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By Toba Singer
Frank Andersen has devoted great energy to preserving and advancing Bournonville technique, the signature style of the Royal Danish Ballet. A recipient of a 2002 Dance Magazine Award, he recently retired from his position as artistic director of the company, which he held from 1985 to 1994 and again from 2002 to 2008. Andersen began training at the RDB School in his native Copenhagen in 1960, joined RDB in 1971, and became a principal in 1977. He has also been artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet and has advised companies in China and Japan. With an enthusiasm that’s contagious, he embodies what August Bournonville intended ballet to become: so full of passion it could make an audience want to rise up and dance.
Toba Singer caught up with Andersen last November at the International Ballet Festival in Havana, where he was staging part of Napoli for the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and teaching at Laura Alonso’s Centro Prodanza de Cuba.
Why should a dancer study Bournonville technique today? Adding Bournonville to a general classical background will give you greater freedom in ballet. The technique is difficult. It requires the coordination of the upper body, arms, and head inclined toward the legs. Every step, every enchaînement, must be danced with grace and élan yet look relaxed, happy, and free.
In the Bournonville style, what is distinctive about the use of the head? The head and upper body always follow the working leg. Let’s take, for example, a combination where you jeté onto the right foot, then onto the left, then chassé leading with the right, and jump forward toward the audience on the left. You must look first to the right, then to the left, then again to the right with the chassé, and turn the head with the jump. The Russians look away from the leg. We never do that, even in tendu. We look at the tendu leg.
What’s the biggest adjustment a dancer new to Bournonville must make? If you can master Bournonville, you can master any classical style. What you have to conquer is dancing your way through the variation. A boy performing Le Corsaire or Don Quixote might run to the corner of the stage, then dance a diagonal to the center. In Bournonville, you are never running from place to place. You’re always dancing.
Another adjustment is the arms. The épaulement, especially what we call the “Danish embrace,” is one of the biggest challenges. The hands are open to say “Hello” to the audience. It’s one of the first things we teach: “Stop, stop, go back to have the feeling of the open hands.” The elbow should be slightly higher than the forearm, and the elbow and hand are always below the shoulder. If there is a jump, you jump forward, keeping the arms under the shoulders. The orchestra patrons, who pay the most for their tickets, aren’t included if your arms are up high.
In class today you said, “I see a little Swan Lake in the arms.” What did you mean? When the elbows are drooping slightly in second position, I call that Swan Lake. I’ve been preparing a full-length Napoli in Moscow for the Stanislavsky Ballet Company, and I see the dancers struggling to avoid this. In Bournonville, drooping elbows aren’t an option––unless we have a slight change into allongé. When we take arabesque and then a penchée, we make a breath with the elbow, but we never come to this drooping position.
Bournonville is known for its streamlined look, but I see a lot of dimension and nuance onstage. How do your dancers achieve that? In the studio we work more as academicians. When we go onstage there is a certain freedom that I like to compare with a highway emergency lane: The moment you know the technique, you can step into that lane and play with the phrasing and be more generous—draw a little bit here, push a little bit there—but that’s only when we go into battle. In the studio, you stay in the box.
Can you say more about the Royal Danish Ballet approach to Bournonville? I believe that dancers, even in the old days, wanted to be challenged. The classes they took in the 1930s and 1940s were not organized in the order we have nowadays, but we were still getting our daily technique. Then, in the early ’50s, when we turned to Vera Volkova, we were challenged with a different way of thinking and using our bodies. She created the distinct Danish style by combining French and Russian traditions with the Bournonville style. We took the arms, épaulement, fast footwork and melded them, then created the dancer who could do them. Volkova died when I was 22, but she selected me as an apprentice and dancer. It was she who proposed that we incorporate the best from both worlds into what I teach today. We owe a debt to her for this great artistic legacy.
Photo: John R. Johnsen, Courtesy RDB