Балет Бурнонвиля

автор: Денис Песков

August Bournonville owes his fame to the twentieth century. His ballets, and especially his version of La Sylphide (1836), are now performed the world over, and his school and style of dance enjoy a prominence far exceeding anything they achieved in his own lifetime: the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, and London’s Royal Ballet are all deeply indebted to Bournonville’s artistry. In the nineteenth century, however, his ballets were little known outside of his native Denmark, and when they were performed elsewhere, they were often regarded as old-fashioned and quaint: homespun dances from a remote Scandinavian world with scant appeal for a “modern” public taken with grander forms of spectacle.


Bournonville was old-fashioned. Partly this was the consequence of longevity: he directed the Royal Danish Ballet virtually unbroken from 1830 until his retirement in 1877 and in the course of his reign deepened but rarely strayed from his original conception—which was both French and Romantic.* Being Danish helped: in the course of the nineteenth century, Denmark was reduced from a significant Baltic power to an isolated and provincial state, a shrinking territory at the edge of Europe. For ballet, it became an enclave, a world apart where Bournonville’s style could—and did—remain sheltered and untouched well into the twentieth century.

Moreover, Denmark’s legendary political stability made it a safe haven from the revolutionary impulses and social upheavals rending ballet and the arts in France and across the Continent. It was in Denmark that the French Romantic ballet, pressed into distinctly Danish forms, survived best. And when Europe finally emerged from a century of revolution and war, this continuity would prove a boon: in this out-of-the-way Scandinavian capital, artists and dancers could retrieve their own lost heritage, carefully and deliberately preserved for them in fine detail.

August Bournonville was an unlikely Dane. His father, Antoine Bournonville, was a French dancer born in Lyon in 1760 whose career followed the by now familiar pathways of the European ballet circuit: he was trained in Maria Theresa’s Vienna under the tutelage of the great ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre and followed Noverre to the Paris Opera in the late 1770s. But when Noverre was edged out, Antoine moved on: to the Swedish court with its (as one courtier put it) “well-drilled ballet” and enlightened culture. He stayed in Stockholm for some ten years, but when Gustav III was assassinated he moved on again, finding a post—and a wife—in Copenhagen at the more stable Royal Danish Theatre. After his wife died in childbirth, Antoine lived with and eventually married his Swedish housekeeper: it was to her that August was born in Copenhagen in 1805.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) Antoine’s long residence abroad, he remained resolutely French: he admired Voltaire and Lafayette, applauded the Revolution and was an ardent supporter of Napoleon, whose heroic persona appealed to his proud sense of “glory and honour.” In his memoirs, August later recalled his father’s intense but skeptical Catholicism and his “fiery, brave, and gallant” spirit, fondly noting that he was “a true chevalier français of the old school.” Indeed, Antoine liked to point to his family’s supposed aristocratic pedigree and saw himself as a kind of liberal nobleman manqué. Father and son were close and as August grew up he naturally adopted his father’s ideals, in part because he admired them, but also because they made sense in his own life: August’s earliest memories were of the 1807 British bombardment of Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars, in which the city was ravaged and hundreds of civilians were killed (the Bournonville family took shelter in the cellar of a local merchant). Like his father, Bournonville never wavered in his loyalty to freedom, Napoleon, and French ballet.

Indeed, Antoine trained his son assiduously in the old noble style (he called it “classical”), which for him was not just a craft but a calling, tinged as it was with his own nostalgia for French Enlightenment culture and ideals. Thus ballet was not taught to August as a mere vocation or family inheritance: it was a mantle placed squarely on his shoulders and he felt its weight and obligations. It was probably at his father’s urging that August first read Noverre’s writings, which left a strong mark and would later inspire him to compose his own letters and writings on dance. In 1820 his father took August on a pilgrimage to the source: they visited Paris, where they met with Antoine’s old colleagues and attended performances at the Paris Opera. Rather than cementing August’s loyalty to his father’s artistic heritage, however, the experience opened a breach: Antoine insisted on the “tasteful and correct” forms of the old school, but August found his father’s teachings increasingly “static” and constraining: he quickly saw that the future lay instead with the new athleticism of the Vestris “school” and the daredevil male dancers of the younger generation.

Upon their return to Copenhagen, August was restless, and his relationships with his father and with the Royal Danish Theatre, where he was apprenticed as a dancer, became increasingly strained. He was ambitious and wanted a bigger world: in 1824 he returned to Paris, where he studied with Vestris and eventually won a place at the Paris Opera. Now his career had really begun. Vestris trained him hard—very hard—and Bournonville became an accomplished dancer whose fleet footwork and pirouettes were much admired (he complained his turns were hindered by a “swaying of the head” but he could still spin seven times and stop with precision). But Paris gave Bournonville more than a polished technique. In his letters home to his father (full of filial assurances that Vestris was not neglecting the niceties of style) we can feel his obsessive and consuming enthusiasm—not with the Paris Opera’s impressive theatrical effects, its lavish sets or fantastical gas lighting, but with the concrete details and intricacies of ballet technique—with “how to do it”—and the sheer physical exhilaration and freedom of dancing. When he first saw Marie Taglioni perform (she was his exact contemporary), it was not her ethereal quality that gripped him but the iron strength in her feet and legs.

The point is obvious perhaps, but it is important: Bournonville came to ballet through the raw thrill of its steps and mechanics and developed an almost scientific fascination with the anatomical logic of its forms. Working with Vestris was formative, and Bournonville’s loyalty to his teacher was so fierce that he even (uncharacteristically) fought a duel to avenge an insult to Vestris’s reputation. It was not that Bournonville threw his father’s careful training completely aside, but his writings and careful notes documenting Vestris’s classes suggest an unusual sensitivity to the ways in which a movement or pose could be expanded and animated from within, without exaggeration or force. Lightness and speed, precision coordination and the right musical impetus, could create a sense of unbounded freedom within the more static limits of a given step, thus suffusing it with newfound urgency. And so Bournonville (like Marie Taglioni) set out on what would become a lifelong project of mediation and synthesis: the new athleticism and the old classicism, Vestris and his father, Paris and Denmark.

There could be no question about the prominence of Vestris and the French Romantic ballet in Bournonville’s mind. In his memoirs, written much later in life, Bournonville dwelled on his Parisian sojourn and wrote with reverence of the dancers he met there. They were the “ghosts” who appeared before him and held him to artistic account for the rest of his life (“Remember!”). It was a familiar assembly of luminaries: among them were Vestris and Pierre Gardel, Albert, Paul, and Jules Perrot, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and Carlotta Grisi. In the years to come, Bournonville would name steps after them, mount ballets in their memory, and train dancers in their image.

Why, then, at the height of his prowess as a dancer did Bournonville leave the prestigious French capital and return to Denmark, a respectable but remote cultural outpost? The simple answer is that he understood the limits of his own talent. The more interesting truth is that he was in fact more Danish than even he supposed at the time. He intuitively sensed that life (and art) would be more secure in the Danish capital, and although he took the French Romantic ballet as his artistic standard, he also saw its excesses and recoiled from them. He was suspicious of merging the once-distinct genres of dance and wary of the willingness of French dancers (Taglioni aside) to sacrifice decorum to athletic feats. Above all, however, he scoffed at the idea that the danseur might be demoted to the role of a ballerina’s porteur. Much as he admired Marie Taglioni, he despaired at the consequences of her fame for his profession.

In this, Bournonville had the advantage of distance and youth. As a Dane, he did not associate Vestris and the male dancers of the 1820s with a discredited and debased aristocracy. For him, a generation removed from the traumatic legacies of the French Revolution, they were merely exciting virtuosi who occasionally pushed too far. If anything, he saw the male dancer through his father’s eyes and assumed that men would—and should—have the prestige and stature they had enjoyed in Noverre’s bygone age. Bournonville could not grasp the fact that the French danseur noble was dying and would not be revived, but he did see that he might have more opportunities at home.

There was also a part of Bournonville that wanted to return to Copenhagen. It was not just that he felt a certain obligation to his king, Frederik VI, who had generously granted him paid leave from the Royal Theatre to study in Paris. Antoine Bournonville, in spite of his steadfast Francophilia, had imbued his son with an intense emotional loyalty to the Danish crown. This was partly self-interest: the father was ballet master at the Royal Theatre until 1823 and as a royal appointee had immediate entrée into Copenhagen’s small but prestigious social and cultural elite. He was a devoted servant, and Frederik VI later repaid his loyalty by granting Antoine free residence at Fredensborg Castle. But Antoine’s patriotism was also a matter of principle, for the Danish state seemed to embody the freedoms and stability that so eluded his native France. Denmark was an absolute monarchy but its kings had an impressive record of law, order, and fair government. And if Antoine admired the French Revolution, he was also disturbed by its radical consequences; the Danes, at least, had not murdered their king.

August’s mother was even more intensely loyal. He noted her “stern” demeanor and devout Lutheranism, and indeed her ethics and upright character dovetailed perfectly with the high moral tone of Danish bourgeois society. August felt her influence keenly: in his childhood she took him to church weekly, and after the service he was required to summarize the sermon to her satisfaction. Moreover, what little formal teaching he had came at the hands of a serious-minded divinity student—although he also spent time on a farm in Amager with the family’s vegetable and milk man, a picturesque pastoral setting he would later attempt to recapture onstage. His real education, however, came from his father’s library of French and Danish literature and his on-the-job experiences performing child roles in the theatrical works of prominent Danish artists and writers.

This was the golden era of Danish Romanticism. In the early years of the nineteenth century, inspired by German thought and their own literary past, Danish artists and writers turned away from classical themes and set out to rediscover Scandinavian folklore, Norse mythology, and what they took to be the heroic age of medieval Denmark. In 1802 Adam Oehlenschläger (1779–1850) set the tone with “The Golden Horns,” a poem that longingly invoked the “Light from the North / When heaven was earth.” Three years later he published Aladdin, derived from the Arabian Nights, and in 1819 wrote the influential Gods of the North. By then, there were others: B. S. Ingemann (1789–1862) wrote epic historical novels glorifying medieval Danish kings; folklorists such as Just Mathias Thiele, inspired by the Brothers Grimm and Walter Scott, published volumes of native folktales and legends; and Danish sculptors, composers, and painters used these and other sources to explore and develop Nordic themes in their art. It was a tightly knit group: they dined together, assembled for private readings, concerts, and exhibitions, and ritually attended productions (often their own) at the Royal Theatre, where the most prominent among them were awarded special complimentary seats, courtesy of the king.

This cultural outpouring also had an urgency born of humiliation. The British bombardment of the city was only the first of several devastating political and territorial setbacks: the proud Danish fleet, once the envy of Europe, was decimated and the country never regained its naval presence. By 1814 Norway had been lost to Sweden and the Danish state plunged into bankruptcy. Moreover, Copenhagen itself was in many ways troubled and inbred: although the elite lived in comfortable homes and on elegant estates, the city (like other capital cities at the time) was otherwise poor and filthy, with open sewers, rats, and a populace crowded into slums within the old ramparts and plagued by disease, prostitution, and squalor. With the exception of the Royal Theatre, public life was constrained. Restaurants and cafés were dark and unwelcoming, and although popular theaters offered puppetry, traveling shows, carnival booths, and the like, the bourgeoisie preferred private entertainments in the comfort of their own homes, far removed from the grimy streets below. For all its heroics and whimsy, the Danish golden age was fed by a strong undercurrent of political and social anxiety, and the fairy-tale quality of its art was at least in part escapist.

It also represented, however, an intense desire to develop the “goodness” and moral authority thought to reside deep in the Danish national character (and this was something that would be strongly reflected in Bournonville’s ballets). Nowhere was this more evident than in the enormously influential work of N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872), an iconoclastic Lutheran bishop and accomplished historian and poet. Grundtvig spent nearly a decade studying Nordic and Anglo-Saxon literature and sought a religious and educational revival based on the virtues he saw in pagan Norse mythology and—following a trip abroad—English educational institutions, which impressed him with their freedom and creativity, so different from Denmark’s dour Lutheran “black schools.” Building on the influence of German pietism, which had already inspired Danish communities to eschew Church bureaucracy in favor of a more direct link to God by faith alone, Grundtvig eventually established a network of rural, grassroots “schools for life,” where students were encouraged to participate in discussions and debates and to take charge and arrive at compromises together, on their own authority. The idea was to return communities to their own resources, moving them away from deadening religious texts and pompous official decrees. Grundtvig wanted to give people the tools and responsibility to govern themselves. His ideas spread and although they also spawned fierce oppositional evangelical movements, the long-term result was the creation of an engaged and literate religious and civic culture.

All of this shaped August Bournonville, and when he returned to Copenhagen in 1830 to accept the post of ballet master at the Royal Theatre, he immediately joined the world of Danish Romanticism. Oehlenschläger and Ingemann were mentors, and he created several ballets based on their works. He read and found inspiration in Grundtvig, Thiele, and other collectors of Norse mythology. Moreover, he established himself as a model citizen and solid member of the city’s small but prosperous community of burghers: he married a Swede, had seven children (although two died in infancy), and in 1851 also adopted an impoverished child orphaned by cholera. Though Bournonville had a sharp temper, he proved a devoted husband and father: when he traveled he wrote home regularly—“my dearly beloved wife!”—and his letters show just how seriously he took his financial and familial obligations. He even secretly sent money and letters to a daughter he had illegitimately fathered in Paris before his marriage, posing as her benevolent godfather all of her life.

As ballet master at the Royal Theatre, Bournonville began boldly: in 1835 he staged Valdemar, an epic four-act ballet based on an event from the Danish medieval past, to music by the contemporary Danish composer Johannes Frederik Fr⊘lich (1806–1860). Drawing on historical accounts and with (as he put it) “tones” taken from Ingemann, the ballet tells the story of a twelfth-century Danish hero, King Valdemar. It begins with civil war: three rival pretenders, Valdemar, Knud, and Svend, are fighting for the Danish crown. Eventually they agree on a peaceful subdivision and meet at Roskilde to celebrate their compromise. But Svend is a traitor and rogue and uses the event to mount a surprise attack. Knud is murdered, but Valdemar makes a dramatic escape by cutting down the chandelier, which crashes to the ground, plunging the banquet hall into darkness. Valdemar then raises an army of outraged supporters, and in a scene striving for Shakespearean grandeur, Svend and Valdemar meet at Grathe Heath, their armies poised for battle. Svend is killed and Valdemar ascends to power, ushering in a golden age (from which the Romantics took their cue) of Danish prosperity and cultural achievement.

It was a patriotic ballet full of high melodrama and moralizing sentiment: Svend is strong, but Valdemar prevails because he is just and good, a king who wins his people’s loyalty not through mere force of arms but through principled action and heroic deeds. To heighten the emotion (and provide a female role), Bournonville added a love story, in which the daughter of Svend, seeing her father’s treachery, comes to Valdemar’s aid, yet in the end paternal loyalty prevails and she holds her father’s dying body in her arms. The ballet relied on pantomime and elaborate stage effects, interspersed with impressive military processions and battle scenes full of bravura jumps and turns for the hero (danced by Bournonville himself, à la Vestris). Audiences reared on more staid, old-style pantomimes were suitably impressed: Valdemar was an emotionally charged mix of old memories and new virtuosic forms, a national myth come to life with full theatrical bravado.

Yet in spite of Valdemar’s enormous success, it was not Bournonville’s best ballet or even his most Danish one. The production and its steps have long since been lost, but we can get a feel for the texture of the work from Bournonville’s scenario, which is heavy and wooden, weighted down with complicated pantomime sequences. Its effortful earnestness may have added to its patriotic intensity, but it also suggests that Bournonville had not yet found his most fluid and natural voice: Valdemar reads like the work of an artist trying too hard to compress everything he knows and aspires to into a single work. Here it helps to recall that Bournonville was in fact quite a bit younger than the lions of Denmark’s golden age: he was beholden to them but belonged to a second generation of Danish Romantics, and in many ways the artist with whom he shared the most was not Oehlenschläger or even Ingemann, but his near contemporary the writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875).

Andersen is best known for his children’s stories, but he also knew and understood ballet. Indeed, it was his first love. Born to an impoverished family in provincial Odense, he was raised in a world of depressing material squalor and uncertain emotional ties. His mother was overworked and his father—a widely read man and, like Antoine Bournonville, a keen admirer of Napoleon—died when Hans was only a child. Lanky and unkempt, Hans left for Copenhagen hoping to enter the theater or ballet, which seemed to offer “a magical picture of happiness and excellence.” He maneuvered his way into the Royal Theatre as a dance pupil and even presented himself at the home of Antoine Bournonville, who found him ungainly and gently suggested he concentrate on drama instead. Undeterred, Andersen took ballet classes and made his debut in 1829 as a dancing musician in the ballet Nina; he later appeared in Armida as a troll. He was an ardent student and performer known to mime and dance his way through whole productions for anyone willing to watch, playing every part with equal vigor.

Andersen did not become a dancer, of course, but he never lost interest in the art. He associated it with childish wonder and enchantment, but also, as he grew up, with a fantasy image of the ideal woman. Rather like Chateaubriand, although with less high drama and more charm, Andersen imagined women as sylph-like figures, unattainable and alluring. He usually fell in love desperately and from a distance—sometimes with dancers (he was infatuated with the ballerina Lucile Grahn and the Spanish dance diva Pepita de Oliva), but it was the singer Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” who really won his heart. He courted her (awkwardly) and was a regular visitor at the Bournonville household, where Lind stayed while performing in Copenhagen. But Andersen never married or settled down; he lived a restless bohemian life, with standing dinner invitations to the homes of loyal friends (one for each night of the week) and long bouts of travel. In his art he labored to make the “fairy world, the strange realm of the mind,” more vivid than the mundane and difficult realities of life. “My life,” he began his memoirs, “is a lovely fairy tale, so rich and happy.”

Andersen’s imagination flowed in many directions and in addition to his stories he also crafted delicate and childlike cutouts, many featuring ballerinas poised in fragile positions, carefully and symmetrically arranged—“ballet-dancers that pointed with one leg toward the seven stars.” These graceful images did not, however, spring from the occult worlds that had informed the French Romantic ballet. They came directly from Danish folklore, transposed and refined in Andersen’s mind: ghosts, fairies, trolls, elf girls, nymphs, water sprites, and other Nordic and natural creatures had been a constant presence in stories told around campfires during his childhood. (When the young boy of his semiautobiographical story “Lucky Peer” first went to the ballet, he was overwhelmed by the “whole force of the ballet dancers,” yet he also knew them: “they belonged in the fairy tales his grandmother had told him about.”) Moreover, Andersen felt a kinship to dancers who like himself generally came from poor families or outcast backgrounds but found respite in beauty and the imagination. He wrote admiringly of the way one Danish ballerina “danced, floated, flew, changing color like the honey-bird in the sunshine.”

Hans Christian Andersen is a key to August Bournonville. Consider Bournonville’s production of La Sylphide (1836). Here was a ballet widely recognized as the summit of the French Romantic tradition, yet Bournonville succeeded in translating it into a perfect expression of Danishness. He did this by turning the ballet away from Nodier, Nourrit, and the obsessive and tragic atmosphere that drenched the Parisian original and toward Andersen and a more fanciful bourgeois domesticity.* The circumstances surrounding Bournonville’s production of La Sylphide were not initially auspicious: he purchased Nourrit’s scenario but could not afford the Parisian score. Yet this turned out to be an advantage. Bournonville commissioned new music from the Norwegian composer Herman Severin L⊘venskiold and made a fresh start on the ballet.

In the Parisian version of La Sylphide, as we have seen, the sylphide is everything: she is beauty and desire incarnate, an irresistible but unattainable vision, and the source of poetry and art. Her forested Scottish abode is the apotheosis of Romantic yearning, a realm of pure love and free imagination. Hearth and home, by contrast, are mere impediments, obstacles to James’s ardent aspirations. In the end, he is doomed and she dies, but the dream, the yearning, and the intense desire are worth the price.

Bournonville did not see things this way. He complained that in the Parisian original James was upstaged by the overblown “prima donna” figure of the ballerina, and that the true moral of the story was thus lost. As he reimagined it, the ballet had a much blunter message: a man must never neglect his domestic duties in pursuit of “imaginary happiness” and elusive sylphides. Thus Bournonville enhanced the role of James (which he performed), making him more robust and three-dimensional—a good and solid lad inadvertently led astray. The emotional center of the ballet was no longer the wild forest but the family hearth, and Bournonville took care to etch this domestic world in warm and vivid colors: he painted a picture of busy domesticity, with ordinary folk going about their daily lives. Their gestures were sincere and the dances flowed out like conversations, every movement a natural extension of a thought or feeling—a small leap for a skip of the heart, a gracious turn of the shoulders as the lovers meet, a bolder jump into the forest beyond. The scale was modest and intimate, and the tragedy, if there was one, lay not in the loss of the sylphide (or the ideal she represented) but in James’s regrettable lack of self-control.

As James gained newfound prominence, so the sylphide herself became more demure: Lucile Grahn (1819–1907), a Danish ballerina and one of Bournonville’s most prized students, danced the role with marked restraint, offering a calm and modest interpretation. She had the grace and ease of Andersen’s paper cutouts—Andersen himself called her the “Sylphide of the North.” Even today, dancers at the Royal Danish Ballet portray the sylphide and her sisters with direct and youthful simplicity and convey a naive amazement at their own elusiveness. With their small and precise steps and refreshing lack of pretense, they come across as joyful woodland creatures, winged elf maidens or fairies whose real home is not Scotland at all—much less Paris.

La Sylphide was a French original reimagined through Danish eyes, but it was only when Bournonville traveled to Italy in 1841 that he really discovered Denmark. He went because he had to: one evening when Bournonville was performing in Copenhagen he was insulted by a noisy claque. Impulsively he turned to the king’s box and asked if he should continue. The king nodded but was not pleased: addressing the king publicly was an unacceptable breach of etiquette, and the offending (and offended) ballet master was asked to leave the country for six months while the incident cooled. He went to Naples, where he found everything Denmark seemed to lack: warmth and a warmhearted people, spontaneity, sensuality, and a life lived on the streets with unrestrained exuberance and physicality. He was free from obligation and routine, from the strict etiquette and moral codes governing Danish society, from the closeness of Copenhagen—even his prose took on a more relaxed jauntiness. He was hardly the first to find Naples a liberation: Romantic artists from across Europe were drawn to the city’s colorful disarray, not least among them Andersen (“I am at heart a southerner condemned to this Nordic cloister where the walls are fog”).

When Bournonville returned to Copenhagen, he immediately staged Napoli: “just as it appeared to me; Napoli, and nothing else.” The plot was thin and told of Gennaro, a young and ardent fisherman (danced by Bournonville) who loves Teresina, a vivacious village girl. Through a series of contrived events—quarrels between Teresina and her mother (who naturally prefers wealthier suitors), a romantic midnight boating, and a storm that sweeps the girl overboard—Teresina is taken captive by a sorcerer in the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri. The sorcerer transforms her into a naiad, but Gennaro rescues his beloved and subdues the pagan forces of the sea with an amulet of the Madonna. The lovers return home and celebrate.

The real point of the ballet, however, had nothing to do with the travails of Gennaro and Teresina. It was to re-create the fantastic street life Bournonville had experienced in Naples: the busy marketplace and port with its hearty fishermen and hawkers, macaroni sellers and lemonade stands; the children and animals everywhere and impromptu dancing (the tarantella), impassioned disputes and vigorously improvised gesticulations. The scenario begins with a simple stage direction: “Noise and bustle.” It was a genre painting, a romanticized picture of the lively happiness of Bournonville’s imagined Naples (which carefully avoided, of course, any hint of the city’s real poverty and filth). If anything, the formulaic scenario only got in the way: Bournonville dutifully devoted a whole act to the mystical Blue Grotto, “blue, blue like lamplight, crystal and sapphire,” but in spite of its otherworldly ethos audiences were bored and eventually took to using it as a coffee break, only returning to the theater for the lively street dances in the final act. What made Napoli such an enormous and enduring success was not its supernatural scenario but its joyous dancing. The ballet was a showcase for Bournonville’s increasingly distinctive style.

What exactly was this style? At first glance, it had all the attributes of the Vestris school and French ballet circa 1820: the jumps, pirouettes, and bravura male technique, the pointed feet and fully extended knees, the open and turned-out legs and épaulement through the torso and shoulders. Yet it was also different: more contained, less inclined to spectacular tricks and overextended movements. It prized decorum and propriety, clean lines and unfettered gestures. It was a demi-character style, except that its most boisterous, virtuoso sequences had a newfound (and very bourgeois) dignity and poise. Bournonville’s dancers were not noble or princely types: they tended to be stocky and muscular men with thick legs and heavy torsos. His best ballets did not feature gods or heroes but focused instead on fishermen, sailors, and other simple folk—even Valdemar had an up-from-the-people fighting spirit. Bournonville was strict if not severe in matters of style: he despised affect, coquetry, tics, and distortions. “Le plus,” he noted sharply, “c’est le mauvais goût”—too much is bad taste.

Bournonville’s dancers had impeccable manners. They kept their arms low (no overheated gestures or luxurious porte de bras) and their steps underneath them, never allowing their limbs to splay or extend beyond the natural circumference of the body. There were no static poses or hammy postures—the steps were simply too demanding and tightly crafted to allow for egotistical excesses. Phrasing was key: steps, even (especially) the most virtuosic ones, were never show-offy stunts performed to wow an audience but were integrated instead into a disciplined whole. The point of a jump, for example, was not necessarily to soar: to this day Bournonville dancers rarely jump up or announce their arrival midair with a flourish on a musical upbeat. Instead, they jump to and from other positions within the arc of a musical phrase. A jump will often even pull to the downbeat, resisting the I-got-there moment in favor of a modest suspension—a breath within an unbroken flow of movement. The thrust and ambition of a jump is thus sharply disciplined, its upward flying motion constrained by considerations of taste and musicality.

Moreover, old photographs and early films show that Bournonville’s dancers jumped and moved largely from their metatarsals, with the heels barely touching the ground as they landed before pushing into the next step or phrase. This skimming, skipping quality may have been a consequence in part of Bournonville’s own physical limitations: he had a short, inelastic plié and was loath to pause between jumps lest he fail to get back off the ground. But it was also an indication of the importance of momentum and flow in his dances. No step was privileged at the expense of others, and Bournonville took great care to sand the edges between steps—to smooth the transition, for example, between a quick jump and an elegant promenade. Each step was constrained by its neighbor: a jump could only be as high as the next step allowed; too high and the transition would be missed (or smudged) and the overall effect of the movement destroyed. Skillfully performed, these linkages are subtle and invisible, but they are also the moral fiber of the step—the reason it must be so and not thus. Bournonville’s preoccupation with polish and calm could make his dances appear too even and uniform, but this was a small price to pay for their supreme harmony and accord.

Women were treated like men: as we have seen, Bournonville had little interest in the French cult of the ballerina. He thus expected a woman to perform a man’s steps, if occasionally in modified form. Indeed, Bournonville was less concerned with what his ballerinas danced than with how they were perceived: he wanted reputable, decent ladies, not demimonde flirts, and he railed against any hint of sexuality or seduction in a woman’s dancing. In this sense, Bournonville followed Marie Taglioni’s lead, except that Taglioni’s dancing had a complicated otherworldly quality that Bournonville’s ballerinas did not share. Even when they were fairies or naiads, Bournonville’s dancers were sweet and innocent, childlike and naive. Foreigners were quick to note their distinctive propriety, though this did not always work to a ballerina’s advantage: when Bournonville’s student Juliette Price performed Marie Taglioni’s role in Robert le Diable in Vienna in the 1850s, audiences found her Danish restraint quaintly prudish and a bit old-fashioned.

Bournonville’s ballerinas were a throwback to an earlier time. Leg extensions were tastefully low and pointe work was kept to a minimum: Bournonville’s La Sylphide was danced largely on half-pointe, and when he visited Paris in the 1840s he was stunned at the strength and advances of Carlotta Grisi’s technique. Film fragments of Juliette Price’s niece Ellen (born after Bournonville’s death but coached by her aunt) show quicksilver, impish movements and an angelic composure, but rudimentary pointe work.* Moreover, in Bournonville ballets the ballerina was rarely partnered. Instead she performed alongside her male counterpart, duplicating his steps in mirror image or in unison, just as women had in the eighteenth century. Modern-day critics have sometimes interpreted this side-by-side structure as “women’s lib” avant la lettre: no misty-eyed women on pedestals in liberal-minded Denmark! But it was in fact a holdover from the baroque era with few political overtones, at least until our own time.

Yet there was one respect in which Bournonville technique was, and remains, unusually egalitarian: for men and women alike, there is simply no way to cheat. With the arms low (no help hiking the body into the air) and the steps densely compiled and intricately linked, the laws of épaulement rigorously obeyed and the dancer held to strict musical account, it is impossible to fudge a position or finesse a sloppy step: the technique is transparent and imperfections show. Indeed, Bournonville even built little checks into his enchaînements—excruciatingly revealing pauses when the dancer is required momentarily to hold a plié at the end of a jump or turn (in fifth position or on one leg), highlighting even the smallest fault or off-balance finish.

Bournonville took great pride in his ballet scenarios, but he did not really need them. His dances had a built-in ethics far more convincing than the messages and morals he was so fond of proclaiming in his plots. His dancers appeared good and honest because the dances trained them to move with such extraordinary physical coordination and accord. The joy his dances conveyed did not have to be acted out—it grew from the sheer pleasure of performing his choreography. To this day, his dances are technically more difficult than most, but their rewards are commensurate—not cathartic but cleansing and honest. This explains why Bournonville took dancing to be far more than a skill: it represented, he said, a way of life free from overwrought passions or existential angst. It is no accident that Bournonville enjoyed walking and conversing with the philosopher S⊘ren Kierkegaard, later recalling that Kierkegaard had taught him “that irony is not synonymous with ridicule, mockery, or bitterness, but is on the contrary an important element in our spiritual existence … the smile through the tears, which prevents us from becoming lachrymose.” Bournonville counseled his students: “Apply yourself with equal care to the correct choice of exercises, to your comportment, to an elegant, simple toilette, to your language and to your reading.” To this day Bournonville technique remains clean-cut and judicious: a low-church, family style of ballet.

By the 1840s, Bournonville was established and settled. His life was fully taken up with family, friends, colleagues, and his considerable responsibilities both at the Royal Theatre and to his king. He had earned respect and stature: the public appreciated his work and he had gone a long way to defining a native Danish style of ballet. But he was also restless. Acutely aware that Copenhagen was not Paris—nor even Berlin, Vienna, Milan, Naples, or St. Petersburg—he yearned for wider recognition and experience. It was not that he necessarily wanted to move from Denmark, but he had an intense desire to know what was happening elsewhere and to see how his own work fit into the larger European scene.

Bournonville traveled and corresponded widely, keeping in touch with friends and colleagues (especially in Paris) and feeling out possible future opportunities. His letters and reflections on his travels, however, reveal an increasing sense of frustration. He had embraced the Vestris school and was turning it in the direction of taste, discretion, and a tamer and more controlled virtuosity. To his growing dismay, however, the rest of Europe seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, toward spectacle, pomp, and flashy technical displays. It was not that Bournonville was alone. There were other artists who shared his approach to ballet, many of them friends who had also been in Paris at some point during the pivotal Vestris years. They were danseurs fully invested in virtuosic male dancing and, like Bournonville, they all felt the ground shifting beneath them as Marie Taglioni’s Romantic revolution took its course. These artists had fanned out across the Continent in search of jobs, but they had also kept their old ties. They were a kind of aging ballet diaspora, and in their private letters and conversations we can hear the final whispers of a vanishing style of dance.

Thus as early as February 1831, the dancer Albert wrote to Bournonville lamenting the demoralized mood at the Paris Opera in the wake of the July Revolution: “Today’s artists,” he said (carefully excepting Marie Taglioni, who was universally admired), “have no laws but their own whim.” A few years later he wistfully concluded, “The glorious days of the dance are past.” This was not just nostalgia or sour grapes: the younger dancer and ballet master Arthur Saint-Léon (1821–1870) also complained to Bournonville and heaped scorn on the Paris Opera, which he sadly dismissed as a “ruin” of an institution. And it was not only Paris: Bournonville’s old friend Duport had written from Berlin in 1837 noting (in his jagged and unschooled hand) that all but a few artists there had “abandoned the true school” in favor of newfangled fashions. The distinguished teacher Carlo Blasis, who had also trained in Paris with Vestris, wrote from Milan lamenting the demise of ballet into “decadence” and saying that he was doing his utmost to hold the course: “I share your views.”

Bournonville did not just take their word for it. He traveled to Europe’s capital cities and wrote at length of his own growing sense that ballet everywhere was at risk or in decline. Paris seemed to him hopelessly crass and materialistic. After a visit to the city in 1841, he complained bitterly that the public was beholden to the claque and the city’s ballerinas shamelessly enslaved to rich protectors and lecherous old men: “Here they love almost nothing but money.” (He visited Napoleon’s tomb to restore himself.) “I would never trade places,” he confided to his wife, “with Albert, Duport, Perrot, Paul, Anatole, etc. They enjoy neither the artistic pleasures nor the great delights that I do, and the cachet celebrity gave them has long since been effaced.” He returned again some thirty years later and grimly reported that (in spite of dramatic intervening upheavals in the city’s political and social life) things seemed if anything worse. Ballet at the Opera was dull and elsewhere the “disgusting cancan” had taken over: “God knows where all these poor girls come from!”

Naples had different problems. In spite of its seductive street life and lively operatic tradition, Bournonville found Neapolitan ballet depressingly backward and provincial. At the king’s well-appointed San Carlo Theater, the French-trained ballet master Salvatore Taglioni (Filippo’s brother and Marie’s uncle) churned out ballets at a fantastic rate but earned little respect: even his best dances, Bournonville commented, were treated as pièces d’occasion and were no sooner performed than disposed of. By the 1840s, moreover, a pall of Catholic prudery had fallen across the Neapolitan theater: flesh-colored tights were banned as too provocative, and women and men alike were required to wear ridiculous baggy bright green (“grasshopper”) drawers under their costumes. Men even covered their arms in thick white knit bed jackets. Worse still, the dancers no longer trained regularly, as classes had been abolished for sanctioning immoral behavior (too physical). In this forbidding climate, censorship was rife: no reference to religion, revolution, flags, kings, clergy, or princes was permitted, and any hint of red, white, and blue in a costume could lead to arrest. “You have deadly silence,” Bournonville observed, “guards and bayonets in every corner, and in the proscenium a bodyguard who stands staring directly at the royal family.”

If Paris and Naples seemed lost, Vienna held out more promise. Or so Bournonville thought when he was offered a post at the city’s Imperial Opera in 1855. Frustrated and discouraged by the petty politics and poor management besetting the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen at the time, he accepted. It was an important opportunity: here was a chance to showcase and test his work in one of Europe’s leading capital cities. The Viennese, however, were in the grip of music halls and the waltz, and audiences found Bournonville’s ballets—not to mention his ballerina, as we have seen—dull and antiquated. Angered and disappointed, and facing financial and contractual difficulties, Bournonville bemoaned the Viennese taste for ballets featuring voluptuous women and acrobatics and despaired at the imperial city’s overly lavish spectacles. In his memoirs he described how his heart sank when his friend and former colleague Paul Taglioni, the noted ballet master and Marie’s brother, arrived from Berlin to stage a ballet and ordered the excavation of the theater in order to pump fountains of water onto the stage—a spectacular (and expensive) effect that had nothing to do with dancing. All of this made Bournonville feel like a remnant from “a vanished, gentler time.” He returned to Copenhagen the following year and signed a five-year contract at the Royal Theatre.

Paul Taglioni exemplified the problem. He and Bournonville had known each other briefly in Paris in the 1820s, and Taglioni had later settled in Berlin, where he worked on and off as ballet master from 1835 to 1883. In these years, Berlin grew with the Prussian state and its ballet expanded to fill the city’s imperial self-image. Taglioni made a career of producing bloated and spectacular ballets that were popular with the authorities but notably lacking in poetry or refinement. He had taken a different path out of the Vestris tradition of male virtuosity: where Bournonville counseled tasteful restraint, Taglioni pushed for catchy effects and pyrotechnics. In the 1860s, Saint-Léon described Taglioni’s extremely popular Flick et Flock as “a sort of faery with every known trick—out of date rococo groups, no delicacy, not a witty idea—and, if only one could forget it, the cocking-the-snook dance.”

Bournonville made several trips to Berlin, but the most memorable was in the early 1870s, not long after the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war. He attended Taglioni’s ballet Fantasca and was stunned by its “massive corps de ballet” featuring some two hundred girls arrayed with military precision, each of whom made four or five costume changes in the course of the show. The final scene was such a revelation of kitsch that Bournonville threw up his hands: the fairy Aquaria, he wrote, finally “unites the faithful lovers in her magnificent Aquarium, where pike and perch swim above their heads and the bridesmaids lie picturesquely grouped in open oyster shells, surrounded by coral, polypi, and boiled lobsters!”

Russia was something else entirely. Bournonville had long been aware of the attraction of St. Petersburg to dancers; many of his Parisian colleagues had taken up positions there, and one of his students, the Swedish dancer Pehr Christian Johansson, had also gone to work for the Imperial Theaters.* But Bournonville was reticent, if also intensely curious: Russia was a “mighty kingdom” but it also seemed to lie “beyond the pale of civilization.” In the 1840s Bournonville (who had never been there) scornfully dismissed the country: “Russia isn’t worth a damn, [people] are lethargic, blasé, the pay is poor.” This was not exactly true: in fact, the tsar was willing to pay quite astonishing sums if the name was big and French enough. Johansson, as Bournonville must have noticed, first ventured there as Marie Taglioni’s partner, under the safe cover of her fame.

It was not that Bournonville lacked opportunities: he was well connected and had taught ballet to several Russian diplomats in Copenhagen. Indeed, he claimed to have received (and refused) many offers to mount ballets in St. Petersburg—one in particular in 1838 from the future Tsar Alexander II, who attended, and admired, a performance of Valdemar while visiting the Danish capital. But it was only in the early 1870s, when Bournonville sensed that Russia was becoming a major artistic presence, that he pushed himself to visit. It helped that in 1866 the Danish princess Dagmar (Bournonville had taught her ballet) had married Alexander’s son, the future Alexander III: this high-level connection eased his anxieties and smoothed his way.

Bournonville was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of theatrical life in St. Petersburg. The scope and quality of the dancers’ training was enormously impressive, and Bournonville marveled at the well-funded school and strong curriculum, the “airy and comfortable dormitories … and even a little chapel!” He had a keen respect for their ballet master, Marius Petipa, with whom he shared a common past: Petipa was French and had also worked in Paris with Vestris. Yet Bournonville was alarmed by the ballets he saw in St. Petersburg, which seemed to him “lascivious” and acrobatic, art reduced to “wretched buffoonery.” Upset, he confronted Petipa and Johansson:

They admitted that I was perfectly right, confessed that they privately loathed and despised this whole development, explained with a shrug of the shoulders that they were obliged to follow the current of the times, which they charged to the blasé taste of the public and the specific wishes of the high authorities.

This was not an entirely fair description of the pressures and difficulties facing Russian ballet at the time, but it conveys Bournonville’s sense that he was an island apart—that from Paris to St. Petersburg his kind of ballet was increasingly outmoded and passé.

What made Bournonville feel so alone, then, was not really a lack of artistic companionship—many of his friends and colleagues shared his aesthetic ideals as well as his sense of disorientation. The problem was that finally, as the century wore on, almost none of them seemed willing to stand the old ground. For all his worldliness, Bournonville could not see that the problems they faced were very different from his own and that history and the circumstances of their own lives were leading these artists away from the Paris of Auguste Vestris and Marie Taglioni. Bournonville, however, resolutely refused to budge. Gradually and almost unconsciously, the map of European ballet changed in his mind: he came to believe that Copenhagen—not Paris, Berlin, Milan, or St. Petersburg—was ballet’s best hope, and maybe even its last.

The reasons for this, moreover, had as much to do with politics as with art. As Bournonville was quick to point out, in 1830 there had been violent upheavals in Paris, Brussels, Vienna, and Warsaw and across the Italian and German states; in 1848 things had gone from bad to worse. But the Danes had been left unscathed. To be sure, in March 1848 some two thousand people had gathered at Copenhagen’s Casino Theater to draw up a list of demands for King Frederik VII, but they need hardly have bothered: the king duly informed them that the ministry had already resigned. “If you, gentlemen,” he told them, “will have the same trust in your king as he has in his people he will lead you honestly along the path of honour and liberty.” The crowd dispersed, and Denmark made a “velvet” transition out of absolutism and into constitutional monarchy.

These impressive developments, however, were quickly overshadowed by rising linguistic and cultural nationalism in the Danish-controlled but predominantly ethnically German duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. In the spring of 1848 the situation became untenable: the Danes sent forces to the area and eventually quelled the uprising—but only after two years of bitter fighting and negotiations. Like most steadfastly liberal Danes, Bournonville rallied. He joined the King’s Volunteers and offered his services as a translator to the Foreign Ministry, but his proudest contribution was a new production of Valdemar. Men leaving for the front appeared as extras in the show, and when Svend lost the battle of Grathe Heath and Valdemar was crowned king, the public called out, “That’s what should happen to traitors! Down with traitors!” In his memoirs Bournonville fondly recalled that when Valdemar finally “burst the chains of tyranny and blessed the whole kingdom,” both the audience and the cast broke into a patriotic ballad “as if with one voice.”

In the coming months, Bournonville did more. He turned his theatrical skills to political festivals and charitable events, and when the Danes finally prevailed over their rebellious provinces he helped mount the lavish celebrations in Copenhagen’s Rosenborg Castle Gardens—including a ballet performed on the quarterdeck of a warship (constructed for the occasion), joined by enthusiastic sailors who spontaneously leapt onstage to participate in the festivities. He was also charged with organizing the banquet at the town hall for the returning troops in 1851 and applied himself to the task with heartfelt emotion, later recalling his deep gratification at having been a “benefit to higher Danish folk life.”

The patriotic euphoria of 1848–50 dissolved in 1864 when the Schleswig-Holstein problem reemerged and led to a direct conflict with Prussia. Overconfident, Denmark abrogated an international agreement; Bismarck sent troops, and the Danes were summarily routed. It was a wrenching national humiliation: Denmark lost Schleswig-Holstein to Prussia and its southern border moved several hundred kilometers north. The country had lost some 40 percent of its territory and was now even smaller and more Danish than it had ever been. For many Danes, Bournonville among them, these difficult events deepened an already fierce loyalty to king and country—two years after the 1864 defeat Bournonville revived Valdemar one more time, to sold-out houses.

Against the backdrop of these events, Bournonville turned increasingly in on himself and on Denmark, devoting his energies to consolidating and preserving the ideals of Danish ballet, which he had done so much to define. It was a conservative impulse, a digging in and return to artistic first principles. But that did not make it uncreative; indeed, it was in the years between 1848 and his death in 1879 that Bournonville made some of his most lasting contributions to classical ballet. The first came in 1849 in a lighthearted two-act entertainment entitled Conservatoriet, or a Proposal of Marriage Through the Newspaper. It was a vaudeville-ballet of marginal interest except that it contained a moving tribute to Bournonville’s French past: a staged enactment of an Auguste Vestris ballet class called “The Dancing School.” Small children began with pliés, and the class gradually increased in complexity and momentum as older students and professionals took their turns. “The Dancing School” was a picture of a tradition and a blueprint for the future. Bournonville seemed to be reminding himself (and his dancers): this is what matters, this is what we must stick with and develop. Moreover, although the steps and exercises recalled Vestris, they were unmistakably a statement of Bournonville’s own aesthetic and style.

As time passed, Bournonville’s deepest instincts seemed to lead him back to the themes of Danish Romanticism. In 1854 he created A Folk Tale, a three-act ballet inspired by a range of familiar sources, including Thiele’s collection of Scandinavian folk stories and Hans Christian Andersen’s enchanting fairy tale “The Elfin Hill.” The music was composed by Niels Gade and J. P. E. Hartmann, both known for their interest in Nordic themes: Hartmann had set Oehlenschläger’s “The Golden Horns” to music and would become one of Bournonville’s closest collaborators, and Gade went on to compose Elf Shot, also based on Nordic mythology.

By this time, however, the artistic climate at the Royal Theatre was changing. The playwright Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791–1860) had taken up its leadership in 1849, and he was skeptical about ballet generally. He and his followers had turned against Danish Romanticism, weary of its fairy-tale worlds and flights of fancy; they were drawn instead to parody, satire, and vaudeville, and prized reason and structure over free-flowing imagination. Hans Christian Andersen coolly referred to them as the “Form Cutters Guild.” By 1854, Bournonville was feeling betrayed and besieged at home and in his own theater, and by his own account, A Folk Tale was an impassioned defense of his artistic position and a direct attack on the flat cynicism of these “practical and rather unpoetic times.”

In A Folk Tale, Bournonville brought everything he knew to the fore. It was a glowing portrait of Scandinavian folk life and another pitch-perfect transposition of the French Romantic ballet into Nordic forms: a Giselle of the North. Giselle’s quaint German village thus became a Danish countryside, and the wilis turned into elf maidens and trolls. Bournonville’s distinctive achievement was to make these Nordic folk speak the language of classical ballet as if it were their native tongue. To our eyes today, A Folk Tale can seem silly and far-fetched, but at the time it rang true: Bournonville judged it his best and most Danish work, reminiscent of the “golden days” of Valdemar and Napoli. In a telling aside, the music for the final celebratory scene of A Folk Tale was so popular with the Danish public that it became, and remains, standard fare at Danish weddings.

The ballet tells the story of Hilda, a beautiful country heiress, who is switched at birth with a baby troll, the wild and cantankerous Froken Birthe. Hilda thus grows up in a dirty troll mound raised by a rough troll woman who plans to marry her off to one of her two troll sons, Diderik and Viderik (traditional troll names, apparently). Birthe, meanwhile, is raised in the lap of luxury and betrothed to a handsome nobleman, Junker Ove. Naturally, in the course of the ballet the mistake is discovered, and in the end Hilda is united with Ove, while Birthe (promised rich treasures by the troll woman) settles down with a greedy and troll-like suitor.

If the plot was thin, however, the scenic effects were not. To the sound of “subterranean music” a grassy knoll “raises on four flaming pillars” and reveals the troll underworld. There are gnomes working a forge, the Troll Woman flipping pancakes, and the wild Diderik and Viderik wrestling, pulling each other’s wiry hair, and scampering about. But the ballet is not all trolls. Soon after Ove meets Hilda, he is besieged by elf maidens, wispy and ethereal women who torment and seduce unmarried men by circling and dazzling them with a misty fairy dance. They were, as Andersen put it, wicked spirits who dance “with long shawls, woven of haze and moonshine.” Like trolls (and wilis), however, these pagan creatures shrink from Christian symbols, and so in the ballet their magic is broken by holy water (poured by the angelic Hilda), the image of St. John, a golden goblet, and a crucifix. The final celebrations take place on a midsummer eve, with processions, banners, garlands, jugglers, Gypsies, and a joyous maypole dance—a Scandinavian Napoli.

Other ballets on Nordic themes followed, including The Mountain Hut (1859), The Valkyr (1861), and The Lay of Thyrm (1868), which all drew on Norse mythology or medieval subjects. There were patriotic dances, such as The King’s Volunteers on Amager, Bournonville’s 1871 tribute to the citizens who defended Copenhagen during the Napoleonic Wars, which had so impressed him in his youth; and little Danish fables, most notably A Fairy Tale in Pictures, enacting a favorite story by Hans Christian Andersen. Coming full circle, in 1875 he created Arcona, which told of a Crusade during the Age of Valdemar. None of these ballets was really new, but that was the point: Bournonville made it his business not to change. In these ballets he strove to shore up and defend the ideals, as Andersen put it, of “happiness and excellence” in art. Tellingly, the last ballet Bournonville ever made was a cycle of four tableaux in honor of Adam Oehlenschläger (1877).

All of these works helped to fix the Danish Romantic ballet in place and secure the tradition for posterity. But Bournonville went further: as he was making ballets, he was also trying to write them down. On three separate occasions, in 1848, 1855, and 1861, he attempted to lay out a system for recording dances on paper, which he called Études Chorégraphiques. He worked hard to invent a notation system because he knew that ballet would never be recognized as an equal of theater or music until it had a written language of its own, but he was also driven by anxiety—an intense desire to codify ballet technique and “set down” the tradition as he knew it, lest it be lost to time. The notation was awkward and has never been widely used to document dances, but Bournonville’s neatly coded texts are a touching reminder of his yearning to preserve his art. Even more revealing, however, are his manuscript notes: in Bournonville’s cross-outs, rewrites, and at times almost superstitious grasping at some magical organizing principle (in one instance he became fixated on the number five—five positions, five genres, and so on), we can feel his urgent preoccupation with the fundamental precepts of ballet, and his intent to return it to its most basic forms.

Bournonville also produced letters, articles, books, and not least his own memoirs. My Theater Life is a sprawling multivolume work published in three installments in 1848, 1865, and 1877–78. Its hefty volumes contain an abundance of autobiographical information, but they are also an eclectic collection of lists of his ballets, homilies, travelogues, notes on celebrities he knew, and sharply worded polemics. Their tone can be stiff and the author’s reflections on his own life frustratingly impersonal, but this hardly matters. Bournonville’s memoirs were not meant to narrate his life: they too were a defense of his art.

The impression they leave is of a stern but kindly minister preaching his faith to a malleable public, all too easily led astray. Bournonville gently scolds his readers for rejecting serious ballets such as his choreographic ode to the artist Raphael (a flop) and his plan (unrealized) to choreograph the Oresteia. He laments the popular taste for cheap thrills and disparages popular venues such as the Tivoli Gardens, which opened in 1843 and offered a wide range of family entertainments. His highest moral indignation, however, is reserved for the “frenzy” over the beautiful, charismatic, but poorly trained Spanish dancer Pepita de Oliva, who won enthusiastic support in Copenhagen and across Europe for her dances. “I wept,” he wrote, “at the desecration of my lovely Muse.”

Bournonville knew, however, that high-minded words and skillfully performed ballets, however entertaining, were not necessarily a sufficient defense. He saw that to protect his art he also had to secure its institutional base. Thus he spoke out energetically on behalf of his dancers and worked tirelessly to improve their lives—especially those on the bottom rungs. In 1847 he reorganized the theater’s ballet school (which had existed in one form or another since 1771), establishing two classes, one for children and another for adults. He saw himself as a paternal figure or patriarch: one photo taken late in life shows him sitting firm and upright, surrounded by a large group of devoted and well-behaved pupils.

He realized, moreover, that professional training in dance alone was not enough, so he campaigned to establish primary schools within the theater’s dance academy—schools directed, as he once put it, “by proven individuals whose religious and moral piety is in keeping with the high mission of theatrical art.” In 1856 the first step was taken and dance students received tuition in the homes of their instructors; in 1876 the Royal Theatre formally established a proper academic school for artists within its walls. It was an achievement that echoed (and may have been inspired by) Grundtvig’s pioneering educational reforms, so widely discussed and admired in Danish society at the time, and perhaps too by the Russian Imperial example.

Bournonville did not stop with schools: he also worked to establish fixed regulations for dancers’ pay (achieved in 1856) and fought to secure pensions for his performers (a private fund was set up in 1874). These were modest but substantial achievements, which foreshadowed the impressive cradle-to-grave benefits Danish dancers would eventually receive in the twentieth century. More generally, Bournonville argued long and hard for a national theater and ballet supported by the state. In the years following the military debacle of 1864, for example, he struck out at the politicians and economists of the Danish Parliament, firmly dismissing any suggestion that the arts might be “luxuries altogether unsuited to an agricultural and cattle-raising nation” or that “little Denmark” could no longer afford a ballet. Tired of this “old saw,” Bournonville took the high ground: theater, he explained, was not only a business or an entertainment but “a school which has its definite mission, of equal importance for both morals and taste.”

By the time Bournonville died in 1879, Denmark had its own distinctive school and style of classical ballet: he had spun Danishness into the French Romantic ballet and created a Danish national art. It was a school in the largest Athenian sense—a way of dancing that was also an ethic of dancing. At times Bournonville’s writings and art could seem almost too good and upright, edging toward sanctimony, but his unerringly consistent and clear classicism more than compensated. Bournonville produced some fifty ballets, but it was not the trolls and elf maidens, brave Danish heroes and gallant fishermen, that best exemplified his art: it was the dances within these ballets, the street scenes from Napoli, “The Dancing School” from Conservatoriet, the fleeting steps of La Sylphide. These shards of ballets—compact pieces of pure dance invention—told the real story of his art. It was a conservative story, orthodox even, in its impulse to tie ballet to its own past. But its orthodoxy was also its greatest strength: Bournonville saved something important from the French tradition. Thanks to him, the teachings of Auguste Vestris were locked firmly into the structures of Danish ballet. Male dancing, so embattled in Paris, had a new school of its own.

Bournonville’s students picked up where their ballet master had left off. In the years after his death, Danish dancers devised a training program designed to perpetuate and preserve Bournonville’s art: six fixed classes to set music, one for each day of the week, including steps and dances drawn from ballets such as La Sylphide and Conservatoriet. (The Friday class contains many of the variations from Conservatoriet, preserved more or less intact.) The idea was for dancers to repeat these classes, day after day, ad infinitum, learning by heart their rules and ways of moving and passing them on—and so they have, religiously, for decades to come. Thus generations of dancers, following in Bournonville’s path, pinned their own futures to his past. It was a fitting tribute. But if Denmark could make a virtue and an art of holding ballet back, the rest of Europe had no such luxury or desire. They were moving on.