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Guiding the Next Generation

An Interview with Niels Balle, Deputy Director, Royal Danish Ballet School

by Kate Snedeker

March 25, 2004

For Royal Danish Ballet (RDB) dancers, turning forty is a major milestone – it’s the time when pensions begin, and most dance careers end. Preparations for this transition begin years earlier, when many dancers begin to experiment with coaching, choreographing, character roles or even non-balletic interests. Others, like Niels Balle, look towards the RDB School and the next generation of dancers for career inspiration.

A twenty-year veteran of the Royal Danish Ballet, Balle was recently named deputy director of the Royal Danish Ballet School, and is in charge of the training program for the company apprentices (aspirants). Despite his busy teaching schedule, he still performs regularly, occasionally sharing the stage with his wife, Marianne Rindholt Balle, a former dancer who now splits her time between character dancing and managing the company’s shoe department.

Balle joined the company in 1983 and was soon dancing major roles in many of the Bournonville ballets. However, it was just two years later that a serious injury first led to thoughts of a teaching career: “…when I was around twenty, I was injured and out for almost a year. Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter [the ballet school director] was already attached to the school then, and I think she talked to Frank [Andersen] who was directing [the company] at that point, about if I wasn’t going to make it back into the company, that I maybe was interested in teaching. But then, it went well and I came back into the dancing.”

After returning from the injury, he continued to add new roles to his repertory, including the balletmaster in 'Conservatoriet’, Benvolio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the pas de cinq in “Abdallah”, Hilarion in ‘Swan Lake’ and Gremin in ‘Onegin’. It wasn’t until 1990 that he finally began teaching. Balle remembers “they asked me if I was interested [in teaching] because they had the group of boys and there weren’t any male teachers. I came and watched a couple of classes and thought it was interesting. So I took over for small periods where [Schlüter] was too busy to handle the classes and that just added up little by little.”

Becoming a teacher brought Balle full circle, since his association with the Royal Danish Ballet began in the mid 1970s when he was admitted to the RDBS. “I started dancing when I was 7, and started here in second grade - I had one year in normal school.” When asked about dancers who inspired him as a student, Balle says “I think I was more inspired by my teacher: Niels Kehlet, and Johnny Eliasen, who was teaching at that point the higher levels [for] the older school of boys. They had both danced, and were dancing - Johnny was at least, and Niels was still doing a lot when he started teaching our group.”

The school, not surprisingly has changed since those days and he recalls that the class structure was quite different. “The instructors then only had four groups of students, and I think just two in the end- a male [class] and a female class from- it must have been twelve. So it was only those four levels, where today we have seven - six levels and then the oldest group where we separate the boys and the girls. I can’t really remember how we were taught... I think it’s pretty much similar, though of course we’ve added a couple of things- how we do things, also inspiration from the States- but, we still keep the Bournonville touch."

What hasn’t changed, however, is the basic structure of the school. “[The students] start actually at 7, which is first grade in the school”. We accept them from 7 to 11 - we take them right off the street even if they have done [no] dancing at all. If they’re past 11, they have to have some kind of teaching before coming here. However, Balle explains that the school prefers students to enter at 7 or 8 and with no prior training “because we can better polish them if they are that age and if they have been somewhere else before coming here then it’s harder on [us] to change them.”

Students are admitted to the school through auditions held each March, and one of Balle’s duties is to help in selecting potential students during the day long “event”. He describes the auditions: “Usually we start with the boys group. They come in and do small combinations with music - either just jumping or walking with music or a little bit of a waltz just to see if they can combine musically. And then we look at their physiques. We have our doctor looking at their turnout, feet, how they bend, how they stretch… we look for those kind of things that’s needed in the dancer. And that’s almost [all] we can do in the first day – even this takes quite long for 200 people coming in.”

Sometimes a first hunch doesn’t always turn out to be right and Balle notes that students “change a lot sometimes, from bad to good, good to bad, both ways actually.”

There has been some concern recently that the school, with an average of just 65 students, is not providing enough talent for the ballet company - close to a third of current company members are now from outside Denmark and with the opening of the new opera house, the ballet company will need to expand by as many as 20 dancers. Yet Balle feels that the ebbs and flows of talent from the school are a very normal: “it’s like good wine, you know, it comes in certain ages. Suddenly there’s nothing and then you have seventeen girls in one age group. It’s very different [every year]."

All students take a morning class 5 or 6 days a week, an hour for the youngest two levels, and 1.5 hours for the rest, with afternoon classes for the top three levels. Observing class, one notices that even the youngest children are not “glued” to the bar –“At a very early age we try to let them combine steps so that you have the flow of steps instead of just keeping them static. I think it’s very important that they learn how to move.”

Currently there is no formal set syllabus, but there is a structure to classes. “For every class, of course you do a barre and the barre can consist of many things. You have to do the structure that’s needed for every level, but I think the center is more little bit free. [You can do more] of what you think is needed through the year. Sometimes you have a talented group that you can go a little bit further with and sometimes you just have to stay with the basics. And even staying with the basics, I think you sometimes have to throw them bits and pieces of what’s interesting and what’s a little too hard sometimes."

However, now a syllabus is finally being written: “We started [writing one] many times, and had the influence of a lot of people from the outside who had different ideas from what we wanted. But now Mie, Liselotte [Sand] and I are starting to set it down on paper."

Since the purpose of the school is to train dancers for the company, the teaching of the company’s hallmark Bournonville style is major issue. While students do receive a solid foundation in Bournonville, Balle says that it’s a gradual process. “The early years are more like a structure of a normal ballet class, but slowly as they come into maybe 3rd, 4th grade, they start to do small steps from the Bournonville classes, which they will very soon find, I think, easy because the rest of the teaching is very close to it.

Flemming Ryberg [teaches Bournonville] to the boys and they don’t do that specifically until the seventh level. Before that [it is] added up through the normal class. But in [the seventh level] the boys and girls have a separate class once a week in the morning from 8:30 to 10, and another day from 10 to 11, so twice a week they have the Bournonville separately. And that’s very specifically going through all the classes, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday classes etc.”

Asked about his own teaching style, he comments…
“I would say that my kind of teaching is of course inspired by Bournonville, because I’ve been doing a lot of Bournonville throughout my career. So a lot of things - how I want the arms to look and the easiness of how you move, epaulment and port de bras, are connected to Bournonville for sure, if you look at it from structure. So it’s very normal in how I teach it.”

Two other issues of importance are pointe work and pas de deux classes. The girls start pointe after several years in the school. “It’s usually in the 5th level where Eva [Kloborg] teaches them.” Balle explains, “They start around age 10-11 - of course if we take them [into the school] at that age they wait a bit. We try to look at the feet when we take them in because some combinations are not good for pointe. So, we try to stay on top of those things, but of course you can suddenly notice, when they have a pointe shoe, that they have problems.

Mostly [pointe] is added into the normal class. Eva has them once a week in a pointe class- it’s a normal class and then we have them one extra a week. And, of course some you can do more with than others. We try to look at the individual - I think is a big plus here - we have so few students, so we can really separate the kind of teaching we give to every individual. If someone needs a little bit more, it’s easy to give them a little extra.”

Pas de deux is another big step:   “Pas de deux…we just started this year doing it in the last level, the seventh level. Before we thought it wasn’t needed, also we were afraid of breaking [the boys’] backs if they weren’t strong enough. But, we added it because sometimes when they [become] apprentices, if we need boys, suddenly they are in [the ballets] and they haven’t done [pas de deux] before.

[The boys] just start holding the girls, not lifting a lot, because we think the boys backs have to be little bit stronger, and of course the girls are a lot bigger at that age [13, 14]! So we just very slowly start them off moving around with the girls so they get a sense of where they have to put them on pointe”.

One of the harsher realities of life at the school are the annual exams, evaluations that determine which students continue on to another year of training. This year, for the first time students were also given an informal half year evaluation, says Balle, to allow the teachers to better gauge their progression. In the end, only about a fourth of the students last through all seven levels and are asked to become apprentices.

“Usually what happens when they are apprentices is that they do the morning class, either with the company or with me – [I’m] in charge of the apprentices group. Then they work through all day with the company, and do an afternoon class also. And that’s almost every day, at least four times a week.
Sixteen is usually the year when they go into apprentices. But, for example, boys we always need a lot of, so if they come at 14 and have a good body and a mind for working, they start at the age 14. We’re not sure they can make it in those two years to be an apprentice, so sometimes we keep them a year more in school if they can [go on] another year in the academics.”

And for boys, holding them back is often good thing for their bodies: “It is very hard for them. They want it so badly just to fly through the air, and you have to tell them to take care of their feet and their knees.” To help the boys strengthen their bodies so they can safely jump and leap, the male apprentices are now getting extra classes. “Andrew Bowman, one of our principals, he works with the aspirant boys once a week and every second week he has a longer class with them. [The class is] Pilates based and structured for the stomach and upper body.”

Unlike their counterparts in the U.S. who often go to summer intensive programs, RDBS students are not encouraged to go elsewhere during their seven or so weeks of summer holiday. “They always have time off and we never ask them to do anything in the holidays.”

When asked if they are afraid students might forget what they have learned, Balle is emphatic: "No! I think its very valuable that they have a vacation, where they go [and don’t dance] Usually what we see is the kids coming back taller, developing a lot of muscular structure which they also need. [They don’t dance in the summer] until they go into aspirant level.

I encourage them a lot to go at that age, but not before they’re really finished. We want to mold them, like we want them to look. If they go too early, they get all sorts of inspiration and they go crazy and wild too early. I think its better to have them [go at] 16 years – they know what the basics are. Then I would ask them, like the boys I have now finishing with the school and are going into apprentices next year, to go out and have two weeks of inspiration somewhere else. Last year, I had a group that went to SAB for 3 or 4 weeks.”

Another of Balle’s responsibilities is to help ensure a constant flow of teaching talent into the school. When asked about the traits of a good teacher, he comments that, “you can be a great dancer and not be a good teacher, but hopefully some (dancers) can be. I think most important is to know how to put a good structure, and a good atmosphere into a class. And I think it’s very important to be enthusiastic - kids can [tell] very fast if you’re wanting them to be better or just putting on a pedagogical [air].

Of course, you have to know what you’re doing, what you’re dealing [with] and how to structure the class right. Also, to be able to switch how you teach them, so you keep them interested -not just go by the book, but change and vary your combinations and so on - I think that’s very good for kids. I can see that light in their eyes if they have something new, even if it’s too hard sometimes.”

The school is always on the lookout for dancers with an interest and teaching. “We started one or two years ago having visits from the National Ballet School of Canada, where they sent a couple of teachers [to teach] a course where we have talks about how we could do things, and what we could do better.
Each year we make it an open invitation for everybody who’s been thinking about teaching. They can come to that course, and maybe that tricks something in their minds. Afterwards, we see if there’s anybody who wants to be - we call it aspirants for teaching. This year we had three new girls who are following [teachers] around, seeing if they’re interested in it.

The school is also increasingly providing instruction and support to potential teachers.
“We have one teacher who’s working with us in a teacher’s group, where we have talks about structure, what we can do, pedagogical views on how to improve - lots of things. She comes 7 to 8 times a year to work with us for two hours, and we go through whatever she’s been giving us, like we had some papers we had to read.

When we know there are new people who want to teach, she [the teacher] can take them separately and work with them and prepare them on what they should think about. And [for] the technical stuff, they get invited into the class and can follow that [class] through the whole year. They also get to talk with that teacher so they get a little bit of insight on the technical view of how to do things, and maybe we go ask them to another school in the summer just to get a little more structure that way because we don’t have anything going on like that here.”

One of the hardest challenges for dancers interested in starting a teaching career is finding the time. Balle speaks from experience, when he says, “it is very tough to start teaching because you usually start while you are still dancing and it’s very to hard to combine. But, if you have the lust for it, I think you make time for it, even though you have to get up very early in the morning after a performance - I did myself -we all did. But you have to have the passion for it or you can’t make it work time-wise.”

In the next few years the school will be implementing changes in the curriculum and the structure of the day. Most importantly, the move of the opera and theater companies out to the new opera house will (hopefully) provide the company and school with more space, and ideally separate studio(s) for the school. This would allow the school much more flexibility in scheduling, as school classes would no longer have to be before or after company classes & rehearsals. With this in mind, the teachers are trying, as much as possible, to keep children in the same ballet and academic classes, so that each level can eventually be taken out of academic school at a different time for daily class.

Also, modern dance classes will become a part of the regular curriculum. Currently students have only limited exposure to modern dance, but “that’s going to change from next year, they’re going to put a modern course on. [Now], they have a 6 to 8 weeks period where we have [someone] coming and teaching them. We’re working [the schedule] out for next year, and we’re going to have [a class], once or twice weekly in the morning.”

Though the future will bring changes, expected and unexpected, Balle is optimistic about the school’s outlook: “I think we have been improving a lot during the last 5 or 6 years. There’s a lot of new thought going around - how to update things a bit. Not that it has been a bad school, it has been good for many, many years, but I think we took it a lot for granted, it was natural and calibrated. Now its been a little more visual, and we look outside [to see] what they do, what we could do maybe a little bit better, and the talk among colleagues in this school is a lot better than it has been.”

1. The school is officially known as the Ballet School of the Royal Danish Theatre, but is usually referred to the Royal Danish Ballet School. I will use this common name or abbreviate it as RDBS.
2. In this interview, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, the director of the school is sometimes referred to by her “nickname”, Mie.

To learn more about the Royal Danish Ballet School click here.

Edited by Jeff.

Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.


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