(Critic's Pick): NEW YORK — “Joy is a strength; intoxication, a weakness,” wrote the 19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville, whose ballets are almost anomalies for their unassuming, unaffected delicacy and charm. In them, feet spring with such elasticity that jumps seem to come out of nowhere; chests open with dignity, not dash; and arms, softly rounded with upturned palms, are like the start of a hug.
Prudence and modesty — increasingly uncommon in today’s culture — are prized in a Bournonville ballet. And even when there isn’t enough space between spectator and stage, and performances have their fair share of opening-night bobbles, watching dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet perform Bournonville’s choreography is an all-too-rare occasion. His ballets have a soothing effect on the soul.
On Tuesday, the Joyce Theater hosted “The Bournonville Legacy,” a program arranged by Ulrik Birkkjaer, a former principal at the Royal Danish Ballet and now a principal at the San Francisco Ballet. The showcase, uneven at times, wasn’t served well by the theater; its intimacy is fine for contemporary ballet, but Bournonville needs more distance, more scope. It was the kind of night in which you couldn’t help flinching at the dancers’ nearness — and holding your breath as you willed them to hold their landings.
The evening began on a tragic note with the second half of “La Sylphide.” In it, James (Birkkjaer), a young Scotsman, becomes transfixed by a magical sylph (Ida Praetorius) on his wedding day. It doesn’t end well, and ultimately it was the malicious witch, played by Sorella Englund, a former principal dancer who is now a ballet master and coach with the Royal Danish Ballet, who took possession of the stage.
With seething contempt — and wildly splayed fingers and a withering stare — she embodied rage; even when her facial expressions were too big for the space, her fury emanated from a deep place within.
But if the first half was all about darkness, the second half, titled “A Bournonville Square,” gave way to light. Made up of excerpts, including the spirited, equine-inspired duet “The Jockey Dance” — in which Marcin Kupinski and Alexander Bozinoff pricked the stage with spry, tiny jumps — it represented a significant shift in mood. Act II was about finding the joy in movement.
Here, the union that can occur between the dancers and the audience at a Bournonville ballet — it has much to do with the inherent warmth of the performers — spilled into the crowd. (A pair of glasses, worn by Tobias Praetorius, who was playing a street singer in “Napoli,” flew into the front row; a jovial spectator handed them back.) And, as proven in the tarantellas from “Napoli,” the dancers know how to hit a tambourine: not too soft and not too hard. That alone was satisfying.
But the most beguiling scene — and dancing — came in the romantic pas de deux from “The Kermesse in Bruges,” featuring Stephanie Chen Gundorph as Eleonore, and Jon Axel Fransson as Carelis. (The pair later returned as Teresina and Gennaro in “Pas de Six” from “Napoli.”) The sensation of being transported back in time held a sweet allure.
Gradually, Chen Gundorph, with her elegant line, relaxed into her role with increasing graciousness and control, while Fransson, armed with a radiant smile and a body that relished being in the air, danced with such vibrancy and ease that his lilting jumps and turns became one with the music. It was all you want and need from Bournonville: harmony in action.
“The Bournonville Legacy” runs through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan; 212-242-0800, joyce.org.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.