His Most Complete Choreographic Work
by Anne McClymont
?It is the mission of art in general, and the theatre in particular, to intensify thought, to elevate the mind, and to refresh the senses.?
?The most complete and best of all my choreographic works,? was Bournonville?s own evaluation of A Folk Tale. And it was indeed a successful composition. The music was supplied by two of the best composers of the day ? Hartmann and Gade ? and the story was motivated by an era in which there was great interest during the Romantic period ? the late Middle Ages.
At the beginning of the 1850s, Svend Grundtvig had initiated a systematic recording of Danish folklore ? the stories were told and written down in every little village in Denmark. But Bournonville did not credit Grundtvig as his source of inspiration, even though today Grundtvig is probably considered to be the person who made the most effort to preserve the wealth of Danish national folk tradition. Bournonville found his inspiration in a collection of national Danish songs (Nationalmelodier) published by the philologist R. Nyerup and the composer A.P. Berggren, in J.M. Thiele?s collection of Danish folk legends (Danske Folkesagn) published in four volumes between 1818 and1823 and in the tales collected by the Grimm brothers in Germany.
The Romantic artists had a passion for the national and the past ? and they had their reasons. The early part of the 19th century was a difficult time both politically and economically for Denmark, and this naturally generated a glorification of times past - but there were other good reasons. The emergent bourgeoisie needed to consolidate its cultural status and found motifs for this in national folklore. And economic growth in a rapidly expanding Copenhagen had to some extent overshadowed spiritual development. Artists interpreted their contemporary society in a purely materialistic light. Oehlenschläger?s poem about The Golden Horns (Guldhornene) is probably the most famous example of this issue ? but Hans Christian Andersen?s fairytale The Bell (Klokken) depicted the materialistic fixation of the period with humour, irony and gravity.
In the chapter about A Folk Tale in My Theatre Life (Mit Teaterliv), Bournonville makes his attitude to the present and the past quite clear: ??our practical and rather unpoetic times ? which seem about to precipitate a period of literary and artistic crop failure on the very lands that were once the richest soil of the imagination?? Art has fallen by the wayside. The poetic past has been replaced by a ?hypercritical? present, as Bournonville himself writes, and it is the duty of the artist to restore the spiritual, the poetry.
The artist saw himself as endowed by God with the ability to sense the true values and perspective in life. And this insight was to be communicated to the ordinary citizen through art.
The function of art as a formative model was something about which Bournonville felt very strongly. In his choreographic credo he writes: ?It is the mission of art in general, and the theatre in particular, to intensify thought, to elevate the mind, and to refresh the senses.? Music and dance elevate the mind and refresh the senses, but it is when the story comes into play that thought is intensified.
A Folk Tale takes as its starting point the archetypal dilemma of the folk ballad ? the transition from one home to another in the context of a wedding, where both men and women run the risk of getting into difficulties. The men might be lured under a spell by elves and the women might be carried off by disguised nixes ? and it always happens in an outdoor, natural environment, which is both compelling and mysterious. Both the elves and the nixes exert a demonic and erotic power over the victims and in most cases have a fateful impact on them ? many end in the grave.
Bournonville must have had the folk songs Elverskud (The Elf-shot) and Elverhøj (The Elves? Hill) in mind when he has Junker Ove linger at the hill after lunch with Miss Birthe, his fiancée, only to dream of another ? a beautiful and gentle Hilda, the counter-image of Miss Birthe. It is always at this point ? the moment of doubt before a wedding ? that the elves appear. For the young man in the folksong Elverskud the encounter proves fatal. He refuses to dance with the elf girl and her punishment is so harsh that he dies. He is laid in his grave on his wedding day ? followed by his fiancée and his mother. In Elverhøj, which is of a later date than Elverskud, it is God who has human fate in his hands. He lets the cock crow at dawn and the young man, who had slept by the hill, wakes from his spell ? which turns out to have been a dream ? and he counts himself lucky. The manager of the Royal Theatre, J.L. Heiberg ? who Bournonville fell out with on numerous occasions during this period, because he thought that Heiberg was trying to drive the ballet off the stage ? had experienced great success with his Elverhøj, which in Biedermeier style lets the elves? dance dissolve into dream and delusion.
Despite this, Bournonville decided to compose his own version of the story about the young man who is danced into a spell by a group of elf maidens. In an engraving from 1856, the painter Edvard Lehmann, who was also a close friend of the Bournonville family, portrayed the spellbound Junker Ove encircled by the hovering, luminous elves. Ove is briefly imprisoned in this state, but fortunately the beautiful Hilda comes to his rescue with water from a healing spring. Even though she has grown up among trolls inside the hill, we know that she is really a changeling, swapped as a baby with the temperamental Miss Birthe, who is the real troll child. The changeling aspect means that the story never becomes as seriously dangerous for Ove as the Sylphide?s enchantment is for James in Bournonville?s Taglioni-inspired ballet from 1836. But then again the Danish Romantics did not cultivate fragmentation in the same way as the French. The Danes sought for the harmony and the idyll.
Even though both Junker Ove and Hilda suspect that they are in the wrong place in their lives as the story begins, they are not able to act on their own initiative. The dream gives Hilda an inkling of this other life, and the dream by the hill gives Junker Ove an idea about the ideal woman ? but it is the crucifix and the golden goblet, two Christian symbols, which reveal the truth of the matter ? thus everyone finds their correct place. Christianity is to be thanked for the restoration of harmony. Junker Ove gets his Hilda, and the promise of gold persuades Sir Mogens to be united with Miss Birthe who, in a modern interpretation, represents the young woman with the unruly disposition unable to conform to society?s norms. She is handed over ? ?troll for gold? ? to Sir Mogens in order to continue her life somewhere else completely.
Nature is capricious ? as is human nature. Bournonville knew that ? and even though his most original works end in idyll and joie de vivre, he was also aware of the reality of fragmentation of the spirit. It is this that informs his greatest works ? from La Sylphide to Napoli and A Folk Tale. And that is why the stories still intensify thought, whilst the dance and music elevate the mind and refresh the senses.
Following August Bournonville?s death, Hans Beck took over the stewardship of the ballets, with great veneration for the celebrated master?s style. In 1894, A Folk Tale was once again on stage, in Hans Beck?s production. And it has since been passed down from generation to generation, re-read and re-staged by successive Bournonville-interpreters: Gustav Uhlendorff in 1922, Kaj Smith in 1931, Harald Lander and Valborg Borschsenius in 1941, Niels-Bjørn Larsen and Gerda Karstens in 1952, Hans Brenaa and Kirsten Ralov in 1969, Kirsten Ralov in 1977 and 1979. The most recent version of this lively folklorist ballet was produced in 1991, staged by Frank Andersen and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, with settings and costumes designed by Queen Margrethe II. A Folk Tale remains one of the ballet?s most illustrious Bournonville achievements.