The Royal Danish Ballet School

A portrait of the Royal Danish Ballet School, where forming complete human beings is as important as forming elite dancers.

It’s 8.30 am. In a long ballet studio high up in Copenhagen’s labyrinthine Royal Theatre, seven boys warm up ready for class.

Four are 7-graders, aged 13-14. They’re impeccably turned out in their uniforms of white T-shirt, socks and shoes, and cobalt blue tights.

Three are 9-graders, aged 15-16. A couple have taken advantage of relaxed dress code for Fridays and are wearing their own preferred leotards.

Keeping watch over them, as if to ensure tradition is strictly maintained, is a line of dark oil portraits of old Royal Danish Ballet luminaries.

This somewhat stern line-up is softened by a series of children’s drawings taped to the wall just below.

The boys are the students of Fernando Mora, a former Royal Danish Ballet soloist, now a teacher in the school.

Fernando Mora in his studio
Fernando Mora in his studio

Just two days ago the boys had their end of year exams; so before feet are stretched and arms poised, Mora spends some time quietly talking to each of the students.

How did they think they’d performed?

At the Royal Danish Ballet School all 130+ pupils are given a lot of individual attention and encouraged to air their views.

Classes in the period that follows the exam are lighter than normal, Mora explains.

All that said, they start. The Steinway piano sounds the preparation. The boys stand at the barre oozing concentration.

As class develops, the exercises are recognisable from any classical syllabus, and from that point of view, this is just another top notch ballet school.

There are important differences, though.

A Very Special School

Firstly, the Royal Danish Ballet School was founded in 1771, which makes it one of the three oldest ballet schools in the world, alongside Paris and St. Petersburg.

Secondly, in its very Scandinavian way, children are put at the very centre of an education network that aims to create “not just elite dancers, but elite human beings.”

Thomas Lund, photo Henrik Stenberg
Thomas Lund, photo Henrik Stenberg

This is a theme on which the school’s Director, Thomas Lund, expounds with passion.

A former highly acclaimed Principal Dancer with the company, Lund is now in his fourth year at the helm of the school. Sitting in his unassuming office elsewhere in the Theatre he tells me about the need to “tear down walls.”

You have a medical team, you have a pedagogue, a ballet teacher, a pianist, an elementary teacher; but the more you can break down the walls between these groups and focus on the child in the middle, the better results you will get.”

It’s important too, Thomas Lund believes, that students are regularly taken out of the ballet studio and even the ballet world altogether.

“The boys go on survival camps, they sleep in a tent, they do things that take them out of the school and when they come back they get a better dynamic within the group.

“We do that for the girls as well. They have evenings where we ask them, what do you want to do? And they do painting, and all sorts of creative things… And then you see that with that kind of social interaction they work better.”

Secondly, whereas up until the ages of 15/16 all teaching – dance and academic – is done in-house, after that students enter a three-year Apprentice Programme.

This used to be run by the company, but since becoming Director Thomas Lund has taken control.

“The kids go to High School outside these walls and then they come here and train in the afternoon.”

Not just any High School, though:

“It’s a High School, with an Elite programme where they come together in the same class with other elite students, athletes, team players, etc.”

So, again, acquiring social skills in different contexts is a key element of the school’s philosophy.

“This is a very closed world, the ballet world, and they can get some other inputs by meeting other elite kids, and at the same time they get three more years of school, which we didn’t have in my time.”

Kompagni B

Lund, who clearly loves his job, also speaks with contagious enthusiasm about Kompagni B – “the youngest ballet company anywhere in the world,” he stresses, ensuring I make a note of that.

Kompagni B
Kompagni B

Children join when they become 8th/9th graders at the ages of 14 to 16.

“There we work very much on them taking responsibility, so they learn what it would be like to be members of a modern-day company later on.

“The important thing is that it’s, of course, guided by the Artistic Director of the Youth Company, Ann Crosset, but the kids are the ones that come up with the ideas.

“They have outreach, so they go out and meet kids in other schools and tell them what it feels like to be a dancer; they teach them a few ballet steps and little bit of mime, which is a strong tradition of the Royal Danish Ballet going back to Bournonville.

“So it works at different levels, going out locally but also doing performances here.”

Ann Crosset
Ann Crosset

Key to the programme is that the children should take responsibility for all aspects of performance, because, says Ann Crosset,

“we believe taking responsibility enhances their ability to perform on stage.”

Lund elaborates:

“They choreograph themselves, they work on how to do the lighting, they go to production meetings, they are responsible for who takes care of the costumes…

“They know they have to be aware of when the bus is leaving and who’s in charge.

“This way, one day when they become dancers, they’ll have respect for everybody who’s working around them to make them shine on stage. “

Kompagni B tours abroad: Brazil last year, China this year.  Lund reprises his theme of “breaking down walls:”

“They learnt about China in the elementary school classes, so that they travel to China not only with the ballet teacher but also with the elementary teacher, who has taught them something about the country.”

For their part, Kompagni B hopes to provide “inspiration” to their hosts – touring is very much a project for mutual understanding.

The Bournonville Tradition

This being Denmark, of course, the other particularity of the school is the specialised Bournonville teaching.

Thomas Lund was considered the top Bournonville dancer of his generation. He teaches a weekly Bournonville class to boys aged 13 and upwards; and a number of specialist teachers and dancers instruct other groups.

Lund wants to go further.

“We have basic steps for the Bournonville classes that the teacher lower down can implement, like a little port-de-bras. And I suggested that at least three steps from the Bournoville class could perhaps be taught even at the lower levels.”

Bournonville is absorbed almost by osmosis in the Royal Theatre, says Lund:

“The kids are in the house, they go to the canteen, on the way to the canteen they see the grown-ups that are doing classes, we’re in the same house.

“And then they’re on stage in the Bournonville repertoire and they can see what the dancers are doing.”

I know what he means. Meandering around the theatre for my various appointments, I marvelled at the diaphanous sylph tutus hanging outside the costume department; and had the opportunity to watch company class – studio door wide open! – followed by a rehearsal for La Sylphide.

Bournonville is a key part of the Danish identity, and one that should never be forsaken; but Lund is keen to stress that identity shouldn’t be static.

“It’s important that we try new things, because if you’re afraid of losing your identity, then it’s not worth having an identity.”

Among Lund’s future plans is setting up a formal teachers’ training course, not currently available in Denmark; and then,

“being able to produce not only strong Danish male dancers, but also to make some amazing ballerinas, because that’s not the strongest of our tradition.

“I don’t want to say anything bad about some wonderful Danish ballerinas that we’ve had, but if we could bring that level even higher, then we could be famous for the male AND female dancers.”

Now, there’s something to look forward to…

by Teresa Guerreiro


Bournonville: The Danish Way of Dancing

Konservatoriet Royal Danish Ballet dancers Gitte Lindstrøm, Thomas Lund, Gudrun Bojesen photo Martin Mydtskov Rønne

How the visionary Bournonvile came to develop a dancing style that would forever become the unique hallmark of Danish ballet.

Say “ballet” in Denmark, and before long you’ll hear one name: Bournonville. The Danes pronounce it: Bonn-ville.

That’s, of course, August Bournonville, the 19th century dancer and ballet master responsible for developing a uniquely Danish way of dancing.

August Bournonville Playbill for the première of Konservatoriet, 1849
August Bournonville                                                                                                 Playbill for the première of Konservatoriet, 1849                                                                                                                                                                                courtesy of  Ebbe Mørk

I visited Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, home to both the Royal Danish Ballet and its School, to learn more about Bournonville from his rightful ballet heirs.

There I met Fernando Mora, a Mexican dancer who made his career with the Royal Danish Ballet, and now teaches at the company’s School. How had he become interested in the Royal Danish Ballet? I asked.

“Well, it all started with Bournonville.”

Mora told me how, as a ballet student in his native Mexico, he came across the TV documentary series Dancer, presented by Peter Schaufuss, one of the 20th century’s foremost exponents of the Bournonville style.

It was Mora’s first contact with Bournonville. It was a revelation. He was hooked.

What is it about the Bournonville style that so fascinates and hooks dancers and audiences alike? I sought help from the experts.

Erik Bruhn
Erik Bruhn

The writer and ballet critic Ebbe Mørk, says one of its most distinctive features is “the illusion of imponderable lightness.”

So much so, that the greatest Danish male dancer of the 20th century, Erik Bruhn, wrote in the book he co-authored, Bournonville and Ballet Technique:

“In dancing Bournonville, the dancers often feel they spend more time in the air that on the floor.”

Two things came together to create the Bournonville style.

Firstly, as a young ballet student August (1805-1879) accompanied his ballet master father to Paris, then the centre of the ballet world.

This was the Romantic period and August was exposed to the latest trends in the world’s oldest and most prestigious ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet.

When he returned to his native Copenhagen and joined the Royal Danish Ballet, he found the repertoire boring and old-fashioned.

So, upon becoming choreographer for the company in 1830, and subsequently its director, he set about changing things.

He did so with pieces that Ebbe Mørk describes as “indelibly stamped with the spirit of Romanticism.”

Secondly, and just as importantly, Bournonvile created the chief roles of his ballets with himself in mind.

As the eminent Professor of Dance History, Erik Aschengreen, points out, Bournonville was not the tall, elegant danseur noble type.

“He was a shortish, but quick, nimble and adroit dancer, with a talent for the light-footed allegro dance.”

He was also a dancer of virtuosity and temper, but one who avoided “sheer bravura, as in his opinion dance should serve a higher purpose.”

And its higher purpose was storytelling, says Ebbe Mørk:

“His steps hold forth a continual storyline, never to be disturbed by spectacular bravura.”

His own highest ideal was “to make the most complicated technique look flawless.”

This, says Mørk, is amply illustrated by the dances from Napoli, the ballet which, in his view, shows us Bournonville at his most brilliant.

So, the illusion of lightness is one of the key features of the Bournonville style. Beyond that,

“There is a lot of delicate batterie.

“Jumps are never finished with a sustained position to disguise an abrupt landing, but often with a plié.

“Every climax in technique, every big leap or elegant turn, is founded on logical preparations in those currents of minor connecting steps which are the hallmark of his style.”

Mørk notes also that Bournonville follows the music but will often employ a musical accent in an unexpected way, for example, “syncopating steps that are normally executed smoothly.”

The Bournonville style is the main reason why, when we think of Danish ballet, it’s its male dancers that first come to mind; but, as Erik Aschengreen remarks,

“men alone do not make a ballet, certainly not in the age of Romanticism.”

So, Bournonville – who as a young man had partnered the great Marie Taglioni in Paris – created difficult challenges for his female dancers, too.

“They are light. Their dancing is soft and graceful, their jumps nimble and swift.

“They seem to touch the floor only to set off again.

“And always it looks effortless – when performed as it should be.”

Aschengreen goes on to argue that it is very difficult to master the lightness of the Bournonville style, and this is particularly apparent,

“when dancers trained in the great Russian or the Balanchine style try to get a footing in the world of Bournonville.”

Danish dancers and critics consider the sunny, joyful Napoli, inspired by the Romantic fascination with the exotic Mediterranean and its colourful characters, perhaps the most accomplished of Bournonville’s many ballets.

However, the one ballet that seems to have caught the imagination of dancers and audiences the world over is La Sylphide.


Los Angeles Ballet, La Sylphide, photo Reed Hutchinson
Los Angeles Ballet, La Sylphide, photo Reed Hutchinson

The Paris Opera created and owned the original La Sylphide, and Bournonville had intended to mount it in Copenhagen; but such were the obstacles raised by Paris, that he decided to choreograph his own version, based on the original libretto.

Bournonville’s La Sylphide is the only version that survives today.

It tells the über-Romantic story of a doomed love between a wood sylph and a feckless bridegroom to be, the young Scotsman, James.

Along with Gennaro, Napoli’s larky Fisherman, James was very much the favourite role of Thomas Lund, one of the most celebrated Bournonville dancers of his generation.

Lund is now the Director of the Royal Danish Ballet School, a job he took on following his retirement from dancing in 2012. He told me:

“For a Danish dancer, James is like Hamlet for any actor.”

Stressing that the Bournonville style demands an ability to act and master a specific kind of naturalistic mime, Lund went on:

“James requires a combination of dancing and acting. Also, it’s important that as a dancer you keep developing this role over the years.”

For Lund, dancing James throughout his career was “a journey, where you’re privileged to go back and see how you’ve been doing something.

“(…) You start to compare your own life with what you are doing on stage, and then you can understand what you are doing.”

So important was James for Lund that he chose La Sylphide as one of the pieces for his farewell performance at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre.

August Bournonville gave Danish ballet an identity of which it is justly proud, and some of his prolific repertoire survives – and delights! – to this day.

The Bournonville style remains the basis from which everything else springs, and is imparted to students of the Royal Danish Ballet School like “mother’s milk,” in the words of Thomas Lund.

Erik Aschengreen puts it this way:

“The [Danish] dancer of today feels the after-effects of Bournonville on his body, as well as on his mind.

“They are there to be seen every time the Acropolis curtain rises on the Royal Theatre stage.”


by Teresa Guerreiro