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Frank Anderson, Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet

Back to basics, back to Bournonville

by Kate Snedeker

October 2, 2004 -- Det Kongelige Teater, København

The eyes of the ballet world are upon Copenhagen as the Royal Danish Ballet prepares for the 3rd Bournonville Festival. During a recent trip to Copenhagen, I had the chance to talk with the company's artistic director, Frank Andersen.

A member of a balletic family, Andersen's connection the Royal Theatre dates back to the early 1900s when his grandmother was a dresser for the company. His mother was a principal dancer at Tivoli Gardens who partnered Eric Bruhn in his debut, and her sister was also a dancer. Andersen himself married fellow dancer Eva Kloborg, and their son Sebastian is now an apprentice with the company.

Andersen began his ballet training in 1960, entering the Royal Danish Ballet School as a seven year old, and, after nine years in the school, became a company apprentice. Just eight years later, he was promoted to principal dancer, and in 1985 was named artistic director. After nearly a decade in charge, Andersen parted ways with the Royal Danish Ballet, directing the Royal Swedish Ballet and freelancing, before being asked to return as artistic director in 2001, taking up the position in 2002.

KS: What has been your biggest challenge since returning to the Royal Danish Ballet?

FA: Well, I think there's [been] a lot of exciting challenges. One can say that one of the first was probably to make people feel that we were working united. There's been a severe change of directors over the last ten years, from the beginning of the 90s when I left until I came back, with five directors in eight years. I think it's a world record that we are not very proud of, and of course that has put some tracks within the company

So, I think the first big challenge was and is to unite the company so that we work for the same course and have the same goals. To get that into every single individual person, not only in the company, but also in my administration -- we are 140 people here. Forgetting that every single dancer is individual, because naturally [they have] individual goals, but there's one large goal that the company works for.

And that's probably what I've used the most of my time for in the first three years. I think we're there now -- we have a united goal. Everybody knows what we are supposed to do, where we're going and what we aim for. Right now the first goal is the Bournonville Festival, and of course we'll be ready for that.

So that's the biggest challenge, to create the family feeling that I like to have within the company: that we are taking care of each other, that we understand each other, that we help each other, we support each other, we encourage each other. It's been very exciting to create that kind of comfort for everybody, and to be able to develop secure circumstances where the [dancers] know that they can fail, and still won't be out; but that they will be nursed to do better next time. For me that has been a challenge to be here all the time, and be there for them.

The dancers' careers are short, so the problems are here and now, not tomorrow. It doesn't necessarily have to be problems in-house, it could also be problems outside -- your boyfriend, you could be homesick, could be no place to live. And then I will be there for them; that's very important. I have an open door policy: people can come in, knock, close the door, nobody knows what we talk about -- it's between them and me. I think that kind of honesty and trust, to create that, to have created that, that has been the first challenge and goal for me.

Has there been somebody who has influenced you as an artistic director?

Well, not so much by other artistic directors, actually. I don't think that very many artistic directors have this openness that we have within this company. We are very, very open in how we speak to each other, and what kind of knowledge and know-how we share between us. In terms of artistic matters, as well as economical and administrative matters, I have no secrets for the company.

So in that way, the inspirations have probably come more from friends in the business life and how they run their firms - not that this is going to be a "business". But there are certain similarities that you can work with. I would like to consider this as the Danish National Team - we are kind of a national team, and so inspiration has probably also come from the sports.

We've been going to team building courses, and when we go away for a weekend, out of the house, we simply sit and talk and say [ask], what can we do better? This dialogue and communication between us, for me, has been the essence to create [the] best possible ways of development for the company. So, I don't think that there's any director that has been a kind of goal for me I think I try to create my own way of running the company.

Many companies in the U.S. and Europe are struggling with finances. What is the financial situation for the Royal Danish Ballet?

It couldn't be more different [from the U.S.] because we are a 100% state subsidized company. Then, of course, we have sponsors, but that is then the whipped cream, as they used to say, what comes on top. And [those funds] give us a little freedom to do things like [the Bournonville Festival].

We got a tremendous grant from Danisko, a Danish firm that is sponsoring the Bournonville Festival. Without that grant there would have been a festival, but not a festival of that scale that we're doing now. [It is] going to be monumental: the ballet event of this decade. We are expecting a tremendous amount of people to come here: critics, ballet historians, scholars and directors. Those who were present for 1979 and 1992 are sure not going to miss 2005. So, I would say that the financial situation is good. We can always use more money, but we know what we have, and we don't have to go out and find every penny.

The government is not cutting funding each year?

They used to, but [we got] the new house from Maersk. And [the government is] giving us more money now to run two houses, and in 2008 we're going to run three houses. It's going to be opposite the royal theatre, not directly, diagonally across.

So we'll have three houses, with the opera and the music in one house, and the drama in the other house and then the ballet here in Bournonville's house. [And also in the Royal Theatre things like] Mozart operas, a few concerts, and we'll have one large play from the drama. So we'll be in all three houses. Everybody will do hopscotch.

Is [having three theatres] going to be a challenge for the company?

I think it's fantastic to have the opportunity to perform on different stages and different venues. And it also proves that we are a unity, the royal theatre under the umbrella with three houses.

The company's going to be bigger; probably one of the only companies in the world that is expanding. We're now about 90, including the extra principal character dancers I hired for this season, otherwise we are about 80. We will be more than 100 when we get to 2010 - we'll do it from the school primarily.

It recent years there appear to have been fewer dancers coming into the company from the school. Since the company is expanding, are efforts being made to increase the numbers coming from the school?

We are a very small country, only 5 million people. It's very difficult to be able to produce four or five dancers each year, and we're not. And we shouldn't, because we should only take the best. We also have to admit that some years there might be none, or might be one or two. And that is what I'm accepting now.

But, we have enlarged the school. We have two schools in the provinces open now and are working with them closely. It's our teachers there, and we are taking the [students] in now. And I think in about 3 -- 4 - 5 years we'll see good results, and can expect more people to come into the company from the schools by 2009, '10 and '11.

[They'll] come in the uppers levels at the age of 12 [for the] last four years. In 2006 we'll have a boarding school, which will be located right here within the house. [It will be] underneath the academic school, [which] will be completely renovated. It's going to cost 10 million kroner to do that, and we found the money and we're doing it. Dorms and everything for 20 people, age 12 to 16, and then if [a dancer] coming in doesn't have a place right away then [they can stay there].

One solution to the low numbers of students coming from the school is to hire foreign dancers. Is it a challenge to incorporate them into the company with such a strong tradition?

I think that to have foreign dancers in this company is a definite asset because they are providing us with some fresh blood. So it's not just inside. I look at it as a big advantage to be able to take a few foreigners to broaden our view so we don't just become regional and national.

And I think we've been quite lucky with the ones we've taken in. The ones [who don't] feel like that, of course they shouldn't be here. And I think that is working itself out very well, because after one or two years, they know if this is their company or it's not and [whether] they should continue it if it's not.

But of course it's a challenge in the sense that they have to cope with the style. That's why we have the special classes for the foreigners with the Bournonville style, as well as the company classes for them. So they get it at least twice a week, and this season especially, they will be working on Bournonville a lot. So they'll get into the atmosphere and the joie de vivre, or the joy of life, that Bournonville was speaking so much about. And I think we are succeeding pretty well in creating this.

One of the big issues now is the preservation of the Bournonville ballets, and of course every time you do a new production of a Bournonville ballet, there's going to be someone who doesn't like it. How are you trying to go about it preserving the heritage while keeping it fresh at the same time?

I think it's an asset that we still have people in the house [who] can remember, and naturally if people have things to say to us, we are listening to them. One can say it was more important twenty years ago, because in that time we didn't have the video and filming. Now we have the video: I am going to start on 'Far From Denmark' next week and I have the video from1992 which was done by Niels Bjorn Larsen as ballet master.

It gives a tremendous help with the video to be sure that we have the things right. But nevertheless, there can always be things that people say, 'Oh I remember that I did so and so.' And we say, 'OK, well that actually makes sense, all right --let's use that.'

[And] I think it's an advantage to have our principal character artists because nobody can afford that anywhere else, to have people employed when they are not dancing. And we have about 10-12 people from age 40 to 70, [like] Kirsten Simone.

Each time you revive a ballet, it gets changed along the way. How do you decide what to change, what -- if anything- needs to be changed?

I think it's very important that Bournonville's alive -- sometimes you have to look at these things as if the choreographer was alive. I think it's the same with [New York] City Ballet, the same with Macmillan, even though he hasn't been dead that long. When the ballet masters are staging these ballets, they will look at the dancers they have because the dancers are not the same as they were 30,40,50 years ago. Their bodies are different, the technical ability is different.

And one has to be sure that [the ballets] still relate, and be sure that it's not -- old fashioned. Of course you can become a museum, but I'm trying to avoid becoming a museum. I would like that when [we] do the mime in the Bournonville scenes, that it still is something that people understand and can relate to. And that it doesn't look old fashioned. Not that it should look modern, but it must be in a "language" that is understood by the common person, even with no relation to ballet.

So that is why we have to be sure that every time we do a performance, it looks fresh and that people can understand. That's why Mie added this little, very small scene [in "Kings Guard in Amager"], where Edouard is dreaming about all his affairs. I kind of like that, and don't think it is breaking the tradition -- that's not my feeling at least.

I think there should be room, just as Balanchine would have gone in and looked critically, which [he did] all the time when he was alive. He looked at his ballets and changed for certain people. If you have Pat Neary, [or other repetiteurs]; if you looked at the versions they are doing, it was the version they danced in. Then somebody else was there five years later, and then that's their version. So, when you look at the Balanchine ballets all over the world you know it's Balanchine, but if you take it step by step, there will be a lot of differences in the productions. I think that freedom should go for us as well.

One of the major challenges for ballet companies today is to attract the next generation to performances. What is the Royal Danish Ballet doing to appeal to younger audiences?

I think it's a big challenge, and a wonderful challenge for everybody to try to maintain and also attract the next audience. We have a steady, good audience, but we also have to admit that our subscribers are just getting older -- it's not the young ones, not the next generation that's going in and buying the subscriptions here. The offers in the world today are so tremendous in entertainment that you really must go out there; you have to beat the drum. I don't think we've been very good at that in the 90s and I hope that we can change that now, with a more progressive policy towards the next audience.

And what we're doing, maybe not so much this season, because this season is gone and devoted to Bournonville. But starting from next season we'll be trying to find the language of the young ones, the young audience. I cannot expect them just to go in a buy a ticket, 250-300 kroner, and then go to theatre and see Bournonville. I think we have to go out and get them. And if a way of creating a dialogue with the next generation of theatre and ballet goers will be through the music they're listening through their Walkman, then I'm ready to start the dialogue right there.

Meaning that I would be very interested in having choreographers and next season will be devoted to new choreography. I'm doing at least 12 world premieres next year and many of them will be with groups, bands, maybe even playing live on stage. Like what we did at Kastellet with Swan Lee, which is one of the most popular Danish rock groups right now. We invited them to play live and Louise [Midjord] created a little piece -- 6 minutes. I think we should continue that relationship with them, and meet the next audience where they are, not just expecting them to come to us. So we probably will have to go out to [the young audiences] and then try to get them in here afterwards to see what we do.

Is there enough music that young audiences listen to that can be adapted to the ballet stage?

We have the great advantage that [the music] doesn't necessarily have to be with vocals. It could be a suite that a rock group creates of 10 to 15 minutes; maybe one song with a long repeat of music. We can use that: the opera cannot, drama cannot, orchestra cannot, but we can [use the music and choreography] to express our emotion, our feelings, our heartbeat. That's what I would like to do, because ballet is about emotion and feelings and I think we can express that in that music as well. [We have] to choose with care, but I'm not concerned about it and I have no preconceptions. I am open for anything that can work and also artistically will be un-attackable.

Are you going to do any Bournonville in the next season, or will it be a clean slate?

We will be having Bournonville; he will always be in the rep. But, I'm also considering looking at Bournonville in a different way. I think it could be interesting; now that we have all the ballets on video, [to] invite somebody -- a drama director or a famous opera director- and to see how they would look at Bournonville with his plot and his ideas.
I think that could be interesting. Like you do with all Mozart's operas; all of a sudden you are in jeans, [but] it's still the same story. Do they have to be dressed in 16th century or 15th century or 17th I don't know, I don't think so.

Maybe once you try to make that step, people would say it would be betraying Bournonville. I don't think it is because we can always go back [to the classic versions]. I would love to play Napoli back to back with a new version where they were in jeans, [were] rockers. I think that could be fun to do, not now, and maybe not next year, but in the years to come, to try to do a little experimental Bournonville.

If you had unrestricted funds and no time constraints, is there a ballet you would love bring to the company?

Well, I saw once a wonderful fabulous production of "Sleeping Beauty", and actually I was trying to get it to Copenhagen. It was staged by Marcia Haydee in Stuttgart with Jurgen Rose as the designer -- the same [designer] who did "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" right here in the house. I think [he's] one of the most extraordinary designers and this production was the most gorgeous I've ever seen.

Of course I love Helgi [Tomasson's], which is the one I bought, but the other one still remains in the back of my head. It was a very expensive production, and I couldn't do it. So if I had unlimited funds, I probably wouldn't hesitate about it at all. We can go to the new opera house and do it over there. [That stage] can open and [the backstage will be] bigger, much bigger. It will have one, two, three, four, five backstages, two side stages at the same size as the stage and three in the back.

Edited by Jeff

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