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Bournonville at the BalletMet Dance Academy

An Interview with Kennet Oberly

by Jane Ashton Hawes

April 2005 -- Ballet Met Dance Academy Studios, Columbus, Ohio

There's more than one road to Copenhagen. And Kennet Oberly has traveled the one that winds through New York, Stuttgart and Boston.

Oberly, 48, is currently the director of BalletMet Columbus Dance Academy in Columbus, Ohio. With nearly 1,000 students, the Academy enjoys one of the largest dance-school enrollments in the United States. Its affiliated 29-member company steadily has been forging a reputation for itself with a mixed repertoire of classical and contemporary works.

Boston native Oberly assumed the reins at the Academy in August 2004 and he is developing a curriculum which, like many American programs, utilizes elements of all the major ballet styles and training methods.  But uniquely for the States, the syllabus is also developing a strong Bournonville component, reflective of the Bournonville-style training which Oberly embraced as a young dancer and continues to promote throughout the dance world, both in his resident teaching and as a guest teacher in the U.S. and Europe.

"It changed me," Oberly said simply of the effect that August Bournonville's work has had on him.  "I became much more relaxed. It enabled me to find my true voice."

Much of Oberly's early training came when his family was living near New York City. He studied at the Harkness Ballet School under David Howard. But then in 1969 came a life-changing experience.

I saw (John) Cranko's Stuttgart (Ballet) perform in New York," Oberly said. "He was very dramatic, not unlike Bournonville. And the dancers I saw in the company class were so highly individualized. The way he used them, their expressivity, I just knew I had to go there."

The Cranko-led troupe had ignited the young teen's passion, and Oberly convinced his parents to let him move to Stuttgart on his own at age 14. He joined the company not long after in 1973 and remained with it until 1975.

But during that time, Oberly said, a company class rendered the next earth-shaking change in his dance universe.

"I was first truly introduced to Bournonville when Alan Beale taught a variation from "Napoli" at the Stuttgart," Oberly recalled. The connection he felt to not just the choreography but also the thinking that underlay its kinetics was instantaneous and profound.  

"I think it was something in a past life," Oberly said of that immediate connection.  "It was just there."

Soon after began the short pilgrimages he would make on his own to Copenhagen, seeking out instruction in the style. Though never enrolled as a student at the Royal Danish Ballet School, Oberly connected with teachers like Hans Brenaa and he also was able to roam the Royal Theatre Library where scores and notations of Bournonville's ballets are stored. He has copies of 10 of these and has staged two – "The Fairy Tale of Pictures" and "The Conservatory" – for the Estonian National Ballet.

"I never had the time or the money to train at the Royal Danish Ballet School," Oberly explained.  And his performing career was taking him to other interesting places.  Between 1975 and 1977, he danced with Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century in Brussels. After that Oberly returned to the United States and the Boston area where he danced with the Boston Ballet. He also met a Bournonville expert who would enrich his self-directed studies.

"I connected with Valerie Sutton in Boston," Oberly said. At the time, Sutton was teaching at the Boston Conservatory. Sutton also developed the Sutton Movement Shorthand because of her desire to more accurately record Bournonville choreography. The notation system, Oberly said, is ingenious and has even been adapted to use with the hearing-impaired.

"She got hooked on Bournonville when she went to Denmark for a summer intensive ballet program," Oberly said. The famed Bartholin International Ballet Seminar alternated between Vaganova and Bournonville instruction. Sutton was intrigued by the Bournonville classes but also frustrated by the fact that the two instructors had some fairly divergent ideas about what the style was. She asked how she could learn more and was steered to a legendary figure in Bournonville instruction – Edel Pedersen.

"Valerie stayed there three more years to learn everything she could from Edel," Oberly said. He would himself return to Copenhagen to study with Pedersen while he was also performing with the Tivoli Pantomime Theatre.

Pedersen is a well-known figure in the educational annals of the Bournonville style. Though never an official member of the RDBS faculty, Oberly said that from her small apartment, Pedersen taught classes to those who sought her out.

"The big guns all went secretly to Edel," Oberly said, "but the little people like me went openly."

Pedersen first came to the RDBS as a student at age 7 in 1911 and stayed there 44 years.  She retired from performing in 1953 and taught for the rest of her life in Copenhagen.

Between his studies with Sutton and Pedersen, Oberly absorbed the Bournonville style.

"Either you love it or you hate it," he said. "It's damned difficult, technically.  You need exact musicality and the accents fall on the down beat rather than the up as with most other styles."

But its inherent naturalness and dramatic power made the hard work worthwhile.

As a teacher now, Oberly finds the emotionally-freeing aspects of Bournonville to be a potent tool.  He often begins a class, even with younger students, by guiding them through mime movements.  With so much in Western society that prompts emotional overstimulation, Oberly said he sees that many children shut down and become inhibited in their abilities to express themselves.

With his Level 4 class one recent evening, he guided the group of 10- to 13-year-olds through a graceful series of postures derived from the "Giselle" story line.  

"Does he or she love me?" Oberly extended his right arm to an invisible audience while the students followed his lead.  Slowly the young dancers' faces softened to reflect the thoughts that their gestures communicated.  They were pre-teens who would, outside a ballet studio, would run shrieking from any outright declaration of affection but inside the classroom, they draped fingers gently along cheeks, melted their shoulders and threw their heads back into the images of heartbreak.

It's easier to teach an enriching barre after such a session, Oberly said.

"It gives the movements meaning," he said. "Barre work can be so abstract and boring at these ages, but the mime loosens them up."

Oberly and his faculty are busily realigning the BalletMet Dance Academy syllabus to incorporate these lessons plus much more.  

"Through the next couple years I'll be re-working the syllabus to something which finds much in common with Bournonville, with the principles of weight, foot work and presentation," Oberly said. The result, he hopes, will be a "comprehensive, clean and artistically stimulating curriculum."

In the end, Oberly said he hopes his students come away from their dance studies as inspired as he has often felt by Bournonville.

"These were real people with real stories," Oberly said of the Bournonville ballets. "He really was ahead of his time."

Edited by Staff.

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