Dancing Bournonville

When I first started learning August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux as a young student, I figured it’d be easy enough. There weren’t any complicated lifts or balances; it seemed simple. But when my turn came to try the piece, I had to stop partway into the coda, gasping for breath. The brisés and ballonnés that were supposed to look so light left my legs feeling like jelly. There was no preparation for any jump—I was expected to power through the intricate footwork by the force of sheer will. And all the while, my instructor was calling out, “Soften the arms! Stop making it look like work!”

The Royal Danish Ballet's Alexandra Lo Sardo and Alban Lendorf in Bournonville's Napoli (photo by Costin Radu, courtesy RDB)

Bournonville was the master of deceptively difficult choreography. His dances, which are still performed around the world, emphasize harmony—a balance of laser-sharp precision and serene grace that leaves audiences smiling. Conquering Bournonville’s meticulous footwork while maintaining an open, gracious épaulement will take time, but you’ll be a better dancer for it.

The Man Behind the Moves

Born in Copenhagen in 1805, August Bournonville is considered the father of Danish ballet. As a dancer, he performed at the Paris Opéra and in London before returning to Denmark as a soloist at the Royal Danish Ballet. Bournonville was known for his buoyant jump and masterful mime—the qualities that would come to define his choreographic style.

In 1830, Bournonville became ballet master at the RDB and went on to direct the company for nearly five decades. During that time, he staged about 50 ballets, dozens of which are still performed by the company. Among his many masterworks are La Sylphide, Napoli and Flower Festival in Genzano.

Bournonville’s Style

Bournonville’s choreography is known for its effortless quality. While his ballets demand powerful grand allégro and brilliant batterie from both male and female dancers, his style also requires soft épaulement, with the arms rounded and low. The head and upper body frequently gesture toward the working leg to bring attention to its movements.

Today, the RDB remains the primary home of Bournonville technique, but it’s also taught as part of the curriculum in many ballet schools around the world. Marianna Tcherkassky, a ballet mistress at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, gave masterful performances of Bournonville’s La Sylphide during her days as a principal at American Ballet Theatre. She developed her love for Bournonville after taking classes from former Royal Danish Ballet dancer Stanley Williams at the School of American Ballet. (Williams introduced many American dancers to the style.) “What I loved about it was playing with the light and shade of movement, which is so indicative of Bournonville,” Tcherkassky says. “You’re doing small bourrée steps low to the ground, and then you explode into the air.”

How to Do It

The Royal Danish Ballet's J'aime Crandall in La Sylphide (photo by Costin Radu, courtesy RDB)

For most dancers, Bournonville’s petit allégro poses the biggest challenge. Sylvia Deaton, now a corps member at Boston Ballet, studied Bournonville at the Royal Danish Ballet during an exchange program and found that it was important to nail down the choreography’s footwork separately from the port de bras. Tcherkassky remembers Williams emphasizing rolling through the feet and using deep pliés to absorb the rapid-fire movement of the lower body. “You use the floor to land like a cat,” she says.

Think about radiating the warm, genuine presence that defines Bournonville, too. Many story ballets are filled with princesses, but Bournonville tends to emphasize the human aspects of the dancer. Tcherkassky remembers rehearsing a variation from Napoli with Williams. “At the end, I finished with a flourish,” she says. “He said, ‘No, you’re done. You give it; you don’t have to sell it.’ ”

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