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The reluctant star

By Maggie LewisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 1983


Arne Villumsen is not your typical romantic hero. Sure, he is as ''darkly handsome'' as the Royal Danish Ballet souvenir book says he is. And his technique is just as clean and inspiring as Anna Kisselgoff said it was in the New York Times.

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But while he was rehearsing the ''Corsaire Pas de Deux,'' a famous, fiery love-duet between a pirate and a merchant's daughter, he did something that set him off from, say, Rudolf Nureyev, who has also danced that role. It wasn't the dancing. He bounded across the stage beautifully, reaching out with his legs into turns that looked like cartwheels tipped on their sides, his head whipping to the front with every whirl. When he landed, though, instead of looking dashing and triumphant, he turned around, blew out his cheeks thoughtfully, and, no doubt involved in some interior monologue, held his hands up and wiggled his fingers as if trying on surgeons' gloves.

The rehearsal audience, off-duty ballerinas lolling with their legs propped every which way on the backs of the red-velvet seats at the Royal Theater, giggled.

This is not your typical ballet company, either. These women are practically Arne Villumsen's sisters. They have spent their days together since the age of 7 , when students usually start attending ballet and academic classes at the Royal Ballet school by day, and performing in the ballets that require children by night. If they haven't been rejected in the yearly exams, by 18 they are ready to join the company. Villumsen, who didn't start at the school till he was 12, has always considered himself a late starter. Nonetheless, he is part of the family - and the family name is Bournonville.

August Bournonville was ballet master of the company 100 years ago, but what he said still goes. He wanted the company to be an ensemble of dancers who grew up together, with no acknowledged stars. He was against virtuoso dancing, the kind of pyrotechnics that were developing in Russia toward the end of the 19th century. Ballet music was composed with pauses for outbursts of thunderous applause, when, for example, the swan princess in ''Swan Lake'' did her 32 fouettes. But Bournonville dancers don't perform great feats. Rather, they dance twinkling, gemlike parts in his witty story ballets. A lot of the ballet is mime , and when they aren't miming, their feet are whisking through Bournonville's intricate steps, in long phrases to uninterrupted music.

They are invigorating to watch. The mime looks fresh, because it's naturalistic. The fast footwork looks intelligent rather than brawny, though it makes its own physical demands on the dancers.

You have to work hard to do Bournonville footwork, says Villumsen. Ballet children take a different class every day, each lesson a different set of steps. ''You haven't got any help from your arms sometimes,'' he says. ''So you really have to be placed,'' that is, perfectly balanced, with the body well aligned. Even then, movement can become rigid from trying to keep balanced, but ''when you are able to move like a Bournonville dancer, all the steps just come. They feel very natural,'' he says.

So natural, perhaps, that people aren't really convinced he works at it. Erik Aschengreen, dance critic for Copenhagen's newspaper Berlingske Tidende, finds him brilliant and talented, but befuddling. ''He has all this talent and this gift, but he needs someone to push him to get it out, because he is not going to push himself.'' He has been annoyed with him, ''but now I am very glad to see him because he is the most beautiful dancer we have.''