Bournonville At 200

"I have accomplished something and enjoyed my artistic career,” wrote the great Danish choreographer August Bournonville in the introduction to his memoir, My Theatre Life. The year was 1846, and he had been choreographing and directing the Royal Danish Ballet since 1829, but was retiring from dancing at age 41. “Now, since I have passed the halfway mark in my journey through life, I find my footprints so faint I fear they will soon disappear…. What a cruel thing it is to be forgotten!”

He needn’t have worried. This year, the 200th anniversary of his birth, the Royal Danish Ballet is presenting its third Bournonville Festival, June 3-11, in Copenhagen. Events include performances of nine of the master’s ballets, a closing-night gala, demonstrations of the six daily classes (which will be made available for the first time on DVD during the festival) and exhibitions in museums and libraries.

This year’s festival is an opportunity to show off what the company is famous for, but it’s also a chance for RDB Artistic Director Frank Andersen to prove that the company is back on track after a period in the ‘90s when the company endured a succession of artistic directors. 

“It has been of immense importance that we could devote two seasons to really get into our ballet’s father’s soul,” says Andersen. “It was a necessity to use some time to concentrate on his style—the ballets, steps and classes—and on the way he is taught and rehearsed, as well as on the way he is performed. To really dig into it and have every single dancer in the company feel him, feel the hardness of his steps, the difficulty of his combinations. All of their calves are hurting, but we have begun to know him.

“I’m happy that I am having the opportunity to do this because I love Bournonville. It is in my heart. For me, it’s not so much a matter of whether the tradition will go forward. I think it’s more about where ballet will go,” he adds, noting that Bournonville’s works should not be frozen in time, but should speak to succeeding generations.

This is an important moment for the RDB. These days, the company employs dancers from many countries, and its rep includes works by 20th- and 21st-century choreographers as well as Bournonville. For Andersen, maintaining tradition means keeping alive a particularly Danish way of working. Bournonville ballets have an emphasis on humanity that puts a great deal of responsibility on the individual dancers to keep the work pure.

“You can talk about it in different ways,” says principal dancer Thomas Lund. “But what Bournonville was most interested in was being honest about what you do in everything. You have to have clean work in the legs to show the musicality, and you have to have easy, very held arms on the top. That kind of technique also shapes the way you interpret your part onstage.”

The Bournonville style is all about a simplicity of presentation that doesn’t let the performer hide behind grandiose gestures.

“I think that what is so special here is not just Bournonville,” says dancer Silja Schandorff, a principal since 1992. “You have this special feeling about all of the ballets, because you have seen them and you have been a part of them since you were so young. You begin as one of the little girls and then you are one of the corps and you keep going up. It is your home, your history.”

It is not so unusual to begin at the bottom and work your way up in a ballet company—the difference in Denmark may be how early a dancer gets started on that journey. Bournonville himself began dancing as a child at the Royal Theatre (his father, Antoine, was director there). And still today, most dancers in the company enter the Royal Danish Ballet School as children. In the first act of Napoli, one of Bournonville’s most famous works, the stage bursts with human vitality. The scene is a village square in Italy where suitors vie for the hand of Teresina, the village beauty; old people warm themselves in the sun and children play. Many company members began their careers as those children.

“When I was 6 years old, and I stood on the bridge [in the first act of Napoli], I looked down and I saw [the ballerina] dancing Teresina,” says principal dancer Gitte Lindstrøm “I could never imagine being down there.” Now, she’s the one that the little ones look to with stars in their eyes.

In Napoli, a tale of the triumph of good over evil, Teresina, drowns in a storm at sea, is held captive by the sea spirit Golfo and his nymphs, but is finally saved by the faith of her true love.

“Bournonville’s ballets reflect the human story of being trapped between the mundane and the world of our dreams—our yearning for the unattainable and for pure, exalted love,” says Andersen. He encourages the dancers to aim to be “the best company in the world telling stories.” Students in the school are given mime classes, but once in the company, they receive guidance from “character dancers.” (At the RDB, selected dancers over the required retirement age of 40 remain to perform the mime roles that are in every Bournonville ballet.)

“A lot of tips and traditions get passed on that way from people like [former RDB ballerina] Kirsten Simone,” says principal dancer Caroline Cavallo, who joined the RDB in 1989 and is one of several Americans in the company. “[One of them will] pull you aside and help you out a little bit. ‘Know what you are saying,’ they’ll remind you, ‘have it in your head as a sentence.’”

But it’s not just the mime that makes the storytelling work. Because their bodies have grown up in the choreography, the dancers are free to focus on what the story is about.

“For each of us, there is a core moment,” says Gudrun Bojeson, who was promoted to principal in 2001. We build up to it and explain that more clearly. “For me in Napoli, it’s when Teresina listens to Gennaro’s [her true love’s] heart in the second act.”  (In Act II, the drowned Teresina has been turned into a Naïad, one of Golfo’s nymphs; Gennaro has come to rescue her, but she does not remember him.) “I was told that Naïads don’t have hearts, so I think that when she hears that his heart is beating, she realizes that she must be one of his kind.”

Whether it’s through the work of Bournonville, or choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky or John Neumeier, who recently created a full-length Little Mermaid for the company, telling stories that reveal that we are all of the same kind—that’s what the RDB is really about. The festival, Andersen promises, will show that the Danish master’s footprints are clearly etched in everyone’s minds. “The thing that is important for the
people who come,” says Andersen, “is that they can see that we are taking care of Bournonville and that he is alive and kicking in his own house at the Royal Theatre here in Copenhagen.”

For more information on the festival, including programming, performance schedule, as well as other events, go to www.bournonvillefestival.com.

What Is Bournonville?

August Bournonville (1805-1879), Danish dancer, choreographer and former director of the Royal Danish Ballet, created a style of dancing ballet that endures to the present. A virtuoso dancer at a time when the male dancer’s role was being reduced to just supporting the ballerina, he created parts for men that equaled those of the women.

“The whole essence of Bournonville style should be the joy of movement,” says Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, director of the Royal Danish Ballet School. “The stream of a movement never stops. I call it filigree—the feet do beats and a lot of small things, and on top are beautiful easygoing arms. It should look light, not exaggerated in any way.”

While it should look easy, it is in fact extremely difficult. To preserve Bournonville’s style, one of his successors, Hans Beck, assembled six classes, one for each day of the week except Sunday, from Bournonville’s teaching and choreography. Until 1932, these classes were used for daily training in the Royal Danish Ballet School. Now daily class is comprised of some Bournonville mixed in with the Russian/Anglo/English classes brought in by Vera Volkova in the 1950s.

Latest Posts


Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

Editors' Picks