The Danish Lord of the Dance

August Bournonville was Denmark's finest choreographer, but as his 200th birthday celebrations drew to a close last week, his legacy is in doubt

August 27, 2005





The world's finest ballet dancers flocked to Copenhagen last weekend to conclude Danish choreographer August Bournonville's 200th birthday celebrations. Performers from New York City Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet and others presented their dances like living birthday cards to honour a choreographer whose work is still danced today.

Bournonville's choreography is performed by European, North American and Asian ballet companies, but unlike artists whose works survive cultural shifts, his future legacy remains in question. Despite all the merrymaking at this summer's Bournonville Festival, companies must constantly find ways to keep his work relevant, causing some to wonder who in the dance world is determined enough to save his sylphs and fairies from being shaped into more contemporary visions.

If this summer's festivities in Copenhagen were any indication, Bournonville's dances might have a chance at being safeguarded - at least in the choreographer's native city. The Royal Danish Ballet honoured him this year by programming favourite works such as La Ventana, Napoli and Abdallah during the summer-long festival, and by organising lectures, exhibitions and celebrations documenting his life and work.

Bournonville's ballets have survived 200 years of changes in taste because they tell appealing stories and present dancers with technical and musical challenges. But the competition from work by choreographers living today is stronger than ever.

At least on this landmark birthday, the Royal Danish Ballet took care that Bournonville not be overshadowed by that other famous Dane, Hans Christian Andersen, whose 200th birthday happened to fall in the same month as Bournonville's. The two men were friends and shared a love of dance, although Bournonville's natural dancing ability eclipsed Andersen's.

Being born into a ballet family probably helped contribute to Bournonville's success as one of Europe's most sought-after choreographers. His father directed the Royal Danish Ballet from 1816 to 1823, and Bournonville studied in Paris, Naples and Milan, always returning to his native Copenhagen. From 1830 to 1877 Bournonville was ballet master at the Royal Danish Ballet, during which time he is credited with establishing one of the world's oldest ballet traditions, involving intricate footwork, a relaxed upper body and joyful jumps and turns.

To cement his career, Bournonville received commissions and travel stipends from the Danish king. Andersen, meanwhile, struggled to make a living out of writing. Ironically, their success has been reversed over the centuries, with Bournonville's ballets being taken out of some company repertoires (even that of the Royal Danish Ballet) and Andersen's stories being turned into ballets.

Generations of dancers with strong ties to the Royal Danish Ballet have become today's torch-bearers for Bournonville's work, holding passionate views on how it should be danced. Nikolaj Hübbe, a Royal Danish Ballet dancer until he joined New York City Ballet in 1992, is one of them. He believes it is all right for interpretations of Bournonville to change. Hübbe says the role of James, the young man who leaves home in search of romance and adventure in La Sylphide, may be just as authentic when performed in Toronto as it is when danced in Copenhagen's Royal Theatre. He also believes that the more widely the work is seen the better.

Hübbe has set Bournonville's works for companies in Europe and North America, and has choreographed his own version of La Sylphide, which he is now setting for the National Ballet of Canada. A one-time candidate for the directorship of the Royal Danish Ballet, Hübbe still feels strong ties to that company.

"If you approach the work with a sensibility and sensitivity, I think it lives. Ballet is a performing art form. But you don't dogmatically go in and push a certain style upon dancers," he says. "If you do that, you stifle it."

Hübbe knows the challenges of carrying on a choreographer's work, since much of his career at New York City Ballet has involved performing lead roles in works by choreographer George Balanchine, whose legacy is being passed down formally through the Balanchine Trust. The Balanchine Trust hires dancers who are known experts in certain ballets, and dispatches them to work with companies around the world.

The process for passing on Bournonville's ballets is less structured, but Hübbe takes the responsibility seriously.

"Because of growing up there, I have a relationship to these ballets. I've been dancing them," he says. "When you have a great passion for these things, then I think it's a fitting pastime to travel around and spread them to the masses."

As Bournonville followers such as Hübbe wander from Copenhagen, the tight-knit circle of experts becomes more widely strewn. Critics, then, wonder what will become of Bournonville's dances, even at the Royal Danish Ballet, where only one Bournonville ballet is programmed for next season. The company's current director, Frank Andersen, is committed to preserving Denmark's dance heritage - given the Bournonville Festival he has just programmed - but, like directors of other major ballet companies, he must grapple with where to take the art form, including how to protect Bournonville's ballets for future generations.

Hübbe feels as comfortable dancing a role created 100 years ago as he does dancing a role made last year. He says that ensuring Bournonville's legacy is simple: just make sure the ballets are still danced.

"The curtain goes up, it lives here now, and it dies when the curtain goes down," he says. "But you have to constantly re-acquaint yourself with the work, to reiterate it to the dancers. But to just preserve a ballet for the sake of preservation? I don't know what that is. If you don't allow it to change, it might as well die."


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