You are probably familiar with classical ballet mainstays such as Swan Lake, Giselle, and The Sleeping Beauty.
What about La Sylphide, which tells the tragic tale of a beautiful sylph who falls in love with a mortal man? La Sylphide is perhaps the most internationally famous representative of classical Danish ballet. Its choreographer, August Bournonville, is the creator of a distinct style and was so prolific as to have engendered the ‘Bournonville school’ or ‘Bournonville ballet’.
Bournonville, The Choreographer
August Bournonville was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1805. He studied there and in Paris, where he danced with the famed Marie Taglioni. He then became a soloist with the Royal Danish Ballet and eventually served as its balletmaster. He remained there until the end of his life, in 1879, having made 50 ballets for the company in the unique style he’d created from his studies in the Italian, French, and Danish schools.
What characterizes Bournonville movement?
One of the first things you will notice when watching a Bournonville ballet is that there are very few, if any, lifts, and the dancing is very much characterized by the use of petit allegro (fast, intricate footwork with small jumps). Unlike other styles of ballet such as the Russian Vaganova method, a Bournonville dancer will keep her eyes slightly lowered, so that the overall appearance is that of graciousness. Special attention is paid to the arms, which are shaped round and held evenly when executing fast footwork and large jumps. Bournonville believed that dancing should be understated, graceful, and light. Harmony between the dancer and the music is essential, and the dancer must be directly on top of the beat of the music. There is very little leeway for rubato, or the rhythmic freedom to speed up or slow down one’s movement. This is not to say that Bournonville ballets are not expressive. On the contrary, the interaction between dancers in a Bournonville ballet showcases subtle and intimate interplay. Whether watching two young people tease each other sweetly and fall in love in The Flower Festival of Genzano or reveling with an entire Italian seaside village dancing the tarantella in Napoli, Bournonville’s ballets are brimming with life.
In an era of sky-high extensions and dazzling turns and jumps, Bournonville ballets may not seem exciting enough at first glance, especially for those who may not have studied them. It is truly a travesty to underestimate the beauty and difficulty of these dances. Bournonville’s ballets continue to be performed throughout the world and the Royal Danish Ballet upholds the Bournonville style as one of its proudest traditions. However, in the United States it is rare to find one listed on a major ballet company’s season offerings. Let us hope that the Bournonville ballet will remain a permanent part of classical ballet’s repertoire, and that more dancers and audience members alike will take a closer look and fully appreciate not only its technical demands, but allow themselves to be swept up in the infectious celebration of life it presents.
Learn more about August Bournonville and his ballets:
Visit www.bournonville.com. And, check out this great studio rehearsal video of the Flower Festival pas de deux, danced by Alex Wong and Jenifer Lauren (of Miami City Ballet at the time of recording). You’ll see the fast and intricate footwork, as well as the sweet flirtation between the couple.
Susan R. Lin performs Chinese classical and ethnic styles grounded in classical ballet, and has danced in theater and latin jazz productions in New York City. She is the author of the blog Dancing with Joy where she writes about dance and its cultural influences, the inevitable daily grind, and the inspiration that motivates us to continue our devotion to our art form. Susan is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a background in communications. Her love of connecting people through both high tech and traditional means leads her to diverse adventures, including as a program manager for Google and as an MFA candidate in classical piano and musicology. Susan can be found on Google+ and on LinkedIn.