“What drew me to dance specifically is the [ability] to tell a story without the limitation of words.” – Jason Karman, independent filmmaker of Muse.
Having spent my youth from age three to nearly nineteen in a ballet studio or on a stage, dance for me can be a powerful portrayal of personal expression within a given framework. It requires no words, but uses the body as instrument. It is the means to communicate story, emotion, pattern and art. The body is the medium AND the message. But do we communicate through dance differently? Does where you are “from” impact your means of expression?
As an American currently living in Copenhagen, Denmark with my family from Portland, Oregon – the question of where you are from has been an intimately intriguing one as we grow our lives here abroad. When I learned that the Oregon Ballet Theatre was sending six of their company dancers here to Copenhagen for a week’s immersion into the famous Bournonville Method – a most Danish ballet tradition that has been practiced by the Royal Ballet here continuously since the 19th century – I was immediately curious how their “from” would color this experience. As a former season ticket holder the past six seasons in Portland, I was extremely excited to know Oregon Ballet around the world.
So many questions immediately came to mind. Does ballet or dance need translation? Does language impact dance? Do you think where you are from influences HOW you dance or how you communicate through dance? Do you think one could communicate through dance where they are from? Swirling with ideas, I knew that I wanted to connect with the Oregon Ballet dancers while they were here. They would have one week of an intensive specialized training focusing on the traditional technique, led by Bournonville masters Frank Andersen, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel-Schlüter at the home of the Tivoli Ballet.
Niels Balle, the current Director of the Tivoli School of Dance and a former principal at the Royal Ballet as well as former Director of Royal Ballet School graciously offered an opportunity to come see the training in person. The Bournonville technique is based on the style and teachings of Danish born August Bournonville in the 19th century. As it turns out Bournonville himself had an interesting from story – born in Copenhagen to an exiled French father and Swedish mother, he studied French ballet technique from his ballet master father in Denmark. He did return to France to finish his study and dance for four years with the Paris Opera Ballet, only to return home to Copenhagen where his legacy persists to this day. August was not only a principal dancer for the Royal Danish Ballet, but his choreography created in a myriad of beautiful and romantic ballets remains in many a modern company repertoire. The likes of La Sylphide, Napoli and Folk Tale are some of the oldest surviving ballets in the world and Bournonville, the uninterrupted dance tradition still in use today by the Royal Ballet in Denmark.
Bournonville technique itself is characterized by a very specific carriage of the arms and a heavy tilt to the head; a fluidity and lightness of movement with lots of quick footwork and jumping. In speaking with the American dancers, who graciously shared their lunchtime break with my daughter and me, there is a distinct difference when comparing this style to how they are used to dancing back at home in the United States, specifically Portland, Oregon. Of the six dancers here from OBT, only Jordan Kindell is a native Oregonian, having grown up in the School of Oregon Ballet. Soloists Candace Bouchard and Martina Chavez have been dancing with OBT respectively for 12 years and 9 years and have every right to lay claim to an “Oregonian” title. Company dancers Katherine Monogue, Avery Reiners and apprentice Jessica Lind are newer to Portland and OBT but could agree that the style of American trained dancers differed from the Danish technique. All of the dancers were experienced in European ballet traditions and European teachers, but none had trained IN Europe until this past month.
As an American dancer, specifically for Martina, “what we know is to be expansive and expressive and [Bournonville] is very reserved and controlled.” Candace noted that for the American dancers, corrections from teachers were, “if anything… do LESS.” She also felt that audiences in the United States appreciate a much more athletic style of dance, which they are more accustomed to performing. In a country that pours money into sports as entertainment and lifts its players to a celebrity status, she feels that athleticism in dancers is preferred. Katherine and Jessica agreed. But don’t think that Bournonville and its Danish purveyors are soft by contrast. Despite the controlled phrasing and determined posturing, Bournonville is not for the weak. In fact, everything about it is the opposite. In an effort to make it seem as if there is very little effort required, the style is harder than it may appear. Avery Reiner, one of only two male dancers here with OBT said that he enjoys this style immensely. It suits his strengths and allows him opportunity to do what he likes – lots of time in the air and complicated intricate footwork. As it turns out August Bournonville was famous for creating interesting roles for male dancers and those seasoned in the style are coveted in companies the world over. All of the jumping usually takes a toll on the male AND female dancers by the third day of focused training, with tired and taut calves confides Niels Balle as we watch from the side.
“A little more Bournonville leaning,” clarifies Danish ballet master Anne Marie Vessel-Schlüter. “Let’s mark it again!” There are always two teachers during a Bournonville Academy session and sometimes all three when Frank Andersen – head of the Bournonville Academy – is present as well. All three, including Eva, will return to Portland in the fall to help stage Act III from Bournonville’s “Napoli,” for the first half of OBT’s season opener Amore Italiano, which will balance the Bournonville old school tradition with a world premier piece by choreographer James Kudelka. Today, during their repertoire class, the dancers continued learning a section from the Bournonville’s historic ballet, Folk Tale. Why so many teachers for one class? One leads the group, demonstrating the steps and timing. The others are then able to help answer questions and fine tune or assist the individual dancers if someone is behind. The Oregon dancers are not alone here and there is a broad range of backgrounds and abilities, so the extra hands on deck appears useful to maintain the flow.
Frank takes a break from the action and pauses with me to discuss how a dancer’s from might influence their training here. His team has taught students from all over the world, often taking the academy on the road. In fact, they were heading to Tokyo the following week. According to Frank, “people approach the training differently. The Japanese will know the steps before we get there. Chinese dancers can be more laid back.” He motions to the dancers on the floor at the Tivoli Ballet today, “the students here from Oregon are very interested so they are working very, very hard.” I asked him if it ever gets tedious teaching the same thing over and over again. An emphatic, “No! Every time it is different. It is fresh with new people.” He continues that while it is “nice sometimes when people are familiar [with the technique] and just need little adjustments,” Frank is also motivated and enjoys it when people look at him dumbfounded and don’t know what they are doing. THAT is when he gets to share his joy for this style.
And his joy is clear. These are joyful ballets. Beautiful and elegant and fun, wherever you are from. Full of tradition and history. Much like life here in Denmark I realize. At lunch, we discussed how civilized the culture seems here in Copenhagen. There are obvious rules and constructs for a harmonious day-to-day life. Simple things like not crossing the street without a green light, a restrained politeness to shop exchanges and no small talk with passersby on the street; things which surprised some of the American dancers. It is true that there is a fixed pattern to life here in Denmark to which many nary stray. But, what I have found is that Danes are able to use that tradition and foundation as a means to move forward. In this city full of historic architecture alongside cutting edge design, the tenured has context, value and modernity.
How? How does studying a ballet style unchanged since the 19th century have validity today? Like an artist studying Renaissance masters, Katherine Monogue relates that learning traditional styles lays a foundation. A common language. A visual connection with the past. The dancers agreed that average audiences today can sometimes be less interested in modern ballets. They want girls in tutus or long skirts. THAT is ballet to them. Large sets, lots of dancers, a perceived story all help purvey a more easily digestible translation of dance, of ballet. It is actually the modern ballets that are harder for the less versed audiences to understand or appreciate. Some audiences get lost in the translation.
What the dancers all understand – even the Italian and Albanian and Danish and French ones – is that despite their potentially differing stylistic approaches that may be biased by where they trained, who they are and yes, where they are from – ballet is a universal language. Candace reminds us that, “everyone all over the world learns the French vocabulary of ballet, so that we all can communicate.” I for one wish that I could witness the final translation by these well-versed and trained American dancers interpreting this very Danish Bournonville ballet, set in Napoli, Italy this fall in Portland, Oregon. Wherever you are from and whatever language you know, dance is a language that we can all speak.
Special thanks to the following people; Mary DeLorme at the Scan Design Foundation – by Inger & Jen Bruun who helped fund the additional dancers’ attendance at the Bournonville training in Copenhagen. Natasha Kautsky, Marketing Director at OBT for connecting me with the dancers. Frank Andersen and Niels Balle who so graciously invited me to watch the training and answer all my questions. And of course to the dancers themselves – Candace Bouchard, Martina Chavez, Jordan Kindell, Jessica Lind, Katherine Monogue and Avery Reiners for giving me and my daughter space to share this experience with you. It has enriched our experience here and given us new perspective on our from and our new now and for that we are very grateful. Tusind tak!
Cheers from Denmark – Erin