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|About the Change|
Royal Danish Ballet
interview by Jane Simpson
"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.
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?
© David Amzallag
"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."
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.
© Costin Radu
"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!"
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."
© Royal Danish Ballet
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."
© Costin Radu
"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!"
© David Amzallag