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My Dearly Beloved Wife!  Letters from France and Italy, 1841

By August Bournonville

Introduction and Annotations by Knud Arne Jurgensen. 
Translated from the Danish by Patricia N. McAndrew
Alton, U.K., Dance Books, 2005.
(Distributed in the U.S. by Princeton Book Co.) 

Reviewed by Leland Windreich

On March 14, 1841 the Danish principal dancer and ballet-master August Bournonville made his entrance on the stage of the Royal Theatre at Copenhagen in the premiere of his new ballet, “Le Toreador”, only to be greeted by hisses from the gallery.  Perplexed by this shocking reception, Bournonville addressed King Christian VIII in his royal box, requesting his mandate to continue the performance.  This flagrant breach of protocol cost the dancer dearly: he was suspended from the Royal Theatre for six months for the disrespect shown to the monarchy.

A man who spent his life performing and creating in a non-verbal medium, Bournonville was never at a loss for words.  His blockbuster biography, “My Theatre Life”, runs 673 pages in its English translation.  He wrote and published long and detailed libretti for most of his 50-odd ballets.  And he was a passionate writer of letters.  This delightful collection of 39 epistles to his adored wife Helene accounts for the time he spent in exile from the Danish ballet stage from March to September of 1841 as he undertook a journey which took him from Denmark to Hamburg, England, and Paris before heading for Italy.

Born in Copenhagen to the French ballet-master Antoine Bournonville and his Swedish mistress, August was destined to carry on the family business. At age 15 he was awarded a scholarship to study ballet in Paris with the celebrated dancer Auguste Vestris and spent two years learning his craft in the French ballet establishment, ultimately bringing his accomplishments to the Danish stage and school. There he performed under his father’s direction at the Royal Theatre.  He returned to Paris for another two years as a mature artist, performing in the repertoire of the era and becoming a favorite partner of Marie Taglioni.  It was during this engagement that he saw and admired Filippo Taglioni’s “La Sylphide”, a ballet which he produced in a pirated version with a new score in Copenhagen four years after its Paris premiere.

At 36, he was thoroughly fit and a strikingly handsome dancer.  For his period of banishment, he decided to renew his ties with the ballet scene in Paris and make contact with the thriving program at La Scala in Milan. The six-month journey took him over land, inland waterways and sea.  It involved assignments in performance and choreography in the major ballet centers he visited, including Naples—an unplanned destination that presented itself through his associates in Paris.  It also brought opportunities to make new friends and professional contacts and to renew relationships with former colleagues. 

In his dutiful correspondence, he covers both his professional and social activities, but he writes more vivaciously and at greater length about his experiences as a tourist.  Surely this was the information that would best amuse his wife and five children who awaited each letter with anticipation. And his descriptions are full and strikingly vivid, particularly his account of excursions to Mount Vesuvius and the Blue Grotto of Capri. His descriptions of the streets and populace of Naples make it clear how enamored he had become of a city which would inspire a work to be produced in Denmark the following year—his most popular and beloved ballet, “Napoli”.

He spares no details in his reports of visits to stately homes, of magnificent meals, of a newly acquired wardrobe.  His accounts of his theatrical experiences tend to be brief, but editor Knud Arne Jurgensen supplies splendid notes to complement the writer’s statements, as well as a supplement containing extracts from the press of the era.  From these we learn of Bournonville’s performances in France and Italy and his reception by new and enthusiastic audiences.

In Paris he writes of the capricious Lucile Grahn, a former pupil in Denmark and currently the rage of the ballet world and how her temperamental behavior has cost her the respect of her colleagues.  He speaks warmly of Jules Perrot, the premier choreographer of Paris in 1841, and admires the artistry of his wife, the adored Carlotta Grisi.  Grisi would make her debut in Perrot’s “Giselle” on June 28, but by then Bournonville was busily engaged in Naples.  He would catch a later performance by a lesser ballerina on his return to Paris.

Generally optimistic and enthusiastic about his own performances and choreographic offerings in the cities of his tour, he had little praise for the state of the ballet arts in Europe, both in the centers he visited and those he had heard about.  In Paris “the theatre is going downhill year by year, both in literary and administrative respects.” “Russia isn’t worth a damn, [people] are lethargic, blasé, the pay is poor.”  He blames the entrepreneurs and the declining governmental support of their theatres. Royal subsidies had been abolished in Holland and Belgium, and England continued to rely on the importation of “big name” dancers from abroad.

Bournonville was a devoted husband and father, a devout Christian, a bit of a dandy, a sensualist, an admirer of beautiful women, a passionate traveler, and an artist who fully respected the integrity of his chosen medium of expression.  All these qualities are revealed in his letters to Helene.  They would find supreme expression in the more than fifty ballets that he staged for his home theatre in Copenhagen, works that have become the heart and soul of Danish ballet.

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