In reviewing Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella, Luke Jennings of the Observer said of the recent string of fairy tale ballets in the UK over the last few months: “in tough economic times, you can sell more tickets if you offer family entertainment”. Yet, he added, “there’s nothing wrong with fairy stories, but if they are to resonate, they must incorporate real human truths”. I was reminded of these points as I hopped over to Copenhagen to catch Nikolaj Hübbe’s vibrant new production of A Folk Tale. A few days before my trip I had revisited BRB’s new Cinderella which I had much admired last year. Bintley’s new production is designed to attract a wider public without ever compromising on artistic values. Best exemplified in the kitchen scenes, where the sinister stepmother (the brilliant Marion Tait) and stepsisters (Gaylene Cummerfield and Carol-Anne Millar) continuously torment the barefooted Cinderella, this staging offers a well-balanced combination of magic and realism.
And so with August Bournonville’s A Folk Tale, another fairy story, one with a particularly long lineage. Like Napoli before it, Hübbe set to modernise and present this work to a new generation, while honouring the tradition and style of a beloved historical ballet.
Given the “fairy tale” at its heart, A Folk Tale is pitched as a family-friendly production for the larger of two theatres, the Copenhagen Opera House (Operaen). The ballet presents various challenges. For starters Hübbe had to transform something originally conceived for a small stage into large-scale spectacle while keeping substance over form. He smartly avoids the pitfalls of the previous production which was often considered too “Disney-like” (particularly costumes and designs) and switches the ballet’s period from medieval times to the 19th century, adding psychological layers as pointed out by Eva Kistrup.
I found plenty to love. Designer Mia Stensgaard imaginatively frames the stage with a huge collection of giant paper cut figures – moth-like wings, butterflies and lizards – to evoke the fairy tale atmosphere (the way figures were joined symmetrically reminded me of this). Mia might have gone heavy on the grey in Act 1, yet her designs for the elf-maidens have equal doses of beauty and menace. The cave setting in Act 2 is stunning, with its distorted perspectives and a menagerie of trolls who look like they have stepped right out of a Del Toro movie (I’m thinking Pan’s Labyrinth and HellBoy 2).
The production makes inspired use of video projections: Hilda’s vision of the hero Junker Ove screened over a frontcloth works particularly well, as does the changing sky in Act 3: at first vividly blue, with clouds and colours that shift every time the troll Viderik uses his magic to protect Hilda, the elf maiden. Traditional stage elements, like the interior backgrounds, look three-dimensional thanks to Mikki Kunttu’s clever lighting.
These clever additions never overpower the production and all the better for it. Some of the extras, however, are less effective: the new solos for Ove, Hilda and Miss Birthe often feel unnecessary (Ove, originally a non-dancing role, gets a solo that looks too incidental), nor do they bring additional information on the characters (I thought Hilda’s nature was defined by her interaction with the trolls first and foremost). And whatever the aspirations of Miss Birthe as a dancer (a point in the story that was confusing to me), I was not crazy about her conspicuous interruption of the final wedding Pas de Sept, even when I take into account that this is in keeping with her “trollish” nature.
In my view the main strength of A Folk Tale lies in the narrative of two worlds colliding. It is impossible not to have a heavy heart after watching Lis Jeppesen‘s Viderik stare at Hilda and Ove (Susanne Grinder and Marcin Kupinski) during their reunion Pas de Deux, nor fail to sympathise with Kizzy Matiakis‘s splendidly performed Miss Birthe: a volatile maiden who struggles to keep her wild troll nature buried in order to keep her place in “the civilised” society. The ballet also shows how trolls and humans might mirror each other: Miss Birthe is going to enter into an arranged marriage to Ove in the same way Hilda is destined for the troll Diderik. Mr Mogens (a debonair Mads Blangstrup) seems as greedy and money driven as the trolls. Kudos to Hübbe for giving us a Bournonville crowd pleaser with plenty of substance.
A Folk Tale continues at the Royal Danish Ballet until 8 April. For information and booking visit the RDB website.
This ballet will also be performed as part of the Company’s tour to Washington DC, 7-9 June 2011. For details visit the RDB’s US Tour microsite.