Ballet Stars

Royal Danish Ballet's American Leading Ladies: Meet the Four Principals Taking Copenhagen by Storm

Christopher Duggan for Pointe

While dancing excerpts of August Bournonville's Napoli this summer at the Massachusetts-based Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the artists of the Royal Danish Ballet were in perfect sync. The dancers exuded pure cheer, from their buoyant, clear footwork to the precise angle of their épaulement. This seemed fitting for a national company where most members train in the Danish style from age 7 and feed in from the school. Yet three of the principals onstage—Amy Watson, J'aime Crandall and Holly Jean Dorger—are in fact American.


The year 2008 marked a sea change for the Copenhagen-based company. Former RDB and New York City Ballet principal Nikolaj Hübbe took over as artistic director, and brought with him a more global outlook. Hübbe found that the RDB School wasn't churning out enough dancers, so he turned his search outward. Today, four of the company's six principal women are American. (Caroline Baldwin, the final member of the group, was injured and wasn't able to join her colleagues on the Pillow tour.) "They're all different, of course, but they all share a national trait," says Hübbe. "They're extremely professional, and their work ethic is very wholesome, which I've always admired so much in American dancers."Upon their move to Copenhagen, all four ballerinas quickly realized that their new lives extended beyond the theater's walls. They had to adapt to living and working in a culture with a very different value system. "Danes have something called the Jante Law, which is an unwritten and unspoken law that everyone's created equal, no matter where you come from or what title you hold," explains Watson. For American dancers who grew up in an atmosphere of fierce competition, this requires a complete change of perspective. "When I first got here I used to say that it was like being on the moon," says Crandall.

Language also created a barrier. "It's not easy to pick up, and it's not particularly pretty," adds Dorger. "The worst part is that the way it's spelled is not how you pronounce it at all." Despite any initial challenges, all four ballerinas stress the warm and welcoming feel of the company. "Everyone's proud to be in the RDB, so once you're part of it they want to invite you in and make it your family," says Baldwin. For Hübbe, the company's updated makeup has only made it better. "I love that mélange of different backgrounds and cultures, but assembled around something that they can all give themselves to," he says. "I think there's something beautiful about that."

Caroline Baldwin

Courtesy Baldwin

Copenhagen is one of the world's most cycling-friendly cities. Here, Baldwin bikes at Nyhavn, a popular old shipping harbor.

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Training: Faubourg School of Ballet in Hanover Park, Illinois

Lucky invitation: Baldwin was spotted at Youth America Grand Prix at age 17 and invited to Denmark for a couple of weeks, after which she was offered an apprenticeship. A year later, she joined the corps.

Becoming a Dane: Baldwin recently applied for Danish citizenship, which requires a series of exams in language, history, and the country's society and politics, all in Danish. "I'm married to a Dane, but I wanted to do it all on my own," she says. "I've always loved school and studying, so I've really enjoyed it."

Amy Watson

Christopher Duggan for Pointe

Watson (far left) in Bournonville's A Folk Tale pas de sept at Jacob's Pillow

Hometown: Virginia, New York, England and California

Training: School of American Ballet

Finding her way to RDB: Watson was exposed to Bournonville as a child when the company toured to California. But her first real taste came during her last workshop performance at SAB, when Hübbe staged Conservatoire. "I found the style beautiful, and much more natural to my body than Balanchine," she says. "I'm lucky because the instinct was correct, and right off the bat I've had a Cinderella-esque climb."

Favorite Bournonville roles: Teresina in Napoli and the Sylph in La Sylphide.

J'aime Crandall

Christopher Duggan for Pointe

Crandall rehearses onstage at Jacob's Pillow with Nikolaj Hübbe to her right.

Hometown: Richmond, Virginia

Training: Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, DC

On dancing abroad: Before joining RDB in 2008, Crandall danced at Universal Ballet in Seoul and Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam. "I've always been more attracted to the European style of companies," she says. "Art is very much a part of the culture, and everyone grows up with that appreciation."

Holly Jean Dorger

Christopher Duggan for Pointe

Dorger with RDB principal Jonathan Chmelensky in the Black Swan pas de deux. "I feel lucky that when I entered the company there was still a big generation of Danish ballerinas, and I got to see them do La Sylphide and Napoli. You learn a lot by watching," says Dorger.

Path to Copenhagen: Hübbe was a substitute teacher at SAB while Dorger was a student, and he offered her a job at RDB as soon as he knew he was taking over the company. A self-described "all-American girl," Dorger had never considered a career abroad. "It took Nikolaj and two other teachers to convince me that RDB would be a good spot for me—at that point I didn't even know of Bournonville," she says. "They told me that they could see me doing story ballets, and we do a lot of story ballets in Denmark."

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