The Royal Danish Ballet is in town at the Joyce Theater, with an all-Bournonville program that highlights the eternal charm of the Danish style of classical ballet. The Danes don't visit very often, but when they do balletomanes turn out in droves.

Femke Slot of the Royal Danish Ballet © Costin Radu
Femke Slot of the Royal Danish Ballet
© Costin Radu

It was doing so under conditions that were less than ideal. The Joyce stage is simply too small for the flying, free, Danish style, especially those famous grand jetés that travel in an arc. This was especially evident in the first half, a compressed version of the second act of La Sylphide. Because the stage was too small for scenery or the corps de ballet, the whole thing ended up being an odd mishmash. Instead of a forest we got an aqua backdrop. The sublime dance of the sylphs was gone. The main Sylph (Ida Praetorius) was accompanied by three other sylphs and that was it. Much of the drama was incomprehensible if you didn't already know La Sylphide; for instance, the wedding music for James' abandoned fiancée, Effie, and her new husband, Gurn, plays, but there is no wedding party, no Effie, no Gurn. It's just James (Ulrik Birkkjaer) reacting to the music.

With that being said, Ida Praetorius and Ulrik Birkkjaer were an excellent Sylph and James. Birkkjaer (now a principal at San Francisco Ballet) is a sunnier than usual James. Praetorius and Birkkjaer had the requisite light jumps, soft landings and playful chemistry. But the performance of the evening was Sorella Englund as Madge. Englund played Madge not for camp, but as a woman with a deep witch's brew of feeling for James. Was it love? Obsession? Jealousy? Her expressive mime seemed to indicate: all of the above?

After an intermission, things lightened up with a hodgepodge of Bournonville's greatest hits. It was one of the conceits of the second half that dancers stayed onstage after their pas de deux was over, and watched the new dancers come on for their number, so everyone was on stage at the end to dance Bournonville's “Biggest Hit of All”, the Napoli pas de six and Tarantella.

Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gudrun Bojesen in <i>La Sylphide</i> © Dave Morgan
Ulrik Birkkjaer and Gudrun Bojesen in La Sylphide
© Dave Morgan

Before the Napoli finale there was the pas de trois from The Kings Volunteers on Amager, From Siberia to Moscow's Jockey Dance, The Streetsinger Mime from Napoli, and the pas de deux from Kermesse in Bruges. The Jockey Dance trades in Bournonville's trademark wholesome style for slapstick comedy. Two jockeys mimic the motions of racehorses; they do frog leaps, gallops, shuffles, all the while "whipping" their horses. Marcin Kupiñski and Alexander Bozinoff were fantastic as the duo with huge jumps and great comic timing.

The pas from Kermesse in Bruges manages that tricky balance of being sweet without being treacly, and cute without being cutesy. The heart of the pas is actually the solos for the Eleanore and Carelis. Eleanore's solo is full of happy glissades and light skimming sissones proving the trope that when you're in love your feet can't touch the ground. Carelis' solos are showier, as if he has to prove his love – high entrechats and ronds de jambe en l'airs. Stephanie Chen Gundorph and Jón Axel Fransson were absolutely enchanting. Both look so delicate and yet they dance up a storm.

Sorella Englund and Ulrik Birkkjaer © Dave Morgan
Sorella Englund and Ulrik Birkkjaer
© Dave Morgan

The whole stage immediately transitions to the Napoli pas de six and Tarantella. The Napoli finale didn't have the impact it usually has for a few reasons. For one, everyone onstage was still in their original costumes, which meant the Kupiñski and Bozinoff were still in their jockey uniforms, Tobias Praetorius was still dressed in the baggy fat suit of the Napoli street singer, so the tight cohesion was lessened. Also, the Joyce is too small of a stage for the flurry allegro dancing that is the Napoli finale. Several times one saw dancers looking downwards to make sure they weren't about to bound right off-stage. There were a few standout dancers. Gundorph and Fransson transitioned seamlessly into a charming Teresina and Gennaro. Astrid Elbo was stunningly beautiful in the adagio variation, Kupiñski in the second male variation. And the Tarantella finale with its banging tambourines and super-fast, joyous dancing is a surefire crowdpleaser.

At the end, the curtain went down and the crowd was on its feet. The program notes include a quote by August Bournonville that says, "The art of Mime encompasses all the feelings of the soul. The Dance, on the other hand, is essentially an expression of joy, a desire to follow the rhythms of the music." And in this short but sweet program the company proved that it can still give a masterclass in both the art of mime and the joy of The Dance.

*****