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ChoreographerAugust Bournonville, the man known as the father of the Danish ballet style, was born in Copenhagen, August 21, 1805 the son of French and Swedish parents. This was the same year that Thomas Jefferson began his second term as president of the United States, Nelson was victorious at Trafalgar, and Hans Christian Anderson was born.
His father was Antoine Bournonville was a dancer, whose family had ties to the origins of ballet in the French court and whose sister was one of the most famous dancers in Europe. Of Antoine‘s six children, August was the only one who displayed an active interest in dancing. August‘s mother was Lovisa Sundberg, Antoine‘s Swedish born housekeeper. She became his father‘s second wife in 1816, when August was eleven.
August began his formal training at age 7 first with his father and then with Vincenzo Galeotti, an Italian dancer and founder of the Royal Danish Ballet. His first appearance on stage came at age 8 in the Nordic ballet Largertha. : Vincenzo Galeotti died in 1816 and Bournonville’s father succeeded him as the artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet.
Displaying talents as a singer and an actor, August continued to appear as a child in many plays and comic operas. Although his theatrical appearances did not allow for formal schooling he was an avid reader and familiarized himself with the classics of literature and philosophy. With adolescence August Bournonville had to make the decision as to which art form to concentrate on. Acting was ruled out as he had developed a stammer. His fine tenor voice had drawn the praise of the great opera composer Rossini but, prompted by his father‘s example, he opted for the dance. His dance studies intensified and he was given a grant, on two separate occasions, to go to Paris to study. After the second period of studies with the renowned August Vestris, he was allowed in 1826 to become a dancer at the prestigious Paris Opera. He made his first debut there in a pas de trois from Louis Milon’s ballet Nina ou La Folle par Amour and later he was often the partner of Marie Taglioni.
Having received a large promotion in Paris, Bournonville returned for a holiday to Denmark. He found the Royal Ballet in a bad condition and spent his time rehearsing the dancers, staging a ballet of Aumer‘s and creating his own set of divertissements. His success as a dancer and in getting the company in a good condition opened the doors to his being invited to return to Copenhagen, at age 25, as a dancer, ballet master and choreographer of the company. He continued to dance for 18 more years and to choreograph until he was 72. His final appearance on stage (in 1848) was as Waldemar in his own ballet of the same name.
Unlike many artists of his day, Bournonville continually traveled through Europe to keep himself up to date with artistic trends. He also was absent from Copenhagen for a number of years to work in Vienna and Stockholm.
Bournonville published his first book, New Year’s Gift for Dance Lovers in 1829 and in 1847 the first volume of his memoirs, My Theater Life. Of his own dancing Bournonville wrote, "I danced with a manly joie de vivre, and my sense of humor and my energy have always made an impression in every theater. I seemed to make audiences happy and before they admired me, they liked me". This happy temperament has colored most of his ballets with bright dancing and a sunny atmosphere.
Pointe work was not so important in Bournonville‘s day. His flair was for making brilliant enchainements (groups of steps) out of the basic steps. At a time when the male dancer was becoming banished from the stage Bournonville chose to highlight the strengths of male dancers for whom his choreography excelled. His pupil Christian Johannson did much of the training in St. Petersburg where he trained the Russian male dancers that were to storm the world with Diaghilev‘s Ballet Russes.
Bournonville worked hard to raise the social standing of dancers, he set up an academic program for students in the Royal Danish Ballet School, secured the ballet‘s first private pension fund, the first of its kind in Europe, and crusaded for parliamentary funding of the ballet when it passed out of Royal control.
His tenure at the Royal Theater was not without controversy. Following the dismissal of the star dancer, Lucille Grahn, in 1841, Bournonville‘s entrance onto the stage was jeered by Grahn‘s supporters. In the heat of the moment he addressed the King from the stage. For this lapse of decorum he was suspended for six months. However, Bournonville did not retire as artistic director for The Royal Danish Ballet until 1877.
In 1830 Bournonville married the Swedish-born Helena Fredrika Hakansson, with whom he had seven children. On November 30, 1879 Bournonville collapsed and died in a Copenhagen street on his way home from church. His funeral was held on Saturday December 6th in Our Lady’s Church, Copenhagen. He is buried in Asminderod
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