August Bournonville was a celebrated Danish dancer and choreographer who created the Bournonville method, a technique and training system still in use today by the Royal Danish Ballet, marked by lightness and filigree footwork against a quiet upper body. He also encouraged male virtuosic dancing, during a time when the man’s role in ballet was reduced to supporting the woman.
Bournonville’s flair for the virtuosic was in his blood. Born in Copenhagen in 1805 to the famous dancer Antoine Bournonville, the younger Bournonville entered the Royal Ballet School at 8 years old. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet at 16 as an apprentice, while his father was artistic director. The talented teenager took a break from Denmark to further his ballet studies in Paris, under renowned dancer Auguste Vestris. After passing the difficult dance exams at L’Académie Royale de Danse, Bournonville briefly danced with the Paris Opéra Ballet, in which he was often partnered with famous Romantic ballerina Marie Taglioni.
He returned to Copenhagen in 1829, bringing with him the refinement and style of the French. One year later, at the tender age of 24—already known for his sparkling technique and charisma—he became the Royal Danish Ballet’s ultimate triple threat: premier danseur, choreographer and ballet master. Though he didn’t create his first full-length, original ballet until five years later (Valdemar, 1835), Bournonville would go on to create more than 50 ballets, the most popular of which are La Sylphide (1836, still early in his career); Napoli (1842); and the one-act Flower Festival in Genzano (1858).
Aside from two short breaks to stage works in Vienna (1855–56) and direct in Sweden (Swedish Royal Opera at Stockholm, 1861–1864), Bournonville remained at the helm of the Royal Danish Ballet until his retirement in 1877, at the age of 72. He was knighted and died two years later of a heart attack. DT
Bournonville never composed a variation in which dancers merely run or walk from one corner to another. The dancer dances the entire time, even with his or her back to the audience.
La Sylphide (1836) Bournonville used Filippo Taglioni’s (father of Marie, his Paris Opéra dancing partner) original 1832 production as a springboard for his own version. One of the oldest surviving Romantic ballets, La Sylphide is about a sylph (or spirit) that charms a young man on the brink of his marriage.
Napoli (1842) Like many of Bournonville’s ballets, this one was inspired by his travels on tour—this time, to Italy. Its plot concerns Teresina, the village beauty, who drowns in a storm at sea and is held captive by a sea spirit until she is saved by her true love.
Flower Festival in Genzano (1858) The pas de deux from this one-act ballet perfectly illustrates the Bournonville style: intricate footwork and ballon against a quiet upper body. It is a commonly performed variation in ballet competitions.
Bournonville’s choreography features virtuosic male solos, filled with strength and ballon. This was unusual for its time; male dancers were little more than support for the ballerinas. He also skillfully blended mime and dance in his work for a well-rounded theater experience.
In the Bournonville method, the head and upper body always follow the working leg. Despite the brilliant, fast footwork of the feet, the upper body displays ease. The essence of this style is lightness.
To preserve Bournonville’s technique, Hans Beck (a successor of his at the Royal Danish Ballet) assembled six daily classes—one for each day of the week, except Sundays—from Bournonville’s teaching and choreography. Each class follows a typical ballet class structure, with barre work followed by adagio, tendu, pirouette, allégro and batterie exercises devised specially by Bournonville. Beck also made sure to include pertinent excerpts from Bournonville ballets in each daily class.
Until 1951, this schedule was used for training at the Royal Danish Ballet School. (Its main flaw was its lack of surprise.) Now, Bournonville’s original technique is mixed with Russian, Anglo and English styles.
The Legacy Lives On
Bournonville’s most enduring contribution remains his technique and style, known as the Bournonville method and championed today by the Royal Danish Ballet. In 1979, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death, the RDB created the Bournonville Festival, a weeklong celebration in Copenhagen featuring performances, lecture demonstrations and open classes and rehearsals that was well-attended by dance writers, Bournonville scholars and ballet fans from all over the world.
George Balanchine (a guest choreographer at the RDB in 1929) was a great admirer of Bournonville’s work, and today a connection between New York City Ballet and the RDB still exists: Peter Martins, a former principal dancer with first the RDB and then NYCB, is now artistic director of NYCB. Nikolaj Hübbe, another former NYCB and RDB principal, is now the artistic director of RDB.
Former RDB principal Frank Andersen served as the company’s artistic director twice (1985–1994 and 2002–2008) and now teaches and coaches in the Bournonville style all over the world.
“August Bournonville: Celebrate the Danish choreographer’s bicentennial this year,” by Janice LaPointe-Crump, Dance Teacher, August 2005
“Bournonville At 200,” by Virginia Johnson, Pointe, June/July 2005
“Bournonville for Boys: A lesson in Bournonville technique for your male students,” by Virginia Johnson, Dance Teacher, September 2005
“Teacher’s Wisdom: Frank Andersen,” by Toba Singer, Dance Magazine, April 2009
The Bournonville School: The Daily Classes, by Kirsten Ralov, Dance Books Ltd., 1979
The King’s Ballet Master: A Biography of Denmark’s August Bournonville, by Walter Terry, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1979
Photos from top: by Martin Mydstkov Rønne, courtesy of RDB; courtesy of Dance Magazine archives; by Martin Mydstkov Rønne, courtesy of RDB