The Ballet Master

Nikolaj Hübbe

With its tradition for storytelling ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet seeks a new balance between classical and modern with its newly appointed artistic director – fresh in from New York.

By Erik Aschengreen

Nikolaj Hübbe has a raucous laugh and you can’t help laughing yourself in the company of the new artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet. He is passionate about his job and takes his calling seriously, although he soon punctures any inflated presumptions. He is a reflective and open person. He knows what he wants and yet still has an open mind.

These are still honeymoon days at the artistic director’s office and at the ballet rehearsal studios, and he knows it. But there is no doubt that 40 year old Nikolaj Hübbe’s amazing energy will transpire on stage. The Royal Danish Ballet is part of the Royal Danish Theatre, which is not only experiencing a change of leadership in these years, but also a generational change. There is fresh blood at both the ballet and drama department and the Royal Danish Theatre has a new managing director.

Nikolaj Hübbe is a son of the house. He was trained at the Royal Danish Ballet where he enjoyed an outstanding career as a principal dancer before he joined the New York City Ballet in 1992. Here he skyrocketed to success. And now he returns to Kongens Nytorv, Copenhagen, in a totally different capacity.


What made you return to become artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet?

“Ambitions. You have to make it in life. It’s in our upbringing,” Nikolaj Hübbe says with a smile. “But to be plainly honest, the vacancy appeared at a point in my career where my autumn years were over. In fact, I was well into my winter. It was an amazing opportunity. It came at a fortuitous moment and saved me from dance. Working as an instructor, teacher and stage director had made me increasingly preoccupied with backstage life. But don’t get me wrong. I didn’t say: ‘Now I suppose I’d better stop dancing and look around for a job as an artistic director.’ It also just happened to be there, in Copenhagen. And that isn’t just anywhere. Throughout my New York years I’ve been back regularly to perform. In that sense I’ve never severed the ties.”


So what’s going to happen now?

“Everything and nothing. For things to stay the same they have to change. I would, like any new leader, like to ditch old habits. In this house and at this company, which is so extremely traditional in its approach, I would like us to uproot habits. The Bournonville tradition is wonderful but it shouldn’t become a yoke. So we’ll see. Tradition and innovation should go hand in hand. You can’t have tradition without innovating. You need to engage it; you need to include yourself. I’m a part of this tradition myself and so is the most recent to arrive among the six-year-old ballet boys at the Ballet School. *We* are August Bournonville. We set the terms.

August Bournonville set out his credo 150 years ago, but we are the ones to interpret it. I don’t like the attitude of those I call the ‘librarians’, who have codified Bournonville and believe they hold the true key to his work. That kind of monopolising is not for me. It constrains the arts. Art happens onstage – that’s where reality takes hold. But OK, if a painting by Eckersberg at the Danish National Gallery loses its hues then, naturally, you call in the conservators.”


Couldn’t Bournonville’s ballets lose their colours too?

“In the wrong hands, Bournonville can lose its imaginativeness, verve and sense of esprit – and also the essence of drama. It can lose its theatricality.”


So how are you going to ensure that this doesn’t happen?

“By making the best of the meagre imaginativeness I possess. By investing myself in Bournonville. But it’s also up to the company performing the ballets. They *must* be theatre. Ballet is a theatrical art form. It’s about making people believe what they see; it’s all an illusion. It’s something we act. It’s about staging dreams. That’s what is so exciting.”


When you presented your first season’s repertoire at the press conference you said that Bournonville would not be staged this season. You wanted to give it all some thought. Have you?

“Yes. I can’t reveal too much but I can promise an entirely new Bournonville production next year that relates not only to my past but also embraces the present day. And I’ll swear on that in true Bournonville spirit,” he says, lifting his arm and hand in a ballet-like posture.


*Nikolaj Hübbe made his mark as a dancer at the Royal Danish Theatre in the mid-1980s. His breakthrough was as Romeo in John Neumeier’s *Romeo & Juliet*; a part he performed with Heidi Ryom as Juliet. He was a blond Romeo brimming with youthful sentiment, a fiery furioso in street battle, and a timid boy experiencing the spring of love. A wonderful symbiosis of dialogue and dance that has characterised Nikolaj Hübbe’s performances in a number of ballets. And he has appeared in pretty much them all – as Albrecht in *Giselle*, Prince Siegfried in *Swan Lake*, in Balanchine’s *Apollon* and in all principal Bournonville parts. Nikolaj Hübbe excelled at the Second Bournonville Festival at the Royal Danish Theatre in 1992 before leaving for the New York City Ballet.*


What made you go to New York?

“I needed to prove that I had it in me – something on which people had voiced their doubts. I needed to challenge myself. And I also wanted to go over there – and please excuse the purple prose – to lay my head on Balanchine’s altar. Or was it at his feet? It’s like when other dancers go to John Neumeier in Hamburg. Or in times gone by to the Royal Ballet in London to work with Frederick Ashton. OK, my choreographer was dead, but there were Jerome Robbins and Peter Martins. And Balanchine’s credo lived on. I wanted to try it out.”

Is being a dancer in New York any different than in Copenhagen?

“I would say so. From a purely physical perspective it is much tougher being a dancer in New York. The American seasons run three months at a time. You perform every evening and rehearse during the day. To be a dancer in Copenhagen is a dream job. A wonderful job with amazing working hours, a pension scheme and all sorts of benefits – psychological counselling and I don’t know what. Dancers are taken much better care of – they are nurtured.

As artistic director I am not inclined to be supreme commander. That’s not what I am. I decide which ballets are to be staged and who are to perform them. I can decide who to a certain age is assigned to the company but that’s the limit of my authority. I can negotiate with the artistic council and the ballet association. And there are other filters too. The Royal Danish Theatre staff promotes their own agenda. The system makes them untouchable and that can be dangerous. Believing that the more secure the artists are the more secure the arts are is liberal-minded humbug. Art isn’t secure – and artists shouldn’t be secure. The most beautiful thing about art is its insecurity. This is where discovery lies. This is what speaks to our imagination. And this is what defines an artist.”


What is it you bring from New York that you’d like to introduce here?

“I wish the Royal Danish Ballet could be as quick on the move as the New York City Ballet. But I know the company is part of a much larger organisation. We’re many people here. Everything takes time. From the time an idea is born till it is carried out you’ve almost forgotten what motivated it in the first place. I’m no ace in administrative matters, so for now I just sit and watch. But I guess I’ll sharpen my skills as I go along and gain some influence. OK, I do have influence – but the question is which direction it should take.

We spend time on holding staff meetings and evaluations. But honestly, this is theatre. Denmark has become so politically correct, and this has also made its way to the theatre where we are achingly aware of upholding respectful communication. But guys – wake up! This is theatre, and so what if people shout, scream, wail, bawl and howl? That’s the way things should be. Theatre is the home of emotions. I’m obviously wearing my bad-guy breeches today. But there’s a little too much Danish middle-of-the-road attitude here; that nothing must go to the extreme. But you need to take things to the limit and do it with bravado. Things shouldn’t just be ‘nice’. They should be beautiful, emotional and sophisticated. Art is a wonderful flower of many colours.”


Will you be creating choreography yourself?

“No, but I’ll be fine-tuning the step designs. I believe art demands craftsmanship and techniques, which I love applying and which gives art its freedom to fly. You open your tool box and explore. And all this serves to propel art full force at the audience. And incidentally, it’s strange that the Royal Danish Ballet has only had three great choreographers: August Bournonville, Harald Lander and Flemming Flindt. They were also ballet masters. I would like to have a resident choreographer at my side. I am on the lookout, but I’ve just been turned down, in fact. Unfortunately.

I have in this regard also been thinking of the ballet pupils. I would like them to start learning choreography at the age of ten. And by that I mean learn how to analyse what they see and create new step designs. I think you need to start with the children. Shape and encourage a budding choreographer. After all, Mozart started out at a young age. Now choreography classes are given to 20-year-olds, but they need these tools at a much earlier age. And if teaching doesn’t make them into choreographers, it will make them better dancers. I believe in the intelligent dancer. I am, after all, brilliantly intelligent myself,” Nikolaj Hübbe says with a big disarming smile.


And what does the Royal Danish Ballet offer that you don’t find elsewhere in the world?

“It holds itself in respect. It is far tougher being a ballet company in Hanover or Düsseldorf. Companies such as the Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet have tradition, which we don’t mind addressing but that nonetheless empowers us. And that brings us back to the question of balance: Tradition, and anti-tradition.

Right now I need to find out how to act in this house, the Royal Danish Theatre. My repertoire needs to feature something for everyone. For young and old. For people from Jutland and those from Bornholm. I am in a process of learning and won’t be hell-bent on any extreme. Financially, we are in a bit of a pinch. That’s the stark reality. That’s what I have to spend my time dealing with although it takes time away from the rehearsal studios where I’d much prefer to be. To be quite honest I’m no financial whiz but luckily I have the aid of an amazing guy to handle that side of business. And that’s important if we are in any way to offer the choice and sense of commitment we seek to give people at our different stages.”


And what does classical ballet have to offer?

“Everything, because it is classical. The only problem is that too few people believe in it. We are up against not only the cinema but also a lack of interest from the press. We need to do something about this. And there are many way we can go about things. Marketing is beneficial, but perhaps we should be a little cunning. I think I can learn a little from Flemming Flindt. Now, I am not saying that next time the curtains rise all the dancers will be naked – men and women. But perhaps we could think in terms of a couple of stunts. There’s a fine line. But if you respect this then it’s OK. We need to be pragmatic because we need to generate interest in the arts and highlight them.”


And finally: can we look forward to something amazing – an extravaganza of a ballet never seen before that you’d like to mention now?  

“No, and now I must refer to Balanchine, who said: ‘You can’t go into the studio and say “now I will create a masterpiece”. Then you wouldn’t know on which foot to enter the studio.’ You can only dream and hope – especially dream. That’s what it’s all about. To make the audience dream. It’s all an illusion. Now we turn off the light and mesmerise them all. It’s amazing!”