Musical insight and contextual inspiration
The music for the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) Grade 7 ballet syllabus is taken from three ballets by Danish choreographer August Bournonville (1805–1879):
La Sylphide (1836)
The Legend of Thrym (1868)
Bournonville was active during the Romantic era and developed a style of dancing that would become characteristic of Danish ballet.
In the spirit of Romanticism, the RAD Grade 7 ballet syllabus emphasises expressiveness and performance. Dancers should therefore have a sound understanding of the context and style in order to fine-tune their interpretation of the exercises, enchaînements and dance studies.
The Romantic Era
The Romantic era was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century. The period was partly a reaction to the dreary oppressiveness of the Industrial Revolution and was defined by its focus on humanity, emotion, imagination and individual expression.
Dissatisfied artists and intellectuals had a desire to improve social and political conditions. They used their visionary works of art, literature, music and philosophy to provoke an emotional response from audiences and challenge the way people looked at the world. Consequently, Romantic thinkers were inspired by nature, spirituality and the supernatural when formulating ideas and creating their works.
The Romantic Ballet
Ballet began in the courts of Renaissance Italy, as a form of pleasant entertainment and a system of training that developed poise and elegance. (The term “ballet” comes from the Italian word ballare, which means “to dance”.) Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici married Henry II of France in 1533 and began to fund ballet in the French court. The court ballet flourished because successive generations of her family ended up being enthusiasts.
Eventually, the focus shifted from the royal court to the theatre and dramatic works began featuring ballet alongside opera. This meant there was a need for professional dancers. These dancers were directed by the court ballet master, Pierre Beauchamp, who was credited with inventing ballet’s five positions of the feet.
By 1760, ballet masters were lobbying for dance to be regarded as a distinct art and dancers were making breakthroughs in technique, performance and popularity. Of note is Jean-Georges Noverre, a French ballet master and dancer who wrote Lettres sur la danse et sur les ballets. This was an impassioned plea for dance to be used to tell emotive stories through movement alone, which would elevate dance to a status equal to that of the other dramatic arts.
Ballet as we know it today came into being with the Romantic movement – the earliest ballets that are still danced in anything like their original form are those from the 1830s and 1840s.
The Romantic era was when the ballerina took centre stage; the lead female dancer would defy the laws of gravity as she portrayed a fairy, a sylph or a spirit.
Three nineteenth-century innovations facilitated the ethereality of the ballerina: gas lighting, the tutu and the pointe shoe. The gas lighting replaced candles and could be controlled to atmospherically set the scene. The gauzy, tulle skirts worn by ballerinas gave them a fragile, airy quality. The pointe shoe allowed ballerinas to glide on their tiptoes.
In the early court ballets, the pointed foot had been used to show off the ribbons and buttons on the dancers’ shoes. In the pointe shoe, the foot itself became the focus – the high arch is a desirable feature of balletic line. The first dancer to establish “toe-dancing” akin to the pointe work of today was Marie Taglioni, the daughter of Italian choreographer Filippo Taglioni. Her use of pointe work was elegant, subtle and integral to her dancing. It was not used as an acrobatic trick; it was used to highlight her exquisite grace and the seemingly effortless way she moved.
Marie Taglioni was one of the five most important ballerinas of the Romantic era. The other four were: Fanny Cerrito, Fanny Elssler, Lucile Grahn and Carlotta Grisi.
Enduring Romantic ballets include: La Sylphide (1832; 1836), Giselle (1841), Napoli (1842) and Pas de Quatre (1845).
The Romantic ballet highlighted mood and emotion in its choreography and was characterised by an expressive, modest dance quality that accentuated the spiritual, rather than sensual, allure of the ballerina. The narrative focused on the conflicts between man and nature, or society and the supernatural.
In Romantic ballets, the women were idealised and the men were willing to die for them. Love between elusive beings and mere mortals was teased, celebrated and mourned. Ballerinas adopted softly rounded arms, a forward tilt in the upper body and a slightly lowered eyeline. Male danseurs, who had previously dominated performances, were usurped as the more active and proficient performers. Their role was to partner the ethereal ballerinas.
Romanticism in ballet therefore demands delicacy and an illusion of otherworldly weightlessness from female dancers and an easy, natural poise from male dancers.
Two things combined to create the Bournonville style: the Romantic era and Bournonville’s desire to develop roles to showcase his own dancing.
The beginnings of ballet were very much informed by the nobility, grace and dignity of the royal courts. Ballet then evolved significantly during the Romantic era, which is when young August Bournonville travelled to Paris with his father and was exposed to the latest trends.
Bournonville returned to his native Copenhagen in 1829 and joined the Royal Danish Ballet, but he found the repertoire boring and old-fashioned. He became choreographer for the company in 1830 and paired the expressive mime and quality of lightness that he had been inspired by in Paris with a distinctive Danish charm. The result was colourful, warm and cheerful depictions of ordinary people.
Bournonville was a fairly short, quick and nimble dancer, not a tall elegant danseur noble type and he created his male roles with himself in mind. The ballerina may have reigned supreme in Romantic ballet but Bournonville championed the role of the male dancer and favoured an egalitarian approach to choreography. He created challenging virtuosic male solos, with fast, intricate footwork and minimal upper body movements.
The illusion of effortless lightness is one of the key features of the Bournonville style, for male and female dancers. Bournonville’s highest ideal was that dancers should make the most complicated technique look understated and natural.
Most of the music used in Grade 7 is from La Sylphide (1836), an archetypal Romantic ballet set in the Scottish Highlands. The title means ‘the sylph’: a sylph is an otherworldly winged creature; a fairy or a spirit.
La Sylphide was originally choreographed by Filippo Taglioni to music by Jean Schneitzhoeffer and based on a libretto by Adolphe Nourrit. It premiered in 1832 in Paris and starred Marie Taglioni as the Sylph and Joseph Mazilier as James.
The original La Sylphide was created for Marie so it made the most of her modest dance quality, expressive arms and weightless elevation (or “ballon”). Her apparently effortless dancing was the result of hours of gruelling practice. She had rounded shoulders and unusually long arms so she and her father worked hard to find flattering poses. These are the Sylphide positions audiences are familiar with today, in which the torso is softly tilted and the arms are gently bent.
In his 1836 version of La Sylphide, August Bournonville made more of the male dancer’s role. He reworked the two-act ballet, creating choreography for his star pupil, Lucile Grahn, as the Sylph and himself in the lead male role of James.
Filippo Taglioni’s original 1832 staging has not survived. It is Bournonville’s 1836 production, set to music by the Norwegian composer Herman Severin Løvenskjold, that has endured and influenced subsequent restagings. This version remains in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet to this day.
La Sylphide is a poignant story of impossible love in which the human realm and the supernatural realm collide with tragic consequences.
On the morning of his wedding, a young Scottish famer called James wakes up very early and discovers that the beautiful winged sylph from his dreams is sat at his feet. She flies around his farmhouse, always remaining just out of his reach. He is fascinated and chases after her but she vanishes up the chimney. James wakes his companions but none of them have seen her. Gurn, who is in love with James’ bride-to-be Effie, realises that James has become infatuated with someone else.
As the wedding preparations begin, an old woman slips in to warm herself by the fire. James tries to throw her out but Effie begs him to let her stay and tell their fortunes. The old woman, Madge, declares that Effie will marry Gurn. A furious James threatens Madge, who curses him.
Torn between the sylphide and Effie, James soon finds himself ditching his fiancée to pursue the captivating sylph. He follows her into the moonlit forest where she and her sister Sylphs dance for him. However, the sylphide continues to evade his embrace and flies away from him.
Madge’s quest for revenge sees her produce an enchanted scarf. She convinces James that if it is placed around the sylphide’s shoulders, the magical creature’s wings will fall off and she will be his forever.
The sylphide reappears and James applies the scarf. However, this proves to be fatal: the sylphide’s wings drop off, she loses her sight and she dies an agonising death in front of him. As he kneels, heartbroken, the wedding procession for Effie and Gurn (James’ love rival) passes. James is left with nothing and Madge triumphs over him.
The score for Bournonville’s La Sylphide was written by Norwegian composer Herman Severin Løvenskjold (1815–1870).
RAD Grade 7 content set to musical extracts from La Sylphide:
Act 1, Scene 1
Battements tendus and battements glissés
Act 1, Scene 3 (Gurn’s entrance)
Act 2 (Sister sylphs dance around James)
Ronds de jambe en l’air
Act 1, Scene 6 (Sylph’s solo)
Act 2, Scene 1 (Pas de deux)
Grands battements and battements en cloche
Act 1, Scene 7 (James’ solo)
Coupé fouetté raccourçi
Act 1, Scene 7 (Springdans)
Port de bras – Female
Act 2 (Sylph’s dance)
Act 2 (Sylph’s solo)
Adage – Female
Act 2 (Sylphides enter)
Adage – Male
Act 1, Scene 6 (James alone)
Act 1, Scene 3
Act 1, Scene 3
Act 2, Scene 1 (Sylph’s solo)
Dance, classical – Female
Act 1, Scene 1
Dance, classical – Male
Act 2 (Pas de deux, James’ solo)
Classical révérence – Female
Act 1, Scene 1
This video shows the La Sylphide Act 2 pas de deux (with Tamara Rojo as the Sylph and Steven McRae as James):
The two reviews of La Sylphide that are linked to below provide further insight and demonstrate the continued relevance of Romantic ballets to today’s ballet repertoire.
The Legend of Thrym
The Legend of Thrym, “Thrymskviden”, (1868) is a ballet inspired by ancient Norse mythology. It portrays the story of a war between the gods and the giants, which was caused by the theft of Thor’s hammer.
The Legend of Thrym was an example of Bournonville bringing a Norse saga to the stage.
For Bournonville, the Norse myths provided a way to carry on the classical tradition of eighteenth-century choreographers. Thrym gave him an opportunity to develop grand processions and triumphant marches, the likes of which occur nowhere else in his surviving works.
The four-act ballet was set to music by Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann. The score attempts to recreate the tone of ancient Norse music and is characterised by dark and sombre sounds produced by bassoons, horns and trombones. It draws on folk music and marches for its melodies and rhythms.
The Legend of Thrym was first performed in 1868. The original ballet has been out of the repertoire since 1915, but it was reconstructed by Allan Fridericia and Elsa-Marianne von Rosen for performances by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1990.
The Legend of Thrym reveals what happens when Thor, the god of thunder, loses his hammer to the frost giant, Thrym.
Thrym steals Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, while Thor is asleep. Thor is enraged and wonders if the rest of the gods know what has happened to his hammer. He is initially convinced that trickster god, Loki, was involved.
The gods discover that Thrym stole Mjöllnir. When they confront him, the giant promises that he will return the hammer if the most beautiful goddess, Freyja, agrees to marry him.
Thor and Loki try to persuade Freya to agree to the marriage but she refuses. Instead, Freyja gives them her feathered cloak, which allows the wearer to shapeshift.
Loki and the other gods decide to disguise Thor as Freyja and Loki disguises himself as Freyja’s (Thor’s) handmaiden. Thor is angry and embarrassed when the other gods laugh at his humiliation.
During the wedding ceremony, Thrym and the other giants are scared when they realise that the bride is actually Thor in disguise. At an opportune moment, Thor reclaims his hammer and uses it to kill Thrym and all the giants at the celebration.
The score for The Legend of Thrym was written by Danish composer Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann (1805–1900).
RAD Grade 7 content set to musical extracts from The Legend of Thrym:
Ports de bras – Male
Act 4, No. 19: Gimle 21
Classical révérence – Male
Act 4, No. 19: Gimle 24
Study with use of cloak – Male
Act 4, No. 18: Lokes Staff
Napoli, or The Fisherman and His Bride, (1842) is considered to be Bournonville’s greatest original work. The ballet is set in the seaside city of Naples and tells the story of Teresina, a young Italian girl, who falls in love with Gennaro, a fisherman.
Napoli is often referred to as Bournonville’s signature work and is even said to be Denmark’s national ballet.
Bournonville created Napoli when he was thirty-six, after being inspired by a visit to Italy. He had been put under house arrest in 1841 for breaching etiquette by speaking to the king from the stage and this was followed by an unpaid leave of absence from the Royal Danish Ballet. He spent his exile travelling and was delighted by the picturesque surroundings and lively groups of people he saw in Naples.
The three-act ballet was first performed at the Theatre Royal, Copenhagen in 1842, with Caroline Fjeldsted as Teresina and Bournonville as Gennaro. It was set to music by Edvard Helsted, Holger Simon Paulli, Niels Wilhelm Gade and Hans Christian Lumbye.
A full-length version of Napoli remains in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet. However, most companies perform only the final act, which features a rousing tarantella and joyful divertissements.
Napoli is a tale of the love between a fisherman and his sweetheart. Together, they overcome meddling rival suitors and escape an evil sea spirit.
Gennaro, a poor fisherman, is in love with Teresina, a vivacious Neapolitan girl. Teresina is being pursued by two older and wealthier suitors, Peppo, a lemonade seller and Giacomo, a macaroni seller, but her heart belongs to Gennaro. Teresina’s mother reluctantly gives Teresina permission to marry Gennaro. When Gennaro gives Teresina an engagement ring, Peppo and Giacomo spread rumours that he is in league with the devil.
The lovers set out for a moonlit sail in the bay, but a storm breaks and they are swept overboard. Gennaro is rescued, unconscious, but Teresina is missing.
Teresina is taken to the Blue Grotto (a rocky cave) on the island of Capri by sea spirits. The sea demon Golfo is intrigued by her beauty and decides to transform her into a sea spirit in order to hold her captive. The spell makes Teresina forget her mortal life, but she still rejects Golfo’s advances.
Gennaro goes to the sea in search of Teresina, taking an image of the Madonna with him for protection. When he sails to the grotto and realises that Teresina does not recognise him, he prays to the Madonna. Teresina becomes human again and Golfo is vanquished.
The lovers return home to Naples, where Peppo and Giacomo continue to spread rumours that Gennaro is evil. The friar announces that these rumours are not true and everyone celebrates the wedding of Gennaro and Teresina.
The score for Napoli was written by Danish composer Edvard Helsted (1816–1900), among others.
RAD Grade 7 content set to music from Napoli:
Study in stillness and gravity
Act 1 No.6. Marionetspilleren høres komme 23
Study for upper back
Act 1, No. 3 25
Dance, free movement
Act 3, No. 1
This video shows the Royal Danish Ballet dancing Napoli in 1986:
A final musical note
The music for the Grade 7 Character Dance settings is from a variety of sources with Hungarian origins or influences.
This resource was created for revision purposes and is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Anderson, Zoë (2015) The Ballet Lover’s Companion. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Bull, Deborah, and Jennings, Luke (2014) The Faber Pocket Guide To Ballet. 2nd edition. London: Faber and Faber.
Butler, Georgina (2015) ‘Review: Queensland Ballet’s La Sylphide – London Coliseum, August 2015’, Georgina Butler. Available at: https://georginabutler.co.uk/2015/08/05/review-queensland-ballets-la-sylphide-london-coliseum-august-2015/ (Accessed: 5 December 2021).
Butler, Georgina (2017) ‘Review: English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth and La Sylphide – Milton Keynes Theatre, October 2017’, Georgina Butler. Available at: https://georginabutler.co.uk/2017/10/19/review-english-national-ballets-song-of-the-earth-la-sylphide-milton-keynes-theatre-october-2017/ (Accessed: 5 December 2021).
Homans, Jennifer (2010) Apollo’s Angels: A History Of Ballet. London: Granta Books.
‘La Sylphide – Tamara Rojo and Steven McRae’, YouTube, uploaded by youdancefunny, 7 January 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Mz7G4TNg6g (Accessed: 29 December 2021).
‘Napoli 1986 Royal Danish Ballet’, YouTube, uploaded by Astrid, 26 December 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YdR2N4u3r5A&t=36s (Accessed: 29 December 2021).
Royal Academy of Dance (1993) Higher Grades Syllabus: Grade 7. Royal Academy of Dance Enterprises.
Tobias, Tobi (1990) ‘Twilight of the Gods: The Lay of Thrym’, New York Magazine, 23(22), June 4, p. 77. Available at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ilv_cEPOa1gC&dq (Accessed: 29 December 2021).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.