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Royal Danish Ballet

See my review of the Royal Danish Ballet at

Royal Danish Ballet’s “A Folk Tale” (Washingtonian, June 9):

Ballet in Denmark goes back to the mid-18th century, when the Royal Danish Ballet was established in its home, Det Kongelige Teater in Copenhagen.

The company has brought two of its productions to the Kennedy Center this week, and the experience of Tuesday’s performance of the Danish classic A Folk Tale made it clear that the Danes are presenting ballet as one rarely sees it done here in Washington. To mark the pride of Denmark in its leading ballet company, the Queen of Denmark, Margrethe II, and her Prince Consort attended opening night, waving to the audience from their box. Not only are neither of these ballets (the second production, Napoli, opens Friday night) commonly staged, the production values of the costumes, sets, and stage effects are of strikingly high, even lavish quality. Both ballet regulars and novices to dance will be enchanted.

The ascendancy of Danish ballet goes back to a French dancer and choreographer, Antoine Bournonville. He was a student of Jean-Georges Noverre, the French choreographer who helped create the single-narrative modern ballet we know today. When Bournonville was ballet-master in Copenhagen, he had a son named August (1805-1879), who went on to become the company’s lead dancer and then choreographer. August Bournonville created most of the company’s signature ballets, which are still its bread and butter today, lending his name to a style of dance for which the company is still known. In an unsettled period at the end of the 20th century, according to ballet scholar Marion Kant, the Royal Danish Ballet struggled to balance the desire to preserve the Bournonville tradition and move into a new millennium. The company had five different directors from 1994 to 2002, and each one tried to update Bournonville in different ways. Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director since 2008, has had the most success, and he has chosen to put his updated versions of the Bournonville classics, sharing the credit with Sorella Englund, at the center of the company’s North American tour. [Continue reading]
A Folk Tale
Royal Danish Ballet
Kennedy Center Opera House

available at Amazon
N. Gade / J. P. E. Hartmann,
Et Folkesagn, Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra,
H. Damgaard

available at Amazon
N. Gade, Symphonies, Stockholm Sinfonietta, N. Järvi

available at Amazon
N. Gade, Symphonies, Vol. 1, Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, C. Hogwood

[Vol. 2] [Vol. 3] [Vol. 4]
En supplément:
There was not really any more room in the piece for Washingtonian to focus on the music of A Folk Tale, a remarkably beautiful score that I had never studied before. August Bournonville created the scenario of Et Folkesagn later in his career, premiering the ballet in 1854, and he reportedly thought of it as the best work of his life. He engaged two of the period's leading Danish composers to provide the score, J. P. E. Hartmann (1805-1900), who composed the heavily folk music-tinged Act II music for the troll underworld, and his son-in-law Niels W. Gade (1817-1890), who composed Acts I and III, both set in the mortal world. (Danish music was a family affair at the time: Hartmann's son, Emil Hartmann, also became a composer, who composed the score for another Bournonville ballet. In a bizarre turn of events in the 1980s, film director Lars von Trier revealed that he was actually the grandson of Emil Hartmann.)

Niels Gade was catapulted to the leadership of Danish music when Mendelssohn championed his music in Leipzig. As a result, Gade succeeded Mendelssohn as music director in Leipzig, but only for a brief time, as Prussia and Denmark soon went to war, with disastrous results for the Danes. Gade's music retains much of Mendelssohn's music: in A Folk Tale one can hear it the most in the Dance of the Elf Maidens at the end of the first act. Gade also brought back to Copenhagen the example Mendelssohn had set in Leipzig for the preservation of the musical past, organizing the first Danish performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Beethoven's ninth symphony (which Gade heard Richard Wagner conduct in Dresden in 1846). Gade and Hartmann both helped to create important musical institutions in Copenhagen, including the Danish Musical Society and the Copenhagen Academy of Music.

Gade was a prolific composer, known first as a symphonist and composer of tone poems for orchestra. The symphonies, not often performed outside of Denmark, have come in for recording in the last decade or two, with complete sets from the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (the group has slowly been putting together a complete Gade set), under Christopher Hogwood, and the Stockholm Sinfonietta, under Neeme Järvi. (You can listen to a sampling of the Gade symphonies on YouTube.) As far as I can determine, this is the first time that we have ever officially reviewed any of Gade's music at Ionarts, either live or on disc.

Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, Royal Danish Ballet’s ‘A Folk Tale’ has the human touch (Washington Post, June 9)

---, Royal Danish Ballet’s Nikolaj Hubbe, stepping boldly into the lead (Washington Post, June 3)

Marsha Dubrow, Royal Danish Ballet, Queen Margrethe were welcomed royally at Kennedy Center (Washington Examiner, June 8)

J. S. Marcus, A Reinvigorated Danish Ballet (Wall Street Journal, June 3)
It is intriguing to think about the crossing of Gade's life with Wagner's, seeing that they were both so interested in Norse myth. Could Wagner have known of the troll scene in the first act of A Folk Tale, where the trolls are first seen and heard inside their hill by rhythmic hammering onstage? Or could Gade have known of Wagner's ongoing work on the Ring cycle at around this time? Did Wagner know that Gade had also begun an opera, left unfinished in 1847, called "Siegfried og Brunhilde"? The closest Wagner ever got to Copenhagen was during his disastrous flight from Riga, when he and his wife Minna took a ship to escape their creditors. As they passed by Elsinore, Wagner was reportedly reminded of his youthful love of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," but Wagner had little interest in ballet. They did come into contact during Gade's travels in Germany, as mentioned above.

One final note on Nikolaj Hübbe's production: it replaced the 1991 staging by Frank Andersen and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, with settings and costumes designed by none other than Queen Margrethe II. That production was reportedly much more traditional, set in the 16th century. Hübbe adds an interesting wrinkle of class conflict, with Birthe like a spiteful aristocrat forcing the peasants to dance at her command in Act I, as well as a group of oppressed poor and lame people to whom Hilda gives her jewelry in Act III. Supernumeraries called the Blue Gendarmes enforce the power of the state and keep the peasants in line.


David Amzallag said...

Nice review! You might be interested in this link to pictures of Susanne Grinder and Marcin Kupinski in A Folk Tale:

and in this article with links to more pictures from A Folk Tale and actually also pictures from Napoli, also performed by The Royal Danish Ballet in Washington


The photographer

David Amzallag

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for sharing, David -- nice photos. I am going to see "Napoli" tomorrow and very much looking forward to it.