By Claire Willett
August Bournonville – the Royal Danish Ballet’s most famous son and national legend – was virtually unknown in the United States until after World War II. But his joyful choreography, precise technique and exuberant artistry have made his works works beloved in the ballet canon for a century and a half. Oregon Ballet Theatre is thrilled to introduce our audiences to this iconic artist by presenting the work often considered the pinnacle of his buoyant, celebratory spirit: the third act of Napoli.
Life and Works
“Bournonville was a child of the Golden Age,” says Frank Andersen, former artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet and the artist who has been in residence at OBT to set Napoli on the company’s dancers. “He actually thought that all his ballets would die with him. Of course today,” he adds, “we know much better.” Born in Copenhagen in 1805, the son of a French ballet dancer, August Bournonville created over fifty works for the Royal Danish Ballet and developed his own unique ballet style known as the “Bournonville technique.” Though only twelve of his full-length works have survived (the best-known being La Sylphide and Napoli), they have become beloved classics the world over, and they still form the foundation of the Royal Danish Ballet’s repertory a century and a half later.
Bournonville grew up in the Danish ballet world, under his father’s tutelage, first joining Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre as a dance student at the age of six. and also studied for many years in Paris. He trained for five years with the renowned French ballet master Auguste Vestris, an exacting but brilliant teacher, and performed from the ages of 15 to 23 at the Paris Opera Ballet, partnering the legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni.
In 1830, he entered into a somewhat prearranged marriage with a twenty-one-year old Swedish woman named Helena Fredrika, with whom he had seven children. Their relationship was by all accounts happy and affectionate, and Helena’s charm and intelligence made her well-respected and highly popular in her husband’s artistic and social circle.
Bournonville’s career as a dancer lasted from his début performance at the Paris Opéra in 1826, to his farewell performance at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in 1848 in the title role of his ballet Waldemar. He describes his own dance abilities with an intriguing combination of self-assurance and frankness: “As a dancer, I possessed a considerable measure of strength, lightness, precision, brilliance, and – when I was not carried away by the desire to display bravura – a natural grace, developed through superb training and enhanced by a sense of music. I also had a supple back, and my feet had just enough turn-out for me to be appreciated by even the severest master. The difficulties, which I have worked hard to surmount, often with only partial success, were all connected with pirouettes and the composure necessary in slow pas and attitudes. My principal weaknesses were bent wrists, a swaying of the head during pirouettes, and a certain hardness in my elevation. (To conceal and combat these was my hardest task.)”
From 1830-1848, Bournonville was under contract at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre as principal dancer, ballet-master and dance teacher for the Royal Danish Court. These years included the production of many of his best-known ballets, including La Sylphide – which debuted in 1836 with Bournonville in the lead male role as James – and Napoli in 1842. For another seven years after that, he served as ballet master and stage director for the company’s opera productions. Over the next few decades, he traveled back and forth from Copenhagen, spending a few years choreographing in Vienna before returning home to serve as ballet master at the Royal Theatre again, then moving to Sweden to run the Stockholm Opera. In 1865 he returned to Denmark to serve as choreographer, ballet master and stage director at the Royal Theatre. His final ballet, From Siberia to Moscow – inspired by a recent trip he had taken through Russia – premiered in 1876. He retired the following year and passed away in 1879.
Bournonville was a wildly prolific writer, publishing an astonishing number of articles, essays and books on a wide range of topics, from history and philosophy to popular culture. His largest undertaking was a three-volume memoir entitled My Theatre Life which covered nearly 75 years of everything from stories about his own career to his perspective on historic events. His writings reveal him as a man with a strong sense of social justice deeply rooted in Christian faith, an articulate and self-assured art critic, and a keen observer of the world – as well as a stubborn contrarian who vented frustrations about his mistreatment at the hands of theatre critics, worried about the durability of his own legacy.
Yet despite these fears, his influence looms large. He became an iconic representation of Denmark’s “Golden Age,” the center of a circle of artists and intellectuals like painter Bertel Thorvaldsen and writer Hans Christian Andersen. He was not merely a well-respected choreographer, but a skilled artistic director as well. He ran a tight ship and ruffled more than a few feathers, but for over the course of nearly fifty years his leadership, administrative restructuring, reorganization of the ballet’s school, clear artistic vision and highly-skilled staff turned the Royal Danish Ballet into an artistic powerhouse which it remains to this day.
- “Bournonville Dancers,” Anne Flindt Christensen. Weekendavisen, March 27th, 1992.
- Of Another World. Festschrift for Erik Aschengreen (ed. Inger Damsholt and Monna Dithmer). Tusculanum, 2002.
- “The Legs Are the Rhythm, the Arms Are the Melody.” Royal Danish Ballet “Bournonville Week” souvenir program, January 2000.
- “The Female of the Species,” Tobi Tobias. From the anthology Bournonvilleana (ed. Marianne Hallar and Alette Scavenius). 1992, Royal Theatre of Copenhagen.
- “Bournonville’s Mime,” Dinna Bjorn and Niels Bjorn Larsen. From the anthology Bournonvilleana (ed. Marianne Hallar and Alette Scavenius). 1992, Royal Theatre of Copenhagen.
- “An Old Master’s Beauty With a Euphoric Lift,” Alistair Macaulay. New York Times, January 15th 2015.
- “A 2D Cast in Bournonville’s Napoli,” Anna Kisselgoff. New York Times, June 17th 1988.
- “Bournonville: The Man and the Artist,” Knud Arne Jürgensen, Senior Researcher at the Royal Library of Copenhagen.
- Interview with Frank Andersen, former Royal Danish Ballet Artistic Director and OBT guest repetiteur (October 1, 2015)