Keeper of the Bournonville Magic: The Royal Danish Ballet

By Anthony, William | The World and I, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Keeper of the Bournonville Magic: The Royal Danish Ballet


Anthony, William, The World and I


William Anthony is a writer and ballet teacher living in Denmark. His book on the Royal Danish Ballet will be published in autumn 2005 by the University Press of Florida.

The Royal Danish Ballet has a unique position in the ballet world. It protects and preserves a repertoire of ballets that are a window on a very special time in dance history. While training in Paris in the 1820s, August Bournonville witnessed the transition between post- revolutionary ballet d'action, with its classical and mythological themes, and the Romantic ballet that would sweep French audiences along on a wave of moonlit passion.

Even though Bournonville, who lived between 1805 and 1879, was the son of a French father and a Swedish mother, he considered himself thoroughly Danish. His work is a harmonization of the French style of dancing with Nordic social and cultural history, which developed at the edge of Europe.

With its tradition reaching back more than two centuries, the company provides the conditions in which artists can be nurtured from the time they enter the ballet school as children to their maturity. Although Danish dancers must retire at the age of 40, some dancers find a second career in the glow of accumulated kinetic wisdom and theatrical experience as character dancers, teachers, and ballet masters. As they pass along their roles to younger dancers, they provide a living link with tradition. The company becomes the dancers' second family, and some stay for fifty, sixty, even seventy years.

In one sense, the Royal Danish Ballet represents the oldest continuous ballet tradition in the world, with living roots in the eighteenth century. While most of the work of Bournonville's contemporaries has disappeared, some ten or twelve (depending on whether you count several fragments as ballets) of his own ballets are preserved. Denmark has offered a sheltered harbor for the master's works, but ballet conservation is always the victim of human foibles and changing tastes. Though what we are seeing today is as authentic as possible, it is important to remember that it has been constantly refracted through the prism of changing theatrical fashion.

But before we look at Bournonville's legacy, it's important to remember that there was ballet both before and after Bournonville.

Ballet came to Denmark, as it did to other European countries, through the French ballet de cour. These elaborate entertainments performed by members of the court mixed dance, song, and poetry. In 1596, Christian IV of Denmark set the tone for subsequent court entertainments when he celebrated his coronation in a lavish spectacle of music and dance. In 1634, he outdid himself by organizing a grand ballet de cour to celebrate the wedding of Crown Prince Christian. The extravaganza lasted three days and is estimated to have been the most expensive court festival ever held in Denmark. By the mid-sixteenth century, professional dancers began to take over for the courtiers. When the first Danish-language theater opened in 1722, ballet provided interludes between the scenes.

Since the sixteenth century, farmers and fishermen had filled Kongens Nytorv, the "King's New Square," with their wares. It was amid the tumult that the first Royal Theater was built in 1748. There is no trace of the original theater, which a British visitor to Copenhagen in 1874 called "the grimy old play-house," because in that year a new Royal Theater, the current one, was built right next to the first one, which was torn down.

The Royal Theater became the humming center of intellectual activity in the country. What happened behind the scenes was as interesting to the public and press as what happened on stage. The auditorium of the Royal Theater functioned as kind of a club where Copenhagen's artists spent many of their evenings. Still, it is important to note that the majority of the audience came from the middle class, which took an active interest in the country's cultural activities. …

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