An evening dedicated to the work of 19th century Danish choreographer August Bournonville is like stepping into a ballet musem. I mean this in the best possible way. It informs the mind while it uplifts the spirit, inspires with its gentility and affects with its poetry. Ulrik Birkkjær, the artistic director of this group selected the dancers from the ranks of the Royal Danish Ballet for their dedication to the dance technique so associated with Bournonville’s name. And they came to the stage ready to please.

Marcin Kupinski and Izzy Matiakis in <i>A Folktale</i> © Yi Chun Wu
Marcin Kupinski and Izzy Matiakis in A Folktale
© Yi Chun Wu
This quote from the program notes perhaps best exemplifies what the night was all about: “The beautiful always retains the freshness of novelty, while the astonishing soon grows tiresome.” In an all Bournonville evening, there is no room for modern tricks and multiple pirouettes that dazzle the audience. There are no perilous overhead lifts or gasps of astonishment at impossible feats. This was a night for hardcore ballet fans to wallow in the sublime pleasure of seeing one dancer after another execute en dedans pirouettes (turning towards the supporting leg), the audience entranced with graceful refinement and the art of investing each movement with meaning. It’s as close as we can probably get to the roots of classical ballet today.

Not everything was as we would like it but it came close enough. This ad hoc ensemble, referred to as Principals and Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet, travels without sets and uses pre-recorded music... so its presentation is rather sparse. It’s not ideal but affordable.

The opening pas de sept from A Folk Tale seemed under-rehearsed and was not very well spaced but it was still a nice warm up and gave us a chance to see what Danes do best. The crisp clarity of the men’s batterie and the relaxed grace of the women’s port de bras served as a good introduction. There was also the welcome addition of Caroline Baldwin who stepped in with radiant self-assurance at the last minute to fill in for the injured Amy Watson.

The pas de deux from Flower Festival at Genzano featured the adorably engaging Ida Praetorius and her winsome partner, Andreas Kaas. Praetorius is a flirt, but never at the expense of technique. She took the stage seemingly dizzy from being too much in love but never overplayed it. A fouetté from arabesque to à la seconde and back to arabesque became an opportunity to sneak a glance at her lover rather than an academic dance step. Kaas reminded us with his dancing that even the simplest steps can portray a character. Pointing one’s foot apparently can say one is in love.

Gudrun Bojesen in <i>La Sylphide</i> © Martin Mydtskov Rønne
Gudrun Bojesen in La Sylphide
© Martin Mydtskov Rønne
In the hands (and feet) of dancers not trained in this technique, these steps can come across as old fashioned and pedantically academic. But between them, Praetorius and Kaas focused on the context and story of this pas de deux rather than simply performing the steps and it was beautiful. 

The Jockey Dance, a duet from Bournonville’s final ballet, From Siberia to Moscow, was a comic romp. Sebastian Haynes and Marcin Kupinski chased each other around in a horse race that was more about showing up one’s opponent than winning the race. Comedy is legendarily hard to pull off and these two did it with such ease and evident delight that it was a disappointment when it ended.

The second act of La Sylphide, Bournonville’s best known work internationally, was the heart of the program. It did not disappoint,with skillful story telling from the dancers. It was worth the price of admission just to see former dancer Sorella Englund take over the stage as Madge, the evil witch. She infused the role with her lifetime of experience on the stage and was both epic and elemental. Gudrun Bojesen as the Sylph was all poetic grace and ethereal elegance. The moment when she lost her wings was heartbreaking rather than just another moment in the ballet. The only off note in the whole was Ulrik Birkkjær, who seemed to struggle with the choreography, even while he delivered the character of James very well. 

 The second half of the program redeemed Birkkjær with his terrific delivery in the pas de trois from Conservatoire. It is a slight yet technically demanding pièce.

Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer in <i>Napoli</i> © Costin Radu
Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli
© Costin Radu
Birkkjær was a different dancer here, so at ease pulling off the sudden starts and stops.The evening wound up with the third act from Napoli, another one of those great showpieces that gives everyone a chance to shine and which closes with an exhausting tarantella. It is all terrifically fast and very difficult but the wonder of the Bournonville style is that they all carry their upper bodies with such relaxed poise that you never see them stressed. It looks like pure joy when they dance. The cohesiveness of the entire company stood out during Napoli, leaving one to feel that these people really care about each other and support one another’s efforts.

This evening with the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet was a welcome reminder that beauty is found in small things. These dancers do all the little steps with such attention and clarity that you end up leaving the theater wishing that anyone who ever pulled off seventeen pirouettes or a triple saut de basque in a performance would learn from these dancers and invest more time in just dancing beautifully. And it's comforting to know that there is a company taking such reverent care of the wonderful legacy of the Bournonville repertoire.