Tradition and heritage are strong words but they fit The Royal Danish Ballet like a glove. They are one of the oldest classical dance troupes in Europe and direct descendants of the Bournonville lineage. With a repertoire that also includes the most prominent choreographers of the 20th century, the Danes have much to be proud of with their home Company.
Combining opera, drama and ballet, The Royal Danish Theatre has long been considered the cultural heart of Copenhagen. Danish theatrical tradition can be traced back to the 18th century and Ludvig Holberg’s comedy series in the Commediehuus (Comedy House) in Lille Grønnegade. Inspired by its success a group of 12 actors, including 1 female and 2 male dancers decided to form a company in 1748. Initially funded by the monarchy, one century later (around 1849) its control passed on to the State.
The Theatre has always stood at Kongens Nytorv but it was shaped by several renovations throughout the years. The original smaller theatre gave room to a new one designed by Danish architect Jens Vilhelm Dahlerup in 1874. This building, together with an adjacent section added in 1931, is now known as Gamle Scene (Old Stage) and houses Ballet including studios, administration offices and workshops. Opera and Theatre now occupy special purpose-built premises, respectively, the New Copenhagen Opera House and the New Royal Danish Playhouse but the 3 art forms are still connected by the same governing body, The Royal Danish Theatre.
Dance already existed in Copenhagen before The Royal Danish Theatre was inaugurated but this paved the way for the development of a national dance company. Initially the theatre relied mostly on ballet guest artists from Germany, Italy and France. The creation of The Royal Danish Ballet School in 1771 and the arrival in 1775 of Italian ballet master Vincenzo Galeotti attracted local dancers and a national identity began to flourish. Besides creating over 50 ballets for The Royal Danish Ballet (including the only surviving piece and oldest ballet in the world The Whims of Cupid and the Ballet Master from 1786), Galeotti introduced the Ballet d’Action in which pantomime was used to advance the plot.
The Bournonville Years
The most famous figure in the history of Danish ballet is August Bournonville, the French ballet master who gave the company its characteristic style and raised its profile. Bournonville created about 50 ballets plus divertissements in operas and plays, working with a variety of themes and genres and developing the use of complex mime. La Sylphide (1836), Napoli (1842) and A Folk Tale (1854) are some of his masterpieces.
During his tenure as ballet master, Bournonville supervised the development of generations of dancers, raising their technique standards. Giving male dancers important roles he created a tradition for high standards of male dancing in The Royal Danish Ballet and some of them became historical dance figures.
Bournonville’s successor Hans Beck carried on with that tradition and repertoire. From 1894 until 1915 he programmed revivals of Bournonville ballets which remained popular with the audiences. He also developed the “Bournonville School”, a training programme focused on the preservation of the style which was used by the school until the 30s.
For more on Bournonville and his style read our Dear Mr. Fantasy article [link]
The Royal Danish Ballet: Evolution
1909 – Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes great dance revolution steamrolls through Europe. They abstain from visiting Copenhagen so the Danish scene remains largely unaffected by the movement.
1925 – Michael Fokine is invited by The Royal Danish Theatre to stage some of his works (Petroushka, Chopiniana – Les Sylphides and selections of Prince Igor) which are well received by the audience.
1930 – Balanchine stages his new piece Apollon Musagète for the company, but the work falls under heavy criticism for being no more than “pure gymnastics”.
1932 – Appointment of Harald Lander as Artistic Director (AD) and beginning of a new era of modernisation, with a view of increasing technical standards. Introduction of Russian Style technique (Vaganova) and new repertoire to challenge the dancers.
1940 – A programme to preserve the Bournonville tradition is implemented, with at least one revival of his productions per year.
1948 – Premiere of Études, the most famous piece by Harold Lander. This iconic ballet is famous for its technical demands; only troupes with the highest standards are capable of dancing it.
Niels Bjørn Larsen is appointed as AD. RDB adopts a Summer Festival and tours the UK and the US where dancers are praised for their technical and dramatic abilities. Danish male dancers are “discovered” internationally.
1955 – 1961 - Ballets by Ashton (Romeo and Juliet, 1955), Balanchine (Apollo, 1957), Cullberg (Moon Reindeer, 1957 and Miss Julie, 1958), Petit (Carmen, 1960 and Cyrano, 1961) and Robbins are added to the repertoire.
1966 – Flemming Flindt is appointed AD. He implements a plan to modernise ballet as an art form, to make it appeal to new audiences.
1971 – Flindt’s polemic piece The Triumph of Death is premiered. It features a nude scene and music by Danish rock band Savage Rose.
1974 – First staging of Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet and the beginning of a long collaboration with this American choreographer.
1978 – Henning Kronstam is appointed AD. Together with Kirsten Ralov (associate AD) they look back at reviving Bournonville tradition.
1979 – The First Bournoville Festival is organised to commemorate the centenary of his death. Within one week the company dances all Bournonville ballets in the repertoire, raising awareness to their tradition.
1985 - 1992 – Frank Andersen is appointed AD. Under his tenure John Cranko‘s Onegin is staged for the company and the second Bournonville Festival, celebrating the 150 year anniversary of Napoli, takes place.
1994 – 2002 A constant change of Artistic Directors causes turmoil. They include Peter Schaufuss (1994-1995), Johnny Eliasen (1995-1997), Maina Gielgud (1997-1999) and Aage Thordal-Christensen (1999-2002) before Frank Andersen finally starts a second term as AD.
2003 - Kenneth MacMillan‘s Manon is staged in Copenhagen.
2008 – Former Principal dancer Nikolaj Hübbe is appointed AD.
The Royal Danish Ballet: Today
Despite the high turnover of ADs in the 90s, the last two decades have seen a continuous flow of new works with a strong narrative component. Broadening the repertoire has allowed dancers to further develop their trademark storytelling and characterisation skills. Brandstrup, Cranko, MacMillan, Neumeier, Ratmansky and Rushton have contributed important full-length works. New productions of Bournonville’s Napoli and A Folk Tale (due to premiere next season) seek to preserve the company’s heritage while making these ballets fresh and relevant to modern audiences. The company looks reinvigorated under new AD Nikolaj Hübbe.
For a glimpse at the Company and its modern headquarters see our recent photolog [link]
The Royal Danish Theatre Ballet School has trained most of RDB’s dancers since the 1770s. Its headquarters are at the Kongens Nytorv theatre, with two provincial departments at Odense and Holstebro. The school integrates both academics and ballet for 6-16 year-olds. It was founded by French dancer Pierre Laurent and reorganized under Bournonville in 1847. It is now funded by the State.
During Harald Lander’s tenure a new training system was implemented and the Bournonville “schooling” was restructured to become a complement to the syllabus. Vera Volkova arrived in the 50s and was credited with improving the technical standards of the school.
Out of 250 girls and boys who apply to the Royal Danish Theatre Ballet School every spring, less than 70 are admitted. A further 4-week intensive program sees a dozen accepted as full time students. There are close to 70 students between the ages of 6-17, divided into 7 levels in mixed classes.
The students are often called upon to perform in the company’s ballets. A fourth of them end up as apprentices with the company. They will still go to school but now their classes are taken with the company and they take part in rehearsals, etc. Apprenticeships last two years, with an examination at the end of each year. Only successful apprentices are hired as corps de ballet dancers.
Must-See Danish Ballets
- Bournonville: La Sylphide, Napoli, The Kermesse in Bruges, Le Conservatoire (Konservatoriet), A Folk Tale & The Flower Festival in Genzano.
- Cullberg’s Miss Julie
- Lander’s Études
- Flindt’s The Lesson
- Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid
- Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina
Big Danish Ballet Stars
Danseurs: Ib Andersen, Peter Martins, Lloyd Riggins, Børge Ralov, Erik Bruhn, Henning Kronstam, Peter Schaufuss, Nikolaj Hübbe, Thomas Lund, Johan Kobborg.
Ballerinas: Lucile Grahn, Adeline Genée,Margot Lander, Else Højgaard, Sorella Englund, Silja Schandorff
- Études with Gitte Lindstrøm and Kenneth Greve [part1, part2, part3].
- Flindt’s The Lesson with Gudrun Bojesen and Johan Kobborg [link]
- Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina with Mads Blangstrup and Gitte Lindstrøm [link]
- Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet highlights [link]
- Mads Blangstrup and Femke Slot in a rehearsal for Neumeier’s Romeo and Juliet [link]
- La Sylphide with Thomas Lund and Gudrun Bojesen [link]
- Flower Festival of Genzano with Gudrun Bojesen and Mads Blangstrup [link]
- Kermesse in Bruges with Yao Wei and Dawid Kupinski [link]
- Lis Jeppesen in a Napoli Solo [link]
- Pas de six from Napoli‘s Act III with Cecilie Lassen, Susanne Grinder, Amy Watson, Femke Slot, Nicolai Hansen and Kristoffer Sakurai [link]
Sources and Further Information
- The Royal Danish Ballet by Aline Storm. Edited by Sofie Rask Andersen and Aline Storm. Published by The Royal Danish Theatre, Copenhagen 2005. ISBN 87-989870-7-0
- Royal Danish Ballet Wikipedia entry [link]
- The Royal Danish Ballet Website. History. Last Updated April 2009. [link]
- The Royal Danish Theatre Ballet School by Kate Snedeker. Ballet-dance Magazine at CriticalDance.com, May 2004. [link]