When Bruce Marks and his wife, Toni Lander, bought an antique, hand-written, 16-page ballet libretto at auction in 1971, they never guessed their $150 purchase would be the first clue leading towards the discovery of buried treasure: a lost 19th-Century Arabian Nights ballet ready to spring to life like a genie from a bottle.
Marks and Lander were principal dancers in the Royal Danish Ballet at the time and, before that, American Ballet Theatre. Lander had been trained in Copenhagen, Marks in New York, but they became equally devoted to the uniquely humane and effervescent ballets of the great 19th-Century Danish choreographer August Bournonville.
"All you have to do to fall in love with Bournonville is dance him once," Marks said recently. "And once his style gets into your body it stays there forever--it's stuck in your bones. The rhythm of Bournonville, how he puts the steps on the music, warms you like nothing else can."
Of course, it was a Bournonville libretto that Marks and Lander bought--the scenario for "Abdallah or the Gazelle of Basra," a three-act fantasy not danced since 1858. Once Lander had translated the French, Marks became charmed enough by the story to declare he wanted to stage it someday.
No wonder, for the plot of "Abdallah" has everything: romance, comedy, danger, magic, spectacle and a cautionary depiction of sensual excess--plus improbable new guises for a number of archetypal dramatic situations. Boil it down and you have nothing less than a variation on the Garden of Eden story, set in what is now Iraq. Like Adam, Abdallah can live in paradise--as long as he lights no more than four candles on a magic five-branched candelabrum. To light the fifth is forbidden yet, inevitably, he yields to temptation and loses everything.
Other familiar incidents occur--three dancing graces competing for a golden orange (a Mideast "Judgment of Paris"); the shoemaker hero recognizing his beloved-in-disguise by her dainty feet (a middle-class "Cinderella"). There's even a passage that will remind modern audiences of "Swan Lake" (a ballet that came after "Abdallah"): The heroine is invited to choose a husband from a group of dancing princes--but has already chosen someone else.
Since the choreography for "Abdallah" was presumed lost, Marks intended to stage it with new dances by Lander in Bournonville's style. However, in 1981, five years after Marks became artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City, he and Lander learned through a Danish critic and ballet historian that the authentic "Abdallah" awaited them in the Royal Library, Copenhagen.
There, in a two-violin reduction of Holger Simon Paulli's musical score, were extensive choreographic notes that Bournonville had made in order to restage "Abdallah" in Vienna the season after its Copenhagen premiere. Enough notes to revive "Abdallah" again.
Funded by both the usual sponsors for this kind of project (the National Endowment for the Arts, the Salt Lake City Arts Council) and several unlikely ones (Reader's Digest, General Mills and the government of Saudi Arabia), "Abdallah" went into high gear--as a reconstruction, not a pastiche.
Flemming Ryberg, a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet who had restaged Bournonville ballets for that company, soon joined the "Abdallah" production team, working with Lander on the dances while Marks concentrated on the dramatic content.
Ryberg had previously used Bournonville's notes to mount excerpts from "Ponte Molle," so he knew how to interpret the frequently sketchy data. Indeed, he emphasized recently that piecing "Abdallah" together involved nearly as much instinct as scholarship.
"It's quite a big job because Bournonville doesn't say where the dancer is on the stage, which foot you're going to start with or anything about the arms," he revealed.
"Sometimes you'll finish a big step-- grand jete to the right--and the next step is to the left. You have to have your knowledge, your background in Bournonville, to know how to combine them. It's very natural for me and Toni to do. When I hear the music sometimes and read the names of the steps, I can feel which direction it's going in, which way the leg should be pointed."
This intuitive approach became mandatory in corps passages where, according to Ryberg, "you can work out the steps from the notation, but it's not written that it's four girls on the right doing it. Or five in the center. You have to fit it together."
Some new choreography was required for passages where the notes proved insufficient, impossible to decipher or where the production team decided to replace lengthy mime scenes with additional dancing. "In the bacchanal (Act II), Bournonville wrote all of Abdallah's mime gestures in the score but nothing else," Ryberg explained. "Is everybody just standing and looking at him? No, we can hear in the music that they must have been dancing and we have taken the liberty of putting in some steps there."
Essentially, though, the Marks-Lander-Ryberg "Abdallah" is the real thing--not a patchwork of authentic and imitation 19th-Century choreography like Natalia Makarova's staging of the complete Marius Petipa "La Bayadere" for American Ballet Theatre in 1980. Nor is it like Flemming Flindt's Bournonvillian "Toreador" for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1978--a speculative evocation of a lost original.
Yes, this "Abdallah" does look different than the 1855 original: Excess mime has been pruned and the dances technically updated to show off contemporary skills (as Bournonville's surviving ballets have been amended in Denmark). Still it is arguably more authentic than the beloved Royal Danish Ballet version of Bournonville's "Napoli" with its array of deletions and interpolations.
More to the point, it is a captivating stage work created at the height of Bournonville's career, in the same decade as those enduring Royal Danish treasures "Kermesse in Bruges," "A Folk Tale," "La Ventana" and the pas de deux from "Flower Festival in Genzano." These ballets preserve the link between the Romantic, French-dominated "Giselle" era in dance and the Classical, Russian "Swan Lake" period to follow. But they are masterpieces, not historical footnotes, and thus the revival of the lost "Abdallah" became major news in the dance world.
As Marks' last major project before leaving Ballet West this summer to become artistic director of the Boston Ballet, "Abdallah" received its 20th-Century world premiere a month ago in a $350,000 production presented at the ornate Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City. The Utah Symphony Orchestra under Varujan Kojian played Paulli's vintage score with maximum sweetness and vivacity. Danish designer Jens-Jacob Worsaae conjured up delicate, translucent Arabian vistas and rich costumes that charmingly blended influences from exotic east and balletic west.
Augmented--in proper Bournonville style--by older mime actors and children, the Ballet West dancers achieved an easy rapport with Bournonville technique that more prestigious companies might well envy. Like the dream sequences (or "white acts") in 19th-Century Russian ballet, the harem divertissement of Act II displayed the women's corps de ballet at its purest, while a comic character dance in Act I showed off the men with the same irresistible low-life vigor and eccentricity as Eliot Feld's "The Jig Is Up."
A pas de deux? Certainly--one in which, as usual with Bournonville, ballerina and danseur meet as equals and their tests of technical prowess become discreetly subordinated to the joy of dancing. A pas de deux of forgiveness as well as affection leading into an exotic finale--the cast aglow in costumes of scarlet, gold and pearly white.
At the premiere, Miguel Garcia acted Abdallah with a childlike wonder that lent his secure dancing a special warmth--while at the second performance William Pizzuto mimed the role more fluently but seemed more of an all-purpose classical cavalier. However Pizzuto's ballerina, Lisa La Manna, had a soubrette sparkle that energized her dancing--preferable to the conventionally lyrical Lee Provancha Day (a Giselle rather than a gazelle) on opening night.
In both casts, Marks played the non-dancing role of a warrior-sheik with his remembered nobility of bearing. For the occasion, Ryberg flew in from Copenhagen (between performances of "Petrushka") and undertook some last-minute coaching. Lander made a fleeting, token appearance onstage at the premiere but had been seriously ill for some time (reportedly with pneumonia and a congested lung) and has since declined the ultimate honor: an invitation to become artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet.
As the visiting dance press duly noted, "Abdallah" was a hit. The morning after opening night, some of the visiting Danes reportedly confirmed plans to acquire "Abdallah" (if not Lander) for their own company. At the same time, Ballet West representatives proceeded with arrangements to take the ballet to the Kennedy Center in late April--and Marks considered making cuts in Act III:
"The same criticism that 'Abdallah' received in 1855 is true today," he declared. "There's too much dancing in it. I think we're getting an audience that can't quite bear another two or three variations at 10:20 p.m." However, he had arranged to record all the initial performances on videotape and use the most accurate one for archival purposes, so the complete "Abdallah" is unlikely to be lost again.
Meanwhile Ryberg sat in an office at the Capitol Theatre speaking quietly and gazing into space with a look of dreamy longing--the look of someone born to play James in Bournonville's "La Sylphide." Almost shyly, he spoke of other buried treasure in Copenhagen, including notated scores to a type of Bournonville ballet that nobody alive has seen: the solemn historical saga and epic Norse myth.
In 1985, the genie that lept from the bottle was a whimsical charmer called "Abdallah." But, next time, Ryberg suggested, he might well be a dark spirit named "Valdemar."