(b Copenhagen, 21 Aug. 1805; d Copenhagen, 30 Nov. 1879)
Danish dancer, choreographer, teacher, and ballet director. The most influential Danish choreographer of the 19th century. The son of Antoine Bournonville, he studied at the Royal Danish Ballet School, a pupil of both his father and Vincenzo Galeotti. He joined the company at the age of 15 and stayed three years (1820–3). The following year, still on salary in Copenhagen, he went to Paris to study with Vestris and joined the Paris Opera (1826–8). He frequently danced with Taglioni whom he considered an ideal ballerina and who he used as a model when training his own Danish dancers. In 1829 he returned to the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen as a guest artist but by the following year he had become not only a full member of the company but also its director. He was the Royal Danish Ballet's leading male soloist and chief choreographer and continued to perform with the company until retiring from the stage in 1848. Apart from working for one year at the Vienna Court Opera (1855–6) and three years at the Stockholm Opera (1861–4), he spent the rest of his career in Copenhagen. He retired in 1877, having built the Royal Danish Ballet into one of the world's leading companies; his numerous ballets forming the basis of a repertoire and style that are still recognized as uniquely Danish.
The Bournonville style was partly influenced by the choreographer's own qualities as a dancer—lightness, precision and grace—and it became celebrated for the detail and speed of its allegro, the buoyancy of its jumps, the open, easy carriage of the dancers' upper bodies, and the musical flow of their phrasing. Humanity and joie de vivre rather than simple technical brilliance characterized Bournonville's conception of the classical Danish dancer.
In terms of their subject matter, Bournonville's ballets were influenced by his years in Paris and his contact with the emerging Romantic ballet. One of his earliest successes was a version of La Sylphide (1936) with a new score by H. Løvenskjold and a title role geared to his favourite Danish ballerina, L. Grahn. In keeping with the Romantic interest in the exotic and his own fondness for travel Bournonville also created many ballets inspired by foreign cultures, the most famous of which remains Napoli (mus. H. S. Paulli, E. Helsted, N. W. Gade, and H. C. Lumbye, 1842). His approach to Romantic subject matter, however, was more domestic and more dramatically realistic than that of his Paris-based contemporaries and his early interest in Nordic folklore and history inspired numerous ballets whose themes and characters were closer to home, most famously A Folk Tale (mus. Gade and J. P. E. Hartmann, 1854). A fuller list of his ballets includes, Waldemar (1835), The Festival in Albano (mus. J. F. Froehlich, 1839), The Dancing School (Konservatoriet, mus. Paulli, 1849), The Kermesse in Bruges (mus. Paulli, 1851), La Ventana (mus. Lumbye, 1854), Flower Festival at Genzano (mus. Helsted and Paulli, 1858), Far from Denmark (mus. Jos. Glaeser, L. Gottschalk, Lumbye, Eduart Dupuy, A. F. Lincke, 1860), Valkyrien (mus. Hartmann, 1861), and The King's Lifeguards on Amager (mus. W. Holm, Dupuy, and Lumbye, 1871). His last ballet was From Siberia to Moscow, which he made for the Royal Theatre in 1876, drawing on inspiration from a visit to Russia made two years earlier. As director of the opera at the Royal Theatre he also presented the Danish premieres of Wagner's Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and Tannhäuser. He published his memoirs Mit Theaterliv in three parts (1848, 1865, and 1877), which were translated into English as My Theatre Life (Middletown, Conn., 1979). After his death Bournonville's ballets continued to form the core of the Danish Ballet's repertory, and the preservation of his choreography and his style was undertaken by Beck in the early years of the 20th century. Beck's retirement brought about a temporary eclipsing of Bournonville but since 1950, regular ballet festivals in Copenhagen have showcased the repertory and a succession of scholars and ballet masters have led a revival of interest in the Bournonville heritage. His ballets are now performed worldwide. In 1979 Kirsten Ralov published The Bournonville School, a notated record of the daily classes that were the foundation of the Bournonville style.