The Magic of August Bournonville

By Erik Aschengreen

With Jean Dauberval’s La Fille mal gardée, in 1789, the characters in ballet changed forever. Roman and greek gods and heroes left the stage and ordinary people entered. In all his ballets, August Bournonville continued this trend in the 19th century. In his ballets we meet peasants, fishermen, shoemakers, shopkeepers, lemonade vendors, soldiers and so on. His ballets are about their life with happiness and sorrows.

Bournonville also met the Romantic era with its beautiful danger. In 1834, he saw La Sylphide in Paris, two years after its premiere.  In 1836, he created his own version in Copenhagen, where it has been danced in an unbroken tradition ever since. The romantic ballet cultivated the dreams, the passion and the idea about “the other world.” In La Sylphide, the young Scotsman, James, enters this world, where the sylphs and witches live. A world with a glimpse of happiness and love, but where darkness and death have the final word.

For this year’s Bournonville performance at The Joyce, Ulrik Birkkjær has chosen to open with the second – and sorrowful – act of Bournonville’s La Sylphide. In his Romantic ballets that would follow – Napoli (1842), The Kermess in Bruges (1851), A Folk Tale (1854) – Bournonville still had an aspect of darkness but he did not let the darkness take power.

There is sunshine and joy in Bournonville’s ballet shoes, but his work is not a superficial idyll. His ballets are a journey from darkness towards light, and in the second part of the program, we meet the young characters from Bournonville’s different ballets. They meet at a square in a European town – which is now the Joyce stage. The young dancers come here to be together, dance, entertain themselves (and the audience), flirt and have fun.  It is what dance is all about, which we sometimes forget.

Bournonville’s youngest couple, Eleonore and Carelis from The Kermess in Bruges, fall in love in a wonderful pas de deux and become more mature as the main couple in Napoli. Around them, characters from many Bournonville ballets show up to entertain and perform at this gathering among friends: the street singer from Napoli with his wonderful mime, the two sporty jockeys in From Siberia to Moscow in a joyful competition, and the brilliant pas de trois from The King’s Volunteers at Amager, all leading up to the dances from the third act of Napoli.

The Bournonville dance knits the dancers on stage together, giving them the feeling that union is strength. The magic of Bournonville’s universe is that we, the audience, are invited to feel the same.