Utah’s Bournonville Workshop with the Masters proves this refined style is still relevant
By Kathy Adams
What was an esteemed scholar of pre-Romantic ballet doing in a small town in northern Utah last summer? “Just trying to give students a flavor of Bournonville technique,” says Dinna Bjørn, now retired from her roles as a Royal Danish Ballet (RDB) principal dancer, director of the Norwegian National Ballet, and ballet mistress of the Finnish National Ballet. Bjørn, a respected authority on August Bournonville, has been traveling the world for the last 40 years, teaching and coaching the works and technique of the Danish master.
Last summer Imagine Ballet Theatre (IBT), a small ballet school and pre-professional dance company in Ogden, found itself in the unlikely position of hosting the Bournonville Workshop with the Masters, previously held in Denmark, France, and Japan; it was taught only in Denmark until 2009. Bjørn and three other veteran teachers spent a week coaching the distinctive RDB style and signature Bournonville repertoire to a small but committed group of students. The event was co-sponsored by IBT and the American Ballet Competition, an educational organization that put its annual ballet competition on pause this year to support the workshop. (It will resume its competition next June.) IBT also received funding from the Utah Arts Council.
IBT founder and artistic director Raymond Van Mason opened his doors to the workshop when he heard it was looking for a new home after losing state sponsorship in France (where it was called Bournonville à Biarritz). Van Mason first developed a passion for Bournonville as a dancer with Ballet West, studying under internationally renowned Danish ballerina Toni Lander. (In addition to her career with RDB, Lander was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and London Festival Ballet before moving to Salt Lake City with her then-husband, Bruce Marks.) New York Times dance critic Jack Anderson wrote in Lander’s 1985 obituary that her reconstruction of Bournonville’s 1855 ballet Abdallah for Ballet West “received wide praise.”
Before accepting the position of artistic director at Ballet West in 1976 and after his performing career with American Ballet Theatre, Marks became the first American principal dancer at RDB. He vividly recalls that of all the company classes he took throughout a given week, the Bournonville class was the most difficult.
“I stayed for every class to the very end because I was not going to give anyone the satisfaction of saying, ‘Those Americans can’t make it here,’ ” Marks says.
Marks arrived in Copenhagen around the same time that Peter Martins left his birthplace and career at RDB for New York City Ballet. By then RDB had loosened its pedagogy to include other styles and techniques. But between Bournonville’s tenure and the leadership of Harald Lander from 1932 to 1951, when he “resurrected the company by editing Bournonville’s ballets for modern audiences,” says Marks, RDB ballet chief Hans Beck documented and codified a system of six daily classes fashioned on Bournonville’s teachings, complete with exact music and center floor variations based on Bournonville’s actual ballets.
Marks explains that in the era when he was at RDB, there was a style within the method known as “men’s technique” that included limiting the arabesque to 45 degrees, doing pirouettes on one-quarter relevé (almost flat foot), and holding the foot in coupé rather than passé for turns.
“It wasn’t until later, when we saw dancers like [The Royal Ballet’s] Anthony Dowell doing multiple turns, that men began to turn with the foot at the knee level,” Marks says. “And unlike Petipa, Bournonville never choreographed 32 of anything. He thought that was circus and not dance.”
The seed of the idea to bring Bournonville to Ogden took root two summers ago when IBT student Ashleigh Richardson, now 17, attended the American Ballet Competition. Bjørn, who was the master teacher there, peered over the top of her glasses at Richardson and nodded, saying, “The Bournonville style really suits you.” Richardson was awarded a scholarship to Bournonville à Biarritz the following summer. She attended this summer’s Bournonville workshop in Ogden as well as several other summer intensives before taking off for Copenhagen and RDB’s summer intensive on a Birger-Bartholin scholarship.
“The best way to learn Bournonville is to get it from the company who created it,” Richardson says. “I love the style—it’s pleasing to watch and fun to do. It doesn’t have the showy high legs or exaggerated flair, but it gives you a good feeling.”
August Bournonville was born in Copenhagen in 1805 and became ballet master at the Royal Theatre at the young age of 25. He left home to study ballet in France and returned to Denmark determined to elevate the level of dance in his home country to international standards. Although he appropriated the French style, distinguished by elegance and grace, he put a uniquely Danish aesthetic fingerprint on what would become known as the Bournonville method.
To view a Bournonville class is to observe the spirit of the technique—generous, modest, and exceedingly complex. The teachers work in teams and almost seem to signal each other to offer corrections, never raising their voices or sounding critical.
One of the Bournonville teachers, Henning Albrechtsen, a Royal Danish Ballet dancer for more than a decade and deputy artistic director from 2000 to 2007, believes Bournonville builds authentic strength; yet for boys he adds his own pre-class athletic warm-up, with sit-ups and push-ups. He cautions students that “the barre is a very false friend; you can’t take it with you to the center,” adding to “check your balance because, excitingly enough, it’s never in the same place twice.”
Albrechtsen’s deep pliés, precise demonstrations, and gentle, engaging voice characterize the style itself. He points to the distinctive épaulement, subtle carriage of the arms, and articulate footwork as hallmarks of the technique.
“It’s nice to see how much strength and speed can come from the legs,” Albrechtsen says. “You don’t always need so much movement in your arms, and actually it takes away from the center a little. The bras bas arm is a bit more modest. Russians finish with arms saying ‘ta-da,’ so you know you’re supposed to clap, but Bournonville finishes in a more humble position, and you hope they’re going to clap.”
Workshop teacher Diana Cuni retired from the Royal Danish Ballet in 2015 and is now a member of its teaching faculty. Cuni says she requires her students to listen to the music before they move. Bournonville was also a composer and played violin as accompaniment for his classes. Cuni says if you follow the flow of the music, the direction changes feel natural rather than perplexing.
“Even though Bournonville is a very old style and tradition, I see it as very physical,” Cuni says. “It is very juicy, and you can get so much out of it. It is about using the whole volume of your body.” She describes dancing Bournonville as “like jumping on stones in the water. Your natural instinct if you were jumping from stone to stone wouldn’t be to jump to one and stay—you’d go! Dancing is about covering space and taking the space.”
Bournonville’s choreography contains no pedestrian or walking steps. In the Russian tradition, to begin a divertissement a dancer walks or runs upstage and poses, a transition not seen in Bournonville’s ballets, in which each step is a dance step leading to the next.
“Balanchine was very influenced by Bournonville in this way,” Bjørn says. “Balanchine actually admitted that he was fascinated by the Bournonville style during the short time he spent in Copenhagen, before he came to New York. You can see that he also liked this concept that everything is dance steps.”
A shared reflection among Bournonville admirers is that much like Conservatoria, his famous work set in a dance studio, life and dance are sometimes indistinguishable.
“All these class combinations were almost like variations, and they all had their own names,” Marks says. “In Saturday class, the very last step is called The Door, because you do three grand jetés and end at the front door of the old studio at the Royal Danish Ballet School, and you turn around and bow to the ballet master and you walk out. It is very sweet.”
Kathy Adams has been writing and reviewing dance for the Salt Lake Tribune since 2002. She was the dance writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer before moving to Salt Lake City in 1990.