Harald Lander. Emma Riis-Kofoed and Jon Axel Fransson danced this in modern clothes (he wore jeans and T-shirt). Though they presented it with unaffected grace, they could not stop the sequences of steps from looking entirely formulaic.

I lost my heart to Ms. Praetorius and Mr. Kaas; Mr. Kupinski is another who more than honors his superlative dance lineage. Here’s hoping we soon see more of these and their colleagues across the Bournonville repertory.

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