Great Danes with twiddly feet

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The Independent Culture

While Britain has been marking the centenary of Ashton, and America the centenary of Balanchine, Denmark has been lining up to fête the 200th birthday of its own founding choreographer. August Bournonville's name was French and he studied in Paris, but it was in Copenhagen that he chose to make his career. Why? Because of the equal opportunities that Danish ballet offered to men and women in the 1830s, and that happy equilibrium still beams from Bournonville's dances.

While Britain has been marking the centenary of Ashton, and America the centenary of Balanchine, Denmark has been lining up to fête the 200th birthday of its own founding choreographer. August Bournonville's name was French and he studied in Paris, but it was in Copenhagen that he chose to make his career. Why? Because of the equal opportunities that Danish ballet offered to men and women in the 1830s, and that happy equilibrium still beams from Bournonville's dances.

Presumably it was the festivities in Denmark that prevented the whole Royal Danish Ballet company from appearing at Sadler's Wells. Instead, they sent 19 of their best dancers, and instead of whole ballets they brought extracts, including a mere snippet of La Sylphide, Bournonville's best-known work. But it was enough to showcase the distinctive Danish style, its steps recognisably ballet, but its manner more akin to the upward springiness of Scottish dancing. When Mads Blangstrup blew on as a gorgeously blond and square-jawed James in Sylphide, he looked very much at home in kilt and sporran.

The essence of the style is its fast and twiddly footwork, as well as that Tiggerish bounce. Blangstrup's feet are a blur as he whips through the beaten jumps faster than you'd think humanly possible, retaining all the while a perfectly relaxed upper body. Of course, taking bleeding chunks from La Sylphide makes nonsense of the story, but as a showcase for Romantic manners it works well enough. In Bournonville duets the men don't lift the women, they dance side by side, and this pair was immaculate step for step.

The programme opened with Act II of Le Conservatoire, in which Bournonville recalls his student days in 1820s Paris. Set in a classroom, it's essentially a technical showcase with the dancers working through increasingly tricky exercises and the teacher being strict with a stick. The fun starts when the teacher reveals a partiality for one of the girls, showing off his own remarkable elevation with a touch of smugness.

Almost every time it's the men that hold your eye, not just because they're good, but because Bournonville gives them so much chance to show it. I was particularly struck by Kristoffer Sakurai's sharp definition. And Thomas Lund, the dancer who also directed this show, almost obliterated the lovely Caroline Cavallo in the duet from Flower Festival at Genzano. Lund has the kind of vertical jump that has you searching for hidden springs in the floor, but he's also an appealingly cheerful masculine presence. Cavallo, for her part, has a lovely way with rond de jambe en l'air that makes it look like airy needlework.

The evening ended on the rip-roaring high of the final act of Napoli, Bournonville's take on a Neapolitan wedding, buoyed by the playing of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia who clearly had a ball. Equally cheering was the observation that these keepers of the 150-year-old flame are all very young. This is old dance that's out of the museum and alive.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

A season of Bournonville films will screen at the NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) throughout August

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