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Far from Boston
Bournonville’s Abdallah in Copenhagen

COPENHAGEN — Nineteenth-century ballets were the travelogues of their time, and no choreographer made better use of local color than the great Danish balletmaster August Bournonville. His 200th birthday was celebrated this month with a 10-day love fest in his beloved home, the Royal Theater. The Royal Danes presented all nine surviving ballets and a bouquet of short pieces and film clips, against a lavish contextual backdrop of exhibitions, publications, talks, tours, open classes and easy conversation. I joined the large international press corps for the third time (big Bournonville festivals also took place in 1979 and 1992), and was charmed all over again by these delightful ballets.

Bournonville was a dedicated and observant tourist, always on the lookout for folk dances and foreign customs he could use for new ballets. The choreographer never visited Iraq, but Abdallah — The Gazelle of Basra (1855) has had an interesting travel history anyway, earning a Danish-American identity in its 20th century afterlife.

Begun in Copenhagen and developed during a period when Bournonville was working in Vienna, Abdallah went out of the repertory after only 23 performances and woke up more than a century later in Salt Lake City. In 1971, Bruce Marks, dancing as a guest artist with the Royal Danish Ballet, had acquired a libretto in Bournonville’s handwriting. He dreamed of reviving the ballet, but it wasn’t until years later that a score (by the composer H.S. Paulli) was discovered with the steps annotated in it.

Marks was by then artistic director of Ballet West. He and Danish ballerina Toni Lander, with RDB Bournonville expert Flemming Ryberg, then carefully reconstructed the three-act work. A year after its 1985 re-premiere, it went back to the Royal Danish Ballet. With Ryberg and Sorella Englund, Marks staged it in 1990 in Boston, midway through his tenure as artistic director here, and again in 1996.

Abdallah was inspired by the story of Aladdin and his magic lamp. The poor-but-decent shoemaker Abdallah and his girlfriend Irma are kept apart by her mother, who disparages his prospects. Abdallah hides the Sheikh, who’s being pursued by Turkish enemies, but after the danger passes, he refuses payment for his good deed. So the grateful fugitive gives him a magic candelabra instead. It will grant any wish when Abdallah lights the first four candles, but the Sheikh warns him not to try for the fifth. Abdallah conjures up a palace with rich furnishings and a harem to go with it, uses the fourth wish to dispose of his nagging future mother-in-law, and then loses the whole caboodle by tempting fate and lighting the last candle.

The Sheikh disposes of his enemies during the intermission, and in the last act he summons Irma and Abdallah to his palace, reunites them, and rewards them with the riches Abdallah thought he’d lost forever.

This creaky plot provides the pretext for all three elements that make Bournonville ballet so distinctive: fabulous dancing, mime and theatricalized social life, and scenic spectacle. In Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s settings, the ballet looked elegant, especially when, with magical puffs of smoke and flame, Abdallah’s humble workshop was transformed into a palace and a vision of harem girls emerged out of nowhere.

Two Americans played the principal female roles: Amy Watson as Irma and Haley Henderson as Palmyra the harem leader. Morten Eggert was the overeager hero, and former ballerina Kirsten Simone, who’s graduated to character roles, was the interfering mother.

Bournonville’s ballets reflect his own personality: meticulous, lively, curious about the unknown but always rooted in the certitudes of bourgeois life. His characters may find themselves in Argentina, Italy, or Spain, but they go back to their home ports and loves after they’ve had a taste of adventure. The choreographer’s sojourn in Vienna was a disappointment. Done in by backstage politics and growing cosmopolitan tastes, he realized that, like Abdallah, he’d pushed his ambitions too far, and he returned to live out another 20 productive years in Copenhagen.

Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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