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About the Change

Royal Danish Ballet

‘A Folk Tale (Et Folkesagn)’

March 2011
Copenhagen, Opera House

by Jane Simpson

© Per Morten Abrahamsen

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At the last Bournonville Festival in 2005, A Folk Tale was billed as 'an enchanting comedy of mistaken identity' - a description which might apply very well to Coppélia, say, but which ignores the darker side of this strange, unique masterpiece. One of the aims of Nikolai Hübbe and Sorella Englund's new production is to restore the balance: traditionalists and historians may wish he'd done it by reverting to an earlier version, but there simply aren't enough traditionalists and historians to fill the big Opera House night after night, and Hübbe needs something that can hold its place in the regular repertoire rather than being brought out as an occasional treat. Compromise was inevitable, and the price of opening the ballet up to fit its new home and widen its appeal is the loss of some of its particularity and power.

But let's be clear what's happening here. Hübbe is not throwing away a hallowed staging which goes back to the original in 1854: the version he's replacing is only twenty years old and was itself the fourth new production in 40 years; and with its brightly coloured, picture-book décor by Queen Margrethe it came in for some strong criticism of its own. Nor, so far as I know, has Hübbe cut one single step which could possibly be attributed to Bournonville. He's added a few new bits, to music borrowed from other works by the ballet's two composers, and he's changed some of the stage business and some of the mime; and more importantly than any of these, he's changed the period in which the story happens.

A Folk Tale is about the conflict between normal everyday existence and the sinister underworld where the trolls and the elf-maidens live; the plot involves changeling girls and a young hero who falls in love with one of them whilst being engaged to marry the other. The original version turns on the moment when the girl stolen by the trolls encounters Christianity in a dream: but Hübbe, whose humanist leanings we've already seen at work in Napoli, has moved the action forward three hundred years or so to the later part of the nineteenth century - 'God is dead', and the girl dreams instead of the handsome young man she's briefly met in the forest. Freud is starting work around now, too, and Hübbe and his dramaturg, Ole Nørlyng, are keen on the theory that the trolls represent the unconscious dark side of the human characters. Of course they're not the first to have thought of that, but perhaps the idea hasn't been spelt out so clearly before. The programme notes go beyond the general to suggesting relationships between particular human/troll pairs - understandable in the case of the changelings (serene young lady and volatile troll), much more difficult to justify in other instances.


Marcin Kupinski in A Folk Tale
© Per Morten Abrahamsen
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

It may seem strange to find trolls still around at all as late as the 1880s - in the original version they leave for Norway for ever at the end of the piece - but part of Hübbe's thesis is that they never left Denmark and indeed are still there, as 'we can't do without them'. (And as the hero, Junker Ove, is presented as a bookish young man - a budding scientist, perhaps - for whom there are no certainties, perhaps he sees trolls and elf-girls as just some of the odder by-products of evolution.) A big troll wedding party forms most of the second act, and I was disappointed that designer Mia Stensgaard (who did the RDB's Manon) chose to present the many guests as the sort of freaks - a headless giant, and so on - who wouldn't frighten anyone over the age of 4. Her elf-maidens are a lot more scary, especially after you discover that what distinguishes these wraiths from wilis, dryads etc is that every one of them has a jagged hole in the middle of her back. Stensgaard borrows inspiration for her 'real life' interiors from the famously cool paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi, and the trolls' hall is a huge, appropriately distorted and deconstructed version, wonderfully lit by Mikki Kunttu.

One of the first things one learns about A Folk Tale is that the hero was originally a true danseur noble role - 'walk and stand', with no actual dancing at all. That tradition has been gradually eroded over the years, and with this production it disappears completely, as Junker Ove now has a big solo in the first act. It doesn't work for me, not because it's nothing like Bournonville - I'd rather have something totally different than a poor pastiche - but because it's too like countless other solos we've seen for young nobles yearning for their romantic ideal in the woods at night. It's part of the reason the ballet seems less Danish than it did before. It also affects the casting, which now goes to a couple of jeunes premiers who handle it well but might not yet have the gravitas needed for the non-dancing version. Marcin Kupinski, the first cast, looks good and has the technique he needs - his characterisation is still somewhat generic but he has plenty of time to find a more individual approach. Meanwhile he was rewarded by an on-stage promotion to solodanser (principal) at the end of the first night. (The Danes do that sort of thing really well.) At the next performance Ulrik Birkkjær really surprised me by how much his acting has improved: he seems to have learnt to use his eyes, especially, to excellent effect.


Hilary Guswiler in A Folk Tale
© Per Morten Abrahamsen
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

The stolen heiress, Hilda, is one of those apparently simple roles which must be very difficult to get just right. She has to be the embodiment of innocence and virtue but with enough spirit to plot her escape from the trolls when they try to force her into marrying the evil Diderik. Susanne Grinder is sweet but almost too self-effacing, Hilary Guswiler (still in the corps de ballet and a real hope for the future) shows a stronger character. Both of them have to fight to assert themselves against the very strong competition from Kizzy Matiakis and Maria Bernholdt, respectively, as the scandalously indecorous Miss Birthe, the changeling troll-girl unable to stop her true nature bursting through the conventional society she's been abandoned to. (The new time frame, incidentally, opens up an obvious feminist interpretation of her plight, not so clearly apparent in the medieval setting.) She ends up in a hastily arranged marriage with Sir Mogens, very dashingly played by Mads Blangstrup on the first night. But that leads on, through (... plot details too complicated to transcribe ...) to what for me is the one really bad mistake of the production. Birthe has aspirations to be a dancer and bursts into the middle of Bournonville's lovely pas de sept with a brash new solo; worse, as the other dancers make their sweetly unassuming bow at the end, hand in hand, she pushes through the line for a big curtsy with lots of comic flourishes. It gets a laugh, true, but it's a horribly bathetic intrusion and spoils the whole atmosphere. If she must have a solo, let her do it before the pas de sept starts; and maybe if she then watches the others she will learn enough grace from them to keep out of the way at the end.

The 'real' pas de sept dancers on the first night were a fine team - if I had to pick my favourites they would be Nikolaj Hansen, for his fluid stylishness, and Diana Cuni, for her amazing speed and attack. From a rather more mixed cast the next day I very much liked Alexandra lo Sardo (except for her angular wrists) and the always interesting Lena-Maria Gruber. Oh, and Alban Lendorf.


Royal Danish Ballet in A Folk Tale
© Per Morten Abrahamsen
Click image for larger version, or one that fills the browser window

That leaves the trolls. Morton Eggert was a powerful Muri, mistress of the troll-hall and mother of Hilda's rival suitors, Diderik and the good-natured Viderik. He could lose the over-exaggerated limp, though, and still dominate. Lis Jeppesen's Viderik was one of the star-turns of the last production, very sweet but steering dangerously close to cute. She seems to have changed very little for the new staging - just a little less sentimental, perhaps, but amusing all the same. Thomas Lund, making his debut in the role, goes for a quieter interpretation - he's just a nice troll. He's really touching in the scene where he has to watch Hilda, his unattainable love, finding happiness in a long (and new)romantic pas de deux with Ove: the dark night of his soul, if a troll had a soul.

So that's the gains and the losses: the bottom line is, should you go? If you've never seen A Folk Tale before, yes, definitely – it's fun and you'll see some fine performances. If you have particularly fond memories of a production before the last one, yes, probably - there are lots of good things in it - but brace yourself for a very different experience.

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