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August Bournonville around 1830. Source: NYTimes. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

August Bournonville around 1830. Source: NYTimes. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Few ballet companies boast as pure a lineage as the Royal Danish Ballet. The company can trace their heritage, their look and unique style back to the teachings and choreographies of one single person: August Bournonville, the Danish ballet master who brought into the country the best of the 19th century French school technique and used it as a basis to develop his own teaching method.

Bournonville was born in Copenhagen in 1805. He started to take dance lessons  influenced by his father, dancer Antoine Bournonville. August first entered Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre in 1811 where he was taught by Vincenzo Galeotti, an Italian choreographer. Following Galeotti’s death and the appointment of Antoine as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, August was sent to Paris, the ballet mecca in those days, to study with Auguste Vestris. There he remained, dancing for the Paris Opera until 1830, when he returned to Denmark as a Royal Danish Ballet soloist, eventually suceeding his father as Artistic Director. Bournonville had already started choreographing the year before his return and continued working for over 40 years. He created more than 50 ballets for the company,  all under the guiding principles of beauty, effortlessness, footwork that is active and joyous, and at a time when it was all about “the cult of the ballerina”, he made sure to position the male dancer on equal terms with the female.

During his Royal Danish Ballet tenure Bournonville taught company class every day and developed a series of classroom combinations (enchaînements) which were arranged into a weekly sequence, and later registered by his successor Hans Beck. The exercises were taught by assimilation: new students would learn by observing their seniors. In 1979, under the directorship of Kirsten Ralov, these enchaînements were officialy published along with their matching music  (composed by L.T. Schmidt).

A number of key features are associated with the Bournonville training. There is an emphasis on épaulement, despite arms being normally passive, round and often carried close to the body, so that when they move, they follow the rest of the body. The Bournonville trained dancer bends the upper body towards the working left to punctuate the movement, hence the low  placement of the head, with eyes following the moving leg as inviting the viewer to follow it too. Some of these characteristics can be observed in the below picture. Notice the rounded arms and the inclination of the back towards the supporting leg.

Gitte Lindstrøm, Thomas Lund, and Gudrun Bojesen in Bournonvilles Konservatoriet Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

Gitte Lindstrøm, Thomas Lund, and Gudrun Bojesen in Bournonville's Konservatoriet Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

Many steps in the Bournonville choreography involve low positions of the foot, or sur le cou de pied. Pirouettes are usually done in this position, and arabesques are also low, since Romantic tutus were all the rage at the time.

However, the real trademark of the Bournonville style is perhaps the enthusiastic quick footwork, beaten jumps and batterie. It is thought that because of the diminutive stage in which Bournonville worked, “diagonals” were never used in his choreography, with dancers moving forwards and backwards instead, repeating the same variation. Overall, the dancing style should look effortless and full of grace, which is why for instance the plié before and after a jump is deeper than in other schools, giving the dancer enough momentum to use it as a connecting step and to keep the dancing flowing. Choreographic phrases composed of large jumps intertwined with smaller steps are also part of his style.

Bournonville’s aesthetic ideal of movement was harmony above all. He wanted his dancers to be graceful, not allowing the choreography’s complexities to get in the way. He believed dance should be an expression of joy. For that reason he reserved the music’s allegro movements for dancing and the other parts of the score for mime, a key differential of his school, since he expected his dancers to express their innermost feelings in an almost natural, simple gesture. In this respect he was inspired by the ideas of the French Ballet Master Jean-Georges Noverre, who claimed that a ballet should be framed from a series of pictures connected by actions. Bournonville represented gestures as a series of pictorial positions taken from nature and classical figures but imbued them with clear intention, which the audience could see from body posture, facial expression and pauses in the movement.

You can observe Bournonville’s style of mime in the opening sequence of La Sylphide as the Sylph draws closer and closer to James asleep in his chair. Notice how she pauses and advances, with soft gestures to indicate hesitation & calm just before falling into a frenzied urge to approach and kiss him.

Tina Højlund and Thomas Lund in Napoli. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

Tina Højlund and Thomas Lund in Napoli. Photo: Martin Mydtskov Rønne © Source: ArtsJournal

Even though the basis of the Bournonville style remains, it was slightly modified by ideas from abroad. The arrival of Vera Volkova at the Royal Danish Ballet School, introduced many ideas from the Vaganova school of training, doing away with the set of Bournonville classes, which then disappeared from the school curriculum. These were later reinstated as it was clear that the Bournonville repertoire was harder to approach without its specific method of training.

Here Johan Kobborg, Royal Ballet Principal, former Principal of the Royal Danish Ballet, talks about his Bournonville training:

You get very strong, especially from the preparations for jumps…Out of nowhere you have to do a double turn. With Russian technique, you do a step, then you walk up to a corner and do another step. But with Bournonville, you do a step, then dance up to a corner.

With some ballets, you can show it’s hard, but with Bournonville, it’s joy. You shouldn’t see any strain. It’s kind of hard, but that’s what’s fun about it.

Famous Bournonville Ballets we Love

La Sylphide, Napoli, Flower Festival in Genzano

Bournonville Ballets on YouTube:

Sources and Further Information

  1. Bournonville Website [link] – An amazing source of information on Bournonville’s life and work.
  2. Wikipedia Entry for August Bournonville [link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for the Bournonville School [link]
  4. Johan Kobborg: Vibrant Virtuoso. Dance Magazine, 1995. Via the Free Library [link]
  5. Thomas Lund interviewed by Katharine Kanter for Ibykus Magazin, via In the Name of Auguste Vestris [link]
  6. The Bournonville School. Dance Magazine, 1996. Via the Free Library [link]
  7. A step in time: Bournonvile class at the school of the Royal Danish Ballet by Tobi Tobias, Dance Magazine 1997 [link]
  8. Bournonville Ballet Technique: Fifty Enchainements by Vivi Flindt and Knud Arne Jurgensen. Dance Books LTD. ISBN-10 1852730358. [link]
  9. Bournonville Ballet Technique: Fifty Enchainements with Rose Gad & Johan Kobborg. DVD. [link]
  10. Bournonville’s Rebirth and What It Reveals by John Rockwell. NYTimes, 2005.
  11. Total Immersion Index on the performances at the Bournonville Festival by Tobi Tobias [link]

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