Making the Bournonville Class DVD:
An interview with Royal Danish Ballet dancer Thomas Lund
by Kate Snedeker
September 2004 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
In June 2005 the Royal Danish Ballet is dedicating a week to the 3rd Bournonville Festival, a celebration of the company's signature choreographer, August Bournonville. Bournonville's contribution to the company was not just a series of ballets, but a distinct ballet style that remains the heart and soul of the Royal Danish Ballet. This Bournonville style was codified into a series of classes, which are still an important part of the company's teaching traditions.
As a part of the Festival, the company is putting together a new DVD which documents the complete classes as performed by today's Royal Danish Ballet dancers. Principal dancer Thomas Lund, who is a Bournonville instructor/teacher for the company, was instrumental in the production of the DVD, contributing as one of the producers, as a dancer and as an instructor. During a recent visit to Royal Theatre, Lund graciously sat down with me to talk about the making of the DVD and the history behind the Bournonville classes.
What is the history of the Bournonville Classes?
[The classes are made up of] steps by Bournonville that he gave in the morning classes, and based also on what he learned in France where he went to study. Then when Hans Beck became the director, he put all of it into order, a system. And that's what we know today as Monday Class through Saturday Class. For quite a long period these steps were danced like this every morning. Every Monday you would do the same barre and the same steps in the center, and so on. The system was that the principals would be in the front and the youngest would be in the back and gradually as the time went by, the lines would move forward.
When Harald Lander became the director in 1932 and Vera Volkova came as a teacher in 1951, that's when they started changing [the classes] and having it like we have now -- just one Bournonville class for the company a week, instead of all the time. What happens is the technique develops, and you need to do other ballets that require different techniques, so you couldn't just do [the Bournonville classes].
The classes are old fashioned, and built in a different way then we are used to today...some of the young ones might have an opinion that 'We want to do it exactly how it was!' But if you do it the way it was, then the dancers are going to run screaming away because if they have to go and dance 'Etudes' afterwards, they can't do it. Their legs would be too tired. So you have to mingle it around.
Also, in the old days they would start jumping very early in the class, but they weren't doing the same repertoire as we do, they were not doing as much rehearsing and the technique was different. They hadn't invented spotting, but it was actually quite amazing how it looked because there were actually a lot of turns. I wonder how they got around?!
I'm not saying it wasn't demanding then, because I'm sure it was, but I don't think it was as hard. I think they didn't lift the legs way up, they didn't point the feet, they didn't always have to overstretch the knees.
What were the classes like?
They were 40-45 minutes per class, I think. But that's center, and then barre comes on top of that - the barre is very short - so about an hour [all together].
There are different combinations that are meant to be for men, and for women. Some of the steps also have different names in the classes. Like for instance [there's a step] called Monday No. 14. It's also called 'la rose' because there was a dancer who was so elegant that they said she could be on top of a rose without the rose bending, so it would be la rose de la rose, and it ended up being 'la rose'. There's a sissonne in Tuesday class that's called the sloppy step, and there's a Chinese step where you hold the fingers out like this [index fingers raised] in order to balance and keep your back [straight].
Also, you had a very famous actor called Poul Reumert; his mother, Athalia Flammé, was a dancer when Bournonville was still around, and she happened to have one his steps named after her. The reason [the step was named after her] could be that maybe she would ask some of her dancers to go home and think about steps within the style and so they would have the names of these [teachers].
Are there any excerpts from Bournonville's ballets in the classes?
Yes, you have 'La Ventana', 'La Sylphide', 'Konservatoriet', so you have different things from the repertoire. And once you get into some of the bigger solos, of course you start dancing them more like you probably would do it on stage.
Do they do the classes in the school today?
Yes, yes they do it in the school. Our ballet director Frank [Andersen] wants everybody to [learn] all the classes when they go through the system. And since I was taken into the school a year after Frank became director, I got into that system and that's why my generation has been through all the steps, as well as the students now.
And in the company? What about the foreign dancers who did not go to the school?
They need to get special classes. I started teaching a group of foreigners.... they're learning different steps from different classes. We focus on one class for a couple of months and then we change. And we also do that within the company, so after a few months, the foreigners, the regulars, everybody, has had Monday class regularly. Then we go on to the next class.
But the thing is, sometimes, when you build a class you might need one step in order to get onto the next. So then you maybe might take steps from Tuesday, take something things from Wednesday, but you try to stay with Monday as the main focus.
How did the idea for the DVD come about?
It's actually something that has been going on ever since Edel Pedersen [principal dancer Gudrun Bojeson's great aunt]. She wanted to make a documentation of the steps. Then Kirsten Ralov, former principal, assistant director and ballet mistress, wanted to do it, and started doing it, but she didn't finish it. And then Frank wanted to do it, and it happened. [We have gotten] through all of the classes and have all the steps. It's all recorded and is being edited.
Is the DVD what will be shown each night at the 'Bournonville Class' programs during the Bournonville Festival?
Yes. I think [at the presentations] we will demonstrate a few of the steps, but you can watch all of it on tape. And you will be able to buy the DVDs and hopefully there will be more than one track. There will also be a track that tells you a little bit about the style and the different things that are worth noticing about the style.
The steps are accompanied by piano music?
Yes, played by Julian Thurber. There is music from certain ballets...from Coppelia [hums]. And, you have, for instance, the solo for Gurn from 'La Sylphide' in the Tuesday class, No. 21 or something like that. And the whole of 'Konservatoriet', more or less, is Friday class.
Who are the DVDs intended for?
It's for us in the ballet here, because we still need to use it for many things. It is a documentation of our generation: how did we interpret Bournonville? How did we dance Bournonville? That's one thing. Then you can use it in the teaching if you want to see...how's this head and stuff like that, or even just see [in the future] how we did it then and how do we then want to do it today. So, it's very important that we have it in our own archives.
On top of that, the DVD is something that could be interesting for other teachers, because they might want to use some of the steps in their own teaching. That's a possibility as well.
Which dancers are in the DVD?
It's Gudrun, Caroline [Cavallo], Fernando [Mora], Kristoffer [Sakurai] and Mads Blangstrup and me. The first year it was Caroline, Fernando, Gudrun and me; the second year it was Mads and Kristoffer on top of that. But, you won't notice it that way because the first year we recorded Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and this year we did Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Sometimes it is only men's steps and sometimes it is only women's. And it goes from a man's variations into a girl's, so it overlaps. Then we have 'Konservatoriet,' where we dance together, and because it is very hard to divide that up musically, we thought making it closer to the performance [would be better].
So we did a whole chunk which is from Score 11- the score we are using was put together in the 1930s and 1940s, it's not the one from Kirsten Ralov's notation from 1979 - and we were a whole group of Kristoffer, Mads and me, plus Caroline and Gudrun dancing that part.
How did they choose which dancers were going to be in the DVD?
[It was] carefully thought out...who we felt would do a good job and also present it the best way. It's something that you have to plan quite far in advance, because it's not something you just go and do.
Was it different for Caroline and Fernando since they didn't grow up in the school here with the classes?
Yes, but they have both been here for many years, studying this school once a week and they both have an excellent sense of the style. It's also nice to show that it's possible to enter the Royal Danish Ballet and still be able to pick up the style if you stay here long enough and you have the feeling for it.
What sources did you use in researching the classes?
You have the books by Kirsten Ralov where all the steps were notated. It's one book with the score and another one with all the steps in French terminologies. We've worked with Kirsten's book and used it as a base for what we will be presenting in the DVDs. We tried as much as possible to stick with the book, but during the way you find small mistakes or there's other things, that for instance Kirsten put in the book, but Fleming Ryberg remembers that they didn't use to do it like that. You can keep discussing these things, because nobody really knew exactly how it was.
We are now going to adjust this book, so it goes with what is on the video - a new edition. By the end of the season, you will be able to buy the DVD and book together as a set.
Was there any other documentation beside the books?
Yes - all the recordings of the exams from the school. If you go into the library here at the theater, the archives, [the recordings are there] going all the way back.
We did all the dances throughout the whole time in the school - I went through all the classes up until 18 years old, and of all those exams are recorded. And even before I started, they did the same thing.... you can go and see different versions.
We also looked back at what was done in 1967 [for TV], because it was Hans Brenaa, former ballet master, who set that, and Elvi Henriksen who played the piano.
What was the process you went through to prepare for the tapings?
We had to rework all the steps and go through each class. So, for half a year on our Sundays, when [the instructors] had time off, we worked on these steps and analysed them, read Kirsten's book and did pre-recordings.
Once we got to the end of the season, we would then teach [the steps] to the dancers. On top of that, we also had to work with the score because normally when you teach it for kids or for the company, and you do it little slower. But, [for the DVD], the steps have to be up to the speed that you would do them if you did them every day.
So we had to consider that as well and work with Julian on the tempo: how far can you push it within an allegro or within adagio. It was a whole process, trying to make the music interesting, and the right tempo.
When you did the final tapings, did you tape the each class as s whole or did you tape the classes in chunks?
You do chunks, because you do one step at a time. Let's say we [filmed] adagio number one, entrée d'exercice, [which is] Monday number one. Gudrun and I would do that together, that would be one exercise. And then Fernando and Caroline would do Monday number two, port de bras. Then once you got [to the] third adagio, they would film Fernando doing half of it, Caroline joining and doing the other half, because it's very long. Then we would have another adagio, I think it's Saturday, that Gudrun and I did together. Then you have tendu combinations that would be done by Caroline, by Fernando, by Gudrun or by Kristoffer. [Finally] you would have a turning step that would be done by Mads or me. You would go gradually through the tasks.
In the process of recording, it was all worked out who did what, and we had worked on the steps before we got into the shooting. There is a maximum for how much you can dance in a day, so wewould have three hours, a break and three hours. And it would be two dancers for three hours and then the other two.
So, you would say 'OK, what do I have on the list? What can I do today? Let me do Monday number whatever, and then I think I'd like to do this Tuesday step, and then maybe something from Thursday and that's it.' And so the next day you are like, 'I'd like to do this again, do we have time to re-shoot it or should we go on?' And by the end of the session you would have things that you would like to try and do again to see if you could do it better. [But if you couldn't reshoot] it, you still have it OK.
How long did it take to do the final taping?
Approximately two weeks - the end of May, first week of June - and that was for two years, so it's taken us a month to record...a month of about 6 hours of recording a day.
What are the 'costumes' like?
We are all in light blue leotards and the girls are in a simple skirt. It's very plain because it's about the steps; it's about the style, not about costumes. We also didn't want to set it in a period, but I'm sure ten years from now you will see from the leotards that we did it at this time.
They taped the classes in 1967 for a television recording, but at that time TV was different, so it was done as educational program. They made a production where the scenery looked like an old studio. They would sit there at the table and talk, and you could see the dancers. The critic Allan Fridericia talked about the different steps and did interviews, for instance with Poul Reumert, whose mother used to dance for Bournonville. Things like that. And it's not really possible to do that today, I think, because this was a totally different time.
And at that time, they actually did wear costumes in the style of 'Konservatoriet'. But, they did 'Konservatoriet' in empire [dresses] and today we do it in Degas. The difference is that Degas is [fitted at] the waist and with a black ribbon around the neck, [while empier are empire-waisted dresses, fitted below the bust].
When 'Konservatoriet' premiered, it was Bournonville's view of how classes used to look when he was studying in Paris in the 1820s. So we know for sure that the dresses weren't Degas, because Degas came later than Bournonville. And the old books said that the dancers used their own costumes - it had to look like a class because 'Konservatoriet' is a class - so the dancers would have used empier dresses of their era
They thought that for the television production it would be fun to try how it would have been. But I think that they didn't even do that, because I think they didn't [make the dresses] as heavy -- they did it in a chiffon skirt. But now we just kept it simple -- no costume.
What were the challenges for you in the making of the DVD?
Well, for me, I was part of a team producing it, as well as dancing in it. That was pretty hard...you know...making sure [that] the dancers knew what they were doing, I knew what I was doing, the costumes were OK, the music was OK, the tempos were OK, all of that!
Mie [Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter (head of the ballet school)] was also a big part of it, and we had the earlier work with Fleming Ryberg (teacher and balletmaster) where we reworked the steps and where we looked at all the details. Also, Dina [Bjorn] (ballet director) came down from Oslo and Eva [Kloborg] (ballet mistress), as well as Erik Aschengreen (critic). We all contributed with what we knew and remembered.
Frank [Andersen] and Erik Aschengreen were a big part behind the scenes, especially in helping out with communications with the camera crew. Ulrik Wivel, he used to dance here, was the director and it was great to have a former dancer directing because he knew how to work with the camera and could also give us corrections.
But, there were some practical things that that ended up being more Mie and me, before we got up to the final stuff. Once the recording started, then we had also had Fleming and Eva watching and trying to remember what we talked about. So it was kind of a big thing to make the whole thing roll.
Now Dina has been picking out the details and interesting things about the steps and trying to write them down for a track on DVD. And Erik Aschengreen is preparing questions for interviews of us [dancers and instructors] that will be on another track.
When you did the final recordings did you do the sound at the same time or was it separate?
The sound was done before. We worked with the tempos, presented it for the dancers, corrected certain things if it wasn't possible and then once we finished with that, that's what we danced. So, we did the recording, then once we got in the studio we put on that recording and danced to that. So it wasn't Julian playing it live -- you just hear the music and you won't see him in the corner playing.
As always, when it comes to performing or documenting Bournonville's steps, there will people who do not agree with how it is done...
I'm sure what ever you do, you're going to have people not liking it and saying it's not how weused to do it. Then you can say that's probably right, but this is how our generation learned it and it's how we do it.
And you have a group who also knew a lot about the classes and would have liked to help with the DVD as well. They're not [involved], so they might not like it. But on the other hand, we've done a lot of research, really tried to look deeply into all of it and did the best we thought we could at this point.
I think whether you like it or not, the DVD is going to show how our generation learned it, and how we're dancing it. That's one part of it. The other part is going on stage and dancing certain parts; that's how you learn to perform the style. On stage you've got to also let go of certain things so it comes alive. But since this is classroom, it's going to be a little drier.
Do you think they will ever do another DVD of the classes?
It's going to take time. It's not for sure if it's going to happen again, but if it will happen, then it's going to be many years in the future.
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