How Bournonville Stager Frank Andersen Keeps the Danish Master's Legacy Alive

March 4, 2019

Inside the sky-lit Studio 1 at Staatsballett Berlin, Frank Andersen is just like a kid in a candy store as he leads an Act I rehearsal for August Bournonville’s La Sylphide. Passing gleefully from dancer to dancer, he assigns each with a specific story to tell. “Whatever you do,” he tells Alicia Ruben, a Berlin-born corps member learning the role of Effie, “don’t look in the mirror. Trust me, you’ll be fine. Your eyes say everything.”

Since leaving his post as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet in 2008, Andersen and his team, who include his wife Eva Kloborg and longtime colleague Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, have staged Bournonville ballets for companies throughout the world. Last week, just before the Berlin premiere of La Sylphide, we caught up with Andersen to hear about his passion for sharing Bournonville’s legacy, the rewards and challenges of staging Bournonville abroad, and his hopes for the future of Danish ballet.


Is there something special about
La Sylphide
compared to Bournonville’s other ballets?

It’s interesting—La Sylphide is the only one of Bournonville’s ballets, that I know of, with a tragic ending. It’s a real drama. I also believe that La Sylphide’s themes are timeless. Anyone can relate to being caught between fantasy and reality as they watch James struggle between following the Sylph or marrying Effie. When he tries to capture his dream, it dies. It’s not actually written in the libretto that James dies at the end of the ballet. It just says he falls to the ground. But we all know that feeling of losing everything.

Herman Løvenskjold’s music also makes the ballet unique. After returning from the Paris premiere of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide, Bournonville worked closely with Løvenskjold to achieve his own version. Today, if you listen to the music without knowing anything about Bournonville’s ballet, you’d think it was a movie score. Each phrase conveys a different sensation: danger, happiness, sorrow, fear—everything is there. It carries you through the story.

Who were your teachers, and how did you learn Bournonville’s ballets?

Since the beginning, information has been transferred in the rehearsal studio, verbally and physically from one generation to the next. My teachers were Henning Kronstam, Niels Bjørn Larsen, Kirsten Ralov, Fredbjørn Bjørnson and Hans Brenaa. The versions of Bournonville ballets that we stage today are the same as the versions my generation learned in the 1970s. My teachers learned from Harald Lander, who learned from Hans Beck, who learned directly from Bournonville. So, we’re not so far off from the source, actually.

Of course, today we have the added factor of the internet, and of recordings on YouTube. Today’s dancers often come with a notion of how they think the dance should look based on what they have seen. I always say that my team and I teach what we learned, instead of what is right. As long as dancers have an open mind, I’m open to working with them on details. The widened access to video isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, because it has helped us develop clear definitions of what the Bournonville style should look like. Our teachers were able to say that Bournonville was just pure, joyous dancing. We’ve worked to help clarify exactly what that means.

Maria Kochetkova in Stattsballett Berlin’s “La Sylphide.” Yan Revazov, Courtesy Sattsballett Berlin.

What about the fact that Bournonville is public domain?

There is no Bournonville trust, and anyone can stage the ballets—it’s free. But the truth about Bournonville’s style is that a dancer needs a clear purpose for every movement he or she makes. And the choreography is very specific, and quite unchanged since the beginning. If you go to a ballet competition, you might see 30 different versions of the male variation in Swan Lake, all listed as “after Petipa.” But with James’ variations in La Sylphide, there is only one version. It’s the version that we learned in the 70s, which is the same version that our teachers danced. That is the benefit of learning from the source.

What are the challenges of staging Bournonville abroad?

We have to face one thing everywhere we go: that the Bournonville style is different from the classical (Russian) style. I think that it’s difficult for the dancers to truly understand until they feel it on their own bodies. That’s been true about our experience in Berlin, but the dancers have been very open. It’s the same steps—glissade, jeté, assemblé, entrechat quatre. But when you dance Bournonville for the first time, you’ll be very sore in your calves and thighs the next day.

The next challenge is the mime, which has to be convincing. You have to really believe what you are doing in order to give a natural and honest reaction to what is happening around you. It’s hard to explain and even harder to do, because ballet is not natural. So, in this unnatural environment, I’m asking them to be natural. You have to find that balance.

Alicia Ruben and Sarah Brodbeck (as Effie and Madge) rehearse a mime scene from “La Sylphide.” Yan Revazov, Courtesy Stattsballett Berlin.

Can you describe the qualities you look for when casting dancers?

La Sylphide
isn’t really about dancing. It’s about presenting the roles. The heart is the most important thing. The technique just has to be there, integrated in your muscle memory so that you can put it aside. It’s only the best dancers who can achieve this.

We also try to select dancers who understand the difference between Bournonville and classical styles, which include certain details in épaulement, and a way of landing jumps. Now, after many weeks of working, we’re getting there, where the dancers are performing with their heads, bodies, faces and minds. I think the principals are very good in Berlin. More than just technical skill, they’re smart and have heart.

What do you do if a dancer learning James tries to do five pirouettes instead of two?

I tell him, “There’s two.” We just laughed a lot about this a few days ago in rehearsal. It was the first thing I said to the dancers when we started, after watching the principal men in class. I told them, “You have to understand that this is not a pirouette ballet.” James does only one double pirouette, in all of his variations. Of course, they understand this now. The musicality of every step is so clear because of Løvenskjold’s music. There’s just no space for five pirouettes.

Andersen coaches Sarah Brodbeck through a scene of “La Sylphide.” Yan Revazov, Courtesy Stattsballett Berlin.

How do you introduce interpretation when teaching the roles?

We teach the dancing, and focus on the mime when it comes. We address problems as they arise. Everything is so specific musically. When you’re driving down a highway, it’s possible to shift right or left within your lane, but you have to stay in the lane. You can’t veer from that. We want the dancers to find the characters inside themselves, so we focus on the honesty of their dancing above everything. Getting dancers to dance with their hearts is the most rewarding experience of all.

What are your thoughts about the future of Bournonville’s ballets?

I think we can’t just consider ourselves safe. We have to learn to deal with the new media and use it to our advantage to promote our art form. I’m not saying that I’m nervous—just that the audience has changed. We can’t just sit and wait. We have to be proactive. Every performance needs to be an event now. I see Bournonville as a natural component of that. As long as Bournonville’s ballets are promoted smartly with today’s resources, I believe that they can survive within a versatile ballet repertoire.

We are thrilled that the next generation of teachers is beginning to come forward. Our son Sebastian Kloborg has shown desire to grab the torch, and I think that’s very positive. He’s been with us in Berlin the whole time, observing and assisting in some rehearsals. Thomas Lund and Gudrun Bojesen are also taking taking on the challenge in Denmark. I don’t think they are interested in any radical changes. Maybe others will express interest over time. I think there have to be people at the source who can say, “we’re here to preserve the Bournonville style as we know it.” That’s how we can keep the flame burning.

Performances of Staatsballett Berlin’s
La Sylphide at the Deutsche Oper Berlin run from March 1–May 31.