When this company last visited New York in 1988, Nikolaj Hübbe had just risen from the corps – now he is artistic director. But the Royal Danes are still that rare thing: a classical troupe not descended from imperial Russian ballet. That distinction was wondrously clear in Napoli, Act III and La Sylphide – both by August Bournonville, the 19th-century Dane who put the company on the map.
Instead of bravado jumps and turns for the men and displays of leg for the women, lads and ladies alike skimmed the stage in flickery jumps punctuated by a foot’s swipe of the floor or sharp cut to the ankle. The dancers did not stay up or down for long; they maintained a constant lilt. The women perched on point for only an instant, like ballerinas in 19th-century woodcuts, before rolling down through supple feet. This sprightly flux induced joy – thoroughly in Napoli’s wedding dances – as did the wedging of steps in and around the beat.
As a Lutheran schooled in honest accounting, Bournonville emphasises not only twittery jumps but what many choreographers have preferred to elide: the homely plié, source of those airborne bursts. The arms are also plain. Danish style is intriguingly counterintuitive: humble and conventional where you expect soul (in the arms) and spirited where rote duty might reign (in the knobbly knees and lowly shins and calves).
La Sylphide, particularly with the young Marcin Kupinski as our hero, James, brought out these polarities. Torn between the domestic order of marriage and the mysteries of the Sylph (who would have been more mysterious if Susanne Grinder had wobbled less), James is a brusque mess. His arms are perfectly placed; his agitated legs lead him astray. He may be intuitive – he recognises the evil in the hag who materialises at his hearth – but he is no simple dreamer.
Bournonville defies stock characterisation with mime as much as steps. The gestures of that “hag” sorceress (the astounding Mette Bødtcher) revealed that besides being spiteful and insane – plausible witchy attributes – she is sensual and emotional. On her way to deliver the deadly veil, she rubs it up and down her body like balm.