"I believe Bournonville’s dance is pure dance. The style begins in the arms, it is important that the shape of the arms is right. The arms are the very frame. Leg technique can be used in other styles. It calls for a particularly honest technique to make Bournonville’s style work, and it is very obvious if a dancer deviates in certain details. The dancer must not cheat by adding something extra. The musicality has to be clearly and purely visible in the softness of the arms and the rapid movement of the legs. There must be composure in the upper torso and musicality in the movement. It must not look difficult or be bravura dance. The legs are the rhythm and the arms are the melody."
The words are Thomas Lunds', a principal dancer in the ballet that was almost synonymous with Bournonville; the Royal Danish Ballet, and it sums up the characteristic Bournonville style of ballet.
August Bournonville was born in Copenhagen in 1805. His father was a French dancer, his mother his father's maid. As a six-year-old he enrolled in the Royal Danish Ballet School (which still exists to this day), and began a career as dancer and actor in the Royal Danish Theater. His father became artistic director of the theater not long after, and August Bournonville planned to follow in his father's footsteps. He travelled to Paris to study, and returned in 1830 as an accomplished dancer, and became ballet master at the Royal Danish Ballet in 1836.
With a few notable intermissions, for instance, the six-month exile to Italy after he had a public argument with the king (he shouted at him from the stage!), August Bournonville worked as the artistic director almost until his death in 1879. In that span of time, he changed a backwater ballet company into one of the most premier and celebrated in the world, and created a new, romantic and distinctively dramatic style of ballet!
Keenly aware of the fact that most ballets do not survive the death of their choreographer, he prepared sixteen of his more than hundred ballets and divertissements to be handed over to his successor. Unfortunately, today not even that amount has survived, and the tradition of Bournonville ballet is threatened as a more international style has almost prevailed in the Royal Danish Ballet. It is not as when an old manuscript or piece of music is rediscovered; the choreography of a ballet is almost impossible to learn from sheets of paper, and if it is to retain its special character and spirit, it must be shown and teached by instructors, who themselves, in their time, have been instructed and danced the parts. Especially since Bournonville's ballets are quite complex.
Yet, the seven complete ballets, the excerpts from additional two and the few divertissements that have survived, still represents more true-to-the-original works than from any other choreographer of his time! In contrast to ballets from other great choreographers of the 19th century, there has been almost no distinguishable alterations.
The surviving ballets of Bournonville include the masterpieces La Sylphide (1836), Napoli (1842) and A Folk Tale (1854). They are fairy tales or comedies, (the more serious ballets didn't survive,) and they deal with the romantic issues such as the clash between nature and culture, but Bournonville's claim to fame isn't the subject of his works, but the style.
The Bournonville style is understated, and compared to the flamboyant styles of Russian or French ballet, it might seem pedestrian. But looks are deceiving; the grace and harmony idealized by this style demands perfection from the dancer, and the minuscule steps contrasting to the grand jetés are surprisingly difficult. The style is, however, mainly characterised by the posture of the upper body, the torso and the arms, and by the pantomime.
Though the mime is less theatrical today, it is still central to Bournonville ballets, and the grace and musicality of it often makes or breaks a performance. The ballets are dramatical and dialogues using the Bournonville mime style is common. When first confronted with the mime, it might seem out of place, but because you understand it so instinctively you soon become unaware of it, and talking would only divert attention and break the spell of the dances.
If you wish to experience Bournonville ballet, it ís performed around the world. Still, there is no better place to see it than at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. The importance of Bournonville to that company cannot be overstated and Bournonville is a staple in the Royal Danish Theater. The dancers performing it is part of a tradition where one generation teaches the next that goes back to Bournonville himself, and a festival celebrating Bournonville is planned for 2005.