SINCE 1748

August Bournonvilles Passage 1,
1055 København K,

The Royal Danish Theatre has been located at Kongens Nytorv in the heart of Copenhagen since 1748 when the theatre was established with royal patronage.
The original staff of actors may have been small, but the group of dancers was even smaller: 2 males, and 1 female. Trouble and strife can arise even in such a small group, and when this came to the notice of the theatre executive, they all got the sack. Curtains for the ballet.

Of course, the dancing continued, albeit under rather chaotic conditions. Italian Ballet Masters, who had been imported to do the job, tended to last but one winter season in the freezing North. Vincenzo Galeotti was the first Ballet Master to bring stability to the theatre: this was in 1775. He is, in fact, the father of the Royal Danish Ballet, creating around 50 works for the Danish stage before his death in 1816. The only one of these ballets, which has been preserved, is The Whims of Cupid and the Ballet Master (1786) – but on the other hand it is the oldest ballet in the world still staged to this day.

It is common knowledge that the most renowned name in Danish ballet is that of August Bournonville (1805-1879). It is due to him that a clearly defined style of ballet was created, based on a specific set of aesthetic ideals, and having its own unique training techniques. His works were numerous, and about ten of them are still being performed to this day. The Royal Danish Ballet thus possesses a treasure trove of 19th century ballets unmatched by any other company in the world.

Bournonville, whose father was a dancer of French origin, was appointed Ballet Master in 1830 and he was assigned to the Royal Danish Theatre, with the exception of a few leaves of absence, right up to 1877. With works such as La Sylphide (1836), Napoli (1842), Le Conservatoire (1849), The Kermesse in Bruges (1851) and A Folk Tale (1854), Bournonville introduced international romanticism to the Danish stage, as well as Danish national romanticism and romanticist idyll. August Bournonville was, indeed, a theatrical personality of enormous talent. He was a skilled director and it was he who, together with conductor H.S. Paulli, was responsible for the staging of Lohengrin (1870), De Meistersinger (1872) and Tannhäuser (1875), thus introducing Wagner to the National Stage.

Bournonville’s retirement was followed by what might be called a dormant period. The rest of Europe was fired, in the early 1900’s, by the innovative performances of Les Ballets Russes, but in Copenhagen under the auspices of Ballet Master Hans Beck, they had little impact. At the Royal Danish Theatre by Kongens Nytorv a series of Bournonville ballets was consolidated, and Hans Beck instigated the definition of the six so-called Bournonville Schools. And as late as in the 1930’s, Danish author Kjeld Abell exclaimed, quite rightly, that “Danish ballet is spelt both backwards and forwards BOURNONVILLE”.

The revival came when Harald Lander was appointed Ballet Master in 1932. Training techniques were revised and Lander created a new repertoire of his own works – works that reflected contemporary trends. In Etudes (1948), to the music of Knudåge Riisager, Lander created the first major international success of the century for the Royal Danish Ballet.

After World War II there was an increasing tendency for the Danish ballet to seek its inspiration in international names. Choreographers such as Ashton, Cranko and others made their presence felt, and with Flemming Flindt as Artistic Director from 1966 to 1978, new works and a whole new style found their way to the theatre. Perhaps the best known of these innovative new works was The Triumph of Death from 1971, featuring the rock music of Danish band Savage Rose.

Obviously, a contemporary company has to maintain a repertoire of some breadth, and the Royal Danish Ballet is no exception, dancing pretty much everything – from Bournonville to barefoot stomps, from the abstract works of Balanchine to the action-packed, full-length performances of John Neumeier. Nevertheless, the backbone of the company at Kongens Nytorv remains the works of August Bournonville. It was, therefore, no surprise that Artistic Director Frank Andersen planned a grandiose celebration of the great Master on the occasion of the bicentenary of his birth in 2005 – the same year as a similar celebration of Bournonville’s close friend, Hans Christian Andersen.

Naturally, a ballet company is constantly occupied with the process of recruitment and teaching in the broadest sense. Children’s ballets are performed in school holidays, young talents are nurtured, the Bournonville bus brings the ballet out to schools, etc. etc. Not to mention the establishment of new schools of ballet in the provincial towns of Odense and Holstebro – all with a view to ensuring the future development of Danish ballet.

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