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Henning Kronstam : Portrait of a Danish Dancer
Danser avec le Troisième Reich
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Henning Kronstam : Portrait of a Danish Dancer
(by Alexandra Tomalonis, University Press of Florida, 2002)
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For those who do not know him – and I have been told that there are dancers on the stage today in Denmark, who have never heard of Erik Bruhn - Henning Kronstam was, in the 1950s and 60s, a household name in the ballet world, alongside his contemporaries Yuri Soloviev, Rudolf Nureyev, and Bruhn.
At the outset, I must declare an interest. I am personally well-acquainted, not only with the book’s author Miss Tomalonis, but with many of its cast of characters in Denmark and abroad, though I never met with Kronstam himself. Thus, your reviewer does not properly qualify as a neutral bystander.
Be that as it may, one finds, in Miss Tomalonis’ new book, both the very good, and, regrettably, as the book has been eagerly awaited, the very bad.
As the latter is, by definition, a painful subject, let us get it out of the way first.
To my mind, the book suffers from a flaw similar to Miss Kirkland’s not-unknown autobiography, “Dancing on my Grave”. In Miss Tomalonis’ preface, one reads: “I hope the Danish dancers (…) understand that some of the material here that seems to violate Kronstam’s privacy was necessary in order to tell his story fairly.”
I would have thought that Henning Kronstam’s work speaks for itself.
However, Miss Tomalonis is an American, and perhaps what might be seen, on this side of the pond, as “spilling the gut”, is felt to be a requirement of thorough research on the other. I would nonetheless venture to say that her chapters on Henning Kronstam’s bi-sexuality, bizarre family background, nervous breakdowns, and drinking habits, do not add to one’s notion of him as an artist.
An occupational health hazard
Certainly, the worst occupational health hazard for a ballet dancer, is personal beauty, and Narcissus has dragged down to the depths many a fine fellow. All classical dancers are reasonably attractive, because of the self-discipline inherent to the trade, but Henning Kronstam had the misfortune – and I do mean misfortune - to be born with the face and figure of the Belvedere Apollo. He was one of the century’s most remarkable beauties, and this, from the age of eleven on, attracted attention of a thoroughly vile and insistent kind. That being so, how he managed to carry on dancing at the level he did, is astonishing. Although Miss Tomalonis notes that “he restricted his performances to the stage”, there does appear to have been a Dorian Gray quality to him, which may have led, at least in part, to his early decline.
Secondly, and as a reviewer in Denmark has just pointed out in a daily newspaper, the book is, more than a biography, a hagiography. Plainly, Henning Kronstam was an extraordinary dancer and teacher. But neither was he omniscient, nor was he God. In fact, as he notoriously shrank from conflict, he was rather unsteady as a company director from 1979 to 1983, when he resigned.
Being weak in certain respects does not make one a criminal. Not everyone is suited to run the Ronald Searle-like machinery of one of the world’s five major ballet companies. His failure there in no way detracts from his other accomplishments. But Miss Tomalonis has seen fit to defend him tooth and nail, “outre mesure”, as the French would say.
What’s done is done, and cannot be undone. The book is written, and printed, and we must go with it as it is. And so, on to the Good.
A voice from a time when ballerinas still had faces
Miss Tomalonis gives us a vivid portrait of a time that seems very far off now, but was really only four or so decades ago, that less misogynous era when women in the ballet, still had faces. I thought of this, flicking through the photographs of Henning dancing with Mette Mollerup, Kirsten Simone, Inge Sand, and the other leading ballerinas of his era, who would all, no doubt, be sacked as “obese” today, and one thought of it again as last week, as one watched a faceless Someone (the face has got to go, to keep those legs pencil-slim) skittering anxiously about the stage.
It was a time when dancers would keep a role, and work on it, for twenty years, where twenty days, is an eternity at present.
There is a delightful account of training in the twenties and thirties (BV – Before Video), how the ballet children ran amok through the Royal Theatre during off-hours, and vignettes of Kronstam’s earliest teachers. This was the generation just after Bournonville’s direct successor Hans Beck: Valborg Borchsenius and Karl Merrild. At the Royal Theatre, the boy Kronstam played bit-parts both in the spoken theatre, and on the opera stage. In his day, a dancer’s training, though somewhat haphazard and with scarce regard to anatomy, placed the stress on mime and stagecraft.
Gielgud and Olivier
On the classical stage, a performer’s job involves making “tough” ideas intelligible to the public. In the spoken theatre, it is metric, rhetoric, voice projection and mime, in the lyric theatre, the same, but to music, and in the ballet, one must shape clumsy limbs in such a way as to convey concepts, for most of which, there are no words at all. It so happens that the ideas which the ballet is peculiarly suited to convey, are most emphatically NOT everyone’s cup of tea, because, being somehow in an almost-pre-conscious form, they seem to be “unclear”, “inchoate”. Not in Emmanuel Kant’s ballpark, shall we say.
There can be no doubt but that Henning Kronstam was able to focus on such “intangibles”, and convey them with force. As Miss Tomalonis writes:
“(Peter) Martin’s comparison of Kronstam and Gielgud is an interesting one, as the two artists shared many qualities (…) In appreciations written after Gielgud’s death, he was considered by many to have been the greatest English-speaking actor, the greatest Hamlet. To the average theatregoer, this must have seemed surprising, as in the popular imagination Laurence Olivier (…) is identified with Hamlet. Gielgud, who did not make movies until very late in his career, was not well known to the general public. ‘Ah, but now you’re talking about fame’, said Kirsten Ralov…‘and that is something quite different.’”
Miss Tomalonis, along with many of the persons she has interviewed, draws a sharp distinction between Henning Kronstam on the one hand, and Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Flemming Flindt on the other.
Here we have the choreographer Glen Tetley, who knew Henning Kronstam well:
“Every time I saw him perform, he was of the first rank. He had the ability to transform himself in the roles he did. He was [ not like the] international stars who transformed the role into their persona. They don’t enter the role, they transform the role into their persona. Which Erik did. It was always Erik Bruhn. It was always Rudolf Nureyev…I did not ever think of Henning as an exhibitionist dancer. He was not merely someone entertaining the eye alone. There was a soul there always, in what he did.”
And from the early 1950s (who, pray, would dare to “do a Merrild” today ? ), an anecdote on Professor Karl Merrild’s reaction to Bruhn:
“One evening, during a performance of Napoli, Erik Bruhn, already a virtuoso dancer, immensely popular and freshly returned from triumphs abroad, danced the second man’s solo in the last Act’s pas de six. Bruhn changed the choreography, adding showier steps and doing four pirouettes instead of the two called for by the choreography. Star dancers had been embellishing their variations for centuries, everywhere but in Copenhagen. The audience cheered, but Merrild was so upset that he rose in his seat, shouted ‘This is a disgrace. It’s all wrong’ ! and stalked out of the Theatre.”
Well, Henning Kronstam now has his book. But Vera Volkova, who was a particular influence on him and on so many dancers, does not. Although her husband, the painter Hugh Williams, is said to have gathered hundreds of pages of notes on her, sadly they remain, as yet, unpublished. Sauf erreur, there is little reading matter on this great professor, who first came to Denmark in 1951. Miss Tomalonis’ book may thus be the most detailed account of her life and teaching in print.
Vera Volkova (1904-1975) had been, in Russia, a pupil of Maria Romanovna, the mother of Galina Ulanova. Romanovna had herself studied under Christian Johansson, a pupil of Auguste Bournonville. When Agrippina Vaganova was developing her own syllabus in the 1920s, she used (later, Professor) Alexander Pushkin and Vera Volkova as “modelling clay”.
Where Miss Tomalonis is a little sketchy, is the impact of Volkova’s controversial lessons on the Theatre’s Bournonville technique. We do get this, from Kronstam:
“Vera gave me my plié. If I had kept on with Mr. Lander, I would have been finished at twenty-seven. My knees would have been gone. The plié is essential because it is the landing from a jump that is so beautiful. It is not enough to hang in the air, you have to come down. And you should not come down with a bang.”
According to Miss Tomalonis, Kronstam had kept notebooks on classes given by Vera Volkova and Stanley Williams. When he suffered a breakdown in 1993, and left the theatre under circumstances too chaotic to describe here, it seems those notes were removed from his dressing room, and went missing. If that be true, it is, to put it mildly, highly unfortunate.
As Miss Tomalonis had many occasions to discuss with Henning Kronstam in person, one would have been grateful for his thoughts on Bournonville technique, whether he considered it still of value for the present day, what he thought of the various teaching methods he had known, and so forth. That is, to my mind, a shortcoming in the book.
In the Asylum
Henning Kronstam’s experience with “modern” art does not seem to have been altogether felicitous. In fact, Miss Tomalonis points to a connection between certain of those roles, and his first major nervous breakdown, which occurred in 1974. As she is writing in America, we can be sure that her publisher has had the whole thing vetted by an army of lawyers, and I therefore allow myself to transcribe here what she has to say about Asylum:
“(Bruce) Marks asked the dancers in the cast to write down their greatest fear. They did. Then Marks literally choreographed those fears. Someone afraid of dying of drink was in the asylum because she was an alcoholic. Someone afraid of losing a child was there because she lost a child. Fairly or not, the dancers took this personally…”
Well, one would, wouldn’t one ?
And Miss Tomalonis continues:
“Kronstam was not asked to write down his greatest fear… (he ) played a man who raped two children, a boy and a girl, went mad (…), and was castrated in the end."
The choreographer himself, Bruce Marks, told Miss Tomalonis in response to her questions:
“And I thought, ‘this guy (Kronstam) is never going to get through this ballet. He will refuse to do this.’ Well, he did it. The solo in the straitjacket was so hard. You had to do all this jumping, and beats, kind of frantic beating things (…) and he did it (….) He was frightening.”
Shortly after dancing in this piece, Kronstam had a major breakdown. He told Miss Tomalonis while she was preparing the book:
“There comes a certain time when you can’t dance to the music, your knees go, your ankles are going wrong…And we go mad, because it’s a long, long life in the Theatre, and we do Asylum, and all these crazy things. And that takes a lot out of you.”
Flashing Danger Sign. Is it too much to expect of dancers, to say NO ?
Is it too much to expect of all those brilliant people, such as the composers of “L’Appartement”, and “Casanova” and so on, to reflect on the implications of what Kronstam has said here ?
And now for a note of badly-needed levity. Kronstam could take the mickey out of people, when he wanted to. Here is what he told Miss Tomalonis about the Pope (Popess ?) of Modern Dance, Birgit Cullberg, when she came to Denmark in 1955 to stage Moon Reindeer:
“Cullberg worked very strangely because she can’t do anything. She can’t hear. She can sort of move, but she couldn’t do anything with Mona’s pointe work. But she had ideas, and she’d been watching other performances that we had danced, and she said, ‘I want the thing you do in that ballet. What is that step ?’. And we’d show the step, and then we’d put that in.”
Birgit Cullberg is, I believe, the mamma of Mats Ek, who now heads the Cullberg Ballet. Bon sang ne saurait mentir…
Several pages in Miss Tomalonis’ latter chapters, are given over to sharp attacks on Frank Andersen, who was, between 1983 or 1984 and 1993, Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet (he has just been reappointed to that post), and to other leading figures in the Royal Theatre. Part of the responsibility for Kronstam’s final collapse lies, she believes, with them. Whether, to outsiders, these particular pages be especially pertinent, is uncertain; whether they be fair to those concerned, is also a moot point, and one which this reviewer, who never spoke to Kronstam personally, would not attempt to answer.