August Bournonville
August Bournonville; drawing by David Levine

The current emergence of Bournonville (1805-1879) in the United States as a formative presence in the descent of academic classic dancing is of concern and complexity. From festivals organized in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Ballet whose tutelary genius he was and is, and its American tours, we have been made aware of a unique institution which for long has combined a thriving school, company, and repertory under stable national support. Bournonville’s extant ballets, revived and conserved in tactful approximation of their producer’s intention, offer variants of mimicry and motion from other capital traditions. Christian Johansson, a Swede trained in Denmark, entered the imperial ballet in Petersburg in 1841, danced and taught until 1903, exerting a powerful influence on three generations of dancers. His method directly affected the schooling of Nijinsky as an alternative to the Italian academy of Enrico Cecchetti. Denmark and Russia shared a common Franco-Italian inheritance; developments were disparate.

In condensed history, nineteenth-century choreography is commandeered by a handful of names. Captain of this spectral company is Marius Petipa, author of half of Swan Lake and all of The Sleeping Beauty. Lev Ivanov, his shadowy assistant, designed the second and fourth acts of the former, as well as Nutcracker. Filippo Taglioni, Jules Perrot, and Arthur St. Léon worked in Paris and Petersburg. As for other Italian, Austrian, German, or Polish ballet masters, a few of their figures and faces are recognized from prints, but their steps scarcely exist on stage.

Bournonville, however, in his centennial year is more than a forgotten face. His Copenhagen version of La Sylphide (1836) superseded Filippo Taglioni’s Paris original, although its authenticity in its present state, as in many other works still seen, attracts doubt. Several of his ballets and divertissements drawn from them have entered American repertories, notably La Sylphide, the last act of Napoli (1842), and Konservatoriet (The Dancing Class) of 1849.

Among problems presented by such appropriation is the unbridgeable discrepancy in execution between Danish-schooled dancers and those who attempt to echo them. It might be excessive to measure miles between New York and Copenhagen as further than the Orient of kabuki or kathakali, but Bournonville’s style is seen clearest at home, or at least when Americans strive for his ebullience and buoyancy rather than finicky detail. Further, if this all is pushed to hair-splitting finesse, there is a question of “authenticity” in steps which even the Danes doubt. They admit that no three dancers agree on the accuracy of any single version of a Bournonville work, and this is hardly strange after a century and more of transmission, lapse, and revival.1

We must grant that, whatever the exactness of contemporary presentation, there is a golden residue of candor and briskness, a tone and quality found nowhere else. Edwin Denby wrote from Copenhagen in 1953:

The only important Western company that has not been here is the Royal Danish Ballet, the importance of which I thought was its freshness and straightforwardness in presenting the touching (and soundly built) romantic ballets of Bournonville, of which no ballet fan can see too many. The choreography is simple but original; the pace is easy but sure; the dances are seen with a beautiful clarity and the sentiment is both real and modest. It is a pleasure to see how simple, how chaste, ballet can be and still go to your heart.2

Bournonville, unlike many contemporary self-schooled or self-termed choreographers who barely attain the status of soloist before claiming dance-design as a career, was born into his craft, became a brilliant performer, and had at his command a tested instrument at the service of his steps. His father was French, his mother Swedish. Taught by his father from the age of eight when he entered the Royal Ballet School, in addition to a rigorous apprenticeship, he learned to read widely, look at pictures with care, sing and play music with ease. At fifteen he joined the ballet company. In Paris three years later he studied with Auguste Vestris, a legendary survivor of the ancien régime. A famous dancer, Vestris had become an influential teacher, transmitting eighteenth-century methods and manners to generations of future soloists. Bournonville lived on a royal stipend; in spite of demands that he return to Copenhagen, he persisted in Paris, and partnered Marie Taglioni at the start of her career. Accused of ingratitude to his king, and almost artistic treason, he had gained the self-knowledge and courage to equip himself with a body of craft, which later helped him work well at home. In 1830 he settled in Denmark with an eighteen-year contract as first-dancer, choreographer, and dancing-master to the royal court.

Bournonville’s pantomime scenes are cherished for their tenderness and lack of affectation, although only the Danes themselves present them with full conviction. His mimicry is more explicit, less ritualized than much that is parodied in most “romantic” revivals. He worked with Copenhagen’s sister companies of drama and opera, borrowing from both. He used folk-dance elements from all over including (after a trip to Russia) the Eskimo. However, when his ballets are seen in New York, what is most immediately and lastingly impressive are his electrical circuits of footwork, a flotation of neat strength and transparent freshness in the aerial exuberance of male dancers.


It is far easier to move a corps de ballet around the stage surface than to frame or focus a dancer in extremes of capacity, fast and slow, suave or angular. Centering on a single performer’s action concentrates on sequence and character of steps, the transfer of movement in their musical procedure. It is similar to the aria in opera. Steps danced in series, like notes in music or words in metrical verse, are a naked revelation of the choreographer’s inherent capacity to sustain attention for repetition. The memorable solo makes its language live, in school and on stage. An extension of the solo into pas de deux offers the fullness of a talent in miniature. In Bournonville’s solos and duets there are a special scale and savor of tact and ingenuity, although he managed larger groupings with variety, surprise, and charm.

The Danish theaters in which he worked were, by our habit, small. The taste of his time often loaded the scene with scenery and supernumeraries. Restricted stage-space did not exactly reduce his scale; he was accustomed to the scope of Paris, and analyzed with care the area given. Nevertheless, there is a tidiness or intimacy redolent of the domestic, which in its specifics is less likely to satisfy in bigger opera houses. His sweetness, frankness, and discretion compensate for a shyness when it comes to what the Russians consider to be a heroic or monumental dimension, which too often appears now as a faded carbon-copy of some lost original.

Comparing Danish with French or Russian ballet measures Bournonville’s divergence from both. At Versailles, from Louis XIV until 1789, the company was strictly a court appanage, increasingly independent of Italian origins and influence. After revolution and empire, while schooling continued without interruption, theaters were democratized. By 1830, the big Opéra was leased out to competitive entrepreneurs who invested in negotiable ballerinas to perform ballets that were tailored to box-office, claque, and subscribers. This system was profitable, turning the corps de ballet into a brothel for the Jockey Club, emasculating repertory into monotonous mediocrity, and leading to the abdication or exile of male dancers after 1850.

By the mid-nineteenth century in Russia, after a delayed start in 1740 under the Empress Anna, with help from France, Italy, and Sweden, a system of training was established which has provided a criterion ever since. Imperial largesse permitted an absorption of alien taste and talent which few other national companies permitted. Petersburg in its isolated confidence considered itself a better born cousin to Paris; so far: no revolution. Ballet was paid from the Tsar’s privy purse under paternalistic surveillance from autocrats and grand dukes. Hierarchies were pyramidal and immutable, even in the seating of subscribers by social classes. Male dancers had the advantage of equality in prestige; their practice gained from dashes of folk-expression from the rich patrimony of all the Russias.

Petipa, like Bournonville, was a court-servant shouldering the risks and benefits of the calling. Both strove to fill ideals of art past the amusing or amazing. When the Dane visited Petipa they consoled each other over the pandemic disease: divertissementitis. Bournonville was shocked by the provocative brevity of Russian tutus. The imperial theaters, under the administration of retired army generals, produced richly and could use platoons of soldiers to make a storm under canvas waves. Fault lay in rigidity of format, trivialization of music. Swan Lake (1877) failed at first as “trop Wagnerienne“; all the Tsar had to say to Tchaikovsky of his score for The Sleeping Beauty (1890) was “very nice.” This attitude was challenged only by Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes would never be seen in Russia.

France and Russia were prime powers. Denmark was not, but instead a pawn in the bloody play between Britain and Germany. Bournonville memorialized in ballet the armed resistance to Nelson’s fleet (1801), in which battle his father served. When Copenhagen’s opera house of 1748 was replaced by the present theater in 1874, capacity was doubled, but proscenium frame and seating were still small by gross international standards. Bournonville’s opportunities to mount big spectacles were not large, but his colorful borrowings in dance and decor compensated. His problems with the bureaucracy of a constitutional monarchy continued after he ceased to have direct access to the throne, but even today dancers acknowledge their king before the general public.


Paris and, more remotely, Petersburg were political and cultural world centers. Copenhagen was and is a charming regional town which pays for its flavor by insularity. Riga, Warsaw, Turin, Dresden had competitive theaters, more for opera than ballet. Here important artists were given their debuts—notably Richard Wagner. Denmark contributed few artists to the international scene and made no great effort to bring others to Copenhagen. Bournonville produced Lohengrin in 1871. He had a useful cadre of house-composers, but no Glinka or Tchaikovsky. Grieg, a Norwegian, visited Denmark; there was no contact. Carl Nielsen was not yet available. Hans Christian Andersen, who in youth wished to become a dancer, was a family friend; but Bournonville never used any of his tales for a ballet. Bertel Thorvaldsen, the sculptor, a gelid parallel to Antonio Canova, was a national hero, and Bournonville honored him in a ballet in which his marbles were represented by dancers. It was set in that Italy “wo die Zitronen blühen,” a wistful echo of warm southern airs.

Although Kierkegaard, who died in 1855 and whose first book was about Andersen, is not mentioned in My Theater Life, Bournonville could be called a kind of existentialist avant la lettre. He based his life and work on an ideal Christianity, but moved with moral and muscular immediacy. Other dancers have been aware of faith and means, but left no record. Compared to the famous “Letters” of the Chevalier Noverre (1760), often invoked but seldom read (and with good reason), Bournonville’s book My Theater Life, scheduling his career and theories, is far more honest, precise, and useful.

Intermittently, he writes, he longed for broader scope; travel inspired and tormented him. A recognized artist, at least at home, father of a family, he grew accustomed to his limited destiny. His book displays a well-equipped analytical mind; intellectual curiosity and historical reference superior to those of most of his colleagues. He was a patriot and loyal subject, whatever his outspoken differences with his governors, and his opinions reflect little challenge to current opinion or received ideas. Copenhagen was no Athens nor yet a Boston. Its ambiance was puritanical, even Calvinist. Its artists could suffer from a smothering public censure; in the ballet such strictures were sadly prominent even in the not too recent past. A New York critic returning from the 1979 Bournonville celebration admitted that, after ten days, one did feel “drenched in innocence.” Whole ballets, with all the mimic action carefully deployed, which once might have been both comfort and corroboration, with time and taste past or changed can seem quaint or cloying. Pantomime is not a genre that flourishes today. It is less the dramatic concepts or elevated ideas of Bournonville’s gestural language that hold us than the sturdy embroidery of his steps.

As few performing artists dare to do, Bournonville faced his vanity:

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 turnout 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, and a certain hardness in my elevation. (1846-1847)

He disliked that showiness for its own sake which often vulgarized the schools of Milan and Naples. For him, three well-made pirouettes were a sufficiency; in his day brilliant multiple turns were not much used, and his positions of the raised foot sur le cou de pied tended to anchor the body. The speed which is a norm today was hardly known before 1900. In Bournonville’s close inspection of himself and others there is neither narcissism, nor a mask of modesty, nor concealed envy. His mirror was no flatterer, but a lifelong admonishment.

The vast difference between nineteenth-century training, its survival today, and that of the late twentieth century is the gap between inherited method and process, and idiosyncratic improvisation. This last identifies itself with spontaneity, a kind of big-bang “creativity,” as in “modern” or (now) “post-modern” “dance.” Lack of a popular, rather than a dwarf cult, public divides amateur horsing-around from professional performance and its audience. Bournonville’s provenance, the standards he received and sustained, set him as model and symbol; his steps survive his absence; his qualities transcend the limitations of time and geography.

Bournonville’s legacy is not only in the dozen and a half ballets conserved in Copenhagen to delight subscribers and visitors. For dancers, particularly men, there is his rich if narrow kinetic speech. His strings of steps, the squarecut commanding port of arms, thrust of feet, spell a fluidity of phrase, deliberate, clear-cut, clean, tightly kept, and woven like the finest linen. At first view, his appetizing combinations appear delivered in a charming foreign accent—Danish, of course. This strangeness (to us), this contrast and difference from dancing derived from the Franco-Russo-Italian schools, is based on Bournonville’s braiding of his metric with musical ingenuity. Time and again one thinks: “How clever!”; then soon: “How lovely.” This often lies in a delayed, or withheld, attack. He grants time for steps, as it were, to breathe before they hit the button. Emphasis is not underscored but excitement is lodged in how he fills a phrase.

Theatrical memoirs are not the liveliest genre of literature. One can still hear the sounds of Berlioz, Wagner, and Stravinsky, and these surpass simple autobiography to blazon their times as much as their authors. Mit Theaterliv is no Mein Leben; Wagner was involved in the very fabric of his epoch and the grandiose nature of his monstrousness has a horrid fascination, in depth. But for dance-student and dance-enthusiast, there exists no book so full of professional uncommon common sense as Bournonville’s. He knew exactly who he was; that included his paternal source; he was no liar; he did not aspire to create a choreography “of the Future.”

He includes a vast catalogue of obscure names, important to the writer, which fade in citation. His book is extremely well translated and annotated by Patricia N. McAndrew, and elegantly printed by the Wesleyan University Press. Iconography is meager; it would have been good to include photographs of old and new staged productions. It may be churlish to suggest an abridgment of its seven hundred pages, which could come to less than thirty-five dollars and reach many students who might use it.

The King’s Ballet Master: A Biography of Denmark’s August Bournonville, by Walter Terry, is well illustrated and inexpensive. The text is a sub-Reader’s Digest digest of Bournonville’s three volumes for an eight-to-eighteen readership.

This Issue

March 20, 1980