During their recent visit to the Metropolitan Opera here, the Royal Danish Ballet presented the best theater in town. The dances they performed are solid and sparkling offerings from their permanent repertory, to be enjoyed by audiences in their own country and wherever the troupe travels.
The Danes don't speak (except through their movement), and the stories they tell are not exactly earth-shattering, but the company has deep theatrical values anyway: marvelous acting from the bottom role up, staging in which every inch of the playing area is alive, and a keen sense of pace.
The voice through which the Danes act is the great 19th-century choreographer August Bournonville. He supplied the Royal Danish Ballet with its entire repertory, but only a dozen or so of his ballets survive today in their entirety. Fewer still have been performed in North America. What's common fare to the Danes is an untapped gold mine to Americans.
And what riches pour out of the Bournonville comedy. Like most comedies, ''The Kermesse in Bruges'' has a terribly complicated plot and a simple moral. During a church fair in Bruges, three bumpkin brothers are rewarded with magic charms after they've rescued the heroine from some shady city slickers. Adrian receives a sword guaranteeing victory. Gert is given a ring that ensures the ladies' admiration. Young Carelis, in love with the heroine, receives a violin that makes everyone dance until exhausted.
Eventually Gert and Adrian are arrested for witchcraft, but Carelis saves them with his violin. In the end the brothers are reunited with their girlfriends, fated to lead less exciting but infinitely happier lives.
These events are mere pretexts for presentation of character. As played by the exuberant Niels Kehlet, Gert emerges as the centerpiece of comedy. He's the all-time poseur; unfortunately he's also dopey. Rebuffing his sweetheart for flirting with a rich man-about-town, he wants to fold his arms nonchalantly, but can't figure out which hand fits over which elbow.
His girlfriend, beautifully played by Anne Marie Vessel, is all grit, but through bodily inflection shows us the quaking backbone underneath her boldness. Her friend is the shy, giggly sort who in her demure way wouldn't miss out on adventure either.
We've seen these two girls walking down the street a million times, one pulling and one lagging, but both keen for innocent good times. We see the definitive version in ''Kermesse in Bruges,'' as we see the definitive version of male bravado and foolishness.
The extraordinary aspect about Bournonville and the dancers is that they take up these themes, and many others, and sustain them through the entire 90-minute work. No element is lost by the wayside. Rather, each accumulates more and more detail.
One of those many other themes is young, pure love as represented by hero (Bjarne Hecht) and heroine (Lis Jeppesen). They have the major dance roles, and one of their dance moments is about the loveliest summation of love's bloom as you're likely to see. Carelis, playing his magic violin, forces Eleonora to dance. As his music deepens in timbre, her dancing responds in kind. At first coerced into dance, she then moves of her own accord. Her movements become freer and more expansive - and finally, expressions of joy, generosity, and love.