August Bournonville

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

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to onstageblog.com, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.