We will not see the likes of Erik Aschengreen again. The Danish dance critic and historian, mentor of writers, dancers, ballet masters, and choreographers, died on September 9, at the age of 88. According to the Danish critic Anne Middelboe Christensen, who wrote a loving remembrance on the Danish theater blog “Iscene,” he had gone to the theater the night before, felt ill on the way home, and died the following morning. His longtime partner Per was by his side.
Aschengreen was the dance critic for the prominent Copenhagen daily Berlingske Tidende from 1964 to 2005, as well as a professor of history and aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen. In fact, he was responsible for creating the university's department of Aesthetics and History of Dance—an absolute rarity in academia, where dance is usually more or less ignored. I'm sure he was able to do this because of his prodigious energy and infectious personality. Aschengreen's enthusiasm—he had a uniquely emphatic manner, and an ever-present twinkle in his eye— could make any topic fun, intriguing, seemingly of burning importance.
The passion he exhibited for his subject was built upon a deep knowledge of dance history, and, in particular, of Danish dance history. He was especially devoted to Romantic ballet and the works of the nineteenth-century choreographer August Bournonville. Aschengreen had the gift, rare even among historians and critics, of being able to remember performances and performers with great specificity. As Middelboe writes, “he apparently remembered all the dancers he had seen,” even members of the corps de ballet. Lucky he! He channeled that knowledge and love into numerous essays and books, beginning with the 1975 volume Dangerous Sylphs, and continuing through Dancing Across the Atlantic (2015, about the links between the Danish and American ballet worlds), Seduced by the Ballet (2019), and what Middelboe describes as his magnum opus, Der går dans—The Royal Ballet 1948-1998 (1998), a history of the company over half a century. Alas, most of these are available only in Danish.
Not surprisingly, Aschengreen was recognized the world over as possibly the greatest authority on, and spokesman for, the works of Bournonville. His affable and mischievous presence were familiar from countless panels, lectures, seminars, and documentaries on the subject. Many critics fondly remember his participation in the now legendary Bournonville Festivals held in Copenhagen in 1979 and 2005, which introduced so many dance lovers from abroad to the Danish style. He was their charming, always enthusiastic guide. But Aschengreen also worked behind the scenes, aiding in the preservation of Bournonville's ballets, philosophy, and style, assisting in video-recordings of technique classes and the digitization of photographs and texts. Over the years Aschengreen's name became inseparable from Bournonville's work.
Despite his deep devotion to these ballets, he was not a purist. When contemporary ballet masters and choreographers like Nikolaj Hubbe, the dancer who in 2008 became the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, staged updated or eccentric interpretations of ballets like Napoli and La Sylphide, he always found something nice to say to say about them. He was wont to express the belief that in order for these ballets to survive and stay fresh, they needed to speak to the audiences of today. If that meant altering their settings or designs, or even adjusting the narrative, so be it. To him, it was their spirit and survival that mattered.
This enthusiasm for the new reflected a positive and hopeful spirit, apparent also in his reviews in which, as Middelboe writes, he “avoided the mean, and hid the worst between the lines.” His equanimity went hand in hand with a great generosity. This was a man who was willing to spend time with anyone, anyone, who showed an interest in the subjects he was passionate about. A parade of writers, dancers, researchers and choreographers have passed through his office at the university and his apartment on one of Copenhagen's oldest streets, seeking a greater understanding of the Danish school of ballet. I suspect that many of these people wanted to be in his presence, to hear him speak, as much as they wanted to learn from his wealth of knowledge.
Among the many who walked up the steep stairs to his charming apartment, filled with dance photos and prints, graced by a bust of Bournonville and the toe shoe of a beloved ballerina, and bursting with countless books stacked on every shelf and surface, was the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, then a dancer, who joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1997 with a desire to learn more about Bournonville. Aschengreen, with his usual generosity, lent him books and videos from his own collection and answered innumerable questions.
Years later, I was yet another visitor to that magical apartment. When I came to Copenhagen in 2018 to learn more about Ratmansky's years in Denmark for a book I was working on at the time, Aschengreen invited me over for coffee and conversation. By then he was 83. We sat in his book-lined living-room for a couple of hours as he regaled me with stories about Ratmansky, the Royal Danish Ballet, and, of course, Bournonville. He sat in his chair, upon which was tossed a tartan blanket—you could not help but think of the character of James, the hero of the Scottish-inspired La sylphide—and talked, and talked, and laughed, always with that twinkle in his eye. I left his apartment and his presence feeling very full, both of his stories and of his warmth. He seemed the spirit of Copenhagen, and of Danish ballet, personified. There will never be anyone like him.
Erik Aschengreen: 31 August 1935 – 9 September 2023
Marina Harss is a dance writer, journalist, and critic based in New York City. Her biography of Alexei Ratmansky, “The Boy from Kyiv—Alexei Ratmansky's Life in Ballet,” will be out in October.