Louisville Ballet Leaders Care for Choreography Without Ego

The Louisville Ballet opens the final full production of its season this week. Danish choreographer August Bournonville’s “La Sylphide,” one of the oldest surviving Romantic ballets, runs Friday and Saturday for three performances in the Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall. 

The ballet, which opened in Copenhagen in 1836, is set in Scotland, where an engaged man’s obsession with a mythical fairy-like creature threatens his impending marriage. And it’s told in a very specific style of ballet. 

“The thing about the Danish style is it’s exactly like the Danes. It has to be done with great humility,” says artistic director Bruce Simpson. “Even the biggest jumps and the most complex beats with the feet cannot be done like you’re showing off. There’s no place for that in the Danish style.”

What does that mean for a dancer? It’s in the way they lower their arms, in the relationship between the chin and the chest. A step or a gesture can’t be approached with the same attitude as in, say, a Balanchine ballet. Taking care of the differences in styles is part of the job for Simpson and his right hands, senior ballet master Uwe Kern and ballet mistress Mikelle Bruzina. 

“We’re very unique, in that sense, in this country — and I’m sad to say nearly internationally now, where everything becomes generic, and you don’t really see differences anymore in the styles or different approaches to ballets,” says Kern. “We’re very particular that you can’t do Bournonville like you do Petipa, you can’t do Petipa like you do Val Caniparoli.”  

Kern has long had a love for the Danish style, and even studied under Bournonville experts like Kirsten Ralov of the Royal Danish Ballet. That gives him a particular affinity for this ballet, and an intimate knowledge of the small differences that add up to big stylistic distinctions.

“Because I was trained Russian and I used to use my wrist a lot, [Ralov] would say no no no, when you bring your hand down, the hand stays still,” says Kern. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about this, that in Bournonville  you don’t use your arms, you don’t use your upper body. But no, there’s a lot.” 

That “all in the wrist” action is part of what Kern and Bruzina are charged with imparting to the dancers, because, as Simpson says, the artistic leaders of the company are charged with “taking care of the choreographer’s intent, without ego.” It’s one thing for the dancers to learn the mechanics of the steps, and their entrances and exits, but to nail the performance in a true Danish style takes another layer of attention to the original work.

“The difficult thing is that every dancer’s going to process it differently,” says Bruzina. “So the challenge is to explain it to each person individually in a way that they’ll be able to get the best out of themselves, and to bring out of them what you’re looking for.”

“We’re getting ready for a production of ‘La Sylphide,’ but at the same time we’re also taking care of a Val Caniparoli production we’re doing in April, and at the same time a re-staging of an Adam Hougland ballet,” she adds. “All three completely different styles, and yet, to the company’s credit, this is the formula we have. A lot of our senior dancers are used to dropping one style and picking up another.” 

Simpson counts 180 ballets in the company’s repertoire — so that’s arguably 180 different styles the dancers need at their fingertips. But that’s where Kern and Bruzina are indispensable to him, as the ambassadors of the company’s vision when Simpson’s not in the room. 

“We don’t have an ego that a lot of other companies have, in a sense, where the director will say we will do it my way,” says Kern. 

But that doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel at every first rehearsal. Simpson breaks it down with a food metaphor. 

“It will be the same ingredients on the table, but then when we started cooking the meal, this one would need a little more salt, and that one more pepper, and that one needed to have a little more poaching, and that one more roasting,” says Simpson. “So the foundation of the company is the integrity and the training of the classical ballet, but the style, it depends on the choreographer, and we train our dancers to be able to move.”

The company will close its season April 4 and 5 with Complementary Voices, the annual mixed repertory program that demonstrates handily in one evening how quickly the company’s dancers can switch styles. This year’s program will include a world premiere, “Spaghetti Western,” by “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker” choreographer and frequent Louisville Ballet collaborator Val Caniparoli, alongside “Fragile Stasis,” an Adam Hougland (the company’s principal choreographer) piece the company premiered in 2007 and “Tethered Pulse,” by Tulsa Ballet resident choreographer Ma Cong.

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