American Contemporary Ballet's Theresa Farrell and Colby Parsons

Ballet's earliest history can be traced as far back as the royal courts of Renaissance Italy (roughly 200 years before France's King Louis the XIV established the first ballet academy in 1661). Surprisingly, many of these court dances were written down and still survive. Lincoln Jones, the artistic director of American Contemporary Ballet in Los Angeles, reconstructed several examples for the company's Naked Souls of Kings and Queens program in April to show just how much ballet has evolved. The majority of the pieces were choreographed by Domenico da Piacenza, a well-known 15th-century dancing master; Jones also reconstructed a slow, stately dance (called a bassa danza) choreographed by the famous Renaissance statesman and arts patron, Lorenzo de' Medici. (His great-granddaughter, Catherine de' Medici, introduced these dance traditions to the French court when she married King Henri II.)


The first and third dances were choreographed by Domenico da Piacenza. The second dance, called a bassa danza, was choreographed by Lorenzo de' Medici.


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New York City Ballet has created a charming video trailer for their Spring HERE/NOW season, a festival of works created for the company over the past several decades. It's a great complement to the Royal Ballet videos (check them out at the bottom of the post!) detailing how ballet has evolved over the past 200 years or so. And, as I wrote in March, ballet trailers are getting more and more beautiful.

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Imagine learning a 150-year-old ballet with nothing more than the choreographer’s yellowed, handwritten notes and an unfamiliar score to go on. Now, imagine that choreographer is none other than August Bournonville. For the last month, that’s exactly what the dancers at Royal Swedish Ballet have been up to as they prepare for the October 21 premiere of Ponte Molle, lovingly reconstructed by a team of Danish Bournonville experts.

Nathalie Nordquist in Ponte Molle. Photo by Markus Gårder, Courtesy Royal Swedish Ballet.

There likely isn’t a person alive today who’s seen the complete Ponte Molle. Choreographed in 1866 for the Royal Danish Ballet (where Bournonville was director), it was last performed in its entirety in 1911. The score, by four different composers, has been stored in the basement of a library since. The two-act ballet centers on a Danish painter named Alfred, who, along with two other artists, rents a room from a widow in Rome. When the landlady’s daughters are unable to marry their impoverished suitors, Alfred devises a plan to help them out. “It’s kind of a vaudeville ballet,” says Bournonville producer Frank Andersen, who along with Dinna Bjørn, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, helped piece the ballet back together. “The first act is mostly mime. The second act is a huge celebration, with lots and lots of dancing.”

August Bournonville's handwritten notations for Ponte Molle, from 1866. Photo Courtesy Dinna Bjørn and Frank Andersen.

Reconstructing the ballet from scratch has been a painstaking process. Yet the team has one major advantage: Bournonville’s own handwritten notations. Bjørn inherited them, along with those of several other ballets, from her father Niels Bjørn Larsen, a former director of the Royal Danish Ballet. But while the legs and the floor patterns were recorded, the port de bras was not. “That’s where the four of us, who have been dancing Bournonville for 40 years, can add our expertise,” Andersen says. “We know that if a step is like this, the head and arms will probably be like that.” The dancers, too, have been allowed to offer their input in rehearsals. “It’s been an exciting ping-pong process—they see it coming alive.”

Bournonville's notations include spatial patterns and steps for the legs, but not port de bras. Photo courtesy Bjørn and Andersen.

 

In an effort to prevent Ponte Molle from looking like a museum piece, the Danish team has updated it to allow today’s technical standards to shine through. For instance, pointework as we understand it today did not exist in 1866 Denmark. “It was just quickly up-down, up-down,” says Andersen. Most of the women's choreography, therefore, was on demi-pointe. “But we will of course dance this on pointe today.” Spotting technique, too, hadn’t been developed; as a result, Bournonville’s dancers typically sailed around for one or two pirouettes. Obviously, this would not fly with a modern audience's expectations, so the choreography has been adjusted to allow for multiple rotations. “But everything will be done exactly in the Bournonville style,” says Andersen.

 

The reconstructed ballet will not be an exact replica, but there’s no questioning the importance of keeping Bournonville’s rarely seen works alive. Kudos to the Royal Swedish Ballet for commissioning this reconstruction, and for preventing Ponte Molle from slipping through the cracks. I, for one, hope we get to see this dusted-off gem the next time they tour to the U.S. In the meantime, check out the trailer below.

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