Ballet in Denmark

Denmark is home to many contemporary and classical ballet companies, such as the Royal Danish Ballet. The influence of Danish choreographer and ballet dancer August Bournonville can still be seen on a national and international level.

2019.06.20 | Petra Broomans

Danish ballet master August Bournonville (1805-1879). Photo: Emil Lange. Source: Royal Library, Copenhagen (Public domain)

Danish ballet up to the nineteenth century

In Denmark, the roots of ballet lie in the school comedies performed in the 16th century in grammar schools and the court ballets. The court ballet was imported from Italy to France. There the rules were developed at the court of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. In 1634, the first Danish Court ballet was performed at the Danish court of Christian IV. Christian IV engaged the leader of the ballet, Alexander von Kückelsom as instructor and he wrote a programme of his work. In 1663, a theatre was built in Copenhagen where ballets and pantomimes were performed by various companies, amongst others the Dutch players. In 1722 Danish actors founded a theatre in Lille Grønnegade where Ludvig Holberg´s comedies were performed in which ballet had an important part. In 1726 this theatre had acquired a French dancing master, Jean Baptiste Landé and his wife. After a fire in Copenhagen in 1728 the theatre was closed and it was not until 1746 that the ballet took on a prominent role again, and in 1748 the theatre at Kongens Nytorv was opened  The first ballet-master there was also French, Des Larches. Many dancers in Copenhagen were from abroad. Influences came from Italy and France and England as well. The Italian Casparo Angiolini and the Frenchman Jean Georges Noverre were the great reformers of ballet and their influences were to be felt in Denmark too. At that time, two ballets existed in Copenhagen, the ballet at the Royal Theatre and the Court Theatre.

The Italian Vincenzo Galeotti (1733-1816) came to Copenhagen in 1775 and he was the one who established a fundament for Danish ballet. Galeotti lived and worked fr 40 years in Copenhagen. In Danish ballet history, it is called the ‘age of Galeotti’ for he brought the Danish ballet to its first blossoming. He made ballet an accepted form of art and introduced an Italian based ‘ballet d´action’. Later in his career he worked together with Danish composers. Only one of Galeotti’s ballets survived. In the 1950s ‘The Whims of Cupid and the Maître de Ballet’ was performed. The arrival of Antoine Bournonville (1760-18) would be the start of a new era in Danish ballet history.

Bournonville was a French dancer, working at the Opera in Stockholm. He came to Copenhagen in 1792 after the murder of the Swedish King Gustav III and decided to stay. He had fallen in love with the Danish dancer Maria Jensen and he took over after Galeotti, but did not succeed in continuing the same standard as Galeotti. However, his son August Bournonville (1805-1879) who was the son of his second wife, Lovisa Sandberg, became the second most important choreographer and ballet dancer in Danish ballet history and during his time, it is possible to speak of the second and maybe the most significant epoch in Danish ballet to date. He was sent by his father to Paris to educate himself in the art of dancing in the summer of 1820. Between 1824 and 1826, he was in Paris again, taking lessons and dancing at the Opéra. Not until 1830, after he gained success in Paris, Copenhagen as well as in London and had developed himself as a great dancer, was he convinced to stay in Copenhagen and became the principal dancer, choreographer, leader of the ballet and also the ´maître de danse´ of the Danish court. The goals that his father did not succeed in carrying out were achieved in an outstanding way by the young Bournonville.

The influence of Bournonville, twentieth century and beyond

August Bournonville (1805-1879) is often regarded as the most influential Danish choreographer and ballet dancer. Of French descent, he became the principal dancer, choreographer, leader of the ballet and also the maître de danse at the Danish court in the mid-nineteenth century. He created a repertoire, taught and coached his corps de ballet and was a renowned principal dancer.  Bournonville’s influence stretched throughout the twentieth century and even to today.

Besides the influence of Bournonville, one should keep in mind that Copenhagen in the beginning of the twentieth century also was an attractive city for avant-garde dancers and choreographers such as Mikhail Fokine who, together with his wife Vera Fokine, stayed in the city from 1918-1919. After the Bournonville ‘dynasti’ there was room for renewal and many dancers as well as the public longed for something new. Furthermore, other genres, formats and techniques became popular. Loïe Fuller, an American dancer, experimented with new technologies and in Copenhagen she used the Cirkus Varieté as her stage. The bourgeois establishment and the critics who choose the traditional style did not regard Fuller’s dance as real art nor Isador Duncan’s who also visited Copenhagen. During these decades two directions were opposing one other: those who welcomed avant-garde and modernistic dance and those who wanted to maintain the Bournonville tradition. The essay ‘Duncan contra Bournonville’ by the critic Ove Jørgensen is very illuminating about the controversies at the time. The Royal Danish Ballet’s leading role was not any more self-evident and other influences changed the Danish ballet scene.

Nevertheless, in the 1950s and 60s, the Royal Danish Ballet performed several of Bournonville's choreographies on their tours abroad. It is indeed striking that the name of Bournonville is still connected to a number of important dancers and choreographers in the twentieth century. One of these is the ballet master Hans Brenaa (1910-1988). Working with the Royal Danish Ballet, Brenaa helped make the Bournonville ballets known internationally. He collaborated with the dancer, choreographer and artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, Harald Lander (1905-1971), and his wife, Norwegian-born Margot Lander (1910-1961), the most important female dancer in Denmark in the first half of the twentieth century. Harald Lander became famous with Etudes (1948), and his ballet Qarrtsiluni (1942), with music by Knudåge Riisager (1897-1974) inspired by Greenlandic music, is another masterpiece. Riisager also worked with the Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg. In 1957 Cullberg directed the ballet Månerenen (Moon Reindeer), based on a Sámi tale and with music by Riisager.

What made Brenaa outstanding was his interpretation of the partner role and his work to familiarise Danish dancers and audiences with classical Russian ballet. His innovative interpretation and use of Bournonville´s technique, inspired by and combined with modern dance, was also important. In the 1960s Brenaa was viewed internationally as the expert on Bournonville. In 1973 the Dutch ballet master Hans van Manen (b. 1932) invited Brenaa to the Netherlands to teach the Netherlands Dance Theatre (NDT). Brenaa also taught Bournonville’s ballets and techniques in Paris and St Petersburg. As late as 1988 Brenaa was staging Bournonville’s The Kermisse (1851) in Bruges.

Danish dance institutions, among these the Royal Danish Ballet

The Danish National School of Theatre and Performing Arts is complemented by private ballet schools. While the Royal Danish Ballet is the world’s third oldest ballet company (founded in 1771), the Danish Dance Theatre (DDT) was founded in 1981 by, amongst others, the English/Norwegian choreographer Randi Patterson (b. 1948). The DDT has subsequently become Denmark´s largest ballet company. 

The Royal Danish
Theatre houses
the Royal Danish
Ballet.
Photo: Dornum72
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2009 an old factory building belonging to the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen became the venue of modern dance companies such as DDT and institutions such as Dansens hus and Dansescenen. These two companies merged in 2012 and the venue, Dansehallerne (The Dance Halls), became the leading venue for contemporary dance in Denmark. Dansehallerne has also been established in Aarhus. 

Another institution is Copenhagen Dance Arts, founded in 2005 for the promotion of modern dance. It has an international network and also offers a one-year pre-education programme for dancers aiming to embark on a professional education in contemporary dance, as well as a one-year programme for dancers trained in classical dance. As in other Nordic countries, classical and modern dance meet in a range of different ways.

Further reading:

  • K. Vedel, 'Dancing Across Copenhagen'. In: History of the Avant-Garde in the Nordic Countries (1900-1925), eds. Hubert van den berg et al., (Amsterdam: Brill/Rodopi, 2012).
  • Ove Jørgensen, 'Duncan contra Bournonville' (1906).
  • S. Kragh-Jacobsen, The Royal Danish Ballet. An old tradition and a living present. (Copenhagen/London: Det Danske Selskab/Adam and Charles Black, 1955).