Dina Bjorn/Niels Bjorn Larsen: BOURNONVILLE’S MIME

In Bournonville’s ballets, nearly all of which are dramatic story ballets, mime plays a significant role and has its own style and form, for Bournonville considered that gesture should be simple and natural, almost like the gesture, which accompanies and enhances everyday speech. He expected the artist to express inner feelings and thoughts through outer visible movements, the phrasing of which should be rhythmically clear and precise; feelings such as love, jealousy, despondency, devotion, happiness, tears, anger and despair should be interpreted in such a way that the audience experienced the mime sequences as moving pictures to which they made the words themselves.

Even though he was not always in agreement with the French ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre (1727-1810), whose work he admired and whom he refers to as the ballet reformer, he was inspired by Noverre’s ideas and insistence that “… a well-composed ballet should be like a picture or rather a series of pictures connected by actions which form the theme of the ballet …”

It was precisely through action that Bournonville intended to create a new ballet repertoire for the Royal Danish Ballet and, first and foremost, he wanted to renew the style of mime employed by his predecessor, Vincenzo Galeotti, a style which Bournonville found outmoded with conventional gesture following the Italian form, symmetry of scenes and, for the sake of understanding, inscriptions on tablets, flags and banners which, as he writes, “just like the fiery writing on the wall in Nineveh, announced the momentous events …”

Bournonville wanted to make this artificial gesture and placard language more a live as a harmonic series of pictorial positions taken from nature and classical figures. This chain is, in itself, dance, but without turned-out feet; its attitudes only aspire to express action and drama in the situations presented; with costumes which should correspond to the nationality, character, period and state of mind of the person and thereby create a series of moving pictures of passion, customs, ceremonies and daily life from all nations and milieux.

How can one as a dancer in the 1990’s – over a hundred years later – relate to these ideals, this form of mime and make it alive and relevant for the today’s audience? The same applies now as then – to know how to draw the audience into the dramatic situation and make them rejoice with the happy, be angry with the injustice, suffer with the suffering and triumph with the victorious. This does not only require sympathetic insight, but also technique.

Inner feelings have to be employed in an outer statement which is not merely facial, but uses the whole body – where the manner of walking and standing and the interchange of tension and relaxation in the body are just as important as the mimetic gesture of the hands.

A gesture has no value in itself and does not express anything if it is not governed by a superiors and coherent intention which brings it to life. And this intention should be reflected both in body posture and facial statement. Every mime movement must have a reason and be a reaction, which is experienced from within. It has an origin, a course and a conclusion which, with the help of a little pause in the movement – like a quick-frozen picture – makes the purpose clear to the audience. In mime the pauses are like punctuation in literature: there are commas, full-stops, exclamation and question marks and dashes – and, just like the literary punctuation, these pauses in the mime halt towards an understanding of the content.

With each performance it is important that, as an artist, one re-experiences the situations. In the course of time, the roles, which one is lucky enough to keep over longer periods and play again and again, will evolve. New details will be added, often provoked by interaction with the other performers; a new cast member can give rise to changes in one’s own way of playing a role, as mime is also a communication between performers. But also in the course of time, one will often be able to strengthen the statement of role through simplification, as a minimum of gesture require a maximum of inner experience and perception.

For a future mime performer it is a privilege to grow up on the stage of the Royal Theatre in close contact with the greatest artists working in ballet, opera and plays, and in a repertoire like Bournonville’s where not only the major roles, hut every single figure in the crowd scenes in, for example, Napoli, A Folk Tale and The Kermesse in Bruges has a role to play which is important for the totality and effect.

It is The Royal Danish Ballet’s strength that the dancers get to know Bournonville’s mime style as children, when they appear in ensemble scenes or minor roles in his ballets The little girl in The Sylphide has to react and show pride in her dress and in being asked to dance in the reel by Gurn. The boy from Amager in The King’s Volunteers on Amager has to be disappointed and bad-tempered because he cannot it the tub with the Shrovetide buns (a Danish tradition) and all the trolls in A Folk Tale have to be furious when Junker Ove refuses to return the golden goblet to Hilda. The fisher boys on the quay in Napoli have to fight for dear life over who will get the tips, and, with a child’s fantasy and sympathetic insight, all of these situation are experienced as real as life itself.

Having played a variety of nationalities as a child: Italian, Scottish, Chinese and Eskimo, as well as having been an angel and devil, tadpole, faun, dog, bear, sailor, cabin boy, page, ragamuffin, and the Tsar’s son – and at the same time have had the opportunity to watch the adults in wished-for roles and imitated them in playtime games – the one has a rich ballast and experience to draw on when, as an adult, one is entrusted with the great challenges in Bournonville’s imaginative gallery of characters – be it a leading role or simply a tourist promenading along the harbour front of Santa Lucia in Napoli.

By growing up in the repertoire in this way and by the direct handing down from generation to generation, the living continuity is ensured and this is the backbone of – and perhaps the secret behind – the continuing vitality of the Danish Bournonville mime tradition.

(Previously printed in Bournonvilleana, Copenhagen 1992)