Who is Bournonville


Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine in La Syphide

Photo credit: Angela Sterling

August Bournonville’s charming and distinctive style is on full display in La Sylphide, this spring at the Boston Opera House.

Ji Young Chae and Derek Dunn in Flower Festival in Genzano

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

August Bournonville

Bournonville’s enchanted love story of a young man and a woodland fairy is paired with his Divertissements, a series of show-stopping and rarely performed excerpts from his sizable repertoire.

Dancer, choreographer, and ballet master August Bournonville (1805–1879) directed the Royal Danish Ballet for nearly 50 years. Born in Copenhagen, Bournonville began his dance training at age 8 under his father, the acclaimed dancer and ballet master Antoine Bournonville. He later studied in Italy and France, and in 1829, after appearances at the Paris Opera and in London, he returned home and joined the Royal Danish Ballet as a soloist and choreographer. His ballets reflect the 18th-century French style of his training with distinctive Danish charm—colorful, warm, and cheerful depictions of ordinary people. Bournonville created a national style of dancing that has been carefully preserved by the Royal Danish Ballet and passed on to ballet companies around the world.


The Bournonville style is characterized by expressive mime and a quality of effortlessness and lightness—a quiet upper body juxtaposed with buoyant jumps and fleet footwork. The port de bras (carriage of the arms) is low and rounded, gesturing toward the audience to welcome them into the production. This style is extremely challenging for dancers, as most ballet choreography allows dancers to lift their arms above their heads while jumping to help them lift off the ground.

In Bournonville’s ballets, the transitions between steps are smooth and even, and no step is given more emphasis than the others. Dancers always travel across the stage by dancing, never by simply running or walking. Many of his ballets end in big, sailing leaps downstage with arms extending forward as if to embrace.
While the ballerina reigned supreme during the height of Romantic ballet in France and elsewhere in Europe, Bournonville championed the role of the male dancer by creating challenging, virtuosic male solos. But he still expected the women to be able to execute the same steps as the men. For example, Jockey Dance, one of his Divertissements, can be performed by either two men or two women.

Yury Yanowsky and Karine Seneca in La Syphide

Photo credit: Sabi Varga ©vargaimages


In his memoir, Bournonville claimed art should “intensify thought, elevate the mind, and refresh the senses.” He choreographed more than 50 ballets during his lifetime, most notably La SylphideNapoli, and Flower Festival in Genzano (1858). “Bournonville took innocent joy as his subject and made it intoxicating” (Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times), and many of his works are upbeat with happy endings, emphasizing the innate goodness of human nature.

La Sylphide has become Bournonville’s most famous ballet, but it is also the least typical representation of his work. The original production premiered in France in 1832, but it is Bournonville’s 1836 revision that has been performed in perpetuity. He commissioned a new score by Herman Løvenskjold and placed more emphasis on the ballet’s narrative, further developing the characters. La Sylphide showcases challenging, bravura solos for male dancers and light, buoyant jumps executed by the sylphs. Although uncharacteristically melancholy, La Sylphide still demonstrates Bournonville’s desire for art to instruct and elevate, as audiences can learn from James’ downfall.

Napoli (1842) was inspired by Bournonville’s travels to Italy. While it depicts the romance between a fisherman and a village girl, the ballet is truly Bournonville’s love letter to Naples. He was fascinated by the vibrancy of life in the port city—the bustling marketplaces and impassioned relationships among townsfolk. Napoli is Bournonville style at its truest—the depiction of everyday life, a happy ending, and virtuosic dancing.
While the full-length production hasn’t been performed since 1929, the playfully sweet and tantalizing pas de deux from Flower Festival in Genzano has survived and demonstrates the grace and charm characteristic of Bournonville’s work.

See Bournonville’s signature style for yourself, May 24–June 10.