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TAKING A STEP INTO BALLET’S PAST

There’s enormous physical pleasure in dancing Bournonville. The style and the steps are so harmonious, so complete, that you instantly recognize in your mind and in your body a great classical tradition. The simplicity of it and the emotional tranquility are extremely satisfying. --Mikhail Baryshnikov,

From “Baryshnikov at Work”

What Baryshnikov doesn’t say in his testimonial to Danish choreographer August Bournonville--and what 19 dancers, ages 13 to 48, are finding out this week at UC Irvine--is just how hard learning Bournonville technique is.

In two week-long classes, the dancers will be struggling with the springy jumps, intricate fast footwork and airy, elegant carriage of the upper body that characterize the style created by the great 19th-Century choreographer.

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Passing on this legacy to them is a distinguished, authoritative teacher, Tage Wendt, who was a member of the Royal Danish Ballet for almost 45 years and who now operates five Bournonville schools in Denmark.

Wendt, 57, will take the dancers through a weekly routine of increasingly complicated steps, with a different discipline created for each day: The Monday School, the Tuesday School and so on through Saturday. Each day consists of a minimum of 35 exercises made up of long chains of movements.

(Wendt will concentrate on the first three days of exercises this week. He will take up the Thursday though Saturday exercises on Monday.

“We start with the arms,” Wendt said. “This is the first problem: You need nice round arms and elbows, never stiff and not straight out as in Russian and even English ballet.”

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He demonstrated by curving his arms into a relaxed, gentle arc.

“Never drop your fingers,” he warned.

The class members--all girls and women dressed in practice clothes of various colors--watched closely then imitated the movement.

“Smile and enjoy it,” Wendt admonished them. “If you don’t feel a kind of enjoyment, you’ll never dance Bournonville.”

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The dancers lined up at the barres riveted onto the mirrored walls of the studio and began the repetitive routines that are part of every dancer’s daily life:

Arms rose and floated open. Bodies stretched and bent. Again and again, knees bent in deep plies.

“The plie must be like a rubber ball,” Wendt said. “It is a preparation for the next step.”

Before long, the exercises became more complex: Legs brushed and circled the floor, swept up to the side and momentarily froze in the air. Feet crossed and uncrossed in swift scissor-like moves. Arabesques twisted into new and bolder shapes.

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Ringlets of hair began to cling to moist foreheads, and lines of sweat formed across shoulders and upper backs.

The dancers moved into the center of the studio to begin the series of long combinations for that day.

Wendt tries to communicate to them the importance of stylistic details:

“Fingertips tell everything,” he said. “If they’re closed, they say nothing. Open them up--not too much, not too little. See, expression always comes from these little things. . . .

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“There is light and shadow in each step. That changes all the time and gives interest to the steps. . . .

“Let your eyes follow the movements of your arms and hands. Don’t look in the mirror all the time.”

When an opportunity to rest came, the dancers stretched out on the floor, leaned against the practice bars or pulled out water bottles and cans of soft drinks from the tote bags. Nobody talked.

Afterward, the dancers shared comments with an observer:

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“It’s fun,” Julie Hines, 13, said. “It’s different--and hard,” said Kim Mikesell, 13.

“It’s more work than I expected,” Kristin Donaldson, 15, said.

Added Negeen Darani, 14: “There’s lots of sweat.”

All four seemed to agree that the springy jumps make the hardest demands on them.

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Anita Mitchell, 28, a local ballet teacher, has brought several of her students to the class because, she said, Bournonville dancers “are able to go 90 miles an hour and still keep their arms, chest and upper torso still.

“The benefits can be incorporated into every style, whether it’s Balanchine or Cecchetti or classical Russian,” Mitchell said. “The most complete dancers get a little of everything--and transfer it.”

Ann Lombardo, 22, agreed: “The more styles you study, the better you become. I took the class for the experience.”

Even a professional dancer, Dianna Yee, 36, a principal dancer with the Sacramento Ballet, shares that motivation:

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“The key thing is to be versatile enough,” Yee said. “You can’t master just one technique and make it as a ballerina today. Most companies require you to do several styles--and (some) modern dance as well.”

Wendt seemed fairly pleased with his students’ progress:

“They picked up the steps in not too long a time,” he said. “Already they’ve gotten an understanding about the arms, smile, humor--and they do some of the things quite all right.”

Of course, the training he received at the Royal Danish Ballet took place at a faster pace, he recalled. “Normally, we would do all this in one day--in one hour, including the barre exercises,” he said. “Now, in Denmark, it’s done in an hour and a half.”

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