Great Dane

My Theater Life (Mit Theaterliv: 1877)

by August Bournonville, translated and annotated by Patricia N. McAndrew
Wesleyan University Press, 709 pp., $35.00

The King's Ballet Master: A Biography of Denmark's August Bournonville

by Walter Terry
Dodd, Mead, 173 pp., $8.95

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 His Copenhagen version of La Sylphide (1836) superseded Filippo Taglioni’s Paris original, although its authenticity in its present state, as in many other works still seen, attracts doubt.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…

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