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Interview with Tina Højlund

by Kate Snedeker

March 26, 2004

Acclaimed for her performances in both traditional Bournonville ballets and modern works, Tina Højlund is one of the Royal Danish Ballet’s most experienced soloists. She joined the company as an apprentice in 1989, entered the corps in 1998 and was promoted to soloist in 1998.

As well as dancing leading roles including Teresina in ‘Napoli’, Kitri in ‘Don Quixote’ , Eleonora in ‘Kermesse in Bruges’ and Birthe in ‘A Folk Tale’, Højlund has performed in ballets like ‘Fearful Symmetries’, ‘The Concert’, ‘Nomade’, ‘Suite en Blanc’, ‘Mahler’s Fifth Symphony’ and ‘A Lovers Tale’. She has also received the Statoil Grant, Bournonville Grant, Svenåge Grant and the Reumert Talent Prize.

I sat down with her at the end of a long week of rehearsals for the company’s new production of 'Anna Karenina', in which she is dancing the role of Betsy.

How did you get started in ballet?

“I got started [in ballet] quite young. I saw a performance in [The Royal Theatre] - actually it was a play with a little piece of dance in it at the end, a couple of children dancing. I was probably four or five and was like, ‘I gotta do that!’.

And so I asked my mother, 'Can I please go to the ballet?' She wasn’t sure because I had danced before when I was really, really young, and it was a bit of a fuss, and she couldn’t deal with the whole thing again. But I kept on wanting to [dance], and so eventually she said yes! I did the auditions [for the Royal Danish Ballet School ] when I was 6 or 7.

Did you like the school?

I really did, I enjoyed everything. It’s a bit like a fairytale when you’re a kid. What we have here, compared to most other [ballet schools], is that we are part of the performances really, really early on. My first year, I was already part of the performances. The first thing I did was a play where they needed some children.

Did you have any teachers that particularly inspired you?

Yes! I would have to mention Ulla Skow. I had her when she was really young. She was a dancer in the company and taught the young children. And Johnny Eliasen, who was a principal dancer at that time. Those are the ones I really remember.

Do you have any favorite ballets? To watch? To dance in?

Well, I would have to mention a lot! I think my favorite ballets that we’ve ever done here must be ‘Onegin’ and ‘Romeo & Juliet’ by [John] Neumeier. Everybody is involved - the whole corps and even the character dancers - everything is so important and it works really well, with fantastic stories. Those ballets, I really love. And, I really love being a part of those. For me personally, what I enjoy dancing in other [ballets] because I haven’t done the main parts in those, I’ve done smaller parts in those things.

Favorite roles?

If I should mention what I’ve enjoyed the most…it’s also a long list!. I enjoy very much doing Teresina in ‘ Napoli ’. I really enjoy doing Birthe - it’s really fun and you can sort of go crazy. Also, Myrtha in ‘Giselle’, Kitri in ‘Don Q’, and lots of little modern things. There’s a lot of things I’ve done that I really enjoyed.

Were there any dancers you looked up to as a student or young dancer?

I think I had a lot and have taken a little bit from a each of them. I’ve looked up to certain people because they are very good at what they do. One of those is Lis Jeppesen, for her acting and for her being so natural on stage. She never looks fake and you can always see that she really puts herself into the part. That I really respected and learned from.

Then somebody like Rose Gad, also, I think I’ve learned a lot from watching her. She’s just so musical and has so much finesse. Those are just the ones that come to mind right away.

Do you feel that it’s important for the company to have the Bournonville tradition?

Yes, I think it’s very important for our company to have this [tradition]. Either we can turn our back it or not. I certainly would not want to do that, and we can’t.

There are a lot of qualities in [the Bournonville style] and some of them are bit, you could say, old-fashioned, and they are from a certain time. It’s like any [ballet] really - you can act in an old time or you can act in a future time.

For me [the Bournonville style] doesn’t feel old-fashioned. It can [feel old-fashioned], but you have to believe in it. And if you do believe it when you stand there doing it, it works. You can see someone that feels uncomfortable doing [the Bournonville], because they feel stupid. And as soon as you get that feeling, it doesn’t work. You have to go for it 100%! When I’ve done Bournonville roles, I’ve really tried to put myself into them.

We all have to go through a lot of the [Bournonville] steps in the school, and learn the style and the physical part of it. And you learn a lot from it, because it’s very coordinated; the legs and the arms are very coordinated ….and that you can use in other styles, so I think it’s a very good thing to learn.

What other choreography/choreographers do you enjoy besides Bournonville?

Balanchine is one of them, for sure. I like a lot of his ballets - 'Apollo', for instance, is fantastic, 'Serenade' is fantastic - I love those. Also, I like a lot of things from Forsythe, Jiri Kylian…

Have you thought what you’d like to do after your dance career?

Oh yes, I’ve thought about that! If I could have it completely my way, I would really like to instruct. I think that’s something that I could learn how to do. Teaching, also could be fun. But I feel maybe that instructing, and having something to do with the performances, and not just teaching class - those things I would love to do. It’s really hard, but that’s what I would really enjoy.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new aspirant (apprentice), what would it be?

Well, there are so many things…

I would probably say that they should give themselves 100%, and try and get the best out of anything that they do. We have a saying in this company that ‘no parts are small’, and I think that’s quite an important [idea] because we don’t all get to do the best parts - most people don’t get to do the best parts. So, if you learn to really enjoy doing a corps part, while you really try and make your best of doing that [corps part], then I think you will have a better time. And by doing that you’ll go farther, maybe you will do a nicer part, but you have to really put yourself 100% into what you do.

You took a leave of absence to dance with another company last year?

Yes, it was called New Danish Dance Theatre, and it’s a small modern company.

Why?

I needed a change; I really needed a change. I’ve been here all my life and never wanted to leave, but also at the same time wanted to try something else. I got on with the director [of the New Danish Dance Theatre] very well and have worked with him many, many times, so he offered me the [opportunity]. I really felt I needed to get out of the house for second…it’s a big house!

Was it a good experience?

Yes, yes it was. It was nice to get out and just see some other people everyday. To dance in the modern [pieces] was also fun, but the best thing for me was the human side of it.

Not that I don’t like people in [the Royal Danish Ballet] because I do, but I needed to see some other faces. I’ve seen these people, a lot of them, for so many years. Sometimes its almost a feeling of time is just kind of standing still. We think back to when was it we did ‘Carmen Mathilde’, was it 5 years ago, was it 10 years ago, was it 15 years ago? It can sometimes become a blur. When I came back, then I felt like I started over again,

Is modern dance a new thing in Denmark?

It’s not something new, but it is becoming more visible. There isn’t a lot [of modern dance], but there is some and they’re trying really hard at the moment to get into a bigger frame and not just having it be a little itty bitty [performances] here and there. They’re dong some performances in here [Royal Theatre] like ‘Blow Up’.  And a year ago, they did a modern version of ‘ Napoli ’ and I was in that too. It’s good for the Royal Danish Ballet to have these people coming in and its nice to have bit of ‘interference’.


Edited by Holly Messitt

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