Bournonville at the Paris Conservatoire, October 11th to 13th 2007
by Julie Cronshaw
Director, Highgate School of Ballet, student of Roger Tully.
The conference began at 10am on Thursday morning, October 11th 2007,at the Conservatoire national de région (CNR), in the auditorium Marcel Landowski with a Master Class in the Bournonville style, open to public viewing, for teachers from the Ville de Paris. Two alumni of the Royal Theatre Copenhagen shared the teaching: Dinna Bjoern, now Artistic Director of the Finnish National Ballet, and Flemming Ryberg, former Principal, now Principal Character Dancer and senior teacher at the school of the Royal Theatre. The conference was opened by Xavier Delette, Director of the Conservatoire national de région, Anne-Marie Sandrini, Inspector of the Conservatoires of the City of Paris and Dr. Erik Ashengreen, Professor emeritus of the University of Copenhagen and Bournonville scholar.
Mr. Ryberg began with a caveat - the traditional Bournonville barre consists of just 8 exercises, before dancers move into the centre, and grand battement precedes the battement tendu. There is emphasis on the co-ordination of upper body movement, often in opposition to the legs, such as in the rond de jambe à terre exercise (whereby the legs perform rond de jambe en dehors but the arms do port de bras en dedans). The precisely-accented petit battement and rond de jambe en l'air exercises are important precursors to the centre work versions where they are used extensively.
In the centre, Dinna Bjoern took over and introduced us to the first part of a typical, long adage combination, incorporating movements done 'in reverse' as part of the same exercise. This precedes the port de bras, then is followed by centre practice with pirouettes and finally allegro. One of the most obvious and attractive elements of the Bournonville style is the natural, unforced use of the upper body in contrast to the complex movements and steps of the legs and feet. There is a lot of allegro, predominantly using steps of 'ballon' and refreshingly inventive terre à terre combinations. (I was reminded of the similarities in style between the Bournonville allegro and a popular 19th century social dance, the Quadrille, which uses steps we would recognise as chassé and assemblé, although in a simpler form meant for social diversion, not theatrical performance.) Arms are, more often than not, held 'en bas' whilst the body maintains harmonious form through use of épaulement.
There are exercises done at the barre and in the centre which develop the neatly articulated lower legs we associate with the Bournonville style and to remind the viewer of such, our attention is occasionally drawn to the feet, as the dancer inclines forward, to look at the pointed foot. Flexibility of the torso is not neglected however, and throughout the conference in the various Master Classes we were treated to a port de bras similar to the Russian 6th or Cecchetti 8th ports de bras, incorporating body bends and circles above the waist, maintaining a short 4th position in a lunge.
It should be noted that the evolution of the Bournonville class came about through the efforts of ballet master Hans Beck (1861-1952) who wrote down Bournonville's steps and combinations, grouped them into degrees of difficulty and named them for each day of the week. The exercises formed the basis for the development of the Royal Theatre school and were filmed for Danish television in 1967, using the best-known dancers of the day, including Flemming Ryberg. In 2003, when Frank Andersen resumed artistic direction of the Royal Theatre's Ballet, another film of the classes was made, based on Hans Beck's notes, and of the work of Kirsten Ralov, the renowned ballerina and later, instructor. This latest version of the films was published as a three-volume package (DVDs, scores, steps) in 2005.
Subsequent technique classes in the Bournonville style were given to CNR and CNSMDP students over the three days, as well as classes in mime and Pas de Deux. On Saturday morning, Nikolai Hubbe, who will take over as ballet master at the Royal Theatre from the 2008-2009 season, coached ten girls from Carole Lagache's class in extracts from 'La Sylphide', Act 2.
On Saturday afternoon the public was again invited to the CNR auditorium to watch demonstrations of Bournonville technique, mime and repertoire given by the students and this was the closing event of the conference.
From a personal point of view (as a teacher of both vocational and recreational dance students in London), some of the most entertaining and informative hours spent in the ballet studios of Les Abbesses were during Flemming Ryberg's masterful mime classes.
Danish ballet mime, as found in Bournonville's existing works, is both relevant and vital to the progression of the story in a Romantic-era ballet d'action. What makes it so appealing is that it appears natural and uncontrived. The gestures and body language are clear, often funny and sometimes poignant, the mime illustrates universal human expressions with no need for a translator - joy, sorrow, love, heartache and so on. Unlike the grandeur of the Petipa ballets, that are filled with larger than life 'fairy tale' characters, the Bournonville hero is human. By introducing the students to the basic technique of mime, Mr Ryberg gave us a glimpse into what is an art form in itself, and showed this to be a lifetime's study.
The musical accompaniment formed an integral part of the class. Mr Ryberg was asked if alternative music was ever played for the exercises, to which he replied yes, it was, they had tried it at the Royal Theatre, but then no-one could remember how the exercises went. The choice of music for the exercises does seem particularly apt, and aids the dancer both technically and rhythmically.
One of the most useful comments Mr Ryberg made to students in more than one class, was to finish the dancing when the music stopped: always, and for every exercise. The dancer is taught to be in harmony with the music and eventually a natural expression will arise from the choreography. Bournonville choreography should appear effortless to the untrained eye, but actually there is great art in concealment of the technical difficulties. Much classical dancing today emphasizes long balances on one leg and an obvious demonstration of bravura, crowd pleasing steps and poses. The dancer as a circus performer takes centre stage, while music and artistry are relegated to second place. It was a relief to hear other voices in the ballet firmament insisting there is another way.
On Friday evening over 200 dancers, dance students and enthusiasts congregated at the Auditorium Saint Germain to watch films of great Danish dancers in Bournonville choreography. The films were introduced by Mr. Ryberg and Dr. Aschengreen and included footage dating back to 1906, with Pas de Deux, mime and variations danced by artists of the Royal Theatre from the 1960's onwards, including Flemming Ryberg in a variation from La Sylphide, and excerpts from the newly produced Bournonville school film of 2005. As one of the speakers remarked - August Bournonville was trained in the French school, and we were actually watching French ballet.
As a classical ballet teacher with a particular interest in the legacy left to us through the heritage of ballet masters August Bournonville and Enrico Cecchetti, I felt very grateful and privileged to have been able to attend the Bournonville conference in Paris on invitation from Anne-Marie Sandrini, Nathalie Moreno and the Société Auguste Vestris, that have been instrumental in organising and making possible this remarkable event. Especial thanks go to Frank Andersen, Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, who kindly made his colleagues available to France, and to the Danish Embassy for their help in obtaining some of the films shown on the Friday night, and of course, to the accomplished and sensitive accompaniment provided, in particular, by Atanas Kaichev, Yves Lancien and Natalia Flament.
Watching the classes, being in the audience at the Auditorium Saint Germain and talking with dance professionals from Paris and Copenhagen, we have been fortunate to gain an insight into the Bournonville school and his ballets of the Romantic era. Whether one agree or not with the particular way this great dancing master's work has been systematised, his steps and combinations illustrate the universal principles of classical dancing, in this instance infused with a natural, light and happy style, a 'joie de vivre', which can only serve as a positive catalyst for future discussion on the nature and direction of classical ballet.