Inspired by Others: A Conversation with Peter Bo Bendixen of the Royal Danish Ballet
by Kate Snedeker
October, 2004 -- The Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
With the Third Bournonville Festival coming up in June 2005, the Royal Danish Ballet has been unveiling new productions of several Bournonville ballets. On October 2nd, the company debuted Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter's production of "The King's Volunteers on Amager," led by Peter Bo Bendixen as the dashing Edouard Du Puy. [Editor's note: "The King's Volunteers on Amager" is a rough translation of "Livjægerne på Amager" and the ballet is informally referred to as "Life Guards."]
Bendixen, who has been with the company since 1981, has become one of the leading interpreters of Bournonville's male roles. I had the chance to sit down with him during breaks between classes and final rehearsals of "Livjægerne på Amager," and talk about his feelings on the new production and the role of Edouard Du Puy, as well as his career, past, present and future.
Born in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Frederiksberg, Bendixen first came to the Royal Theatre in 1974, when he was accepted into the ballet school as a nine-year old. Thirty years later, he recalls the circumstances of his introduction to ballet with a chuckle.
"[I started] by coincidence I'd say. Where I grew up, I had a friend that I would play with in the street. He was starting here [the Royal Ballet School] and told me that when he came to do classes in the morning and dressed, he could look out the window and see the girls dress on the other side of the street. I found that very interesting. And then my mom asked me if I wanted to give [ballet] a try, because I had a lot of energy when I was a child. So I went for the audition in April... they took me and then I just stayed on."
Bendixen had the great fortune to go through the Royal Ballet School in the 1970s, a time when some of the finest Bournonville dancers were performing and teaching. Not surprisingly, he found many inspirations among these outstanding dancers and teachers.
"Looking back at it now, it's almost ridiculous how privileged I was... my generation was; I mean watching performances and watching these people, [who were] legends in ballet, legends in the Bournonville repertoire -- Kirsten Simone, Henning [Kronstam], Fleming -- I've seen Fleming Flindt dance. And then when I became a little older, Niels Kehlet was my teacher. When my generation became apprentices, that's when it really started happening with the teachers. Eric Bruhn would come and teach us often, and I had mime with Niels Bjørn Larsen and Kirsten Ralov. I would go to New York all the time to do classes with Stanley [Williams]. I had Henning Kronstam teaching me here -- teaching the first part that I did -- and I had Hans Brenaa teaching me.
"I would say pretty much all of the teachers I had back then really shaped me and my view on ballet, and my view on a lot of things. But of course, like everybody else will tell you, Henning stands out. He really does. He just gave a lot -- as Hans did. To be a really good teacher and inspiring you have to be generous. And I would say Henning had a lot of generosity, and a lot of belief in you. He was willing to take chances, but you always had the feeling that his trust in you was well-founded. Henning had stopped dancing, but he gave everything he had to us and I would say my whole generation: Alex [Kølpin], Nikolaj [Hübbe], Rose [Gad], Silja [Schandorff]; all of us, he really took care of us."
Bendixen found inspiration in his experiences outside the Royal Danish Ballet, both at the Hamburg Ballet, where he danced from 1986-1988 and in New York City.
"When I was very young, I went to Hamburg for three years and worked with John Neumeier. [I went] because John did his full length 'Hamlet' on me and Mette [Bødtcher] [at the Royal Danish Ballet in 1985]. I think I had a great thirst for learning and being inspired, and seeing other dancers work with other people. I worked with Truman Finney a lot in Hamburg, which was for me a great inspiration because he was very different than anything else I'd ever experienced. And of course, [I worked with] Kevin Hagen, which is of great importance to me.
"And also going to New York... and the first time I saw Darci [Kistler], I freaked. I remember the first time I saw Wendy [Whelan] too -- it was crazy. And just seeing the guys [who were] sort of my generation, Damian [Woetzel] and Peter Boal and Nikolaj [Hubbe], when they were really young was a great inspiration. Just watching them in class and on stage. Seeing people on stage is one thing, but the dancers that I have really appreciated the most are the ones I've seen work every day -- because that's when some of them really dance out. Some people have a work ethic and a devotion and a combination of a lot of things that just make you really respect them... a lot."
Those inspirations have kept Bendixen going through more than twenty years with the Royal Danish Ballet and he begins his third decade with the company by debuting as Edouard Du Puy in "Livjægerne på Amager." This, however, is not Bendixen's first time in the ballet, as he recounts, "... when I started here as a kid, my first ballet was 'Romeo and Juliet' by John [Neumeier], and my second ballet was 'Life Guards' in the production back in the seventies. So I was one of the little kids. I did the two silly guys together with Niels Balle when I was 18: Jan and Dirk. The last time, as far as I remember, the cast [for Du Puy] was Arne Villumsen and me, only the two of us, but it was a very short run. I can't really remember what else was on that program, but I think I was doing the other ballet or the two other ballets every night, so I never got to do [Du Puy]."
Having rehearsed or performed "Livjægerne på Amager" in each of the last three decades, when asked about Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter's new production, Bendixen says, "I think it's pretty much the same because Mie [Schlüter] is quite faithful to how the old production was. She's added a few things... [but] for these ballets to be alive you have to treat them as a living organism, you know. And I think she's done that by keeping pretty much what it was, adding things and giving space for changing things. Not changing things because you have to bring them up to date or anything, but having the space so that things can be changed if they feel right. I think that's very important."
One of the changes Schlüter has made is adding a pas de cinq for Du Puy and four women from his dreams. According to Bendixen, "That's one of the additions and there's one other addition -- where I'm playing the piano and everybody's dancing, shortly after the dream sequence; that has been added as well. The rest is pretty much what it was."
When asked why he thought Schlüter made these additions to the ballet, Bendixen talks about the character of Edouard Du Puy, highlighting not only the talents and unique eccentricities of Du Puy, but the time and care Bendixen has put into researching and absorbing the nuances of the character.
"... this character -- Edouard Du Puy -- he was a real living person and he was here... at the theater back in 1801. He came to Copenhagen -- he was kicked out of Sweden because the king got offended when he was singing the Marseilles in Sweden. He pretty much got kicked out everywhere he went, but he was a very, very charming, talented man. One of these people that just have tons of talent -- and he tried to administer all of his talents. He was a fantastic violinist, he was a fantastic singer, he was a composer, he rode as a Life Guard -- we were fighting with the English back then -- and he was a big Don Giovanni. Du Puy actually sang Mozart's Don Giovanni here at the theater!
"He had a lot a lot of women and had that kind of charm that you just couldn't resist -- the women couldn't resist -- the men hated him of course! He can't help it I think; young girls, old girls -- whatever -- he can't help [but to] turn on that charm. And I think that Mie put in that dream sequence with the girls to make that a little more clear.
"You can then say [the scene] is pretty much like in 'Onegin' when [Onegin] thinks back to the women that he's had -- this is the same kind of thing. Du Puy sits there by this piano and he's thinking back at some of the women that he's been with before. It's that kind of idea, and that's why she put [the scene] in -- to make it clear to the audience that he is a womanizer, amongst many other things."
However, Bendixen points out where the lives of the real and fictional Du Puy diverge. "I don't think Du Puy cared that much about [his wife]. I think he married because he wanted to have kids, even though he had a child in France -- he was Swiss-French. I think he also married because he would get bored and so needed attention all the time. Then he married, and didn't care too much about it. So, Du Puy would still fool around -- it was just the kind of thing he would do.
"And I think he wanted people to look up to him so much, and though he had all the women where he wanted them, it was not enough, so he would get that attention from being on stage. And he was a HUGE success. Every time he had a performance, the house was full in here... the whole theater was packed every time he would sing or play or whatever. He wanted the men to look up to him too and that's why he was a soldier also. He wanted to put his life out there -- take a chance and fight -- so that the men could look up to him too for his bravery."
Bendixen has seen just a very few dancers perform the role of Du Puy. "The only ones that I remember over the last many, many years were Henning and Arne [who] did it the last couple times -- and Tommy [Frishøi] did it also actually. I remember Henning so clearly."
But, he feels it is very important that he find his own interpretation.
"I feel extremely privileged that I've always done Henning and Arne's roles. They are just like icons in anything that they did...[so performing this role] is difficult and its hard, but it's a great challenge also because I know I have to make it my own. The minute I start copying Arne or Henning or do it they way that they did, in any of these roles, I just fall apart. And it's just worth nothing because they were so great. I have to make it my own, not imitate, because they were great at certain things and if I try to do the same, it will always be an imitation."
Though Du Puy is in many ways a classic Bournonville character, when queried Bendixen compares him to a non-Bournonville character, Onegin. "I think in certain ways you can compare him to Onegin. [Du Puy and Onegin are] the kind of people that have so many talents. Onegin is that kind of person to the extent that he feels superior to everyone towards everybody and anybody. I think the difference between the two is that Du Puy can relate to everybody and he's charming towards everybody that he meets and feels comfortable with anybody: the peasants or the royal family. Like, for instance, he comes on with the peasants to do this dance [the reel].
"Onegin is a little more complicated in that sense. He had that charm also, he had all the talents, he had the money, but he had a hard time, I think, relating to people that he was very superior to. And he felt superior to everybody, but then prefers to relate to the people that were the closest to him in intelligence and in status.
"But that's the only [ballet] I can compare it to. That's the wonderful thing about doing the Bournonville ballets -- even within just the Bournonville rep you have a chance, both girls and men, to do very different characters. Gennaro in 'Napoli;' it's a very different character from Du Puy. He's much more primitive, he has that charm and that masculinity, but he's not your most bright [person]. James, is very different in temperament and character. Junker Øve in the 'Folk Tale' is again very, very different and Golfo is also. Within the Bournonville rep, you really as a man -- if you are lucky enough to do all the leads -- you really can do very different characters."
And Bendixen is fortunate enough to have done a wide range of characters. "Not James, but I've done all of the other Gurn, Gennaro, Golfo, the Troll [Diderik] and this now. I was really lucky because I never had the strongest technique. I always worked hard, and could do a lot of stuff, but I was never natural in the sense that Alex and Nikolaj and others in my generation were. But I have the height and the [body] type that I can do a lot of different [parts], and that's been my big privilege -- that I've never been put in a box. My only limitations have been technical, but type-wise, I've done a lot of [roles] that are very different that normally the small guys do or tall guys do. For example, I've always had two casts in all the ballets: when I did Gennaro, I also always did Golfo, when I did Albrecht on one cast, [I did] Hilarion in the other, and I did Tybalt and Romeo. I've also been very often be the bad guy, which is always the most crowd-pleasing thing to do. Like in movies too -- the bad guy is always the one who gets the most attention, and it's fun."
When asked about his favorite role, the conversation turns back to Onegin. "I think probably -- well -- absolutely Onegin. I would say that's best part I've ever done, where I've felt most comfortable. I love the ballet and I love doing it because I felt really good doing it and felt I was right for the role. Out of the Bournonville rep, Gennaro. I like him -- he's nice, he's a fun guy and I did Gennaro with all the girls, I did with Lise [Jeppesen], I did it with Heidi [Ryom], I did it with Rose... it's a great part.
"But when it comes to what ballets he likes to watch, it depends on who's dancing. I remember Nikolaj and Lis and Sorella [Englund] in 'La Sylphides' -- it was just fantastic. You know, I would sit there and watch it every time they did it. It was just about four times. But the magic between the three of them was just fantastic. That was just crazy because you have such strong personalities out there; but using each other rather than trying to stand out. You know... feeding off each other and then just gave it... And I would say Heidi and Arne in 'Onegin' was just out of this world. It was like some of these [performances] that you watch, where it's just above anything else. I would say these two things, in this house at least."
Bendixen turns forty early next year, a momentous birthday for Royal Danish Ballet dancers because it is the age when pensions begin. Some dancers choose to retire and pursue other interests, but Bendixen is happy right where he is.
"I love to dance! I told the company now to give me another season. And I just love it. It's funny because there are a lot of things I would like to do: teaching the company, young dancers -- I love that. I really would like to devote a lot of time to that.
"I'm going to do some [character dancing], but I like what I do right now. I like where I am in my career right now, which is doing parts like [Du Puy] that are not really technically demanding, but that are not just character parts. I love doing Golfo, Du Puy, G.M. in 'Manon' -- these kind of characters where you need more, but you don't need to get yourself out there all the time.
"I think that's what I really like... I like to go on stage, to feel comfortable, feel that I am doing a good job, but not having to be nervous, not having to think two days in advance. When I was younger, I always got a kick out of being nervous and going out there and proving myself. But I really appreciate now not being like that. I give a lot when I go on stage and I'm very focused and really into my parts, but I'm not nervous. And I can hang around with friends and have a glass or a bottle of wine the night before, not just before! And not think about now I have to prepare. I really appreciate that. So I think that's where I'm going.
"I also have the touring group -- Principals and Soloists of the Royal Ballet -- and that is a lot of fun because the people I have with me are fun. They are great guys and are very professional. They understand when to have a good time, when to experience [the places they are at] and then when to pull it on, get out there on stage and really do what they're great at.
"The touring group first came about seven years ago. I contacted a connection that I had in Brazil where I had been dancing -- actually he's Danish -- and I suggested to him that we put together a tour back in 1997. And we did, and it worked so well that we just got started. We're so lucky because there are so many places that want us -- places where they cannot afford to have a full company or where the full company's priority is to not go... because we're not a touring company.
"These places where we tour with the group... South Africa quite a lot, South America quite a lot, Spoleto -- we went to the festival, which is fantastic and it's one of the most fascinating places that we've done, Turkey, Germany a couple of times and we did the U.S in January. Edinburgh is one of the places that we'd love to go. I would love to go to the Festival. I think Spoleto was number one on my list and Edinburgh is the second.
"That's the thing -- we're really privileged because there are a lot of places that have interest in having us, but I would say 75-80% of the invitations I get, we have to turn down because when the season starts here, there's no way we can do it. We can only do it about three or four weeks a year, which is probably good because it never gets to be too much. Also now I have two children, and I want to prioritize my family a lot, so I don't want to travel more than, say, a few weeks a year."
Bendixen's children may keep their father closer to home, but the touring group is not his only foray outside the theater. In his "spare" time, he has helped to open a Supergeil, a café in the Nørrebro section of Copenhagen, and also is on the Committee of Denmark's TV2. And when he can find time outside those commitments, he can often be found perfecting his swing on the golf course in Fredensborg!