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Tim Matiakis, Soloist, Royal Danish Ballet

Through three royal houses

by Kate Snedeker

September 29, 2004 -- The Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

At just 26, soloist Tim Matiakis has already danced in three major European companies – the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Royal Ballet and now the Royal Danish Ballet.  Since arriving in Copenhagen in the summer of 2004, he has danced a wide variety of ballets and is currently having roles created on him in two new productions.  Recently, I had the chance to talk with Matiakis about his experiences in Stockholm, London and Copenhagen.

KS: How did you start ballet?

TM: It’s kind of the same story as most [other dancers].  At that time we were living in Greece– I’m half Swedish, half Greek - and my sisters wanted to start ballet because that was the appropriate thing for girls at that age.  I was much more into martial arts and stuff; that was what I wanted to do. 

But my mom went to [register] the girls at this new ballet school that had just started in the town we were living in, and as she was walking out the door she asked if they had anything appropriate for guys.  The school lied – because in Greece, ballet’s not as big for men as it is in other countries … there it’s a great audience, but [not a lot of men study ballet] - and they said there was some kind of class [which included] exercise with the muscles, gymnastics, sword fighting … all that it meant is that it was ballet with a bit of those things on Saturday.  So that’s how I started.

When did you go back to Sweden?

I went back to Sweden … I think it was ’92 - ’93, and started in the 8th grade at the Royal Swedish Ballet School.  The company doesn’t have apprentices, so I finished the school, but I unfortunately got injured just after [I got my contract].  I was out for one and half years, but still [kept] my contract with the Royal Swedish Ballet.

At that time it was Frank Andersen who was the director; he hired me and when I came back, I did one full year under him. He pushed me quite a bit, which I was very happy for, because it was a major injury, and it was just nice to have someone supporting you and still wanting you to do things.  That’s how I started at the Royal Swedish Ballet.

Did you have any dancers that inspired you or that you looked up to?

In Stockholm there were a couple of the principals in the company that I looked up to.  It was a very good period that the Royal Swedish Ballet was going through, with Frank and before. There were a lot of good dancers… like Göran Svalberg, Anders Nordström, Jan-Erik Wikström…that was mainly throughout my student years. 

Why did you choose to leave the Royal Swedish Ballet?

I had come to a point at the Royal Swedish where I needed a little bit more. I had done a lot, but I wanted to see more. I wanted to experience another big company and in my eyes, the Royal Ballet was as big as it gets.  Also, I felt I was pulling the train a little bit.  At the Royal Ballet, it was so amazing to have, not one, but the whole company pulling the train.  And it’s a matter of if you can catch up or not.  And, I liked MacMillan a lot and wanted to do a few of those parts.

So, I was very fortunate to get into the Royal Ballet, because I think I’m the only Swede who has actually gone to the Royal Ballet from the Royal Swedish Ballet. Johan Persson of course, went, [but he] studied in Canada. So it’s fortunate that they wanted me to join them. 

Where there any particular ballets you wanted to do at the Royal Ballet?

Many! One of my favorite roles is Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet", which I had already performed with the Royal Swedish Ballet in the same version.  So that was a big thing for me to do that with the Royal Ballet, in the house of MacMillan.

You were listed as ‘on leave’ from the Royal Swedish Ballet while you were in London.  Did you intend to go back eventually?

[I was] just seeing what was going to happen.  I believe I’m still at an age where I have a chance to see what happens, and my opinion is not that one should dance because it’s comfortable.  I am much more of the opinion, for myself – everybody’s different – that I dance as long as I think it’s fun, and where I think it is fun to dance.  And when I don’t think it’s interesting anymore, than I’d rather quit than go on just collecting a salary.

Why did you decide to leave the Royal Ballet?

The Royal Ballet is a difficult company to work for.  It’s a great company to work for as well, but at the time I joined it went through a difficult period.  Ross Stretton had just hired me and several other people, and then left or was fired or whatever one chooses to put it down as. 

So [the company] went through a period of … trying to settle down.  A lot of the company members that had been there a long time were very upset by the way things were handled, and pushing us forward would not have helped the situation. 

So when we came back I did not dance much, which was very strange for me, since I came from the Royal Swedish Ballet where I had danced quite a bit.  I was expecting a little bit less work, and there’s always work at the Royal Ballet, but not work that I was interested in.  It was mostly corps de ballet work, and corps de ballet does not challenge me. So the first year was a very, very difficult year.

But, I was [assured] by Monica Mason, who had taken over, that she believed in me and wanted me to stay.  Therefore I decided to stay a second year, where a lot of chances were given, and I probably had one of my best seasons.  I started with Bronze Idol, went to Mercutio, went to "Sinfonietta". We worked with Wayne MacGregor, he created a piece for us, then I got to do both Jester and the Ugly Sister in "Cinderella".  And the season continued throughout, so it was a very, very good season. Which I was very happy for, because it’s exactly the reason I joined the Royal Ballet - to see and learn more by doing more.

And I really appreciated working with the Royal Ballet because it gives you another perception of how things can be done.  It’s a huge institution, so they have to get things done and there’s no way for nurturing, there’s no space at all for that.  So you have to make sure to believe in yourself, because no one else will.  And if you don’t, then you’re down somewhere at the bottom and someone else will automatically take your space.  It was a great experience and it was great working amongst such star dancers.

Now, I left the Royal Ballet because at the end of that [year], I wanted to know what was going to happen after that.  And simply, they could not make any promises at that time.  I am more than willing to sacrifice private life for career, but when a career was not guaranteed, I was not so sure it was the right option.

How did you end up at the Royal Danish Ballet?

My girlfriend is a member of this company, and I knew Frank from before since he hired me in Stockholm.  So, on my many visits here on weekends, I got together with Frank and asked him what the deal would be for me here, and he said that I would be needed. 

I was offered a contract, which could not be matched at that point with the Royal Ballet.  Also, I was told that it was going to be a traditional year [at both companies].  The [Royal Ballet] is reviving a lot of Ashton ballets, here we are reviving a lot of Bournonville ballets.  But my type of dancer, I think, automatically would do more Bournonville than Ashton.  So, I thought it was better to come here

What was the hardest thing about moving from company to company?

The hardest thing is losing all your friends, and losing your base.  It’s very tough, but it’s easier this time around because I had often traveled here to visit my girlfriend, and so knew a lot of people in the company.  But it’s still different; it’s still trying to settle down [from] the pace of London to the pace of Copenhagen.

Moving from Stockholm to London was quite tough because I had lived there [for] eight years: my family was there, my girlfriend was there then.  And it was quite different to be on your own.  But it was quite strengthening – either it makes you or it breaks you. And I’m happy it made me rather than broke me [laughs]!!  I think I needed that [change], just to realize a little bit more what I want,what I don’t want, who I am.  It’s nice to have the opportunity.

At this point I’d rather throw myself into things that are difficult, rather than take the easy way, because I’ve realized that [no matter] how hard it might be, you always gain something.  There’s always a positive side to it.

What are the differences between dancing in London and Copenhagen and in Sweden?

I think the difference is mainly in the pace of productions and rehearsals.  Here, we take the middle [pace], which at this point, I would say, suits me best.  [The pace in Stockholm was slower], so it was a great company for me to grow up in, and do five years because I needed that nurturing time.  I was very thankful for all the chances and everything I did.

Royal [Ballet] was exactly the opposite - it was 12 productions a year, practically no rehearsals … just go out, believe in yourself and it works.  That was quite a different experience, and it was great for me because I had to let go of so many fears that come up with dancing: everything becomes a routine and if a routine is broken, you panic. 

So it was so nice to have no routine - there was no time for a routine.  You had rehearsals until 5:30 and the show was at 7:30.  [You] try and go home to sleep and have something to eat, but there’s no time, it’s practically make-up and off you go.

And here it’s a little bit [slower] pace.  It’s [still] quite full on, at least it has been for me since I’ve joined; I’ve only been here a few months.  I think it’s nice to join a company in this stage because I feel, and I hope that a lot of good things and attention will come with the opening of the new opera house.  And it’s nice to be in it from the beginning, rather than just come in the middle.

What do you look forward to at the Royal Danish Ballet?

Many different things … I look forward to growing even more as an artist and as a performer. I do this job to be inspired and hopefully communicate what I feel to the public:  if I’m happy, sad, what the role is supposed to portray or if it’s pure dancing, the energy, the level, the quality of the dancing.

I also look very much forward to working with John Neumeier again - it was very inspiring starting the season working with him [on the new ballet, "The Little Mermaid"].  It’s so nice to have things created on you, especially by someone who has been around for a while … and knows what they want and what they don’t want 

Had you ever danced in any of Neumeier’s ballets before coming to Copenhagen?

At the [Royal Swedish Ballet] school I did "Peer Gynt" – just a little bit. Then we did "Mahler’s Third Symphony" during Frank’s [tenure], which I danced in.  And I’ve seen a lot of John’s work.

But [having a piece created on you] is so different from having someone teaching it to you, because you are so much more involved in the process if he’s creating it for you. You are looked upon as an instrument of creation, rather than just a means of portraying the part.

What role[s] would you like to do here in Copenhagen?

Anything that’s challenging!  At this point I would be very excited to do "Etudes", because I think it’s a great ballet.  It communicates to the public what we go through every day because it is practically a class, just in the form of a ballet; and it’s much more about energy and precision than interpretation.  Because there’s not much to interpret, it’s about how clean and precise things can be.  [Matiakis made his debut in "Etudes" on December 28, 2004]

And I would obviously love to do the leads in ballets like "La Sylphide" and "Napoli", the big famous Bournonville ballets that were created here and have been performed by so many great artists.  It would be very special dancing them here, rather than anywhere else.

What has been unique about dancing with the Royal Danish Ballet as opposed to your experiences in London or in Stockholm?

Their Bournonville tradition, obviously, because no other company has that.  It’s very nice to be in a house, as it was with the Royal Ballet, that has a tradition which was created within the house.  It’s not only brought in, and that creates a certain atmosphere.

[The Bournonville style] is a very special tradition and it looks easy, but it’s very hard. With Bournonville it’s supposed to be so light, so – you could say minimalistic- because there are no arms; there’s one way of doing it, simply.  And it’s also very exciting to [dance the Bournonville roles] because it’s a lot of jumping, a lot of attack and precision.

It’s nice to see what you can pick out of that rep and  [figure out] how you can express it today, rather than 200 years ago … because obviously technique has evolved so things would have looked very different then. And I’m always in a constant process of trying to think how to make things better, and when that process stops, I will stop!

There is an ongoing debate about how Bournonville ballets should be revived: what is authentic, what should be changed, how much should be changed.  Though you’ve only been with the company for a few months, do you have any thoughts on the debate?

I think it’s a good thought that they are trying [new ideas], I really do!  Otherwise, it’s very easy for it to become museum pieces. In the opera scene today, they are reviving all the old operas with new productions, and it’s very exciting to go and watch.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  But it’s a risk you take, and I think it’s more than necessary in the ballet world today to take those risks, to try and make it new. I believe we live in a different world, and I think it we can try and make the Bournonville ballets more accessible to today’s public, great!

Every production is different.  Every "Swan Lake" is different –every time a couple different steps, a coupe different moves, but we still call it "Swan Lake".  Therefore, why shouldn’t every new staging of a Bournonville ballet be a bit different. There are two ways: either it works or it doesn’t work, and we’ll find out.  But I think it’s a risk worth taking.

Edited by Jeff

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