Three hours of high-octane fun

The critics have said it many times over – the choreographic formula of collaborators Nikolaj Hübbe and Sorella Englund is a product of more than talent, hard work, and artistic perfect pitch. Crucially, it incorporates daring, new ideas. Hübbe, of course, is a veritable rock star in the world of ballet, complete with a reputation as an alleged coke-snorting megalomaniac around the Royal Danish Theatre. As a dancer, The New York Times in 2008 described him as “experimenting in a “what if?” way that was a thrill to behold”. As a choreographer on August Bournonville’s Napoli here in town in late 2010, that’s exactly what he, and collaborator Sorella Englund, were doing. By bringing the plot a century closer, swapping old music for new, and rethinking old solutions, they offered what literary critics call a ‘strong reading’ of classic material.

In early 2011, the directorial duo Hübbe and Englund (a legendary Bournonville-interpreter with five decades of experience) debuted their tastefully modernised A Folk Tale, another Bournonville-gem, at the Royal Theatre. Now, one year later, we’re lucky to have the reprise. Their take on the work – a fantastic, subtly Grimmian, unmistakably Nordic-flavoured tale about a changeling, her upcoming wedding, and plenty of mythical creatures – won the admiration of nearly every critic last year. At one level the production showed tradition and reinvention in mutual agreement, but essential to the success was also a remarkable ferocity unseen in the 500 plus Danish stagings that preceded it.

Naturally interpreters of Bournonville, the incorrigible founder of Danish ballet, cannot grant themselves carte blanche to do whatever – especially, I suppose, when Bournonville himself deemed the work his “best” and “most complete”. Nor is the royal stage the place to deconstruct the classics. But A Folk Tale has arguably benefited from the directors’ accentuating strokes. The sacrifice of idyll and light for some extra trolls and witches is laudable as it serves to expand the overall range of emotion. Along with the ballet itself, our experience is significantly heightened when we get a shot of fear and terror after first being lulled by Niels W Gade’s vivacious orchestration – inspired by Mendelssohn’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But never fear: this ballet is all about celebrating the lovely Danish summer nights, as Det Kongelige Teater’s dramaturge Ole Nørlyng has said.

Another attraction of A Folk Tale is the extent and use of in-your-face symbolism. Whereas previous directors have had the ballet’s diverse demons wrestle hidden from view in a suggested underworld (metaphoric of the human mind), they now parade on the stage as if they owned it, starkly suggestive of the uncivilisable, sex and violence-prone human mind.

In brief, the ballet’s first act tells of Birthe, who is engaged to the melancholy Junker Ove but chooses to flirt shamelessly with Sir Mogens – so much so that she doesn’t notice the elf-girl Hilda trying to lure Ove into her elf-hill with a magic drink. Failing at first, Hilda summons her friends, and the bevy treat Ove, to some serious, spellbinding elf-dancing. Ove’s resistance crumbles. Exeunt the lot of them.

The always important second act is the only one to feature music by JPE Hartmann, one of Bournonville’s most favoured composers. Story-wise, suffice it to say that Ove is not alone cherishing warm feelings for Hilda. Meet the troll brothers Diderik and Viderik back in the elf-hill. Also, as Hilda pays attention to her dreams she grows convinced that she and Birthe were switched at birth.

The third act, full of nuptial bliss, is perhaps best known by the Danes for containing their absolute favourite romantic tune: Gade’s ‘Bridal Waltz’, which sees most eloping Danes off in style. Gade himself thought it a trifle, but its popularity is up there with the national anthem – and it sure is catchy. However, we’re in for a dramatic ending.

A Folk Tale is often praised for being accessible and appealing to all ages. Its huge popularity speaks for itself and may, in part, be a testimony to playgoers’ enduring interest in fairy tales. Another factor may be the alluring dreamy quality that stems from exquisite music and a host of fantastic characters – mostly in a seductive mood. And, of course, everybody can relate to a vicious, ugly troll.

A Folk Tale

Store Scene, Operaen, Ekvipagemestervej 10, 1438 Cph K;

Performances at 20:00 (unless stated) on Thu, Jan 19, Jan 21 (12:00), Jan 23, Jan 24, Jan 28;

Tickets 95-595kr. (half-price concession for those under 25);

180 mins. including an intermission;,, 9816 5296