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August Bournonville was born in Copenhagen on August 21, 1805 to a French father and a Swedish mother. His father, Antoine Bournonville, was a dancer and choreographer, and was the director of The Royal Danish Ballet from 1816 to 1823 – a position his son was later to hold for nearly fifty years.
Born into a tradition of the theatre, Bournonville began training early, studying dancing, singing, and acting. He performed children’s roles in Copenhagen from the age of eight on. In 1820, he went to Paris with his father and thus found himself at the center of the international ballet world. The French style was very influential in ballet at that time, and Bournonville had the opportunity to study with the best teachers, including Auguste Vestris. He danced at the Paris Opera, was made soloist there, and seemed assured of a successful career in Paris, but chose to return to Copenhagen.
While in Paris, Bournonville went regularly to theatres and museums, and also studied languages and history. He did not acquire an interest in choreography, even though he had begun arranging tableaux and composing libretti while in his teens. As he described himself during the years in Paris, “I practiced, admired or criticized the others, contemplated the intrinsic value of ballets with the insouciance of a true Parisian, and, like my comrades, aspired to earn money and praise without any real consideration of higher art.” (My Theatre Life, pg. 27)
Bournonville became the balletmaster of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1830, a post which gave him responsibility for teaching as well as choreographing. He took up this position at a time when the ballet in Copenhagen had gone into a decline. As he stated in My Theatre Life, “A great deal of hard work was needed in order to bring life back into an art which had lost its right to this name.” Bournonville dedicated himself to improving the recognition and status of ballet as an art, and always stressed its nobler, more refined aspects over overt bravura and cheap tricks. He created ballets which called for sensitive, dramatically nuanced performing, not mere display.
He also greatly upgraded the technical standards of his company, constructing daily classes which challenged the dancers and which survive to this day.
Bournonville was particularly concerned with the position of the male dancer, and created important roles and difficult choreography for men during a period when the male role in much of ballet had declined considerably. He by no means neglected women in his works: La Sylphide was choreographed in 1836 for his favorite pupil Lucile Grahn, who, at the age of seventeen, created the leading role. He was also concerned with the way dancers were viewed and treated in the society at large, and he labored hard to gain new respect and financial security for them.
Bournonville was friends with many of the Copenhagen’s leading artistic and literary figures. One of his closest friends was Hans Christian Anderson.
Many of Bournonville’s ballets reflected his travels; he enjoyed incorporating the national flavor of of countries he had visited into his works, and often found the inspiration for a new ballet while travelling.
Bournonville ended his dancing career in 1848, and remained as director of The Royal Theatre until 1877. He left briefly on two occasions, to work in Vienna (1855-1856) and Stockholm (1861-1864).
At his death in 1879, he was convinced that his ballets had little chance of out-living him. He did not foresee his continuing influence on Danish ballet or the world-wide recognition his ballets would receive beginning in the 1950’s when The Royal Danish Ballet made its first appearance outside Denmark. Americans “discovered” his choreography when the company appeared in New York in 1956, and his popularity has been growing ever since.
Of the many works Bournonville created during his long and prolific career, only about ten survive today. The Royal Danish Ballet remains the primary repository of the Bournonville repertory; its strong sense of tradition and respect for its history has sustained a continuity in the Bournonville style, and its productions of his ballets are considered the most authentic. The company presented a six-day Bournonville Festival in 1979 which attracted a large international audience. La Sylphide has entered the repertory of many major ballet companies; Napoli (1842) has been produced for several companies outside Denmark. Shorter excerpts, such as the pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano (1858), are often staged, and Konservatoriet (1849) has been performed by The Joffrey Ballet and London Festival Ballet. Since 1977, New York City Ballet has performed Bournonville Divertissements, a selection of excerpts staged by the Danish teacher Stanley Williams, who has also staged the Flower Festival pas de deux and the pas de trois from The Guards at Amager for American Ballet Theatre.
My Theatre Life by August Bournonville, translated by Patricia McAndrew; Wesleyan University Press, 1979
August Bournonville and The Royal Danish Ballet by Erik Aschengreen. Pamphlet prepared for the 1979 Bournonville Festival by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Copenhagen