Celebrating the Legacy of August Bournonville, Choreographer of La Sylphide

As Atlanta Ballet dancers rehearse for the season opener La Sylphide, we celebrate the legacy of choreographer August Bournonville, who was born in Copenhagen on this day in 1805.

August Bournonville (1805-1879) was born in Copenhagen on August 21, 1805 to Antoine Bournonville, a dancer and choreographer who led the Royal Danish Ballet from 1816 to 1823. His son would go on to hold the same position for almost fifty years.

In 1820, Bournonville left for Paris, where he performed as a soloist at the Paris Opera and studied under Auguste Vestris, among other great instructors. He returned home to Copenhagen and in 1830, took on the role of ballet master for the Royal Theatre.

Elevating the image and stature of ballet and displaying it as an art form were essential to Bournonville. He strived to accentuate the regal and refined qualities of ballet, which demanded delicate and dramatically nuanced performances from the company’s artists. To address what he saw as decline in opportunities for male dancers, Bournonville focused on creating significant roles with intricate choreography that would highlight their virtuosity on the stage. In 1836, he choreographed La Sylphide and the principal role on his student Lucile Grahn, who was only 17 at the time.

Bournonville expressed much of his worldly travels in his ballets by integrating some of the essences of different countries he visited into his creations. Though Bournonville retired from dancing in 1848, he continued directing the Royal Theatre until 1877, except for two brief work opportunities that took him to Vienna (1855-1856) and Stockholm (1861-1864).

Before his death, Bournonville did not imagine the impact his career would make on Danish ballet or that his contributions to ballet would be recognized worldwide. Americans took notice in 1956 when the Royal Danish Ballet performed Bournonville’s choreography for the first time in New York, which contributed to building the choreographer’s artistic legacy that continues today. Prominent ballet companies around the world still include La Sylphide in their present-day repertory.

Atlanta Ballet is delighted to bring La Sylphide to the Atlanta stage in September, with production and additional choreography by Johan Kobborg. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

My Theatre Life by August Bournonville, translated by Patricia McAndrew, Wesleyan University Press, 1979.
Bournonville and the Royal Danish Ballet by Erik Aschengreen. Pamphlet prepared for the 1979 Bournonville Festival by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Copenhagen.

Lithograph by Em. Baerentzen, 1841
Atlanta Ballet dancers by Charlie McCullers.