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Vignette, 9-26: Home
Longing and Belonging in the Danish "Folk Tale"

By Tobi Tobias
Copyright 2002 Tobi Tobias

COPENHAGEN -- According to Denmark's great Romantic choreographer August Bournonville (1805-1879), the idea of home is a splendid subject for a ballet because it raises the question of self-identity -- a profound and eternally fascinating theme that is a staple of art. The most affecting of Bournonville's works and a linchpin of the Royal Danish Ballet's repertoire, "A Folk Tale," created in 1854, explores the fate of a pair of infant girls who have been surreptitiously switched in their cradles. One is an heiress of genteel birth, the other a member of the troll clan that lives under Scandinavia's hills, emerging at intervals to do mischief to the human society it envies and loathes. Each of the changelings is brought up to a marriageable age in an environment incompatible with her nature; each, without knowing why, is perennially at odds with her surroundings. Each must be restored to her rightful place -- that is, her true home -- for one of those happy endings in which the nineteenth century could still believe.

Birthe, a troll by birth, dwells with the landed gentry, continually dismaying her ostensible nearest and dearest: the old nurse whose loving care has failed just once, when she dozed over the fateful cradle; the cousin, Junker Ove -- a golden young man, as handsome as he is pure-hearted -- to whom she's betrothed; and the aunt who is guardian to both young people and responsible for ensuring that they inherit the manor with its privileges and responsibilities, thus perpetuating the smooth continuity of civilized life. Birthe, however, is the personification of disorder. Her impulsive energy and unruly passions, congenital to the troll nature, result in behavior that's unpredictable and unseemly. She wreaks havoc upon her respectable home and the larger society surrounding the family at the manor, highborn and peasants alike.

Bournonville, here a surprisingly modern psychologist, gives Birthe's displacement a tragic dimension. The young woman knows instinctively that she doesn't fit into her genteel milieu. In a revealing dance before her dressing room mirror, she tries to move as befits her borrowed station, with flowing lines and just proportions, emanating the serene ease that comes from control of the body and, congruently, of the spirit. But her trollish disposition keeps erupting, sending her legs into spasms -- ugly, lascivious violations of decorum that distress her as much as they scandalize her onlookers. Though she knows no other sphere than the one she inhabits, she feels herself an alien in the country of harmony and grace.

It's easy enough to see where Birthe belongs -- in the troll cavern, where Muri, a fierce underworld matriarch, reigns supreme. In contrast to the manor house, this habitation is all clamor, filth, and confusion, its ominous darkness lit only by the flames of the forges where Muri's two grotesque sons ply the traditional trade of their race, hammering metal into jewelry characterized by a terrible primal beauty. Yet it's here that Hilda, the epitome of sweetness and light, has experienced her incongruous upbringing, as a kind of foster sister to Muri's boys, the more loutish of whom is her destined bridegroom. (The nicer of the pair, evidently deficient in trollish temperament since he has some small instinct for empathy and love, eventually helps Hilda escape from this benighted lair into the arms of Junker Ove, who is her soul mate and therefore her proper partner.)

The home life of the trolls is inevitably chaotic. Bad feelings and worse manners prevail. Under this roof the best instincts of humankind are perverted into their opposite. When the wider social circle of the troll family assembles, for the party Muri holds to announce the engagement of the unlikely pair through whom she intends to secure the future of her dynasty, both guests and hosts personify a travesty of the social graces. Nowhere is this more pointed than in their uncouth dancing. Even the troll children galumph. The scene is never truly threatening; it retains the storybook tone that governs the ballet, and a vein of genial humor runs through it as well. But there's no doubt that Bournonville is seriously equating manners with morals. Evil is ill-behaved. Nowhere is this more evident than in the raucous orgy under cover of which Hilda escapes into the world of light and air.

It's important to note that even when she is buried in the troll's society, utterly deprived of models for cultivated behavior, Hilda shines like the proverbial good deed in a naughty world, ever-courteous in the world of the rude, charmingly refined where grossness prevails. Miraculously she has maintained her radiant temperament (kept from cloying by a piquant wit), as well as the optimism and spirited independence that eventually permit her escape.

Hilda flees her false home to find her true one. She has only the vaguest idea of what she's rushing toward, merely the inborn instinct for it, but in the charmed world Bournonville conjures up in "A Folk Tale" that suffices. Hilda's liberation is achieved in stages: first through a sight of Junker Ove, whom Muri sends her out to destroy, then through a dream of being rocked in her cradle (a primal home) by her nurse at the manor, only to be spirited away by a pair of troll boys who leave an infant of their own kind in her place. Once Hilda manages to emerge into the luminous domain of human society, she -- once again, instinctively -- uses holy water to minister to Junker Ove, who has been pursued by a band of elf maidens (a Scandinavian equivalent of the Wilis) summoned by Muri to render him mad. (Like the creators of "Giselle," Bournonville was rooted in a culture that could confidently use Christianity as a metaphor for the good that's powerful enough to annihilate evil.)

Rushing away from the last vestiges of her association with the troll universe, Hilda finds herself in the manor house where Birthe has collapsed, unconscious, from the intense throes of her most recent tantrum. In the interlude of peace reigning while Birthe is, so to speak, extinguished, Hilda grows calm, absorbing the atmosphere of her legitimate home and finding her place at its heart by asking the old nurse to take her into her lap and rock her once again. Enfolded in the first embrace she knew, Hilda rediscovers the home in which she belongs -- in other words, her spiritual haven -- and thus reclaims her genuine identity. She is duly recognized officially and duly married to Junker Ove, in a tender scene that combines romance and healing, with dulcet dancing binding up the pair and, by logical extension, the various echelons of human society surrounding the couple in concentric rings. Birthe, in turn, is recognized by the trolls as one of their own and assigned a fate that she ruefully acknowledges to be apt -- marriage to a licentious fellow willing to "take the troll for gold."

Home, "A Folk Tale" proposes, is not so much related to place, since where you are is subject to accidental dislocations. Home is defined, rather, by the fundamental and irrevocable matter of who you are. Bournonville, it seems, was never done with this issue. Every one of his extant ballets examines it in some way.

"A Folk Tale." Choreography by August Bournonville, revised and staged by Anne Marie Vessel Schlutter and Frank Andersen. Music by Niels W. Gade and J.P.E. Hartmann. Scenery and costumes by Queen Margrethe II. Lighting by Steen Bjarke. Performed by the Royal Danish Ballet at the Royal Theater, Copenhagen. Seen September 4, 2002, with Marie-Pierre Greve, Jette Buchwald, Lis Jeppesen, Peter Bo Bendixen, Tina Hojlund, Kenneth Greve, Marianne Rindholt, Niels Balle, Ulla Frederiksen, Poul-Erik Hesselkilde, Dina Cuni, Ditte Teildorf, Tommy Frishoi, and Kristine Andersen, Lesley Culver, Sascha Haugland, Amy Watson, Morten Eggert, Thomas Lund, and Julien Ringdahl; and September 6, 2002, with Sascha Haugland, Eva Kloborg, Kenn Hauge, Mogens Boesen, Silja Schandorff, Kenneth Greve, Maria Bro, Thomas Flindt Jeppesen, Kirsten Simone, Alexander Sukonnik, Henriette Brondsholm, Louise Midjord, Flemming Ryberg, and Kristine Andersen, Diana Cuni, Cecilie Lassen, Femke Molbach Slot, Ask la Cour, Morten Eggert, and Thomas Lund.

Editor's Note: "A Folk Tale" is performed again by the Royal Danish Ballet at the Royal Theater this Saturday as well as October 26 and 30 and November 1, 4, 8, 11, and 12. To see photographs of the current production, click here. When the new window opens up, scroll to the right side of the page and click on the Download icon to the right of "A Folk Tale."

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