The New York audience has always had a special place in its heart for the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB), and this year's one-week engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House hardly got rolling before it was over. The spring ballet events here have stirred up hot debates over taste, style, and classical integrity, with the New York City Ballet's controversial American Music Festival, American Ballet Theater, the Danes, the Paris Opera Ballet, and William Forsythe's Frankfurt Ballet all claiming our attention in one dense six-week period. As we ricochet among Balanchinian neoclassicism, Imperial Russian classics, postmodernist formalism, and virtuosic neuroticism, it's a shock to enter the sweet Old World of the Royal Danish Ballet.
In both full-length August Bournonville ballets that formed the repertory this spring, ``Napoli'' (1842) and ``Abdallah'' (1855), the curtain goes up on a bustling marketplace in a harbor town. Only the Danes today can produce a scene like this with such clarity and verisimilitude. Vendors and shoppers bargain over their wares. Children skitter about excitedly, get into mischief, are given perfunctory spankings by their parents. There'll be a stone drinking fountain with real water, a boat that pulls up beside the quay. Boys and girls will flirt, and the heroine's mother will try to break up what she considers a poor match by dragging off the girl, who will dig in her heels and shake her fists and eventually find a way to elude parental custody. And then the characters will go off on theatrically marvelous adventures from which they emerge unscathed, saved by their religious faith, to marry their true hearts and live happily ever after.
So what's so appealing about this in the midst of our high-fashion, high-octane ballet culture? I don't think it's pure escapism, though the Danes are still doing brilliantly what most other stage institutions have abandoned to the movies. When Abdallah lights a magic candlestick, his bare, dusty lodgings are transformed into a palace, with a burst of flames and smoke that not only masks the changing of scenery but startles and maybe frightens the audience a tiny bit. We feel we've gone through some danger, and when the tableau of harem girls is revealed behind a gauzy curtain, it seems like a beautiful reward. This, of course, is one of the universal messages of fairy tales.
So is innocence and courage in action, which for Bournonville means refined, buoyant dancing, infectious rhythm, speed, precision, and detail.
I missed some of my favorite dancers this time. The company is still in transition after three years under the artistic direction of Frank Andersen, and there are many new faces. Some - like Nikolaj H"ubbe, whom I saw in the lead of ``Napoli,'' look more suited to the company's modern repertory. H"ubbe is a fine dancer, but his attack and acting style seem more forthright and abrupt than the smoother Bournonville heroes.
Alexander Kolpin, the lead I saw in ``Abdallah,'' is both a classically clean and stylistically satisfying Bournonville dancer.
Heidi Ryom was the leading lady both evenings I attended, and filled that role at most of the seven performances. In ``Abdallah'' she had some of the charm I remember from former years, but she's become somehow harder and broader in her acting. Kirsten Simone played the anxious mother in ``Napoli'' as solicitous and loving, while in ``Abdallah'' she was a shrewish fortune hunter. When Kolpin and his magic candlestick made her go up in smoke, the audience almost cheered.