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About the Change

Nikolaj Hubbe

Artistic Director,
Royal Danish Ballet

interview by Jane Simpson

© Royal Danish Ballet

Hubbe in reviews

RDB 'Napoli' reviews

RDB reviews

RDB website:

Jane Simpson reviews

"Are you crazy?" That was Nikolaj Hübbe's parting shot; we'd been talking about his first eighteen months in charge of the Royal Danish Ballet, and I'd said - somewhat flippantly - that I was pleased he wasn't pretending it was a bed of roses. In fact, when I asked if he would have taken the job if he'd known what it was going to be like, he said "Depends on the day...depends on the HOUR". A year and a half is enough for the honeymoon effect (and the culture shock, perhaps) to have worn off and he's clearly very conscious of the difficulty of some of his long-term tasks.


Right now, though, he's won himself a temporary breathing space. With Sorella Englund, he's just launched a new production of August Bournonville's Napoli - updated and altered, a very risky undertaking given the reverence with which Bournonville is widely regarded. And civilisation hasn't ended - no newspaper leaders demanding his resignation - not even a single abusive e-mail. So at least he can sleep a little better.

The Danish press may have been kind, but there are people outside Denmark who are very protective of Bournonville - possessive, almost - and when they heard of the plans for an updated version they reacted as if it was..."sacrilege", says Hübbe. "They can say what they like but I think people should at least see it before they judge. Ballet is performing, it's action, it's now - it's easy to just theorise about what one can do, but we have to put it into action. We have to ask how much can this bend, can this ballet take this or that or the other - is there something in this ballet we haven't found yet, something this ballet hasn't said yet, but maybe could say?"

It's clear that he thinks it's legitimate to look not just at what Bournonville actually did, but what there is in his ballet that he didn't know about, or maybe that he couldn't express because of the time - for instance the sexual attraction between the heroine, Teresina, and the sea-spirit Golfo in the second act. Apart from moving the setting forward a century or so, Hübbe's most controversial innovation has been to to downplay the power of religion in the development of the plot. Isn't that, though, something of a contradiction when Catholicism is obviously still a significant reality to his characters?


Nikolaj Hubbe & Sorella Englund in rehearsals for their Napoli
© David Amzallag

"No. I do believe that Italians even to this date still do observe the form of religion, the daily, ritualistic things - they'll still go and light a candle in a church. But in the love story I didn't want religion to interfere - I wanted it to be between the two of them, Gennaro and Teresina. In the original Teresina is saved by the higher powers. But who are they? I never saw them, but I as a modern man have felt love, and despair, and I thought wouldn't it be wonderful if a man could love someone so much he could rescue them from the grip of death. I wanted love to be stronger than death - life to be stronger than death - and that's why I cut the religion out."

(A short Scottish diversion)

So the dislike of the idea of supernatural intervention - does that tie up at all with another controversial decision in his production of La Sylphide, where only James is able to see the Sylph? Is she just a figment of James's imagination?

"Whatever you want to make the Sylph, whatever you want to make her attraction in your life - whether you want to make her a muse or a sexual figure or a yearning for another world - whether James is a schizophrenic artist (which my James, when I used to dance it, was leaning much up against) or a manic-depressive writer or composer, or a sexual deviant... I wanted James, and only James, to see her. I believe James is the only one in that household with that capability. Gurn can't see her...she can't exist in Gurn's head. Gurn doesn't have that sensitivity, spirituality. James has that, he has that extra layer, and that sets him apart. Otherwise Gurn, and this one and that one, they might as well go out into the forest too - but he's special, James is special. Whether he's above or beneath the others, that's up to the audience, but he's in another place from the rest of them."

Back to Napoli...

The second act has new choreography by Hübbe and Englund as well as a new score. It's Hübbe's first serious attempt at choreography: had he enjoyed it? "Yes... yes. You know basically we just had to tell a story, so we weren't exactly choreographing, we just put some steps together and made the steps propel the action ...I don't know if that's choreography - it's just steps."

One thing that surprised me in the 'just steps' was a quite strong flavour of Ashton's Ondine - had he ever seen it? "Only pictures ... I saw a picture of Margot as Ondine, and that's what inspired the naiad dresses. But the only thing I've ever seen from Ondine is a little clip of Margot where she plays with her own shadow." That seems to have stuck with him, if only subconsciously. And will he be doing more choreography now he's got the taste? "No, not right now... maybe... yes, it would be interesting... I have a little project, a little solo for a girl... but let's see." A definite 'yes', I'd say.


Gitte Lindstrom and Ulrik Birkkjaer in the Hubbe/Englund Napoli
© Costin Radu

And finally on Napoli - what about the last act? The first thing that I thought when I heard it was to be set in the 1950s was, however will the pas de six and the tarantella fit into that background? Had that been a big problem for them?

"No - it's a wedding and they're to have 'molti bambini' - it's a ritual. It's the four different seasons, and the cycle of life. It's almost like a salute - they all bless the ground, you know, in the pas de six - so it's very traditional. (After all we Danes, in a much more secular country, still take hands and walk round the Christmas tree singing hymns - even in my family - and I'm not even baptised!) But I do think we should have updated the costumes for the pas de six and the finale - it makes it look very different compared to the rest of the ballet. But I realised that when it was too late." He's right - in the programme notes the soloists are named after the seasons and the four winds, but if you hadn't noticed that it just looks as if they've done with the updating and we're finishing off with the old - and much loved - Bournonville finale. On the other hand I did like the way that some of the characters we'd already met joined in the tarantella. "Yes, and that's what one does at a wedding - the old ladies take the little kids - 'Let me show you how...' - that's how you learn to do these traditional dances - just like ballet!"

And the rest of Bournonville?

La Sylphide is already scheduled for later in this season, but Hübbe is already on record as saying that he doesn't see something like Far from Denmark in the regular programming. "Maybe as a one-time only, a curiosity..." Perhaps at the next Bournonville Festival, which would be due in 2018 if he sticks with the previous pattern? Not likely, by the sound of it: "I don't like the Bournonville Festival, especially when it keeps returning and returning and returning. I find it extremely commercial and I find also that what happens is that it becomes a crutch - the festival, Bournonville, the whole thing becomes a shtick. It just rubs me the wrong way."

How about going back to what used to happen, when you had a week in the summer and you just showed everything you'd done in the season, Bournonville and not-Bournonville?

"This is who we are, this is what we're about, this is what we're toiling with these days - absolutely. I think the Bournonville Festival, it'll be the eternal thing that will keep the RDB back, because it will cement yet again in its cliché'd way that that's what the Danes can do, and only that - and it's an absolutely horrid thought for dance in Denmark, for Danish ballet dancers - it's so stifling. Of course I do not negate the fame that it has brought us - and people will say that he is an unthankful bastard, because he comes out of that tradition and that schooling and that's what initially gave him his own career, but - I got away - I experienced dance on many levels - dance is a many-splendoured thing..."

And what about future tours - Bournonville or not?

"I want to bring both - Bournonville because yes, he is us, absolutely - he is us just as much as Balanchine is NYCB, as Ashton/MacMillan is the Royal Ballet - but they do other stuff too ... we too want to develop, we too want to dance the Russian classics, and try to wrestle with the rest of the world - not compete, but at least let's be able to make a comparison."

...and the other 90% of the repertory

What goes on at the Royal Theatre when they're not dancing Bournonville? They have their own classics - Etudes and The Lesson of course, the Swan Lake Peter Martins made for them, a fine Giselle (revised last year by Hübbe and Englund, with a hypnotically engaging second act) - and some imported works such as John Neumeier's Romeo and Juliet and John Cranko's Onegin have become regular audience favourites. Since Hübbe took over he's introduced an evening each of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, neither of them anything like new to the company but acquiring a new focus through Hübbe's NYCB background. Was he happy with the way the company danced Balanchine?


Nikolaj Hubbe
© Royal Danish Ballet

"I was very happy with Symphony in Three Movements, and Sonnambula - if you really press me hard, I think maybe Bizet [Symphony in C] could have been danced better, but I think they did an incredible job, and I think the evening - as an all round evening - was very pleasing - three beautiful ballets - I was happy with it."

Coming up at the end of this season are an interesting pair of programmes, one mainly for the men of the company, the other mainly for the women. More Balanchine, more Robbins, a couple of new pieces by Kim Brandstrup, some Bournonville even - and, intriguingly, Ashton's Isadora dances, the first Ashton to be seen here since Peter Schaufuss briefly tried to reintroduce his Romeo and Juliet to the company it was made for. Maybe one day they'll have another go at La Fille mal Gardée, a ballet Hübbe likes but which is maybe just too close to Bournonville to be a big hit in Copenhagen.

Meanwhile another English choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, has widely announced that he'll be doing a new Sleeping Beauty for the RDB next season. Is it to be just a new production, or will Wheeldon be providing new choreography? "A new production. I mean, certain things will be new - the mise en scène, I guess the Garland waltz - but basically, I asked for Petipa." And why did he choose Wheeldon in particular?

"Because of the Royal Ballet - because of him growing up with the Royal Ballet, and Sergeyev and the tradition of their Sleeping Beauty. I didn't see Sleeping Beauty when I was growing up here - I saw it for the first time with the Royal Ballet. I was six years old, with my Mum and Dad for a week in London, living at a posh hotel, and they took me - we sat way, way up - and I saw The Sleeping Beauty and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. And then I saw it again when I was ten - with the Royal Ballet - and then again when I was 14 and 16; only very late in my career did I actually see it here. I know Chris very well, of course, from New York - and you know he has always been very interested in children's ballets - and though I didn't want it to be for children, Sleeping Beauty is such a fairy tale - and then there's that whole English tradition - which of course comes from Sergeyev, who staged it there - and the British just took such incredible care of it - so I thought well, there will be something of that there."


Gitte Lindstrom and Ulrik Birkkjaer in the Hubbe/Englund Napoli
© Costin Radu

New choreography, of course, is no easier to come by in Copenhagen than anywhere else, but it must be particularly galling for Hübbe to reflect that Alexei Ratmansky, perhaps more in demand even than Wheeldon these days, was once a principal dancer in this very company. His eyes light up when I mention Ratmansky's name: the one that got away! Does he plan to bring him back? "Yes. Big time." Soon? "He's so goddamn booked. But hopefully soon."

The company

Time was when the Royal Danish Ballet was close to 100% Danish, but these days, like the Royal Ballet, it's far more international. Of the 93 dancers currently listed, just over half are Danish. Does Hübbe care about this dilution?

"I do care. I do care, because I love the school - I think our education is everything - but I don't think the school produces enough. It's a big problem, and I have to do something about it - it's my next big quest. I love dancers, OK? - I LOVE this dancer, that dancer, I don't care what their nationality or their background is, or for that matter their schooling - I love a French dancer as much as a Russian - if it's a good dancer it's a good dancer - but I for pride, I guess, some strange national pride, I am concerned. And also - I guess this has to do with the tradition - I want the school to produce dancers I like, dancers I can agree with. And I pay money to the school so it can exist - five and a half million people pay tax to the upkeep of this school - and for that plain pragmatic reason, I want something for my money!"


Nikolaj Hubbe in rehearsals for Napoli
© David Amzallag

Hübbe teaches company class four or five times a month, and believes he and his chosen teachers have already made a difference. "I think the company dances better, moves better under me than they have for years - the articulation of a foot, the expressiveness of a movemnent, the musical phrasing, the strength of holding, and therefore the ability to make a dynamic... But I don't think dance itself is that popular in Denmark - dance is popular because dance tells a story - the initiation, the conflict, the resolution - that's I think what most audience members are interested in - I don't know if they're actually interested in movement, in dance. And I think interest from Danes both to dance and to go to ballet is withering away and it's awful and I have to do something about that too - I have a lot of things on my plate!"

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