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Société Auguste Vestris - Third Bournonville Festival Royal Theatre
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Third Bournonville Festival Royal Theatre
(Copenhagen, June 2005)

June 2005

Printable version / Version imprimable   |  1849 visits / visites

Throughout the year 2005, Denmark celebrates the bicentennial of the dancer and ballet master Auguste Bournonville (1805-1879). Between June 3rd and 12th, Copenhagen and the Royal Theatre were host to a Festival marked by several dozen events, conferences and exhibitions, as well as performance of all of the ballet master’s extant works, and his Schools, as transcribed by Hans Beck.

Until the early 1950s, Bournonville’s works were scarcely known outwith Denmark. But over the past half-century, classical dance in Europe, on both sides of the Urals, has almost vanished under the blows of the so-called "Modern" Art lobby, Paris now being known as
Wuppertal-sur-Seine. Whilst others have virtually abdicated their responsibilities in this area, Denmark - and thus the repertoire and Schools of Bournonville - tends now to become the centre of what is appositely called danse savante (scientific dance) or danse académique (scholarly dance).

A Ballet Dancer, critical to a nation’s identity ?

Over the last twenty years, as Bournonville’s writings and correspondence with musicians and thinkers all over Europe have come to light, and as interest has risen over his Schools abroad, we have moved away from the skirt-chasing preserve of the balletomane, into an area more relevant to Governments and thinkers.

In 2005, torture is again practised by purportedly civilised states and activists of every stripe think nothing of blowing up passers-by to express a trifling political disagreement. To step forward and defend the notion that the body is the temple of the Soul has become a statement of political relevance.

Correspondents, of whom there were roughly 150 (&nbsp!), and professors from abroad were invited to attend classes and rehearsals in the Royal Theatre, and to discuss with its staff and dancers. The Head of State, Queen Margrethe II, attended every performance. As the Festival ended, a fireworks display on Kongens Nytorv was put on, of a splendour that the dancing trade has never yet seen to honour of one of its members.

What this represents, in terms of a two-year effort by the leadership, dancers, professors and logistics staff associated with the Royal Theatre is beyond what any "normal" person would even consider doing. Many of those involved had slept three to five hours a night for the last several months.

The Bournonville Schools

On Saturday June 4th, at the old Court Theatre in the Christiansborg Ridebane, there was presented what may prove to be the central achievement of this Festival and of Frank Andersen’s second term as Artistic Director: a fully revised and concordant edition of Kirsten Ralov’s Bournonville Six Schools, as those were compiled by his successor Hans Beck. These Schools are the summum of the danse savante as it was developed in Europe at the time of Beethoven. The DVD’s producer Ulrik Wivel formerly danced at the Royal Theatre himself.

Never before have the Schools been seen in their entirety outwith the Royal Theatre.

The Schools now appear as a three-volume package. In one volume, the steps have been written down; each enchaînement numbered so as to correspond to the order in the annexed musical scores, and to the tracks on a double DVD, where leading artists of the Royal Theatre are seen to dance each step and enchaînement.

A monumental undertaking. The dancers (Gudrun Bojesen, Caroline Cavallo, Thomas Lund, Kristoffer Sakurai, Mads Blangstrup) and professors (Mie Vessel, Frank Andersen, Dinna Bjoern, Flemming Ryberg) cancelled their summer holidays for the years 2003 and 2004, and worked in 45 degree heat to prepare the films.

In 1967, Dr. Alan Fredericia had brought out for Danish Television a six-hour programme on the Schools, superbly danced by the likes of Arne Bech, Toni Lander and Flemming Ryberg. The Schools were not, however, broadcast in full, nor were they ever dubbed into other languages and published. Consequently, they could not be used as a working document for professors and dancers all over the world.

On Frank Andersen’s return as Artistic Director in 2002, he and Anne-Marie Vessel, who heads the Royal Theatre’s academy, decided to release these Schools to the world at large. On Saturday June 4th, Mr. Andersen introduced the undertaking from the New Stage at Staerekassen with the words, "This has been done for all eternity".

Not hyperbole.

The point is the survival of the classical dance, not Bournonville as such. The consideration is universal, and that is what has given the team at the Royal Theatre the energy to see it through.

Many of the enchaînements are of transcendental difficulty. As for the steps that make up the enchaînements, many are performed in ways, relative to today’s practice, that greatly increase both the difficulty, and the pedagogical and performance value.

Another example, the pirouettes in out and of manifold positions, such as the tricky preparation for en-dedans pirouettes from second. These pirouettes were performed with retiré sur le cou de pied. Their pedagogical value is that with the low retiré, one uses the full arsenal of postural muscles. The performance value, is that the entire torso is elegantly pulled up and placed. With the high retiré at the knee used today, the knee joint is used as a brace; although we turn more easily and turn more turns, the retiré being closer the centre of gravity, in terms of performance value the turn is more mechanical, less fluent.

Bournonville’s requirement of the pulled-up torso sheds light, negatively, on the current fad for the slumped, weight-bearing tendu. As we have seen with that low retiré position, the torso must be held by postural muscles at all times. The modern practice of over-pointing or "breaking" the foot and grinding it into the floor in tendu to shew off the high arch, which means weight-transfer onto that foot, is justified neither in bio-mechanics, nor in dance terms.

On Friday June 11th, Dinna Bjoern, now head of the Finnish National Ballet, and daughter of the great mime Niels Bjoern Larsen, presented the Friday School at Staerekassen. She began by saying that although today, we like to believe that we are more technical, on account of the extremes to which we have taken certain, limited, aspects of the technique, notably turns and extension, perusal of the Schools may lead one to conclude otherwise. She then spoke with passion of the importance these Schools will have for the emergence of new choreography. Which is, of course, the crux of the issue: we cannot go on dancing The Sleeping Beauty and Napoli like a broken record, en boucle, till the end of time&nbsp!

Are the Schools, on the new DVD, danced as they were in 1967, by that I mean, are all the accents, the inflections, the wit, the irony, the playful approach to the music, is it all still there ?

The answer, is that what appears on the 2005 DVD, is a sober, down-to-earth representation, rather lacking in mystery or poetry. In the ladies (why was Diana Cuni not involved in making the film ?), the épaulement is rather stiffly starched, while some movements reveal the impact on the body of the fad for hyper-extensions, and the application of unnecessary force.

My view is that although flaws are patent, they are irrelevant to our present purposes.

No artist today can hide from the wars and the misery that have turned most of the world’s population into chronic depressives. It is so commendable in these young people to have shouldered responsibility for the project and to have brought it to the high level they have, that wallowing in nostalgia for the days of Arne Bech and Toni Lander is a habit that we cannot afford to indulge.

A Glimpse into Vulcan’s Smithy
New research
on Bournonville’s notion of
plastique and épaulement

In the ballet, we are rather inclined to believe that we live in a history-free zone, and that plastique and épaulement just plain "growed", like plums on a tree.

Well no, actually. The plums "growed" at a precise moment in time, the late 18th to early 19th Century, when the Renascence achievements in the plastic arts were looked at afresh by dancers, in the light of the breakthroughs by Haydn and Beethoven. The rigid patterns and purely-ornamental use of the port de bras - the balletic equivalent to post Council of Trent painting and sculpture - fell well short of expressing the complexity of this new music.

During the Festival, teachers and researchers explained that they are now looking at the difference between the experiments in technique conducted by Auguste Vestris, Gardel and so forth at the Paris Opera in the early 19th Century, and what Bournonville describes as a "complete change" in his method after his first voyage to Italy in 1841, where he met up with the work of Paolo Comengo and Salvatore Taglioni at Naples, Carlo Blasis, and other Italian ballet masters.

Now, it is sometimes thought that Vestris’ use of "bras bas" means a rigid upper body and no épaulement. Error&nbsp! As Professor Tully at London has said, the upper body is deployed by the Vestris school precisely as Antony Tudor did, in other words the épaulement is expressed by the torso alone, the arms are scarcely used. The principle of movement is the same, the use of the spinal column is the same, although the expressivity of gesture is, manifestly, lesser than it would be with full port de bras.

My hypothesis is that although these early 19th Century French professors did not disregard contrapposto, as that appears in Renascence draughtsmanship, their priority was to respond to the new music and go beyond terre à terre dance, to a new dance of elevation. They invented many steps, and while the old terre à terre steps remained in the vocabulary, these acquired a double, a twin: the same step, performed with great elevation, and then a triple, the same step with great elevation and beaten. Had Vestris et al. attempted to fuss about with the ports de bras at the same time, the dancers would not have been able to cope. It would have been chaos.

So the first generation of the "vraie, grande danse" was at Paris.

Once this breakthrough had been assimilated, the second stage was Italy, where Blasis and his colleagues were secure enough in the new technique to develop full port de bras and follow through on the épaulement, with the freedom and poetic abandon that characterises the Italian nation.

How does the notion of plastique fit into this debate ? It is relatively easy to hold a draughtsman’s pose when promenading, as in the slow dances of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. It becomes trickier with the speed and brilliance of terre à terre dance, and a matter of transcendental difficulty in the dance of great elevation in the time of Vestris fils.

The goal was to integrate the Renascence plastique into the new dance, just as Beethoven had with the teachings of Bach.

Allow me now to put forward another hypothesis concerning the "intermediary" stage between the "Tudor-like" épaulement of the Vestris school at Paris, and the new Italian approach.

At the Thorvaldsen Museum, an exhibition was held entitled "Everything Dances". Amongst the objects on display, was a sketch book from Thorvaldsen’s forty-year stay in Rome. The sketch in question is of someone called, if I recall aright, Irene Bude who visited Thorvaldsen at Rome in the 1820s or so. She was herself an actress or singer. At Thorvaldsen’s studio, several artists would gather, and dressed in Greek garb, she would move for them to music, and then freeze for a few seconds. The artists present would sketch what they called "attitudes", or "postures".

Judging by the sketch displayed in the Copenhagen exhibition, these "attitudes" seem to have been of painterly quality, with a wonderful "in-between" dynamic of motion, and Irene Bude is said to have been able to convey many shades of affect.

Her "attitudes" apparently became a subject of discussion in the Italian artistic milieu. Thorvaldsen was a protégé of the sculptor Antonio Canova (the latter had a great influence on classical dance, as Professor Pappacena has documented), and was himself so interested in the dance that he acquired a large collection of art representing the dance from Etruscan times onwards. Consequently, the connection between Irene Bude’s "attitudes" or "postures", and the debate in the dance world at that time over plastique is, I think, rather intriguing.

Here, one should note that in Le Conservatoire, Act I, there are certain strongly-accented passages in the music, that allow for a moment’s pause in the enchaînements, as though to "fix" the plastique. This may have been typical of Vestris, but not of Bournonville’s later works where both the flow of movement, and the plastique, must be unbroken.

Or, in the words of solo dancer Gudrun Bojesen, who herself plays wind instruments, "It’s like playing a wind instrument. (....) By the end of the phrase, the air is still flowing even though your line has finished. It’s the same when you dance. There’s continuous energy through your body that shews you’re still moving, even though you might be standing still in a pose".

Innovations in scenic Design

Bournonville was one of the first ballet masters who had not only the power, but the personal intent, to oversee every detail of scenic and costume design. He wrote,

"The true magic of a play is realised only when the situation is supported by a faithful picture of time and place. The costumes and settings are executed under my supervision, and until I declare a work to be ready, no-one may schedule it for performance."’

Viben Bech, in an essay drafted for the exhibition "Tulle and Tricot", writes that this close relation between the libretto, the steps and Bournonville’s own scheme for the costumes and settings, has led all the troupe’s Artistic Directors, with the exception of Flemming Flindt in the late 1960s, to cleave closely to the ballet master’s original designs. Mr. Bech writes, "The Bournonville style is not that easy to change - it is all part of the deal, as it were; if too much is changed in just one area, the harmony is lost, and then everything might as well be changed."

However, the designers have been given complete liberty, in what Mr. Bech calls "fantasy costumes" - the trolls, the costumes for masked balls, and so forth. Although I must say that I find that fantasy has gone a little too far with the trolls in the current production of A Folk Tale. Rather than being eerie, they are ludicrous, and only serve to lower the tone of the whole.

As for the pronounced tendency towards making dancers into sex objects, that has plagued the ballet throughout its history, Bournonville was categorical: "I hate exposure of any kind, both in the theatre and in social life; attention must not be diverted from art to focus on sensual objects...."

When it came to stage design, Bournonville was very much an innovator.

In Whitney Byrn’s essay for the exhibition, he explains that Napoli represents a complete break with the tradition of "illusionistic theatre", where the set-painters were used to create the illusion of three-dimensional reality through painted wings, drops and borders. The sets, he explains, were formerly something that "the performer passed through on their way downstage, and in front of which they performed.... simply background".

The idea of uniting all the aspects of a production, so that "the performers, the costumes and the sets created a unified production" did not exist, and in this respect, Christian Ferdinand Christensen’s designs for Napoli were a sensation.

Christensen’s collaboration with Bournonville began in 1835 (The Tyroleans), the sets for which were no longer background, but a dynamic "stage environment". He then did the sets for the Forest in Act II of La Sylphide (1836). As an actor of the day wrote: "so true and poetic representation had never yet been seen on the Danish stage. It seemed that one could freely wander amongst beech branches, where fresh leaves hung so lifelike and light, as though the wind might move them".

With each new production, writes Byrn, Christensen went further, introducing new design elements. In 1838-1839, he left to work at the Paris Opera. On returning from Paris, he created the designs for Bournonville’s ballet The Festival at Albano, with "three-dimensional buildings, with balconies, stairs and various levels (...) the performers could move in and through the space." He then extended this to all three Acts of Napoli, where "all the elements of the production were completely dependent on the others: the music, the costumes, the dance, the lighting, the set (...) remove one and the rest would be orphaned."

Christensen’s basic set design for Napoli was used, virtually intact, from 1841 to 1875, and only slight changes have been effected since.

Keeping one’s Feet on the Ground

Although this writer is notoriously a Bournonville-freak, I do try to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

Apart from Napoli, La Sylphide and A Folk Tale, and some beautiful divertissements such as La Ventana, I remain somewhat dubious about the subject-matter Bournonville appears to have preferred for his works. Why Bournonville declined to treat Greek tragedy or Sheakespeare’s plays, as he was possessed of both the knowledge and the technical skills to do so, why he chose to discard Noverre’s instructions on the necessary seriousness of ballet libretti, is a mystery. One can quite see how, in the 1860s and 70s, some young and clever men of the ballet may have become fairly impatient with Bournonville’s fifty-year monopoly over the Royal Theatre.

When all is said and done though, these ballets remain very fine pieces of theatre, and a living education in how to integrate the mime with the dance. If they are less persuasive now than thirty years ago, there may be two, rather simple reasons: until Frank Andersen returned in 2002, the Theatre has been unstable, with five ballet masters in ten years,. Secondly, the character artists, with the notable exception of Kirsten Simone, Poul-Erik Hesselkilde, Flemming Ryberg and Jette Buchwald, are still too inexperienced in the mime roles.

Shortly before leaving, we learnt that plans are now afoot to transfer onto DVD for the world’s public, the past fifty years of Bournonville productions stashed away in the treasure-trove at Danmarks Radio. This will take time, but it is in the pipeline.

Bournonville and Music

Finally, one must point to the major contribution by two musicologists, Ole Noerlyng, and Knud Arne Juergensen, Curator of the Music Department of the Royal Library, both of whom are passionately devoted to the dance. In an interview to a Danish newsletter, Mr. Juergensen has spoken of Bournonville’s musicality thus,

"During my music studies, I played for ballet classes... and that led to my interest in ballet. The musicality has always been my main occupation. I see ballet through my ears. Like a singer, Bournonville’s choreography sings. When dancers master the correct way of breathing, it gives them a tremendous look of ease. You must find the natural breath of the body, by which I mean more than just filling the lungs with air. It means putting breath into your whole body, like a wind instrument (...) Bournonville’s choreography is like chamber music, because the body has inner lines of melody....."

Amongst the recently-discovered essays on music by Bournonville himself, is a scholarly analysis of opera and singspiel in Denmark from 1770 to 1840. He sang, and played violin, not only for class, but in string quartets.

Theatre as a unifying Institution for the Nation

Only recently, moreover, has it been established, by checking against Bournonville’s diary entries, that a series of anonymous articles published throughout Europe and dealing with a diversity of political and social themes, were actually penned by Bournonville. One should recall here that he was a reformer, who described himself as a follower of Lafayette "the moment I cross Denmark’s borders". It was he who instituted at the Royal Theatre - probably the first to do so in Europe - proper indefinite-term contracts for the dancers, and a lifelong pension for those who were injured or too old to dance.

A number of Bournonville’s essays are yet to be published in other languages, notably "The Nature of our Theatre", and "Justice" (1876), that deal with the theatre as a unifying institution for the nation.

Bicentennial Publications

  • Etudes chorégraphiques (1848-1855-1861 editions) by Bournonville, trilingual scholarly edition
  • Letters from France and Italy - 1841, by Bournonville to his wife
  • The correspondence of Hans Christian Andersen and Bournonville
  • The Music for the Bournonville Ballets (nine CD’s by the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, accompanied by a bilingual book edited by the musicologist Ole Norlying, entitled Dansen er en Kunst (The Dance is an Art Form)
  • The Bournonville School (DVD being volume one, musical scores - being volume two, the steps being volume 3)

K.L. Kanter