To determine what characterizes Bournonville’s choreographic language it is important to focus on the delicate interaction between his pantomime and dances. Like Jean-Georges Noverre, Bournonville believed that in dramatic ballets every single role has it’s individuality and specific purpose. Noverre’s doctrine about the necessity to assign "a different action, expression, and character" to each member of the corps de ballet so as to avoid purely ornamental roles could easily have been made by Bournonville. It was probably Noverre’s teaching of the "diversity of expression, form, attitude, and character found in nature" which constituted the elements that were recognized by so many of Bournonville’s contemporaries as typical of his choreographic language, causing them to assess his ballets with words like "une poésie toute particulière".

Clearly, Bournonville aimed to achieve a total integration of mime and dancing. His mimic art was a kind of naturalistic silent acting quite different from the more stylised sign language that had been used in the works of his predecessor, Vincenzo Galeotti - and was still current in the ballets of Marius Petipa, and indeed remained so until the end of the nineteenth century. In his memoirs Bournonville described his ideal of pantomime as "a harmonious and rhythmic series of picturesque poses that must be in accord with character and costume, with nationality and emotion, with person and time". In his artistic universe the pictorial harmony of pantomime seems to have represented a sort of dramatic ‘intonation’ for the dances that normally follow each of his mime scenes. However, it would be wrong to assert Bournonville’s choreographic language as essentially different from that of his contemporary fellow choreographers, or to state that his dances were motivated exclusively by the mimic action. The basic structure of Bournonville’s ballets, with their continuous alternation between mime and pure dance, is clearly a model inherited from the French-Italian origins of the dramatic ballet. These traditions had ensured a choreographic language that was characterized by carefully calculated interaction between dance and mime. 

Seen from this perspective, Bournonville stands out mainly for the number and the brevity of his dance scenes, which are generally assigned a more restricted space within the overall scheme of his ballets. This fact can, in part, be explained by the very limited resources he had at his disposal both in terms of dancers and accessories. In his private writings he often lamented the constant lack of practical means with which to create larger stage pictures, which often restrained him from inserting more dances in his ballets. It is therefore, wrong to assume that the conspicuous lack of more large-scale dance scenes and divertissements in Bournonville’s ballets was a deliberate choice on his part. Much evidence about his original intentions either to create his new ballets or to extend already existing works with more dance scenes can be found in both his private writings and the musical sources. Moreover, in the few cases when Bournonville had sufficient resources he almost as a rule enlarged his ballets or staging of operas and plays by incorporating additional dances or recycling older divertissements that had gone out of the repertory. This was the case with his 1849 restaging of Faust, his three revised stagings of La Sylphide (1849, 1862 and 1865), the thoroughly revised 1853 version of Waldemar, and his 1865 restaging of The Kermesse in Bruges, to name only a few. 

According to Bournonville’s artistic beliefs, however, the dramaturgical preconditions for using larger dance scenes were that they should never be in conflict with what he named ‘the dramatic truth’ - by which he meant dramatic stories that unfolded smoothly and firmly, with the dances never being separated from the plot, but rather placed as the logical culmination of each emotional situation. Consequently, his divertissements are not abstract moments of dance, but realistic pictures of the ‘daily’ life of the characters, regardless of whether they are subterranean or supernatural creatures, or plain everyday people. In Bournonville’s choreographic universe the dances of the ballet’s leading characters reflect existential reality, and as such they are confronted with a fantastic world. Consequently, the main dramaturgical purpose of his dances was not to encourage the spectator to chase abstractions or illusions for their own sake, but rather to see them as expressions of given emotions. This is particularly true with regard to Bournonville’s concept of the pas de deux - a genre that perhaps represents the most intense creative ?eld of his entire artistic output and in which he probably differed most radically from his contemporary colleagues.

In the Bournonvillean pas de deux the man is given nearly as much to dance as the woman, and does not shadow her around the stage serving as a personal umbrella-carrier. Moreover, the tension between the sexes is carefully balanced by steering clear of anything that might be construed as virtuosic competition. Never does Bournonville telegraph his choreography to the spectator by means of obvious choreographic preparations.

What, then, characterizes Bournonville’s choreography? Judging from his best-preserved dances - on the stage as well as through his production notes - it is evident that his choreographic language was much more varied and open to foreign influences than posterity may perhaps have recognized. In his memoirs Bournonville clearly emphasized that during his performing career he changed his choreographic style radically on at least three occasions. These changes always occurred after extended sojourns abroad. The first major change took place in 1830 after a series of guest appearances in Berlin, where he performed the leading role of Edmond in Jean Aumer’s ballet La Somnambule. The second and third changes resulted from his sojourns in Paris in 1834 and 1841. In 1835 he introduced a completely new choreographic style to Copenhagen with his dances created for the four-act national-historical ballet Waldemar. They clearly seem to have been based on his experiences gathered from watching the rehearsals and performance of Louis Henry’s ballets in Paris during the summer of 1834. Six years later he ‘updated’ his choreographic language again with a pas de deux performed on 12 December 1841 as an incorporated divertissement in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable (given in Copenhagen with the title Robert af Normandiet). This dance was seemingly choreographed by the French ballet-master, Joseph Mazilier, whose influence on Bournonville’s choreographic style appears to have been much more important than previously assumed.

With his early training in the school of Auguste Vestris, and his later experience in the different styles of Aumer, Henry and Mazilier, Bournonville’s choreographic language should, therefore, be regarded primarily as an artistic conglomerate of several different foreign elements, which were assimilated and transformed under his expert eye into a specifically Danish school of dance.

This Bournonvillean School of dance was submitted to several changes during his own lifetime. Comparative studies of his choreographic notes, which deal with their changes and revisions over the span of many years, have revealed that his early French style and rather symmetrical choreography gradually developed into a choreographic language with more breadth and flight. This progressive transformation of originally small-scale choreographic phrases with highly centred floor patterns into a style characterized by more expansion in space may also have resulted from the great technical prowess of the dancers, which took place during his times. Clearly, his early compact and academic French style was superseded by a more expansive fluidity that characterized his later works and seems to have been something uniquely his own.

The Bournonville style that he founded and nurtured was thus a highly changeable quantity of his own aesthetic creed and technical inventions, carefully paired with a selection of the choreography he witnessed during his many travels abroad. In this sense Bournonville represents a true European artist who always made distinctive mental notes about those foreign elements he regarded compatible with his own artistic ideal.

The examples of foreign influences on Bournonville’s choreographic style are numerous, and occur throughout his life. According to his memoirs he divided his creative career into three main periods covering the years 1830-1848, 1849-1861, and 1866-1877. During the first eighteen years as ballet-master and choreographer he incorporated several foreign dances and minor divertissements in his productions for Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre. Together they reveal exactly which choreographers, composers, and dancers - primarily French and Italian - were most influential on the formation of his art. Among the choreographers from whose works he most frequently borrowed during this period were Jean Aumer, Louis Milon, Pierre Gardel, Auguste Vestris, and Joseph Mazilier. They represent the French style that seems to have been most to Bournonville’s liking.

The music by foreign composers which he employed most frequently in his early ballets were by the Italian composers Michele Enrico Caraffa, Saverio Mercadante and Gioacchino Rossini, the Austrians Adalbert Gyrowetz, Robert Wenzel von Gallenberg and Joseph Mayseder, and the French composers Ferdinand Hérold, Jean-Madeleine Schneitzhoeffer and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Their music resurfaces repeatedly in his early ballets in more or less original versions that were arranged and/or reorchestrated with the help of Bournonville’s local Danish musical collaborators. Together they bear witness to Bournonville’s musical preferences in the European ballet repertory of his times. Finally, in his early ballets Bournonville often chose to incorporate foreign dances, which he had either notated or learned personally from attending performances by some of those artists he admired most. Among them were Albert (François Decombe), Antoine Paul, Jules Perrot, Marie Taglioni, Fanny Elssler, and Carlotta Grisi.

Seen from this perspective, Bournonville perhaps represents the choreographer during the Romantic period who united most of the artistry brought forward by these highly different dancers. This, however, he always did while paying careful attention not to sacri?ce his own aesthetic and technical ideals. The result of his artistic approach is even more remarkable when one realizes that Bournonville’s œuvre actually consists of a vast conglomerate of foreign ingredients - musical as well as choreographic - to which he succeeded in adding a uniform style that appears as uniquely his own.