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Auguste Bournonville at Rome: notes from a meeting
(by Francesca Falcone (long version))
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Francesca Falcone, the author of the article below, is one of Italy’s leading scholars.
She is associated with the Accademia Nazionale di Danza at Rome, where she teaches theory, and is a council member for Italy of the European Association of Dance Historians. Miss Falcone has also contributed to many specialist publications, focussing, in particular, on the choreography of Auguste Bournonville and Nicola Guerra.
In December 2002, organised by Daniele Cipriani, as part of a series held at Rome entitled "Academic Techniques in the world today", the scholar Francesca Falcone led a seminar on Bournonville at the Accademia Nazionale di Danza and La Maison della Danse, in collaboration with Denmark’s Royal Theatre. Our guests were Anne-Marie Vessel Schlüter, Head of the Royal Theatre’s School, the pianist Julian Thurber, and the solo dancers Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund.
The Rome seminar began on Friday December 13th, and ended on Sunday December 15th 2002; it was open to dancers, professors, students, critics, art historians, accompanists and balletomanes generally. Three of the presentations (The Royal Theatre’s School, Bournonville’s Mime, and Bournonville, Then and Now) were given by Miss Falcone, who teaches Dance Theory at the Accademia Nazionale di Danza at Rome. Miss Falcone’s final presentation opened a Round Table on December 15th, attended by all four Danish guests.
Three classes were given in Bournonville’s style and technique, two by Miss Vessel Schlüter, and one by Thomas Lund, the first designed for intermediate-level students at the National Academy of Dance, the others for the seminar’s participants. Then, led by Miss Vessel Schlüter, alongside Miss Bojesen and Messrs Lund and Thurber (the latter presented how, his view, a pianist should accompany these classes), matters of pedagogy and style were discussed. The School’s present circumstances, as well initiatives launched by Miss Vessel Schlüter to bring in more students so as to take advantage of greater opportunities for the Danish ballet as of 2004, when the New Opera House is scheduled to open, were also raised.
Mime passages from Acts I and II of The Sylphide - the Window Scene, and the Sylphide’s death - as well as Hilda’s confrontation with Diderik, Viderik, Muri and the trolls, and the contrast between Hilda and Birthe clash in A Folk Tale, were analysed in great detail.
The final day was a Round Table on reconstruction, the Peter Elfeld (1902-1906) films, with historical excerpts from Bournonville’s ballets, a brief recital by Thurber, comprised of pieces from the final scenes of The Lay of Thrym, and a performance by Mr. Lund and Miss Bojesen, with pas de deux from The Flower Festival at Genzano and the Jockey Dance (From Siberia to Moscow).
Auguste Bournonville at Rome: Notes from a meeting
Daniele Cipriani, a young organiser of cultural events relating to dance, is the initiator of a rather ambitious project: to invite to Italy authoritative representatives of the four "historical" schools of classical dance: the Danish, the French, the Russian and the American, as guests of Roman dance-related and other institutions, to give lessons in technique, pedagogy, lecture-demonstrations, and performances.
One should recall here that this was not the first time Rome has hosted an initiative on Bournonville style and technique, with lecture-demonstrations, performances and concerts. These have been given a historical and cultural slant, so as to afford participants an opportunity for deeper reflection and critical discussion on the Danish ballet, little known in Italy.
Thus, in March 1997, a seminar entitled The Ballets of August Bournonville was held at the Accademia Nazionale di Danza, to celebrate the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, organised by the Danish Embassy and Academy at Rome. Led by the critic Erik Aschengreen, a prestigious Danish "team" attended: the Bournonville specialist Dinna Bjørn, and the Royal Theatre’s soloists Henriette Muus and Johann Kobborg.
The current project is entitled Le Tecniche Accademiche nel Mondo (The World’s Academic Techniques). Between December 13th and 15th 2002, the Accademia Nazionale di Danza and the Maison de la Danse, thus welcomed the School of the Danish Royal Theatre, one of the world’s oldest, and custodian to a priceless tradition, associated with the name of August Bournonville. Our guests were Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, the School’s Director, the solo dancers Gudrun Bojesen and Thomas Lund, and Julian Thurber, concert pianist.
Lessons in Bournonville’s style and technique
At the December 2002 Seminar, introducing the technique lessons given by Miss Vessel Schlüter and Mr. Lund (the latter has been teaching Bournonville once a week to the company since 2000), the centre exercises were taken from Bournonville’s Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday Schools, as Hans Beck had charted them out a century ago for teaching purposes, in Days of the Week. Those enchaînements were then collected by Kirsten Ralov in her 1979 opus The Bournonville School, now the basic text book for the exercises studied in the Royal Theatre’s School.
During the Seminar, the exercises were demonstrated by Miss Bojesen and Mr. Lund, who guided the students by performing the sections inaccessibile to the Italian dancers, being too complex. The barre exercises given by Miss Vessel Schlüter and Mr. Lund, though based neither on the sequences, nor on the construction as that had been in Bournonville’s day, did include certain characteristic features, such as the position sur le cou-de-pied, with the working ankle slightly flexed and curved backwards so as to touch the supporting leg’s ankle (as one sees in the fondu performed by the children in Le Conservatoire); the rounded arms à la seconde "as though one would clasp a sphere" or raised en couronne well ahead of the visual field, the fingers nearly touching; the clear-cut port de bras, free of all fussy elbow or wrist movements; the inclined "look-under" position of the head, a demeanour of dignified reserve in attitude and arabesque, the latter with the leg not being completely straightened; rond de jambe en l’air, the basic form being double, with the accent on OUT.
In the centre, Vessel Schlüter stressed the bras bas, as being the Be All and End All of Bournonville’s port de bras; this becomes a relaxed attitude, to the extent that one allows oneself to sense the arms yielding to gravity and lengthening downwards. And how one casts the eyes, discreetly inclining the head in the direction opened by the working foot. The glance is more vivid in tendu en avant; then, as though shyly inquiring à la seconde (never better done, than by the first-row pupils in Le Conservatoire), and finally, a very shadow, as though listening to the pale echo of a sound, as one casts the glance backwards, in tendu en arrière.
The role of the torso in the ports de bras, and the correct expression to poses, is of the essence. The arm movements grow from the torso, as though they were a breath, extended by a slight backwards-arc and sideways-curvature in croisé.
Supporting the even flow of breath through the thorax is what lends a very softeness to the posé-chassé, assemblé, an enchaînement from the Tuesday School, where, alongside the port de bras (performed more slowly relative to the foot movements, the palms of the hands turned towards the public), the upper body is essential to the displacement of the posé-chassé.
Amongst the issues discussed were finer points, such as how to clothe the second arabesque in a manner true to the "Romantic" style, slightly dropping the shoulder that corresponds to the extended leading arm, or how to perform with the right dynamic, pirouette en dedans from grand plié in the Monday School, and which Mr. Lund was then to demonstrate from one of the men’s variations in Napoli. Again from the Tuesday School, a thrilling variation à l’espagnole for the woman, that includes sections from La Ventana, a rather exotic atmosphere being created by the sweeping torso movements, the fanned-out petticoats, to end in a flourish, tossing a saucy kiss to the public in piqué en arabesque. Not to speak of the Pas de la Rose and the Mazurka with which the Monday School ends, danced by Miss Bojesen. Finally, Mr. Lund performed the so-called "Dark Step", and Gurn’s variation from the Act I of La Sylphide.
Miss Bojesen’s dance is characterised by a delightful playfulness, whether she emphasise a sprightly coquettishness, or a tender spontaneity. As for Mr. Lund, the degree of control is most remarkable, coupled with a radiant exuberance. His dance is very brilliant, while being free from all excess. His aplomb, that allows him to perform any step in a most unforced way, is quite astonishing. Mr. Lund described himself as he had been at age twelve, when he first turned up at the Royal Theatre’s School, frightfully swaybacked, a hangover from the ballroom dancing lessons he had been taking. Quite impossible to recognise the dancer he has become today !
The School, and Pedagogy
Miss Vessel Schlüter then explained that when, at age seven, she began to study at the Royal Theatre’s School, her teacher threw her off into the deep end: the steps had to be performed with precious little explanation. The pupils were expected to deal with complex combinations, simply by copying on their elders, who stood ahead of them. Each exercise was performed with the joy of giving oneself to the dance, while veiling the mechanics of technique. Miss Vessel Schlüter got her love for Bournonville from Hans Brenaa, with whom she worked from the age of ten to fourteen. The great gift Hans Brenaa possessed, was to use, and in the most creative way imaginable, the material from the weekly Schools and from Bournonville’s choreography: Hans Brenaa knew how to put steps together, and had a great sensitivity to the musical phrasing; indeed, he would sometimes insert music that had never before been used to accompany the lessons.
During the 1980s, Hans Brenaa was the most authoritative custodian of Bournonville, and whenever he would put up a ballet, the dancers were wont to copy each of his gestures very precisely. This did lead to screamingly funny incidents, said Miss Vessel Schlüter, who was assisting him at the time. One day at rehearsal, the girl dancing the Sylphide went down on her knees next to James, dreaming in his wingchair, and was seen to hold out her right hand with the index finger and middle finger in the form of a V, between lip and chin. "I tell you, this is how I am to hold the hand in the pose" said the girl, when Miss Vessel Schlüter asked her why she had done that, "I’ve seen Hans do it the very way". It so happens that the girl had been glued to Hans’ every move, to the extent, that she had gone and copied the way he held his cigarette, as he would smoke straight through rehearsals !
The veritable frenzy that seizes one dancing Bournonville can be highly contagious. Even the youth get caught up in it, said Miss Bojesen, recalling that as an teenager, she would dance round and about anywhere and everywhere, even dancing down the corridors during the lunchbreak. Miss Vessel Schlüter added that when she had been a child, her Russian teacher would scold : "Enough with the dancing Mie ! (Anne Marie’s nickname) We’ve got to get down to real work !".
Grafting Bournonville onto the Russian School, and later onto the English school, where the technical-methodological framework is critical to pedagogy, forms the basis for current teaching methods in the Royal Theatre’s School, where the greatest attention is nonetheless paid to its own identity. "Dancing Bournonville attunes us to the other styles", said Miss Bojesen, "it is a passe-partout to interpret Petipa and Balanchine as well", on which the Royal Ballet’s repertory is also based.
It is really very extraordinary that a country with less than six million inhabitants, have produced so great a number of internationally celebrated dancers, particularly amongst the men. That being said, even Denmark has had, in recent years, some difficulty recruiting men, a predicament to which Miss Vessel Schlüter, as Head of the School, has reacted swiftly, notably by holding auditions at Holstebro and Odense several times a year, and by setting up branches of the School there. She has also strengthened ties to the private schools that exist throughout Denmark; these are now invited to present their own students twice a year on the Royal Theatre’s stage. The School has made a point of performing in ordinary schools, and has built up quite a repertory of suitable children’s ballets, including a shorter version of Vincenzo Galeotti’s Whims of Cupid. And of a sudden, three years ago, a wave of small boys aged six to eight - twenty in all ! - joined the school, after attending free ballet lessons at the Royal Theatre’s School.
In 2004 marks a new era for the ballet in Denmark, when the new Opera House opens, as this will allow for many more performances for the opera, the ballet and drama. Many more dancers will thus be needed.
In response to questions put by the seminar’s participants, most of whom were professors and dancers, Miss Vessel Schlüter outlined the levels in the School.
The first level is for children between the ages of six to eight - their actual age may vary. They will have got through the month’s trial period successfully, and have been admitted to the School. The children work first à terre, and then at the barre, limbs parallel and feet together, to gain the rudiments of demi-plié, relevé and battement tendu, watched over by an assistant who makes sure the children perform the movements correctly. After a couple of months, they learn First position en dehors (without in any way forcing each child’s degree of rotation), facing the barre, and then a half rond de jambe par terre, repeating the exercises that had initially been done with the limbs parallel. In the centre, they study pas balancé and then jumps (temps levé, échappé), first done facing the barre, and finally pas de valse to gain a notion of en tournant. For children who are strong enough, changement de pied.
A most expressive moment is devoted to the simplest ports de bras. Miss Vessel Schlüter enumerated the arm positions, pointing out to the Roman public the modern, numbered positions, as well as the older, metaphorical titles such as bras posés à la lyre or à l’ange, and "arm on a pillow", that represents a position with the palm facing downwards.
At the first level, an hour’s lesson is taken each day, five days a week, integrating both dance movements and mime gestures, and following the Bournonville repertoire so as to allow the youngsters to take their place on stage from the second year’s study onwards. How critical it is to the Royal Ballet for children to develop stagecraft, is of course well known. At the end of each lesson, the children "let loose" in freer moments, little dances where they imitate animals or learn to follow different rhythms, walking about and clapping their hands.
The second level concerns children between eight and ten. They study steps such as assemblé soutenu and, to learn to jump, glissade facing the barre, initially from First, and then from Third position. At the centre, a deeper study of Bournonville’s épaulement, which, at First level, had only been brought in to help study port de bras.
At this age, brief sequences from Bournonville’s exercises are introduced, especially in the battements tendus which the Danish master uses in his Schools in a most varied way, stressing the very simplest exercises from the Monday or Tuesday School, such as Number 5 from the Tuesday school, performed in abbreviated or adapted sequences.
Only once the children reach the age of twelve or thirteen, does one start gradually to introduce the enchaînements from Bournonville’s Schools. In the meantime, for those girls who are strong enough, pointe work begins at age eleven with simple exercises, rising to pointe with the feet parallel, and then en dehors, according to both traditional methods i.e. the spring, or "Cecchetti" method, and the "roll-up" or French method, working the foot fully. Mr. Lund favours the roll-up, as he believes that if one can rise slowly, the quick spring will be that much easier. The roll-up is, moreover, better suited to girls with hyper-extended (S-) knees. At first, ten minutes at the end of class is given over to pointe work, moving up to two or three times a week. The School keeps a specialist on hand, to help each child find the shoe best adapted to her conformation.
For the aforesaid levels of study, the programme is not set in stone, but will be adjusted to each child, depending on how mature he is. A ten-year old may be expected to learn entrechat quatre, so as to perform it on stage in Le Conservatoire.
For the Third Level, the main novelty is pirouette en dehors, and then en dedans, both taken en face. The teaching team is constantly discussing how to best work out exercises so as to develop spotting.
Amongst the jumps introduced at Level Three, are failli-assemblé and grand jeté at various heights, as seen in Harald Lander’s Etudes.
Level Four introduces grand jeté en tournant in all its forms, at first supported facing the barre, the legs thrown backward in a scissors-movement. From twelve to thirteen, Bournonville technique is studied systematically, twice a week, the Monday and Tuesday School exercises being introduced little by little, with the aim of going through all his Schools, by the time the pupils reach the end of their studies at age sixteen.
From sixteen to eighteen, the youths and girls are known as aspiranten, or apprentices; they attend company class and dance in the performances. Once their two years’ apprenticeship is up, they may, if found suitable, be taken up into the company.
Bournonville and Pantomime
At the Rome Seminar, the mime lessons focussed on sequences from La Sylphide (the window scene and the Sylph’s death), and A Folk Tale (Hilda and the Trolls). The public found these scenes fascinating; owing to the enthusiasm with which the Danish artists threw themselves into the choreographic narration, the manner in which the entire body is used for expressive purposes, where each gesture down to the finest detail can be explained in words, culminating in the enchanting moment in which mime merges into dance. The Danes are justly renowned for their ability to convey mime in a straightforward, natural fashion. The dancer stands on diagonal, weight resting on one leg, the other slightly behind in a natural posture, i.e. not fully en dehors, a veritable "text" read by the spectator, as the artist "speaks" to his interlocutor on stage through cleancut arm movements. Those movements are not tightly bunched up, but rather lend the narrative a rhythm that is alternately smooth, or more agitated, with pauses like punctuation marks in speech. "One has got to work hard inside oneself, before confronting a character" said Mr. Lund", "delve nto the story, into the psychology of the individual one is depicting, live his emotions, understand how he would react within that precise environment".
It is a demanding sort of "archaeology": only by working out a highly personal characterisation, all the while remaining well with the framework drawn by tradition, can one avoid hurrying through a role, and coming up with an artificial interpretation. Neither the public, nor the interpreter tire easily of Bournonville’s characters, said Mr. Lund; they are complex, many-facetted personalities, that nonetheless leave latitude for the interpreter’s nuances.
The emotional commitment Miss Bojesen and Mr. Lund brought to the dance and mime scenes from La Sylphide, notably the Sylph’s death, did make the point. It is no everyday occurrence to find artists so intensely involved in their roles, that the spectator finds himself completely caught up. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm of the Roman public, the intimate atmosphere created by the ancient walls of the Roman institution’s small theatre, or the glowing life the two young people brought to their dance. Their approach to narration is quite spontaneous, free from all conventional formulae; to produce this effect, in Miss Bojesen’s words, the mime scenes must be at once relaxed, and strongly focussed. This works very well indeed in a small theatre, but can go lost in a larger one, unless one gives a more heavily-charged interpretation: but the latter would be rather remote from Bournonville’s poetics, as he disliked all contrived and artificial gestures.
The scenes from A Folk Tale inspired considerable interest, the ballet being virtually unknown to the Italian public. Several scenes were danced and mimed by the artists, in the version staged by Frank Andersen and Miss Vessel Schlüter in 1991. This ballet, narrated with a wealth of detail by Miss Vessel Schlüter, teems with mime scenes. The Dispute scene was chosen for the Rome Seminar, as well as the reconciliation between Diderik and Viderik, interpreted by Miss Vessel Schlüter and Mr. Lund, the latter dancing this for the first time; then the scene where Hilda first receives, and then spurns the jewels, as they remind her of a world she has left behind; lastly, the madcap troll-woman Birthe. The contrasting roles of Hilde and Birthe were both played by Miss Bojesen, who rendered their every shading with a grace and incisiveness that revealed not only her interpreative powers, of which we were already very much aware, but a remarkable talent to put ideas into words, one which will no doubt be put to great use as a teacher in days to come.
Round Table Discussion and Performance
The Seminar ended with a lecture and Round Table discussion entitled "Bournonville then and now, a journey through reconstruction and re-creation", followed by a short recital by Mr. Thurber, and a performance by the two dancers.
Time constraints, as well as the fact amongst the public, there were some who had not attended the entire Seminar, made it difficult to deal, other than in outline, with the vexed issue of how the Bournonville repertoire should be handed down, how it has evolved over time, and who the key figures have been in the process. An overview was thus given of what has come down to us, and how: what has been handed down from professor to student, or through witnesses from amongst the older dancers; through archival material in the Royal Theatre’s Library, including libretti, notes on staging, and scores bearing indications of dramaturgy and choreography. In recent years, such scores have made it possible to reconstruct several ballets, notably Abdallah (out of repertoire since 1858) and The Lay of Thrym.
The Danish guests did let slip that, for the Bournonville Bicentenary in 2005, there would be new productions, although they were notably discreet, whether because this is all still top secret, or because the brainstorming that precedes all major decisions is still ongoing. The four guests, who are convinced that, after eight years away, the return in 2002 of Frank Andersen - he being one of Bournonville’s strong partisans - augurs well for the troupe’s future. It has now begun to settle down, after the meteoric passage of several Artistic Directors since 1993. "What does give me hope for a brighter future for Bournonville", said Miss Vessel Schlüter - "is a proud awareness of our own cultural identity, reflected by the troupe’s younger generations as well. All the more relevant, in the current context of a united Europe. That is why I would strongly commend the path chosen by Gudrun and Thomas, whose love for Bournonville, nourished by a desire to look more deeply into things, and by a stubborn, enterprising spirit, will, no doubt, bring us some surprises in the future".
What Miss Vessel Schlüter might have meant, concretely, by that remark, vis à vis the two artists who had once been her dearest students, we cannot say. We felt, nonetheless, that we had taken part in a historic event, in the course of which Miss Vessel Schlüter, in some sense, "annointed" the next generation of heirs to Bournonville.
As was the case in the run-up to the 1992 Festival, Frank Andersen has launched an appeal to go back and delve through the Royal Theatre’s archives, so as to reconstruct the pieces as closely as possible to the original intent. That approach, which appears to be in favour now amongst those who are currently putting up Bournonville’s pieces, was the one adopted for the latest staging of A Folk Tale in 1991, to which Miss Vessel Schlüter referred in some detail.
But "archaeological" work on documentary sources, more especially the scores that contain many indications as to the steps, have not been Miss Vessel Schlüter’s only source of inspiration. Her experience, first as a pupil, and then as assistant to Hans Brenaa, was fundamental. She recollected Hans Brenaa’s extraordinary personality, his infallible memory, and his unique ability, as we have said, to find the exact musical phrasing for Bournonville’s steps. "In any event, if one’s staging something, and memory slips, there are always the notes taken by Valborg Borchsenius, who had been Hans Beck’s partner. During the Lander era, she wrote down, in her own personal notation system, eight Bournonville pieces !", although they were then draped in the "new clothes" Harald Lander insisted upon.
Each new staging calls for intense work on the interpreter’s personality, and how that relates to his character in the Bournonville ballet. Studying the older interpretations, some of which have luckily been filmed, is not only useful from a archival standpoint - it gives the interpreter an idea of the framework for his own characterisation. One should not allow oneself to be fazed by the present day’s technical demands: this cannot be avoided, it is a tribute classical ballet must pay to technology. "When I began to dance", said Mr. Lund, "I put myself to the test dancing Carelis, alongside Gudrun, in La Kermesse à Bruges; somewhat later, we both came to dance the leading roles in La Sylphide. James is young, but mature nevertheless, and extraordinarily aware. Working on interpreting that character, whose dance includes many slow, carefully gauged movements that reflect strongly-felt internal motives, helped me to go back and see how I should have dealt with Carelis in La Kermesse, an impulsive youth whose movements are somewhat more frenzied. Earlier, I might have danced Carelis just as one dances Paolo in The Flower Festival at Genzano, but, through dancing James, I have become more mature, and am now working on bringing a greater awareness to the role of Paolo".
Miss Bojesen was then asked whether there were a role she preferred. No, she said. Mankind appears, in Bournonville’s plays, in guises so varied, that one readily moves from one role to the other: "One day", she laughed "truly I am as hideous as a witch, another, dishevelled as a troll, and then, I can be as beautiful as the sylph", adding, in respect of the old films:
"I am much indebted to the old dancers, especially the priceless films Peter Elfeld made in the early 20th Century. I remember that the first time I ever did see those films, was when Peter Martins was putting up a solo for his staging of Swan Lake here at Copenaghen. He wanted to use some of Bournonville’s steps, such as pas de bourrée dessus-dessous. I suddenly saw Ellen Price dancing in the Sylphide, doing that very step at great speed, her torso swaying from side to side. It suddenly struck me that I too could have danced it just that way, had I given up on holding the body rigid and vertical."
In respect of attempts such as The Lay of Thrym, staged by Elsa Marianna Von Rosen in 1990 for the Royal Theatre, the pianist James Thurber was somewhat less optimistic. It was he who took Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann’s score, reducing it to a rehearsal version, so as to "propose, to the people doing the staging, a musical framework that they might find inspiring". Mr. Thurber has, in point of fact, worked on three reconstructions: Flemming Flind’s Toreador, Flemming Ryberg’s Abdallah and Von Rosen’s The Lay of Thrym. In Thurber’s view, the latter has no future at all in the theatre, as he finds its story "dreadfully old-fashioned", a clumsy braid of episodes taken from Nordic sagas of scant interest today.
Be that as it may, as Mr. Thurber’s own playing evoked the minutest details of characterisation from the Hartmann score, one did get the impression that it had been worthwhile, if only to hear Hartmann’s music perhaps one last time.
Fragments from the eagerly-awaited Elfeld films were shewn, and which indeed carried the public back to the intricate, lightning-swift artistry of those dancers, working in the tiny, tightly-focussed space available to that day’s cinema techniques. Filmed in 1905, the final excerpt was an exhilarating Jockey Dance that appears in one of Bournonville’s last works, From Siberia to Moscow (1876), danced by Gustav Uhlendorff and Richard Jensen.
Mr. Lund and Miss Bojesen then performed the same Jockey Dance (the latter dancing this for the first time), a crack of the whip that shot us straight back to the present, the two jockeys in a joyous steeple-chase.
The whirlwind vivacity of the chase did not suffice to put away the image of serene calm painted by the two perfectly-attuned artists, in The Flower Festival at Genzano, as they had danced it at the seminar’s opening, to a sun setting on the cloudless Roman sky that had so entranced Bournonville.