Denmark's Next Generation

At the Royal Danish Ballet, cultures mingle to create great dance.
Published in the April/May 2006 issue.

For Danish-born Kristoffer Sakurai, the opening performance of the Royal Danish Ballet’s Third Bournonville Festival, held last June, marked more than his debut in the leading role of Carelis in The Kermesse in Bruges. After the performance, Frank Andersen, RDB artistic director, and Michael Christiansen, general director of the Royal Theatre, came onstage during the final bow and thrilled the audience and cast by announcing Sakurai’s promotion to principal dancer.

The festival turned out to be an opportunity for promotions and awards for several RDB dancers at the Royal Theatre, where tradition dictates the proper way to do things: Dancers are promoted to principal onstage and to soloists at the reception following the season’s last performance.

Also on that opening night, Susanne Grinder, who danced the leading role of Eleonore opposite Sakurai, was promoted from the corps de ballet to the rank of soloist. And a few days later, U.S.-born soloist Amy Watson, who had danced the leading role of Irma in Abdallah that evening, was honored with a special prize in memory of Ulla Poulsen, the legendary Danish ballerina from the 1920s and ‘30s.

These three dancers, each with a unique style, are among a new generation of RDB dancers who represent the future of Danish ballet. With a history reaching back more than 250 years, the RDB is steeped in tradition and, along with its prestigious school, it has proven a unique place to build a career. Dancers such as Erik Bruhn, Toni Lander, Kirsten Simone, Peter Martins and Nicolaj Hübbe are among those formed by its special inheritance.

While the company honors the memory of August Bournonville by preserving his ballets, it also dances a wide-ranging repertoire of classical and modern ballets, as well as avant-garde works, to both interest its audience and challenge its dancers.

That extreme range of styles requires versatile dancers who can portray a vivid Bournonville character one night and step into the stark postmodern world of William Forsythe the next. Whatever the RDB dances, whether barefoot, in sneakers or on pointe, the Danish style—dancing with an emphasis on musicality, subtle acting and character portrayal—always comes across.

We have a very special way of expressing ourselves onstage,” says Grinder. That special something is taught at the Royal Danish Ballet School, which is housed in the Royal Theatre. Grinder trained there, as did Sakurai.

“Growing up among the dancers in the theater is an amazing experience,” says Sakurai, who joined the corps de ballet in 1999 and became a soloist in 2004. “That’s one of the most important things about our company. You watch and learn from the time you are a child. It’s imprinted on your memory.”

“I think it’s very important for people to understand the little things, because they give our company its own shape,” says Grinder, speaking of the way the Bournonville style influences the culture of the company.

Built into that culture is a bit of a contradiction that encourages each of its dancers to have a distinct personality while the company is guided by rules and traditions—mostly unwritten—that stress conformity and equality. They have been defined over the company’s long history, and they borrow from the distinct character of Danish society.

For instance, up until a few years ago, the company had a fairly strict hierarchy, and every dancer knew his
or her place in it. Pushing yourself forward in class was considered bad form, and showing off was frowned upon.

Throughout most of its history, the RDB didn’t accept foreigners. By the mid-1960s, it did so only under special circumstances. Finnish dancer Sorella Englund and American Bruce Marks were two early exceptions. In the past two decades, however, the company has become more open to foreign-trained dancers.

“It brings fresh blood into the company,” says Andersen, who sees the benefit of opening the ranks. “Dancers like Americans Caroline Cavallo and Lloyd Riggins, and British Clare Still, to name just a few, have come in and have conquered the Bournonville style.”

But for foreign dancers, adjusting to a country where the culture, the language (although most rehearsals are held in English), the cuisine, the light and the air are so different from home isn’t easy. To be accepted in Denmark, a foreign dancer has to learn more than steps and style. The Bournonville training permeates the company’s approach to everything.

Looking at the homegrown Grinder in comparison with Watson, who was trained at the School of American Ballet, points to the difficulties posed by opening the company to non-Danes, as well as the benefits, as the company moves toward the future.

From the school, Grinder joined the corps de ballet in 2000 and was promoted to soloist in June 2005. She balances a long-limbed, modern physicality with the modesty and musicality of her Bournonville heritage. Typically Danish, she gently deflects compliments, always demurring that she is only one among many
talented dancers.

Watson, who claims to have gotten her competitive genes from her parents, is fearless in her dancing. She likes challenges and is the kind of dancer who leaps and then looks. Her dancing is outspoken amid the more reticent Danish style.

When she first joined the company in 2000, there was some jealousy among the Danish women who weren’t getting the chances being offered to Watson, but soon her attitude started rubbing off on the other dancers.

Grinder remembers, “Foreigners are not afraid of standing in the front line and really going for it. Amy is very polite and humble, but when she’s dancing, it’s like she’s attacking it. I think that’s great.”

Watson, too, has benefited from the exchange of cultures. After some intensive coaching from Marks in preparation for her performance of Irma in Abdallah, Watson started to re-evaluate her use of energy. “Bruce told me to lower my energy level because he said, ‘It’s crazy; you’re bouncing off the wall.’ I realized that controlling my energy would bring my dancing to the next level.”

Former RDB ballerina Englund also coached Watson, encouraging her to integrate her breathing with the choreography. Watson now feels that “my dancing has become more like meditation to me. I’m still striving, but I’m learning more about the art of dancing, instead of just trying to be a success.” In the process, she is deepening her immersion in the Danish style and serving as proof that Danish modesty can be combined with strong attack.

In the end, though, it comes down to an individual’s choice to grow as an artist. Sakurai, the new principal, remembers a realization he had at the beginning of his career. “Every dancer has to go through a period when he questions whether this is really what he wants. Then there is the question, are you working for yourself or are you working for ‘them’—for the direction. I remember thinking, wait, am I doing this because I want to please the ballet master? Or am I doing it because I want to get better? In the end, I realized I was doing it for me.”

Looking at these three individuals, it becomes clear how the dancers—both Danish and foreign—will influence the future look of Danish ballet. The Bournonville repertoire will always be at the heart of the RDB, and as company members, each is charged with passing the Bournonville legacy as completely as possible to the generation that succeeds them. But for dancers in this company, uniting past and present is how the company will move into the future.