August Bournonville 101: An Introduction to Denmark’s Greatest Choreographer - Detroit Opera

August Bournonville 101: An Introduction to Denmark’s Greatest Choreographer

By Jon Teeuwissen, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Advisor for Dance

“There may be no greater balm for the spirit than the ballets of the 19-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville” claims a recent article in The New Yorker. I am in total agreement. Bournonville’s philosophy, according to his “Choreographic Credo,” states that “Dance is essentially an expression of joy.”

Bournonville is to Denmark what George Balanchine is to the United States. Both are considered to be genius choreographers who not only made their mark on the companies they directed, but had a distinct impact on the cultural fabric of ballet as an art form.

Although Bournonville ballets are performed by major ballet companies around the world, the true source is the Royal Danish Ballet, where Bournonville was the artistic director and a prolific choreographer. Many of his ballets, over a century old, remain in the repertoire of the company to this day, making a visit to your town a once-in-a-lifetime experience (hint hint).

In Bournonville’s own words:

The Dance is an art because it demands vocation, knowledge, and ability. It is a fine art because it strives for an ideal, not only in plastic but also in lyrical respect. The beauty to which the Dance ought to aspire is not dependent upon taste or pleasure, but is founded on the immutable laws of nature.

The art of Mime encompasses all the feelings of the soul. The Dance, on the other hand, is essentially an expression of joy, a desire to follow the rhythms of the music. It is the mission of art in general, and the theatre in particular, to intensify thought, to elevate the mind, and to refresh the senses. Consequently, the Dance ought above all to beware of indulging a blasé public's fondness for impressions which are alien to true art. Joy is a strength; intoxication, a weakness. The beautiful always retains the freshness of novelty, while the astonishing soon grow tiresome.

The Dance can, with the aid of music, rise to the heights of poetry. On the other hand, through an excess of gymnastics it can also degenerate into buffoonery. So- called "difficult" feats can be executed by countless adepts, but the appearance of ease is achieved only by the chosen few. The height of artistic skill is to know how to conceal the mechanical effort and strain beneath harmonious calm. Mannerism is not character, and affectation is the avowed enemy of grace. Every dancer ought to regard his laborious art as a link in the chain of beauty, as a useful ornament for the stage, and this, in turn, as an important element in the spiritual development of nations.” [Translated by Patricia N. McAndrew, 1979]

The guiding principle of the Bournonville method is that the dancer performs with natural grace, dramatic impact, and harmony between body and movement. The Bournonville method is noted for developing quick footwork, as required by Bournonville’s choreography. Another trademark is that the men dance just as much as the women, as Bournonville, himself a virtuoso, expanded the lexicon of male dancing.

Bournonville created a repertoire of more than 50 ballets, a school, and its own style. One of its most distinctive features, according to ballet critic Ebbe Mork, is “the illusion of imponderable lightness.” The greatest male dancer of the 20th century, Erik Bruin, wrote “In dancing Bournonville, the dancers often feel they spend more time in the air than on the floor.”

One of the many jewels of the Bournonville repertoire is Flower Festival in Genzano, a one-act ballet created in 1858. It was danced in its entirety by the Royal Danish Ballet until 1929. The pas de deux, which was extracted from one of the ensemble dances, lives on and is considered one of Bournonville’s most perfect compositions. Characterized as a masterpiece of Bournonville’s international virtuosity, it is a clear example of the Danish style.

Following are two excerpts of the Flower Festival in Genzano. The first is a video of a young male dancer just learning the beginning of the piece, being coached by a veteran dancer who is Danish, trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School, and danced professionally with the Royal Danish Ballet (among others).

The second video is an excerpt of a performance of the Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux.

Michigan Opera Theatre hopes to include the Royal Danish Ballet and The Bournonville Legacy on a future dance season. Stay tuned!