Frank Andersen coaches Stattsballett Berlin corps member Alicia Ruben during a rehearsal of "La Sylphide." Yan Revazov, Courtesy Stattsballett Berlin.

How Bournonville Stager Frank Andersen Keeps the Danish Master's Legacy Alive

Inside the sky-lit Studio 1 at Staatsballett Berlin, Frank Andersen is just like a kid in a candy store as he leads an Act I rehearsal for August Bournonville's La Sylphide. Passing gleefully from dancer to dancer, he assigns each with a specific story to tell. "Whatever you do," he tells Alicia Ruben, a Berlin-born corps member learning the role of Effie, "don't look in the mirror. Trust me, you'll be fine. Your eyes say everything."

Since leaving his post as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet in 2008, Andersen and his team, who include his wife Eva Kloborg and longtime colleague Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, have staged Bournonville ballets for companies throughout the world. Last week, just before the Berlin premiere of La Sylphide, we caught up with Andersen to hear about his passion for sharing Bournonville's legacy, the rewards and challenges of staging Bournonville abroad, and his hopes for the future of Danish ballet.


Is there something special about La Sylphide compared to Bournonville's other ballets?

It's interesting—La Sylphide is the only one of Bournonville's ballets, that I know of, with a tragic ending. It's a real drama. I also believe that La Sylphide's themes are timeless. Anyone can relate to being caught between fantasy and reality as they watch James struggle between following the Sylph or marrying Effie. When he tries to capture his dream, it dies. It's not actually written in the libretto that James dies at the end of the ballet. It just says he falls to the ground. But we all know that feeling of losing everything.

Herman Løvenskjold's music also makes the ballet unique. After returning from the Paris premiere of Filippo Taglioni's La Sylphide, Bournonville worked closely with Løvenskjold to achieve his own version. Today, if you listen to the music without knowing anything about Bournonville's ballet, you'd think it was a movie score. Each phrase conveys a different sensation: danger, happiness, sorrow, fear—everything is there. It carries you through the story.

Who were your teachers, and how did you learn Bournonville's ballets?

Since the beginning, information has been transferred in the rehearsal studio, verbally and physically from one generation to the next. My teachers were Henning Kronstam, Niels Bjørn Larsen, Kirsten Ralov, Fredbjørn Bjørnson and Hans Brenaa. The versions of Bournonville ballets that we stage today are the same as the versions my generation learned in the 1970s. My teachers learned from Harald Lander, who learned from Hans Beck, who learned directly from Bournonville. So, we're not so far off from the source, actually.

Of course, today we have the added factor of the internet, and of recordings on YouTube. Today's dancers often come with a notion of how they think the dance should look based on what they have seen. I always say that my team and I teach what we learned, instead of what is right. As long as dancers have an open mind, I'm open to working with them on details. The widened access to video isn't necessarily a bad thing either, because it has helped us develop clear definitions of what the Bournonville style should look like. Our teachers were able to say that Bournonville was just pure, joyous dancing. We've worked to help clarify exactly what that means.

Maria Kochetkova in Stattsballett Berlin's "La Sylphide." Yan Revazov, Courtesy Sattsballett Berlin.

What about the fact that Bournonville is public domain?

There is no Bournonville trust, and anyone can stage the ballets—it's free. But the truth about Bournonville's style is that a dancer needs a clear purpose for every movement he or she makes. And the choreography is very specific, and quite unchanged since the beginning. If you go to a ballet competition, you might see 30 different versions of the male variation in Swan Lake, all listed as "after Petipa." But with James' variations in La Sylphide, there is only one version. It's the version that we learned in the 70s, which is the same version that our teachers danced. That is the benefit of learning from the source.

What are the challenges of staging Bournonville abroad?

We have to face one thing everywhere we go: that the Bournonville style is different from the classical (Russian) style. I think that it's difficult for the dancers to truly understand until they feel it on their own bodies. That's been true about our experience in Berlin, but the dancers have been very open. It's the same steps—glissade, jeté, assemblé, entrechat quatre. But when you dance Bournonville for the first time, you'll be very sore in your calves and thighs the next day.

The next challenge is the mime, which has to be convincing. You have to really believe what you are doing in order to give a natural and honest reaction to what is happening around you. It's hard to explain and even harder to do, because ballet is not natural. So, in this unnatural environment, I'm asking them to be natural. You have to find that balance.

Alicia Ruben and Sarah Brodbeck (as Effie and Madge) rehearse a mime scene from "La Sylphide." Yan Revazov, Courtesy Stattsballett Berlin.

Can you describe the qualities you look for when casting dancers?

La Sylphide isn't really about dancing. It's about presenting the roles. The heart is the most important thing. The technique just has to be there, integrated in your muscle memory so that you can put it aside. It's only the best dancers who can achieve this.

We also try to select dancers who understand the difference between Bournonville and classical styles, which include certain details in épaulement, and a way of landing jumps. Now, after many weeks of working, we're getting there, where the dancers are performing with their heads, bodies, faces and minds. I think the principals are very good in Berlin. More than just technical skill, they're smart and have heart.

What do you do if a dancer learning James tries to do five pirouettes instead of two?

I tell him, "There's two." We just laughed a lot about this a few days ago in rehearsal. It was the first thing I said to the dancers when we started, after watching the principal men in class. I told them, "You have to understand that this is not a pirouette ballet." James does only one double pirouette, in all of his variations. Of course, they understand this now. The musicality of every step is so clear because of Løvenskjold's music. There's just no space for five pirouettes.

Andersen coaches Sarah Brodbeck through a scene of "La Sylphide." Yan Revazov, Courtesy Stattsballett Berlin.

How do you introduce interpretation when teaching the roles?

We teach the dancing, and focus on the mime when it comes. We address problems as they arise. Everything is so specific musically. When you're driving down a highway, it's possible to shift right or left within your lane, but you have to stay in the lane. You can't veer from that. We want the dancers to find the characters inside themselves, so we focus on the honesty of their dancing above everything. Getting dancers to dance with their hearts is the most rewarding experience of all.

What are your thoughts about the future of Bournonville's ballets?

I think we can't just consider ourselves safe. We have to learn to deal with the new media and use it to our advantage to promote our art form. I'm not saying that I'm nervous—just that the audience has changed. We can't just sit and wait. We have to be proactive. Every performance needs to be an event now. I see Bournonville as a natural component of that. As long as Bournonville's ballets are promoted smartly with today's resources, I believe that they can survive within a versatile ballet repertoire.

We are thrilled that the next generation of teachers is beginning to come forward. Our son Sebastian Kloborg has shown desire to grab the torch, and I think that's very positive. He's been with us in Berlin the whole time, observing and assisting in some rehearsals. Thomas Lund and Gudrun Bojesen are also taking taking on the challenge in Denmark. I don't think they are interested in any radical changes. Maybe others will express interest over time. I think there have to be people at the source who can say, "we're here to preserve the Bournonville style as we know it." That's how we can keep the flame burning.

Performances of Staatsballett Berlin's La Sylphide at the Deutsche Oper Berlin run from March 1–May 31.

Latest Posts

Vadim Shultz, Courtesy Mariinsky Ballet

Catching Up With Maria Khoreva: The Rising Mariinsky Star on Her TV Competition Win and New Book

The coronavirus pandemic has not slowed down the Mariinsky Ballet's Maria Khoreva. Although Russia's Mariinsky Theater was closed in 2020 from March until August, the 20-year-old first soloist used the time in quarantine to her advantage. She wrote a newly published book titled Teach Me Ballet, and won Best Female Dancer on Russia's hit TV show "Grand Ballet," a competition which brings young ballet dancers from all parts of the country to the national spotlight. (This season, filmed over the summer, was broadcast on Russia's arts channel from November 4 to December 19. All seven episodes are now available on YouTube.)

Pointe spoke with Khoreva to find out more about her experience on the show, her fitness regime during quarantine and her new book.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Karolina Kuras, Courtesy ROH

The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi Shares Her Go-to Self-Care Ritual and Her Favorite Recipe

Royal Ballet principal Yasmine Naghdi had been gearing up to star as the Sugarplum Fairy in a December livestream performance of The Nutcracker when London went back into heavy COVID-19 restrictions. The performance was canceled, but Naghdi has been taking this current setback, and the challenges the pandemic has brought over the last 10 months, in stride. In addition to keeping up with her training, she's been taking Italian lessons virtually and preparing elaborate meals with her boyfriend ("We're both real foodies," she says). Last fall, Naghdi, who has always loved cooking, travel, design and self-care, decided to share her offstage passions with fans on her new Instagram page, @lifestyle_by_yas.

Naghdi recently talked with us about staying flexible to the UK's lockdown changes and her post-performance wellness routine, plus offered a recipe for her favorite pasta dish.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

Editors' Picks