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A Lost Classic--re-created Step-by-step

March 24, 1985|LEWIS SEGAL

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."

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