Saturday, 21 May 2011

Jenny Hasselqvist – all acting, all dancing!

Jenny Hasselqvist (or Hasselquist) was a top class ballerina who also starred in a number of high-profile silent movies. There’s very little about her online (at least in English) but she’s certainly more deserving of wider recognition and remembrance.

Born Matilda Elizabeth Jenny Hasselqvist in 1894 into a well-to-do Stockholm family (her father was a Swedish MP), Jenny first appeared on stage as a dancer in her teens. She was one of the premier performers of the day and was principle ballerina for the Swedish Royal Opera from 1915-19 touring Europe in many successful productions.

In 1920 she joined the Swedish Ballet in Paris which produced five seasons of ground-breaking and avant garde dance. An article in Spel en dans (September 1925) ranked her with Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Lili Green as a world-class dancer. There's a documentary about this period - if ballet's your thing - with a sample here.

There are some excellent photographs showing Jenny in performance but little film of her ballet dancing. One noticeable exception is the 1916 Mauritz Stiller film "Balettprimadonna" a film thought long lost but now preserved in nearly complete form by the Swedish Film Insititute - I'd love to see it on DVD! There's also the, frankly bonkers, German “health and efficiency” movie "Wege Zu Kraft und Schonheit" ("Path to the Power & Beauty") (1925) in which Jenny’s dancing is one of the more conventionally interesting sections and certainly the highlight.

She dances in “Sumurun” and this is also one of the best chances to appreciate her acting ability. An Ersnt Lubich film from 1920 this was primarily a vehicle for Pola Negri and represents that early German sub-genre of Arabian Pantomime! The film is available on a Kino DVD and this shows the full-length picture (not the truncated US version) which reveals itself to be a sophisticated and intricate comedy and one preserved in excellent quality.

Jenny plays the title character (and is indeed featured on the cover, not Pola as some might think) and for my money, outmatches Ms Negri in skill, personality and certainly movement. That’s not to understate the latter’s own abilities – she’s deservedly a legend – but to underline how talented Ms Hasselqvist was.She faced an even sterner challenge in “The Saga of Gosta Berling” when acting alongside the 19-year old Greta Gustafsson (later Garbo) and again more than holds her own - albeit against inexperienced opposition who nevertheless shows promise... Her part is a less prominent one in this sprawling three hour epic than in the Lubish film but she still stands out for her grace and emotional subtlety.

Adapted from the nobel prize winning author Selma Lagerlof’s novel and directed by Mauritz Stiller, the film was one of the key European movies of the silent era and much has been made of the Stiller/Garbo angle. The cast is a very strong one with Lars Hanson outstanding as the cleric torn between his passions and his women. The great Gerda Lundequist is also present as the wise Margaretha Samzelius.

Jenny plays Marianne Sinclaire who is wooed by the outcast Gosta Berling. Gosta sticks with her after she is ravaged by small pox and rescues her from the fire of Ekerby. But Marianne nobly frees Gosta of his obligation to her knowing that his heart lies elsewhere, “our adventure is over – forever” she says her eyes telling a different story as she sacrifices her own happiness for his.

It’s a mass of melodrama but compelling viewing. People can pick holes in the continuity, sprawl and overall coherence but it is a tale well told with some great dramatic sequences, the above mentioned fire and Gosta and Elizabeth’s escape across the snow.

And, in every scene, Jenny is strong, expressive and convincing. More skilled, certainly, than Ms Gustafsson at this stage.She never gave up her principle career – indeed film looked more of an adjunct with an average of around a movie a year through the 20’s at a time when she still toured Europe frequently with the Swedish Ballet. She eventually opened her own ballet school in 1932 after making her last film “Den farliga liken” (“The Dangerous Game) in 1930. She passed away in 1978 having been married a number of times and no doubt more revered as a ballerina than as a film star.

See for yourself why she should be remembered for being both.

Arabian adventures here and Gosta saga here.

2 comments:

  1. She sounds amazing, fantastic post.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Hannah. Wish there was more out there on Jenny H - one of those people who stands out: dedicated and talented.

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