Truly, “La Sylphide” might not seem as deadly exhausting as “Swan Lake”. However, asking the dancers about the difficulties of dancing Bournonville, one soon discovers that Bournonville’s style is treated with great respect. Dancing Bournonville is just as hard as dancing Petipa or Balanchine. It just demands completely different abilities of the dancer. In other words, the style of Bournonville choreography is very special: unartificial grace, combined with talent of understating even the biggest steps, discretion of mime and heavy dramatic impact. Just to put it short.
In search of harmony
Aesthetically, the ideal of Bournonville is that of the European Golden Age, which is “harmony above all.” Beauty in dance is considered a matter of reaching purified and harmonic positions of the body, never letting the technique overshadow the grace of the movements.
Bournonville dancers both need to be good dancers and good actors. Dancing in itself, without the face so to speak, will never create a convincing Bournonville dancer. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a perfect Bournonville body. Even though many Bournonville dancers have been pretty short, the musicality and dramatic talent of the dancers seem to be the crucial characteristics.
The Bournonville style has its secret in the épaulement; in the way the dancer carries the upper body. A Bournonville dancer thus tries to bend the upper body, often towards the working leg in order to emphasize the movement of the leg and the foot.
Generally, the épaulement also includes a certain twist of the head and not the least a distinct direction of the eyes, so that the look follows the foot, in order to make the spectator look at the foot as well. The arms are generally rounded, and the fingers are calm and soft.
Bournonville’s choreography is known for its quick footwork. Tiny movements that make an even bigger contrast to the sudden big steps and delicate movements that are extremely hard on the calves. Yet again, they don’t at all look as difficult as they are.
The series of steps often have a floating ease about them. Bournonville never created from-corner-to-corner-choreography. Instead, he let the dancers move forwards and backwards again and again in the same variation, using the complete area of the stage and not caring about the breath of the dancer…
Down at the music
Musically, Bournonville quite often surprises in comparison to other choreographers. Many of his “up”-movements are done on the “down” beat, so that the emphasis is put on the final closure of the movement and not on the stretch or the balance.
Furthermore, Bournonville strictly divided his choreography in “mime parts” and “dance parts”, dedicating the cheerful music to the dance, believing the dance to be an expression of joy. However, the mime carries some of the same characteristics as the dance; thus Bournonville mime is very clear, simple and almost understated.
Style in change
Of course, the Bournonville style has changed a lot over the last 150 years. Looking at 19th century drawings it is obvious that the ideal of the dancers has been very different from the ideal of today. Nevertheless, the Bournonville tradition at the Royal Theatre of Copenhagen is the only Romantic ballet tradition that undisturbed has been passed on from one generation of dancers to the next. Thus, every generation has its teachers who had their teachers who… were pupils of Bournonville.
Today, the dancers of the Royal Danish Ballet dance many different choreographic styles, not the least that of the neo-classical ballet. As a consequence, it can be hard for the dancers not to show off their brilliant triple turns, their perfect “six o’clock” balances and their looooong arms. However, these expressions look foreign in the Bournonville world and immediately stick out.
It is within the frame of the Bournonville style, that the dancers have to challenge themselves. To make their bodies move with the Bournonville grace and charm, without revealing how difficult it is.