The hero of "Abdallah" -- a 130-year-old ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week -- rescues his nation's sovereign from attackers and is rewarded with a magic candelabrum.
The reward for Ballet West Artistic Director Bruce Marks, who rescued "Abdallah" from historical oblivion, is of a different sort, but no less magical to him. After February's world premiere of the production in Salt Lake City (Ballet West's home), he was to read a review by a preeminent Danish critic acclaiming the revival as "undeniably a ballet miracle."
"When you stick your neck out that far," Marks says, "you hardly dare hope for the kind of triumph our opening night proved to be."
To understand the magnitude of the triumph, you have to know that "Abdallah" was choreographed, in 1855, by August Bournonville. Bournonville is to Danish ballet -- which boasts the oldest continuous classical ballet tradition in the world -- what George Washington is to this country. He is the founding father, a secular saint of sorts, the model to which all those who followed aspire. Having the Danish press lavishly praise a Bournonville production that originated "in the Wild West" (as the critic put it) would have seemed beforehand about as likely as hearing Russians praise American caviar.
Bruce Marks regards the success of "Abdallah" mostly as a tribute to the artistic skill, knowledge and taste of Toni Lander Marks, the former ballerina to whom he was married for many years and who remains a close associate. As a young woman she was a leading dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet and married its director, Harald Lander. After their parting, she went on to an illustrious performing career with the London Festival Ballet and then American Ballet Theatre, where she met Marks. Just recently, she had to decline appointment as the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet because of severe illness. Before that, she and Marks collaborated in the restoration of "Abdallah," but it was Lander who did most of the actual recreation of steps, and filled in gaps in the historical records, aided by Danish experts.
Marks feels that weathering the riskiness of the "Abdallah" venture added some cubits to his own credibility as well. He had to raise half a million dollars to mount the ballet.
"In the early stages, the Ballet West board had a lot of trouble understanding why I wanted to do a ballet that had been lost for more than a hundred years and had failed its first time around. And even later, I knew that people on my own staff were saying, behind my back, that I was out of my mind. I guess the whole experience makes my improbable career -- son of a truck driver becoming a modern dancer, and then switching to classical ballet -- a little more probable."
Marks' "improbable" career is about to take yet a new turn. When he returns to Washington this week with Ballet West, which he and Lander have been associated with since 1976, it will mark the end of his leadership of that company. In June he assumes a new post as artistic director of the Boston Ballet, a major development in the ballet world announced in January.
Marks thinks the factors that made "Abdallah" a flop for 19th-century critics and audiences are actually advantages for its contemporary revival and appreciation.
"The ballet failed, both in Copenhagen and Vienna," he explains, "for two reasons. One complaint was that it had too much dancing. Imagine. Today it's just the other way around -- we're unhappy when an old ballet has too much mime and not enough dancing. The other beef was that is was too sexy, what with the harem scenes and all that.
"Actually," he adds, making a gesture of a teensy slice with two fingers, "it's about that sexy."
"Abadallah" had been a gleam in Marks' eye for well over a decade. "It's hard to believe it's taken 14 years for this thing to happen. My love for Bournonville goes way back, to my days at Juilliard and studying with Antony Tudor, and the Danes' Fredbjorn Bjornsson, who was guest faculty one year. Then, when Toni and I were dancing with ABT, Erik Bruhn came one season to stage the third act of 'Napoli,' but he couldn't finish it and Toni took over the staging. I was given the principal male variation."
After 10 years with ABT, Marks was invited to be a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, the first American male to have that distinction. He and Lander were there from 1971 to 1975, before their move to Utah. The "Abdallah" project, however, had its origins while they were still in New York.
"One day a friend who knew my interests called to tell me a Bournonville manuscript was up for sale at a forthcoming Sotheby Parke Bernet auction," Marks recalls. "I didn't think I was exactly in the Parke Bernet league financially, to say the least, but the friend urged me to submit a sealed bid. In a month, I was the owner of Bournonville's handwritten scenario, in French, for 'Abdallah' -- for $150!"
He and Lander were enchanted with the story, much influenced by the Arabian Nights and the tales of Aladdin. It's a typical Bournonville cautionary tale about the moral dangers of greed and lust, in the guise of an exotic fantasy. Abdallah, the cobbler, save Sheik Ismail from marauding Turkish conquerors, and is given the magic candelabrum with five branches. Lighting each candle will bring the fulfilment of a wish, but the fifth candle is forbidden -- all will be lost if it is lit. Abdallah cannot resist, of course, but the love of his forgiving sweetheart, Irma, and the generosity of the sheik save the day.
Though Marks dreamed of doing something with it "someday," the manuscript just laid around like a trophy for years, until his Ballet West appointment. Then he started to think, he says, "about how every regional company in the country is looking for something unique and classical to do. What should it be for Ballet West -- another 'Giselle,' another 'Romeo'? I began to feel that we must do 'Abdallah.' It alone could single us out, bring us national attention.
"By this time, Toni had staged a number of Bournonville pieces for the company and prepared the dancers for the style, with her deep understanding of it. In 1981 on a trip to Denmark, Toni found the musical score by H.S. Paulli for 'Abdallah' in Copenhagen's Royal Library, with copious choreographic notes by Bournonville. On New Year's Eve that year, I went to Geoffrey Hughes, a longtime Ballet West patron, and argued that we could achieve an international coup with 'Abdallah.' I must have been convincing, for in short order he came up with $125,000 for the costumes, and we were really on the way."
Marks engaged Jens-Jacob Worsaae, a noted Danish designer, to do the decor. A good part of "Abdallah's" appeal comes from its opportunities for scenic effects. One of Abdallah's magic wishes, for example, turns his humble shoemaker's cottage into a luxurious palace, complete with a harem and dancing girls. Another wish causes the instant disappearance of his mother-in-law-to-be. "A lot of people want to know how that trick is worked," Marks notes. Still another wish brings on a drunken orgy.
In October 1984, Marks and Lander mounted the mime scenes, trimming the original score back in the interests of contemporary time sense. "What we did was to distill and compress the time without changing the story. The story's all there, but it moves at our tempo," Marks says. In November, Lander went to Denmark and worked with the Royal Danish Ballet's Flemming Ryberg on the dance numbers. According to Marks, about half the production's choreography derives from Bournonville's notations, and half was invented in a Bournonville idiom. At the premiere in Salt Lake City, Marks himself undertook the character role of the sheik, and he'll repeat the portrayal for the Kennedy Center performances.
Marks already has extensive plans for the Boston Ballet, which has been through a rough period over the last year or two with the death of its founder, and the precipitate departure of both its president and the former artistic director, Violette Verdy. Much of the trouble reportedly centered on friction between the ballet's board, administration and artistic head.
"The board and myself have agreed on something rather unusual in the ballet world -- the artistic director is also going to be the chief executive officer," Marks says. "I'll hire the department heads and general manager, and they'll answer to me. I'm not on a power trip; I just want the company to run well. I'm going to change the company's artistic approach, as well. I'm redoing the school, which right now is more or less just a collection of teachers. We'll create a syllabus and a structure. I believe, as George Balanchine did, that you can't have a great company without a great school."
"I'm also going to do away with the eclectic program -- the ABT formula, with a little of this and a little of that, leaving no one happy. I've signed Mark Morris to do new choreography for us next year, and the year after, I'll do a full evening of contemporary ballets."
Marks is refreshingly outspoken about his aims. "I think it's important for a company such as the Boston Ballet to provide gifted, emerging choreographers with an opportunity to work on a large scale. I'm betting people will give me support for this idea, even if they end up not liking the work. I'm also going after a new audience -- there are 150,000 university students in the Boston area, and as far as I can tell, none come to the ballet. I don't think they'll come for the eclectic program, but they might for something more exciting.
"I want to make waves. I want to lead, not follow. I don't think an artistic director should be treading lightly. I'm not going there to make people feel comfortable, I want them to feel on the edge."
At the same time, Marks knows he'll arrive in Boston riding a crest of initial optimism. "Right now the board is happy to have someone who has definite ideas, right or wrong. Sure, the honeymoon is on. I've got a year. After that, we'll see."
Marks will still retain ties with Ballet West. He'll teach this summer at Aspen, where the company is in residence, and in August he'll participate with the troupe in the new dance and video experiment being set up by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, to encourage innovative choreographic work in an environment free of economic stress.
He also is concerned about the future of Ballet West, which has formed a search committee for a new artistic director. "I think it will probably be a long process. But I think the company ought to seize the opportunity to go in a new direction. It's important that it never becomes business-as-usual. In the arts, that's death. There's a tremendous chance for rebirth, renewal -- for an artistic director who won't just reproduce the past, but will take the company somewhere else, somewhere it hasn't yet been."
At the Kennedy Center Tuesday night, Ballet West will open its week-long engagement with a repertory program that includes "Les Sylphides," the "Corsaire" pas de deux, the Washington premiere of Marks' "Lark Ascending" and Balanchine's "Western Symphony." This program will be repeated Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. "Abdallah" bows Wednesday night, with two casts of principals alternating thereafter on Thursday and Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon.