IS BOURNONVILLE STILL ALIVE?

Interview with Alexander Meinertz. Published on Danceviewtimes.com June 8, 2018.

“I’m a huge admirer of Bournonville’s work. In fact, I would argue that Bournonville was not just a great choreographer in the sense that he really knew how to move dancers to music in really delightful and exciting ways. In his day he was called a “ballet poet”, and I think that’s accurate: his storylines and stagings are second to none and stand out to this day for their complexity and detail.”

As it is, I don’t think Bournonville’s really seen for his true worth in this country, definitely not today

“For some reason and contrary to all logic, Danes are the ones who seem to appreciate this the least: he’s generally viewed with affection but as perhaps a bit naïve and definitely old-fashioned. We know that Balanchine and Fokine, who both worked in Copenhagen at the beginning of the 20th Century, recognised genius; it’s even said that Balanchine considered staging A Folk Tale at NYCB towards the end of his life. I find the idea endlessly fascinating and wish more of Balanchine’s thoughts on Bournonville had been documented. Perhaps then we would have listened. As it is, I don’t think Bournonville’s really seen for his true worth in this country, definitely not today”, says Alexander Meinertz.

Finding the heart of Bournonville

According to Alexander Meinertz, Liv Thomsen and Erik Aschengreen’s new film “August Bournonville – the Ballet Poet” is an example of that.

“Bizarrely, to me, the excerpts of the film shown at the Bournonvilleana Gala in connection with the RDB’s Ballet Festival played into this narrative of Bournonville as vain, petty, hypocritical man, and, at the end of his life, a rather grumpy character. Firstly, I’m not sure I agree with that interpretation: I think he was a proud man, fiercely independent, confident, temperamental – an idealist. He was an artist, what do you expect?! And secondly, because he was such a prolific and productive writer, apart from his work at the Royal Theatre, posthumously his life and character has been scrutinized to an extent that may have done him a disservice in that it has come to influence how his work is perceived. That’s a fundamental mistake. You have to look at the work itself and see what it has to say and, as with many artists, Bournonville’s work is quite often at odds with his words. His work isn’t always about what he says it is or even believes it to be.”

The film also points to his efforts on many important social issues in Copenhagen in his time, how he was a very well-read man and knowledgeable of contemporary art and literature. His ballets share many of the issues that concerned the great authors, poets and composers of his time.

I don’t believe you can actually call those productions’ Bournonville’s. Hübbe is a pragmatist and you have to be an idealist to stage Bournonville”

Alexander Meinertz sees Bournonville’s artistic work as equally important if not more important than that of his contemporaries in the other arts: “Romanticism and ballet was an exceptional fit, one realized the full potential of the other, which is part of the reason Romantic ballet continues to fascinate us.”

He’s concerned that that legacy is under severe pressure today under the directorship of Nikolaj Hübbe:

“Bournonville has effectively been displaced for some time, and the Bournonville tradition and the body of 19th century works he gave the Royal Danish Ballet has never seemed as fragile. One could argue that the legacy is lost, as it is only Hübbe’s productions of “Napoli”, “A Folk’s Tale” and “La Sylphide” – “staged freely after Bournonville” – which have been performed in recent years. I don’t believe you can actually call those productions’ Bournonville’s. Hübbe is a pragmatist and you have to be an idealist to stage Bournonville”, says Alexander Meinertz.

La Sylphide, Napoli, A Folk Tale

“In the case of “La Sylphide”, neither the libretto nor the choreographic text support the sexual conflict Hübbe focuses on as a substitute for the central and infinitely more interesting existential dualism that is at the heart of Romanticism and “La Sylphide”: A world of fantasies and dreams offering an escape from a conventional existence, as a path to experiencing an intense and mysterious higher form of reality as personified by James’ quest for the Sylph. Many of us recognize this longing, even today.”

It is not just God, Nikolaj Hübbe doesn’t believe in, it’s Bournonville himself. The two are possibly fundamentally incompatible and that’s what’s put us in a situation that poses some essential questions about how to save safeguard the legacy, not just now but in the future.

“In Hübbe’s productions of “Napoli” and “A Folk Tale”, Bournonville’s Christian faith has become the great man’s downfall. Nikolaj Hübbe has explained that being atheist, he doesn’t find the role religion plays in these two stories credible. But if you remove, as he has done, the “Kierkegaardian” moment of subjectivity in Napoli Act II, where Teresina chooses faith and is redeemed, if you remove the moment in “A Folk Tale” where Hilda recognizes her true identity and humanity by the sign of the cross, and the moment where Junker Ove recovers his sanity drinking water from a holy spring, then we’re no longer looking at the same world of ideas or values, they’re not Bournonville’s”.

“It really bugs me, and intellectually and creatively I find it to be a very lax attitude, not just because he undermines the dramatic logic of the pieces and actually turns them into the sentimental tales he supposedly wants to save them from being, but because he could so easily work with the concept and the idea of faith in new ways that could enrich their meaning and significance.”

“It is not just God, Nikolaj Hübbe doesn’t believe in, it’s Bournonville himself. The two are possibly fundamentally incompatible and that’s what’s put us in a situation that poses some essential questions about how to save safeguard the legacy, not just now but in the future. I think we’ve taken it for granted for too long. The critic Anne Middelboe Christensen first proposed the idea of a Bournonville Foundation a couple of years ago. Today, I wonder if that is indeed what is needed. Entrusting everything in the hands of one man clearly has risks. In fact, get Bournonville on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage ASAP!”

To the Manor Born

The RDB has a long tradition on how they chose the directors of the ballet company. For centuries, the tradition has been to promote a leading male star and give him very free hands:

“When you step back and think about it, that tradition truly is a relic from the past; the royal concept of the oldest son assuming the throne, or, in the case of the RDB, the premier danseur becoming the balletmaster without any consideration for whether he’s actually best suited for the responsibility.”

One can say that Nikolaj Hübbe was born to the part. On many issues, he has proven himself. The quality of the corps de ballet is impressive. He has also brought some very well-chosen ballets to the company. However, the real problem is that he can neither direct Bournonville on the choreographer´s terms nor seems to want to leave it to other qualified and dedicated directors.

A celebration of life has become a faux-Freudian work obsessed with death, an unparalleled Golden Age artwork has been lost – Act 1 is gone, simple gone, not to mention Act II

But who could save Bournonville?

Bournonville Is a World of Ideas

“Only Alexei Ratmansky comes to mind, but I have no idea! I’m reluctant even to encourage the return of the “Bournonville fundamentalists”, the previous generation. They were killing him off too, just at a different pace and for different reasons. I’ve said it’s almost better for his ballets not to be performed than for the current productions setting the new standard. Although it’s from 2009, I saw Hübbe’s “Napoli” for the first time last week. I was obviously shocked, but someone remarked, “Ah, yes, you’re seeing it with fresh eyes so you need the defibrillator, but you see, we’re used to it now”. This is very, very significant – and dangerous. It was a frightening realization of how quickly it goes.”

At present RDB has high quality dancers, however, the company is now totally dependent on a big intake of foreign dancers, who naturally has not grown up with Bournonville. The number of dancers who actually has some experience with Bournonville is dwindling. Less than five dancers on the rooster of the current company were part of the last Bournonville Festival in 2005, some of them as children. Just one Bournonville ballet has been scheduled for the coming season, Hübbe’s version of “Napoli” set in a Fellini universe.

“Why? As a filmmaker, Fellini is not even associated with Napoli. Again, it’s just a quick take in a search for a new idea, anything new, and as seems to be always the case: It’s mainly about how it looks! Hübbe’s mainstream, formulaic approach to an artistic interpretation is changing the time and setting of a ballet. Everyone does it, of course, but his choices seem to carry less conviction than most: If you think it’s done by putting a Vespa on a stage instead of a cart, you really don’t get it. In this case, instead of bringing out Truth, it’s just tacky; from the transvestite, who has replaced the street singer, to the pizza baker with a strap-on pillow under his jacket to the over-doing the make-up and hair dye to make everyone look “Italian” – even the kids’ look grotesquely tanned – to the cheesy digital fireworks during the finale. Honestly, what are they thinking?”

“But worse, a ballet that’s a celebration of Life has become a faux-Freudian work obsessed with Death, an unparalleled Golden Age artwork has been lost – Act 1 is gone, simple gone, not to mention Act II. Act II has been a challenge for generations: It has been called the Brønnum Act, because some members of the audience found it so boring they would go to a nearby bar for drinks and return to the theatre in time for the final act.”

Maybe it’s time a woman gets the opportunity to look at “Napoli” and reveal to us what happens to a person who enters the Blue Grotto in the Golfo di Napoli?”

“Firstly, I think it’s an urban myth, but it’s a great anecdote which people love to tell. The problem is the damage it has done to how the work is regarded. I ask myself if the real problem here isn’t the Danes, and I think it’s worth revisiting: Act II is the key to “Napoli’s” transcendence. Don’t forget Bournonville himself actually saw the Blue Grotto at Capri and it made the most profound impression on him. I still haven’t been myself, but a friend has, and she describes it was one of the most magical of places, one of those places where you truly stand in awe of the mystery of nature, and life. It easy to imagine how that changes a person, and that’s the experience you have to find and bring out in “Napoli”, it’s the idea of the work.”

“Crucially, it’s a metaphor for an artistic revelation as well as a spiritual one, and, remarkably, it’s Teresina who has this experience – which in Romantic works is normally reserved for the male protagonist. It’s Teresina, not Gennaro.”

“Incidentally, Gennaro is the name of the primary patron saint of Napoli – and Teresina is the name of Napoli’s female patron saint, the Catholic mystic Saint Theresa of Avila. A coincidence? I think not. Maybe it’s time a woman gets the opportunity to look at “Napoli” and reveal to us what happens to a person who enters the Blue Grotto in the Golfo di Napoli?”

Foto: Gitte Lindstrøm som Teresina og Jette Buchwald som frisøren Flora i ”Napoli” 1. akt. Fotograf: Costin Radu.

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