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Interview with Royal Danish Ballet soloist Dawid Kupinski

Bred on classical but dreaming of the future

by Kate Snedeker

July 24, 2005 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

The Royal Danish Ballet has always been renowned for its men, and at just 20 years old, Dawid Kupinski seems poised to become one of the next generation of RDB male standouts. The tall, blond Pole, who joined the company in 2002, recently debuted in the role of Carelis in Lloyd Riggins' new production of "The Kermesse in Bruges." Riggins describes the role as one that "needs to be done by a person who is on the cusp of their next level." These words proved prophetic, when, less than two weeks later after the first performance of the Bournonville Festival, Kupinski was promoted to soloist.

A native of the port city of Gdansk, Kupinski started ballet as a child in Poland; both he and his older brother Marcin studied at the National Ballet School in their hometown. "My brother, who is also in this company, was already in the school for one and a half years, and I just followed him. I came here after eight years [at the school]." The training at the school, he remembers, "was based on the Vaganova School, Russian training."

However, despite excellent training at the National Ballet School, the options for a professional ballet career in Poland were limited. "There, it [ballet] is not as popular, I believe, as here [Denmark], but the education is on a really good level. There are five national schools, and there is one international ballet company in Warsaw. There are a lot of modern, little theatres just opening. There are talented people with ideas. The only problem is there are no facilities, no money and no support from the government." So, as Kupinski explains, "I came here because I believed that I could find more possibilities here than I could find in Poland."

One way Kupinski pursued opportunities outside Poland was by participating in a range of ballet competitions. "I did a lot of competitions -- three every second year. You did school competitions, which were Polish competitions; now they've become international competitions. That's what gave you motivation to work, and then something to look forward to." The hard work did pay off -- in 1999 he placed second in the junior division of the national dance competition in 1999, and two years later, he and Marcin took home the gold medal at the 2001 Eurovision Young Dancer's Competition. "Eurovision was something that helped me, but basically I came here after Japan, the [2002] Nagoya competition, where Frank [Andersen] was a member of the jury. He invited me for the audition here; and Marcin as well. We came for the open audition at the same time and then they chose us."

Kupinski also found another familiar face at the Royal Danish Ballet; Izabela Sokolowska, a classmate of his at the school in Gdansk for the previous eight years, also joined the company. "She came the same year.  She also got an invitation at the Nagoya competition in Japan, to come for an audition, but then unfortunately couldn't make it.  But then I think she came a few weeks after the open audition -- she took a private audition and got in."

Coming to Denmark for his first professional job, Kupinski was faced with changes and challenges. "Oh yeah, it was a huge change... in school everyone looked at you, took care of you -- especially teachers.  Here if you want to work, you work... The responsibility is more on you. If you want to go forward, you need to push yourself.

"[Also since] I came from the school, I didn't know what the stage was.  I [had] danced on the stage a few times, but never as a full night's performance. And every time we [Royal Danish Ballet] did something new, I learned and I think I developed.

"That was a big challenge -- just to take a chance and use it. And all the new things that I learned, even the makeup, even [how to] stay on stage without doing anything, all the preparation, all the work that you do before the performance, it's different than what it was in the school.  It's two different worlds. That was a challenge... challenge to change from before."

However, it was off the stage that Kupinski had to make the biggest adjustments. "The hardest thing [about] coming here... I think it's just every time changing places, there's always a feeling that you are leaving something and you just hope that you will find something else at least as good as it was. That was the hardest thing for me, because I had all my friends and family there [Poland].

"I came with my brother, which was much easier. I was 17 when I came here and it was just a new world... completely new world. Living on your own, leaving [your] parents -- that was not the hardest, but the biggest change that happened."

Despite the challenges, he found the company welcoming. "They are such nice people, so I felt more as a person here than as a dancer. It didn't feel like you were coming to this strange, completely different country. Of course, from the beginning you could see differences in the style and the technique, and the dancing. But I think that's what make the company stronger, to have some new inspiration from [outside]."

After his arrival, Kupinski quickly found himself swept up in the routine (or not so routine) life of a professional dancer. Days were filled with classes, rehearsals, more rehearsals, and then he finally got to perform. He remembers his first time on stage, "... my first performance... it was 'Folk Tale.' Then I danced 'Onegin.' I think I danced nobleman in 'Folk Tale' -- now I do peasant. [laughs] Big step forward!  It was not such a big part -- [you just had] to be in a place and be stable. But it was the first show, and I remember that. You felt you're beginning something, you are in the company and that's how it's going to be -- the performance, that's the main priority now."

One of his early roles, that of Telemachus in John Neumeier's "The Odyssey," remains a favorite. "I love Telemachus. That was my first [significant] part here. I didn't have the pleasure to work with John on that part -- I was cast after he left. I did around six or seven shows -- a few times with Kenneth [Greve] and also with Lloyd [Riggins] as Odysseus. I have very good memories of that."

With the 3rd Bournonville Festival the centerpiece of the 2004-05 season, the company's focus for the last few years has been on reviving and revitalizing the Bournonville repertoire. It was in the final new production, "The Kermesse in Bruges," that Kupinski got his first chance to take on a leading role as “Carelis. His introduction to the ballet came in February when Lloyd Riggins first started staging the new production. Kupinski recalls,"It was fun to work with Lloyd, the second time -- I worked with him on "Odyssey." He came here in February, to 'couple' us with the girls, and I end up doing it with Yao Wei, which I'm really pleased [about]. It was also fun to work on the lead part -- not that there's a difference between soloists and corps de ballet as a working process. Basically we had, dancing-wise, the pas de deux, and we worked on it pretty hard. And then [there] was also the mime, which I really appreciated because that's what needs to be [there] for character."

Riggins was not the only person to work with the dancers on "Kermessen" -- within the company there was a wealth of experiences from previous productions. Kupinski points to Lise Jeppesen, a former principal dancer and current character dancer as a huge help in preparations. "I worked with Lise, and she helped me so much for the mime. She gave me small little tricks -- she did this role [Eleonore] -- she had experience from it. She's brilliant."”

Another way Kupinski got into the role was through watching film of past productions. "Last time I went to the National Museum to see the exhibition of the costumes [Tulle & Tricot], they played the movie about Bournonville, and actually there was an old production of 'Kermessen' with Ib Andersen and Mette-Ida Kirk. I was really impressed watching it. It was fun also to watch the rehearsals, how they worked on the mime, how they worked on the pas de deux. And then I saw finally, [clips of the] the last version on the stage -- the pas de deux.

"I looked at [the clips] thinking about what Lloyd said, and how he wanted to [do the ballet]. Now I see what he meant by doing it the way [he did], because it is different. It is still the same steps, but it's a different way of doing it. It is thirty or forty years later and I can really feel it on stage."

However, Kupinski used the tapes only after he'd learned the role. "I prefer not to watch the tape before I know all the steps because I didn't want to be inspired by somebody else. I wanted to know the part, learning from Lloyd what he wanted, and transfer it on [to] my body. Then get some inspiration from the tape, watching different casts. Also, I didn't want to copy [someone else]. I wanted to do it myself."

He talks about Riggins' approach to the ballet. "From Lloyd's view it was a little bit different staging and little bit different feeling. I remember he said once, 'it's not "Flower Festival" -- maybe it looks like, maybe it feels like, but it's not.' It's not and I felt that completely. It's about two young people falling in love or having this first feeling, but it's not so cute and sweet. I felt a little bit deeper in it in 'Kermessen,' than just young, cute people. It's a little bit more." This love is expressed, at least outwardly, by an exchange of hearts. Kupinski explains, "I'm giving her a white heart, she's giving me a red heart. Two differences; maybe white heart is just pure and simple, red heart is filled with passion and feelings. And also I think it's to differentiate -- mine is white, hers is red."

Kupinski had been scheduled to make his debut as Carelis the day of our conversation. However, when Kristoffer Sakurai was unable to perform as planned, Kupinski ended up doing the premiere, dancing in front of an audience that included her highness Queen Margrethe and a plethora of critics. It also meant doing his first performance with a new partner -- Susanne Grinder -- which was more than a little unexpected.

"It was very surprising. I got the phone call [to do dress rehearsal] at, I think, 10:30. I felt after the whole week I deserved to rest and to give a rest to my legs. So I came to the theatre, did my warm up -- I had one hour to do it. There's not [so much] partnering that you need to try with the other person. Anyway we worked -- two couples together -- in the studio, so we both knew ideas, what we were supposed to do, what Lloyd wanted us to do.   

"Of course, when you do [the ballet] with another person there are slight differences... you talk and you develop, develop in different kind of directions. But the main feeling, the main thing is there, so it's just the little things. And I think it helped -- Susanne had her things, I had my things and we didn't talk so much, we didn't rehearse so much. Every time she did her little different thing, I just reacted, so it was kind of spontaneous. [But] At least we had the time -- general rehearsal -- to find it out, to check musicality, to check all the connections and things on stage. That worked, I think."

The production, by Lloyd Riggins, an American who spent the first decade of his professional career with the company, has been the subject of some criticism from Bournonville traditionalists over the more modern, simpler sets and costumes. When asked about the changes, Kupinski focuses on the technical issues, "We all move forward and the technical things move forward, and the costumes and the mentality and the way of thinking. I would never expect a dancer from thirty years ago to do all the crazy stuff we do now.. they didn't have such pressure as we do now on the technique -- being completely clean -- but it still looked beautiful. On the tape you can see that they worked on musicality like crazy." But in the end, he allows, "It's not such a huge difference, going to see the ballet. It's a ballet, but just with different taste."

Judging from the positive reviews in the Danish press, Kupinski's debut was a success.  He reprised the role, to even more praise, in an excerpt shown as part of the Gala evening that closed the Bournonville Festival. However, though "Kermesse" will open the 2005-06 season, the real focus in the coming year will be on new choreography and modern works. Though he appreciates what he has done so far, Kupinski looks forward to the other works.

"In the house here, we have plenty of Bournonville, and I'm pleased, because after this year I can say that I did all the Bournonville. [And] of course there are the big classical ballets; I was raised on the classical ballet. It was always Basilio from 'Don Q' or Siegfried from 'Swan Lake.' But now I see that the world is bigger than only the classical ballet, so now I'm more focused [on] working with different people rather than particular roles.

"I would like to work to work with choreographers, with the big names like Mats Ek or Jiri Kyliàn. I saw a lot of pieces [by] them, but I never had a possibility to work with them.  My dream is Nacho Duato's technique. I love his pieces; I think his technique is brilliant -- the quality the dancers have is beautiful.. it is beautiful. Not that I could see myself now, because I don't think I'm ready; it's something to look forward to..."

The company will also be performing "Romeo and Juliet" in the upcoming season, one of Kupinski's favorite ballets. "I love 'Romeo and Juliet.' I don't want to say exactly which version -- there are so many interpretations of 'Romeo and Juliet' [and] not only as a ballet, and I think it's brilliant." Though he is reluctant to pick any one favorite role, he does concede, "I think Romeo would be the one."

When asked to reflect on his proudest moments so far, he says, "I'm proud of myself every day, that I'm here, that I'm dong what I'm doing. The parts... I'm proud of Telemachus, I'm proud of 'Kermessen,' I'm proud of dancing some of the Bournonville stuff. It's something that you are getting into your 'luggage' -- you will never lose them. I'm very proud to be, to live every day."

Kupinski's recent promotion to soloist reaffirms his position as one of the company's rising stars, and he looks forward to a future with the company. "I'm thinking about the future and I see myself here of course." And that's good news for Danish audiences eager to see his talent develop and flourish over the coming years.

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