The beautiful always retains the freshness of novelty, while the astonishing soon grows tiresome. – August Bournonville
In a Bournonville ballet, there is no room for modern tricks and multiple pirouettes that dazzle the audience. There are no perilous overhead lifts or gasps of astonishment at impossible feats. Instead, the audience is entranced by graceful refinement and the art of investing each movement with meaning. It’s as close as we can probably get to the roots of classical ballet.
Ballet is often said to be the dance of the air, where we defy gravity – effortlessly. But until you see the Danes you don’t really know just how effortless and joyful this can be. And big too – each springy hop, or bound, seems to cover more ground. They also distort time, seeming to have all the time in the world to get from A to B with their beautifully-defined movements but there are constant embellishments that make the feet flicker with speed and dexterity. Bournonville is ballet in a different way.
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, revered as the world’s third oldest ballet company.
In 1979, in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death, the Royal Danish Ballet 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. The Bournonville Festival appears to be held once every 13 years! The second festival was in 1992, then 2005 and Royal Danish Ballet has announced it will hold the Bournonville Festival this year.
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 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); 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.
La Sylphide is one of the oldest full-length story ballets, first staged in 1832. It tells the story of a beguiling sylph who turns the head of handsome Scotsman James, betrothed to one Effie.
Charles Nodier’s Trilby ou Le Lutin d’Argail (The Elf of Argyll) published in 1822 tells of a male elf who lures a Highlands fisherman’s wife away from her husband. Inspired by it and with legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni in mind, Adolphe Nourrit, an operatic tenor and arts sponsor decided to create a ballet reversing the genders in Nodier’s story and casting Taglioni as the seducing spirit.
Nourrit borrowed the concept of the Sylph from previous 18th century ballets, only here he gave the Sylph more personality, making her a leading character. He also looked to Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian for the names Effie and Madge and possibly to Shakespeare’s Macbeth for the witches.
He took this scenario to Paris Opera ballet master Filippo Taglioni, Marie’s father. Instantly recognizing its potential as a vehicle for his virtuoso daughter, Taglioni commissioned music from Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhöffer and the ballet premiered on 12 March 1832. La Sylphide became an instant classic and cemented Marie Taglioni’s reputation as the most ethereal of ballerinas.
Marie Taglioni was the first dancer to be celebrated for her work ‘en pointe’ and La Sylphide marks the first time female dancers used pointe shoes to dance on their toes and give the impression of floating or skimming across the stage.
Taglioni’s 1832 version of La Sylphide did not survive. There have been attempts at reconstructions, but the majority of versions are now based on that of Danish ballet master August Bournonville, whose 1836 production also featured a new score by Herman Severin Lovenskiold.
Bournonville’s La Sylphide is a rare case of a remake that’s better than the original. Bournonville had seen Marie Taglioni dance La Sylphide in Paris in 1834 and for him “She lifted one up from this earth, and her dancing could make one weep”.
Bournonville acquired Nourrit’s scenario and commissioned a new score from Norwegian composer Herman Løvenskiold (as Schneitzhoeffer’s score was too expensive). His new and improved La Sylphide premiered in Copenhagen in 1836.
Bournonville saw in La Sylphide an opportunity to promote his own pupil Lucile Grahn but at the same time he wanted to take some emphasis out of the ballerina and put her on equal footing with the male dancer. He re-choreographed the ballet to suit his own abilities as a virtuoso dancer, thus giving a bigger role to the character of James, full of mighty leaps, turns and challenging beaten steps.
Bournonville filled his ballet with deeper meaning and intention. Cutting the “fat” in Taglioni’s choreography, he condensed it and fleshed out the poetic imagery and symbolism of the story. Thus, the witch Madge is a more important figure who sustains the drama. He also decided that James should not be able to touch the Sylph, so their pas de deux in Act 2 became a dance where James tries to emulate the ethereal moves he sees in the Sylphs. James tries to become like the creature he’s obsessed with. He aspires to belong in her world and to possess her and this ultimately leads to tragedy.
At the time the ballet premiered in Copenhagen, some accused Bournonville of plagiarism, but for others it was clear that his version was overall superior. And while Taglioni’s version did not survive unscathed throughout the years, the Royal Danish Ballet tradition ensured that Bournonville’s La Sylphide remained intact. It has been passed on from one generation to the next with very few modifications and is regularly performed by some of the world’s biggest ballet companies.
This year, WA Ballet performs La Sylphide.
WA Ballet remains true to the Bournonville tradition by working with staging director Dinna Bjorn, an international authority on the Bournonville style who has worked with the Royal Danish Ballet as a Bournonville consultant and Finnish National Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet as artistic director. For the second Bournonville Festival in Copenhagen in 1992, Dinna Bjorn reproduced the whole second act of Napoli, and this version stayed in the repertoire of The Royal Danish Ballet until 2010.
Apart from WA Ballet, Dinna Bjorn has staged La Sylphide for Bavarian State Ballet (Munich), Boston Ballet (Boston), Norwegian National Ballet (Oslo), Hong Kong Ballet (Hong Kong), Capitole Ballet (Toulouse), Universal Ballet (Seoul), Bulgarian State Ballet (Sofia), Het Nationale Ballet (Amsterdam), Paris Opera Ballet School (Paris), Grazer Landestheater Ballet (Graz), Royal Danish Ballet (Copenhagen), Ballet du Rhin (Mulhouse/Strasbourg) and Ballet Nice Mediterrané (Nice).
For WA Ballet, Richard Roberts’ sets and Lexi De Silva’s costumes help bring the story to colourful life.
Bournonville’s most enduring contribution remains his technique and style, known as the Bournonville method and championed today by the Royal Danish Ballet. August Bournonville was heavily influenced by the early French school of ballet, which he preserved in his teaching and choreography, when the traditional French methods began to disappear from European ballet. What is considered today to be the “Bournonville style” is essentially the unfiltered 19th century technique of the French school of classical dance.
The guiding principle of the Bournonville method is that the dancer should perform with a natural grace, dramatic impact and harmony between body and music.
Some characteristics of the Bournonville method include: a graceful épaulement, with the upper body often twisting toward the working leg; a lowered eye-line to exude kindness; extreme attention to the placement of the arms (often in a preparatory fifth position); quick footwork; a contrast between the speed of the legs and the grace of the upper body; pirouettes in a low leg position; and little visible effort.
There should be no visible effort. Even the largest, most dramatic steps should be performed in an understated manner. What should be visible is the contrast between the speed of the legs and the grace of the arms and torso. The legs are the rhythm, the arms are the melody.
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.
In the hands (and feet) of dancers not trained in this technique, these movements can come across as old fashioned and pedantically academic. In the right hands (and feet) even the simplest steps can portray a character. A Bournonville ballet, the right hands (and feet), informs the mind while it uplifts the spirit, inspires with its gentility and affects with its poetry.
The pas de deux from the one-act ballet Flower Festival in Genzano (1858) perfectly illustrates the Bournonville style: intricate footwork and ballon against a quiet upper body. It is a commonly performed variation in ballet competitions.
Bournonville’s ballets offer a glimpse of a world that has been largely lost but that we feel we know from lithographs of 19th century ballerinas like Marie Taglioni, the original interpreter of La Sylphide (1832). This was the era that gave birth to what we think of as ballet, with ethereal women skimming the stage on the tips of their toes.
Most of the Romantic ballets have disappeared, with the notable exceptions of La Sylphide and Giselle. But not in Denmark. Bournonville made more than 50 works, and he populated them with trolls, fairies, nymphs and good common folk. Only nine or so have survived, but they are rarely seen outside Denmark. That many have stories drawn from Danish folklore, contain reams of mime and are set to charming but unmemorable music has kept them from leaking into the wider repertory. A few fragments, like the playful pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano and the tarantella in Napoli sometimes pop up at galas.
Bournonville himself was esteemed for both his technique and acting. A contemporary critic wrote, “He speaks during his mime; he soars in his dances.” This stress on persuasive acting is an important ingredient of the Danish style.