It isn't often that a country honors a ballet dancer as a national hero. But in Denmark recently, during Festival Week at the Royal Danish Theatre, some 1, 400 people, including members of the royal family and visitors from as far away as China, gathered each night to applaud the works of August Bournonville, 19 th-century ballet master, choreographer, and star performer. On the final night , a marble bust of the choreographer was crowned with a laurel wreath.
Until recently the Bournonville style and ballets were unknown outside his own country. But in 1956 a small group of Danish soloists was invited to Jacob's Pillow dance center in Massachusetts; that visit was followed by a tour by the entire company of the United States, the Soviet Union, England, France, and other countries. The buouyancy and sunniness of the Danish style and some of the works of the extant Bournonville repertory now have become familiar to many ballet audiences -- through these tours, and through the appearances of Danes Peter Schaufuss, Peter Martins, and Erik Bruhn, all leading international peformers.
Two recent books are good introductions for the general reader to the traditions of Danish ballet. "The King's Dancing Master," by Walter Terry, is a chatty, anecdotal biography of Bournonville's life and work with an excellent selection of pictures, and includes sketches of the various dancers Bournonville trained and for whom he created his many ballets.
Born in 1805, Bournonville spanned the "Golden Age" of art in Denmark and the period of the Romantic ballet in Europe, as well. He followed his father into the Royal Danish Ballet and studied in Paris in the 1820s, where he performed at the Paris Opera. Although he returned to Copenhagen in 1828 and spent the major portion of his life there, Bournonville made frequent visits to France, Italy, and other European countries, and his life and travels were mirrored in his ballets. "Konservatoriet," choreographed in 1849, is a re-creation of the Paris studio where he attended classes; "Napoli," his most famous work, drew on themes and dances from his observations in Italy.
The Bournonville ballets and classes based on his technique have been handed down by generations of dancers, including Erick Bruhn, subject of a new biography by John Gruen.
Gruen has chosen to concentrate on Bruhn's personal life rather than his life as an artist. This is perhaps understandable, but it tends to diminish the value of the book, since we are not given full descriptions of how he proceeded in creating his great roles. Still, the book is entertaining reading and will give devotees and would-be fans a glimpse into the world of ballet.