Auguste Vestris


Interview with Hans Brenaa

"Their steps are sealed
in my brain"

Hans Brenaa was born on October 9th, 1910, and died on April 14th, 1988. He was a renowned interpreter and ballet master at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of his death, we have republished below one of his last interviews, given in 1987.

Copenhagen, May 1987

1/   Is it at all worthwhile to study Bournonville today ?

I feel, I know, it's very important to shew the young people what is Bournonville. I think we do not do as much as we should do, here at the Royal Theatre, we have too much modern ballet. Of course the young people, they like that, but if we do too much, we forget Bournonville, and Bournonville is the principal thing for Denmark !

Because everywhere in the world, they want us to come, and then we have to do our best. But that is difficult, if we don't take care of his style. So we must not change the steps or the style, and that is very hard for the young to understand, unless you give them nearly every day, the Bournonville classes. Today, the children in the Royal Theatre here, have no class of Bournonville ! But it is very important that the children start with Bournonville, so that they know exactly the style, and then, when they are 16 or 18 years old, they know exactly Bournonville, and we can keep it, and then we can take care of the other teachers or choreographers who come to Denmark.

Today, there are too many of the other teachers, the other choreographers. That can be very dangerous for the future. Because from my time, we are not so many older dancers left who still exactly know the style, and know the ballets. Among the young people today, I don't think there are many. We have maybe three young dancers, girls, who are very interested in Bournonville. And there I can see there is a hope, so we can keep that. These young dancers come to me, and ask me, "Is that correct ? Is that good ? Teach me." But after that, there I am sorry, I am afraid we will go down. That is the same everywhere today.

You see Russia. Russia, in the old days, before Pavlova, or in her time, they had one style. And after she had left Russia, and Karsavina, and all the dancers of that time before the Revolution, left Russia, they have taken everyting with them. And there were only young dancers back in Russia, and how much do you think they knew about the old style of the old time ? Some of them, they knew. But they have changed. We hear people say: "Oh ! Russian style ! Oh ! That is so wonderful !" But what is Russian style ? I have been there, with the Royal Danish Ballet, and they wanted me to teach the class in Leningrad. Dudinskaya, one of the oldest dancers there, who knows exactly the old style of Russia, she told me: “Oh, your steps from Bournonville, that's in family with the old Russian style".

When I was very young, seventeen, I studied in Paris by the old Russian Yegorova, and in 1951, I was there after the War, back in Paris, and she told me: "When I see the old Russian ballets today, I can't recognise them – they have changed so much ! Where is the style ?" And nothing, nothing is left of the old Russian style. So you see, every company, everywhere, changed. Everywhere in the world today, they want Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, to be staged by a Russian, because they think "Oh, the choreographer is Russian. He knows something !" And maybe he does know SOMETHING, but he wants his own choreography, and therefore, he changes things. I think maybe, there can be a question of money, because he thinks: "If I make the real ballet, then I will have less money", because then he can't say "That is my choreography". So they have to pay more ! I think that's very dangerous.

I have seen, many years ago, the "Sleeping Beauty". And Yegorova taught me the pas de deux, that time I was in Paris. And many years after, I saw that pas de deux, I couldn't recognise one of the steps ! But in the programme note for the performance, was written: "The old Russian choreography". But it’s not ! When I come out of Denmark, and see Bournonville, everywhere, in London, in America (…) and there have been Danish dancers that have produced the ballets, staged them - it's wrong ! And I asked them, "Why ? Why have you changed the ballet ?" And they answer: "Oh, I think that gives more effect, when you change it." But why change Bournonville ? Everyone in the world wants to see the real Bournonville. Why change ?

2/   As though every pianist wanted to rewrite Schubert ?

A (Laughs) Yes ! ? Now that you are talking about pianists, when you see a class, I find that it is awful, when I hear the pianists playing what they want to play. I can go out and teach Bournonville, and they want to play what they want ! They play modern things, Rock & Roll ! But in Bournonville there is a special rhythm to the steps. And that is the reason, why the dancers are so different today. We want to follow the pianist. If you have the music which is exactly the same as it was written, for the steps, then you have another thing, another feeling. But if a class wants to do a step of Bournonville, then the pianist plays music from nowadays ! So how can he do that ? I don't know how the teachers accept that !

When I was young, we had special music for special steps. Now they mix everything up. You have Bournonville steps to modern music. So you see, the rhythm must change. And that is dangerous, to change the rhythm. That is special for Bournonville, his rhythm.

3/   You said Erik Bruhn and Fleming Flindt changed things, because they wanted more effect ?

A Yes. That's awful ! I have asked them. In Lausanne, I was there to stage La Sylphide. And before that, they had a rehearsal of The Flower Festival. And I went down to the stage, and saw the rehearsal of Flower Festival. And then Eva Evdokimova, she came out and said to me: Oh, we don't want you to see that. I do what is right, because you have shewed me that. But the star from Paris said, ‘I don't want Hans Brenaa in the front there, because that is wrong, what I dance.’" He was sure that that was wrong, because when Erik Bruhn taught him, Bruhn said: "We must have more effect; we want more pirouettes, we want more, we go and lift the girl up in the air !" And I know, that Bournonville hated this. He wanted clean dancing.

When Bournonville makes a pas de deux, there is dancing for the girl, and dancing for the man. When they are together, maybe they dance the same steps, but they never touch. Therefore, in La Kermesse à Bruges, everywhere when I go to other countries, they say: "Oh, can you shew me that, please, because it's so clean". With the Flower Festival, we were in Russia and Ulanova, the big star from forty years ago, she sent me a letter, and said: "I saw the Flower Festival. Really clean ! It was with a young couple from the Royal Theatre. I have never seen Bournonville. It was so wonderful ! I hope I can see more ! Is it possible you can come over and shew us pas de deux like that ?”

So she could see the difference. That is very important for us – to keep the real Bournonville ! Don't change it ! Because next time, a new producer, or a new ballet master, he will change it too ! So where will we be, after twenty years ? No Bournonville anymore, changed and changed again. If I say to people: "That's wrong ! You must do the step the way Bournonville said !", they reply: "Oh no, no, that's OK, it doesn't matter !".

So we have to take care of Bournonville. We are, we have, the tradition for that. But if we lose that tradition, we are finished. Because every company in the world can do "Bournonville", but when I see them, it's not right, they have no style, not Bournonville's style, and the steps have changed, they are changed. So we have to take care. I'm sorry I'm so old. I should be twenty years old, to take care (laughs) !

When I produce a performance – of course, we must hold it up to date – but when I teach the dancers, I see the soloists from when I was young, their steps are sealed in my brain. I see them. All the dancers after them, forget it ! I don't remember them. I see the stars from that time I was young, and I know exactly the steps from that time. So that's OK. People who have not seeN that, they forget, and say: "Oh, we do something, oh, that's not necessary, one assemblée more or less, that doesn't matter". But it does matter.

And especially the style. They have wrong hands, and wrong arms, everywhere. They are like birds ! They don't know what they do with their hands, their arms. I'm so sorry when I see that. But when, you know, I say: "That's wrong !" they say, "Oh, he's so old ! He doesn't know ! Forget it !".

But it is very important to listen to the dancers from that time. We are not so many any more. It is important, if we want Bournonville to still exist, to go on, for us to keep it. And we are going more and more away from Bournonville. We have not so much in the repertoire anymore, whereas, we should have half and half. There is too much modern. WHAT IS MODERN ? We make things that are modern today, but they were created twenty years ago. That is why we have so many sick people !

There is a Ballet Invalide, invalide, because you know, we can't do that ! You see horses, draught horses that draw a cart with beer. You don't take racehorses, beautiful horses, you don't take them to draw a cart with beer. But that is what they do to ballet now. You can't ! You must have special people to do one thing, special people to do another thing. You cannot have more than the half of the repertoire, modern pieces ! Then you are sick ! Because you can't dance Bournonville then, because Bournonville is the most difficult thing to dance. I always say, if you can dance Bournonville, you can dance everything. But if you dance too much of the other things, then Bournonville will go down. In the modern pieces they are laying on the floor all the time, you see a modern ballet, they are on the floor, and Bournonville is up in the air ! And that is difficult, for the dancers to do both. If you go too much on the floor, you can't jump anymore. You're rolling around on the floor, and smell each other, and then go up again. And they go up, and go down and – Oh ! That's wonderful ! (laughs).

4/   What is the purpose of épaulement in Bournonville ?

A Bournonville has the épaulement in every step. That is not en face. He danced with the body, and if you move to one side, it's not just the legs that go to that side, the whole body goes that side. And now, when I see the other style, they dance en face. And the legs go one way, and the body goes another way. That's wrong. You can see, the feeling in the body has disappeared today. That is very special for Bournonville, épaulement. I have never seen, when I go to classes outside Denmark, special exercises after the barre. In the Bournonville school, we make, in the middle of the room, special ports de bras. N'existe pas ! (in French in the original). And that's the reason why the arms, hands, épaulement, is gone today.

The dancers would stand before the mirror, and Bournonville would say: "Now, you look at the mirror ! That's not necessary ! You must look to the right side ! To the left side ! To the back !” Nowadays, they only stay forwards (…)

5/   Looking at themselves !

A Yes ! Looking at the self ! They are never thinking of the audience or of people. They are only in the mirror. When they turn the arms to the right, the head stays to the front, because they have to see the mirror ! They stand, staring like that ! I think that's the fault of the teachers today. They think, "Oh, let the students do what they like ! They are so young, they are so nice !" When I teach outside Denmark, and we are very happy to do that, I teach port de bras.

When I stage La Sylphide, I tell the dancers before the rehearsal: "When you do épaulement, do that (gesture) with the hand, then you turn the head, and your eyes too, so everybody knows where your eyes are.” You watch your hand to the right side, then you watch your hand to the left side, so that people know, that something has changed in the direction of the body.

6/   What about the audience clapping during the ballet ?

A One thing more I hate ! After the variation when you dance on the stage, then you go to the front, and make a bow. You want claqueurs ! Awful ! you have gone out of the story you are telling. That's awful !

You can see Napoli. There are four or five ladies that make a solo, and everybody goes in front of the stage, for the audience, and make a big, big bow. That's awful ! They are not supposed to be dancing "for the audience". They are dancing in the story of the ballet. But they go out from the story, they go away from it ! In the last Act of Napoli, when the tourists are sitting around on the stage, that's for them that we are dancing, not "for the audience". You must stay on stage, be in the story. All the prima ballerinas and the men, they go down to the front of the stage, and oh, it takes time, and they say: "Thank you", and "Thank you", to the audience over and over ! It's awful ! Awful ! Bournonville hated that. After, when the curtain goes down, that's another thing.

7/   What is classical mime hardly taught any more ?

A Mime is very important. That's the reason why we have such old dancers in our company. We keep them, because I have seen in London Giselle: the young Giselle was played by a dancer, she was 52 years old, and her mother was a dancer who was 20. The girl put a grey wig on, and then she played the mother ! She could play that, because they have nobody else in the company. But here in Denmark we have ! We keep the big talent. We use them, until they are seventy years old. Last year, there was a dancer, a woman, and she was in the class everyday: she was seventy ! And she could play the mother, and the grandmother, because she was old, and a big talent.

I find the mime which I see verywhere in the theatres, dreadful. When they play the mother, or whatever, there is mime that you can't believe ! Dreadful ! But here in Denmark, we have tradition, and we have a school, we have two hours or more in the morning, only for mime. That we need, everywhere in the world. And I think that's one of the reasons everybody loves the Danish company, because we have such good actors ! And I hope we still will keep them.

8/   You said you were sick for a couple of years, and now that you're back, what are you going to insist on the most ?

A Of course, Bournonville's ballets. Now, the next one I have to do, is La Kermesse à Bruges, and then I have to find the time for everywhere I have to go. Now I have mostly a new cast in the roles, so I have to find the right dancers. And then mime, to shew them what is right. Because they can dance, but they have to move in our style, they have to do what they never learnt, what they don't know. The young people here have never done Bournonville class, some of them have never done it at all. So there I have to be, and shew them exactly épaulement and mime. And tell exactly the story in the ballet, and find the right types for that. So that will be the next I will do. So I look forward, I see to that, and I hope that it will be good.