Bringing men to the forefront of the Royal Danish Ballet

The Royal Danish Ballet performs Bournonville’s A Folk Tale at the 2005 Bournonville Festival.

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

Fun Fact

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.

The Work

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.

Dance critic Walter Terry referred to the Bournonville épaulement as the “Danish embrace”: The hands are open to say “hello” to the audience.

Style

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.

 

Technique

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.

Resources: 

Print:

“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

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Adequate dorsiflexion mobility is needed to find a supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely. Getty Images

Dancers are trained to think often about the range of motion, stability and power of their extended lines: the point of the foot, the reach of the penché, the explosion of the sauté in the air. But finding that same mix of flexibility and strength in the flexed foot is just as integral to technique and injury prevention. Without adequate dorsiflexion mobility, it is nearly impossible to find the kind of supple demi-plié needed to bound into the air and land safely.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by The Fleet, courtesy of Lion's Jaw Festival

Growing up in New Jersey, Lisa Race trained with a memorable dance teacher: Fred Kelly, the younger brother of famous tapper Gene. "Fred would introduce our recitals," she says. "He would always cartwheel down the stairs." It wasn't until years later, when Race was pursuing her master's degree and chose to write a research paper on Kelly, that she realized there was a clear connection between her own movement style—improvisational and floor-based—and his. "In this television clip I watched, Fred jumps up to the piano, then jumps off it—he's going up and down and around," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, wow, all this time, I've thought of my dancing as my own, but that's where it started!' Moving upside-down and into the floor. There's a thread there. I rerouted it in different ways, but there's a connection."

Now, as a professor at Connecticut College, she concentrates on how to introduce her students to that love and freedom of upside-down work—and how to best prepare them for life after graduation, no matter what dance path they take.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

It's summertime, which means we're all starting to feel HOT! HOT! HOT!

While a warm room is certainly better than a cold room when it comes to dancing, you don't want your students to get heat stroke at your studio. To help you survive this sweaty time of year, here are tips and tricks that will keep your classrooms comfortable for an excellent class.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're not prepared, studio picture day can be a real headache. But, if done right, it can provide you with gorgeous photos that will make your students and parents happy, while simultaneously providing you with marketing content you will be able to use for years to come.

Here are five tips that will help you pull off the day without a hitch.

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via YouTube

In its 14 years of existence, YouTube has been home to a world of competition dance videos that we have all consumed with heedless pleasure. Every battement, pirouette and trendy move has been archived somewhere, and we are all very thankful.

We decided it was time DT did a deep dive through those years of footage to show you the evolution of competition dance since the early days of YouTube.

From 2005 to 2019, styles have shifted a whole lot. Check them out, and let us know over on our Facebook page what you think the biggest differences are!

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of Koelliker

Sick of doing the same old stuff in technique class? Needing some across-the-floor combo inspiration? We caught up with three teachers from different areas of the country to bring you some of their favorite material for their day-to-day classes.

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox