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Bringing New Life to Bournonville

An interview with Hamburg Ballet principal dancer and Royal Danish Ballet guest teacher Lloyd Riggins

by Kate Snedeker

May 20, 2005 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of August Bournonville’s birth, the Royal Danish Ballet revived all of his existing ballets for the 3rd Bournonville Festival.  This spring, former principal dancer Lloyd Riggins returned to Copenhagen to re-stage Bournonville’s classic tale of young love, “The Kermesse in Bruges”.  The day before the premiere, I had a chance to sit down with Riggins to talk about his career and the new production.

KS: How did you get started in ballet?

LR: My mother had a company in Orlando, Florida called the Orlando Ballet, which is now the Southern Ballet Theatre, directed by Fernando Bujones.  I was trained by my mother in that school, and was there as a dancer until I was 17. 

So a lady [Rochelle Zide-Booth] came to Florida to stage a ballet.  She had been in the Bournonville Workshop in America in ’85, and she thought I would be very suited to the style and I should go check it out.  So I went to Midland, Michigan where they had the 2nd Bournonville Seminar. 

That was ’86, and I met all of the Danish teachers Mie  [Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter] and Fleming [Ryberg] and Niels Bjorn [Larsen].  Frank [Andersen] was not there because he and Eva were having their child.  And I got an invitation to study [in Copenhagen] for three weeks that year.  It was just fortunate timing, I think, because then for the first time, Frank took eight foreigners into the company.

Artistically [joining the company] was the next step, the right step for me.  That’s why it all went so smoothly for me.  [I was] 17 when I came.  And then they promoted me - for some reason - at 19 to principal.  They didn’t have soloists back then: we had group and solo dancers.  In the group, you had what they called a special 'B contract', which was a two-year contract that they gave to promising people in the group.

I [did] all the Bournonville work, all the classical roles, and built a career.  But rather than a classical dancer, I think I turned out to be a Romantic dancer.  I think people had difficulty with some of my classical interpretations because it wasn’t a classical style…there wasn’t a purity of it.  I was into more what are people feeling? and what can I express through the movements that are given to me?

Why did you leave the Royal Danish Ballet and join the Hamburg Ballet?

Well, I’d been here eight years and we had a change of directorship.  That was the instigator, but I think it was getting about time anyway.  I look back on it now, and am thankful for the change of directorship because it forced me into [leaving], which was the healthiest thing I could have done.

Because I was getting to a point where - of course there are always still things to learn, but I wasn’t so into finding that out.  I’d had a wonderful career, but I never worked very much with a choreographer, and I think it was a building a hole inside of me, a little bit of an emptiness.

I’d worked with John [Neumeier] here – he’d put me in “Romeo and Juliet”.  And we started to get a relationship going as he came back … we started to show an interest in working together.  And then when the directors changed here, this opportunity opened up to change venues and try something new.  So he [John] invited me and my wife to Hamburg, and very fortunately it was the right thing at that moment.

I went to Hamburg after a career – 8 years in Copenhagen – and started over in a way.  And I started to discover who I was, what I was doing, and why I was doing it.  Rediscovering, I think, actually.

So how was it different when you went to the Hamburg Ballett?

The difference is that in Copenhagen they told me how to be  - which was understandable – I was 17, became a principal at 19.  [You have] no idea what you’re doing at that age, so you’d better listen to the [directors, coaches] because they know what they’re talking about.  Which I did. I was a very good student.  But it ended up I knew how to do everything they told me. 

And, [I went] to Hamburg and John looks at you and says, “OK, who are you?”  And he just keeps looking at you, and I had no answer.  Then he helps you find it – through the work.  And he pushed you to a point when the raw essence of yourself kind of ends up bubbling to the top, and there you are [laughs].

So now you’ve returned to set “The Kermesse in Bruge” … were they doing any new productions of the Bournonville ballets when you danced with the company?

Basically established productions,,, [but] some ballets got redone for the Festival:.  “Napoli” and “A Folk Tale”. I did my premiere of “Napoli” in the Festival with Henning [Kronstam], Frank and Dinna [Bjorn]’s new production.  It’s the current one, but Dinna has continued to work on the second act.  But that “Napoli”, give or take a few sections, has been in the company FOR EVER.

Also… the 1979 'Kermessen".   There wasn’t much that needed to be done to it; that’s why I tried very hard to be inspired by it, but not to connect myself with it.  Because I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it.  And I don’t think anyway that you should reproduce anything because you think something’s wrong with it. That’s really not an artistic reason to do something and the only reason we should do something in the theatre is for artistic reasons.

I think what people misunderstand in this theatre is that we’re not recreating what [these ballets] would look like in Bournonville’s time; we are living the process of continuing a tradition. It hasn’t died; it’s still living.  And I was trying to tell the dancers especially – every time you do a performance, you have to live again inside that ballet, or else you might as well not do it. 

I was watching the other night – it’s been wonderful for me [while] staging the ballet to have all these performances to watch – and as far as my production goes, I wouldn’t suggest this for all the ballets.  I think “Napoli” first and third act are so structurally sound, that I think the job is to stage it clearly.  What do you have to add to it? – you are only going to mess it up.  Unless you’re a choreographer and have another way of expressing it.

But – I told them from the beginning - I’m not a choreographer.   And, I’m very proud that I actually did not create any steps.  I lengthened some parts, I had to make up some dance, but I used steps that were already made through the house – like from the Bournonville schools, or that were already in the ballet.

[Also] I manipulated the material to bring in a more contemporary phrase in how to treat an older text.  But the material is what was there; the fabric is there. I think staging is much more [about] finding the essence of a work rather than how to put another coat of paint on it.  Taking away, I think, rather than putting on.

Was “Kermessen” the first ballet you’ve set?

This is the first production that I’ve actually been [in charge] of restaging.  I’ve staged other ballets before – I helped stage John’s “Odyssey” here, but haven’t been the creative one.

How did you approach staging the ballet?

I just had to be a little bit smart about [the process], so I started out with some very basic ideas: I wanted to be able to listen to people.  And I usually am not a very decisive person, so for me it was important to learn the lesson of being decisive, but also to be able to make a decision quickly based on logic and thinking and listening. 

I didn’t know that the end product was going to work, but did know that I could give the dancers something and that was my main goal.  I don’t know if the production is going to be one that lasts forever or that people think is that good, but I’ve already succeeded because I feel that the dancers and I in the studio, gave each other something that was valuable to take on to the next part of our lives.  And that, in the end, is all you can do.  Success or not a success, it really becomes secondary.

Hopefully my job as a stager is to create a body of water that [the dancers] can dive into as their character, and [it] like a river will carry them from one situation to the next situation, so they don’t have to think what’s coming next.  They can just react -and then it gets to be very much like a living piece of art.

Did you use notations or notes- Bournonville’s or later – in staging the ballet?

As far as a creative process, I realized very soon that it was going to bog me down with dates and times, and material and information that you can’t express in a studio or on a stage.  And sometimes I think that people get into difficulty staging things, when they try to translate ideas that are not made for the stage.

And, I’m a little careful when it comes to notating dance because it can die in a way.  Because it has to have blood involved, it has to have emotions, it’s a thing of the moment also –any picture or video you see of dance is never what it is when you’re sitting there [in the theatre] and those beating hearts are up on the stage in front of you.

Dance for me has to be passed from body to body, not paper to paper.  And in this house, we’re very fortunate that it is passed on from body to body.  I did a lot of investigating videos and investigating my own memory, because I danced Carelis in ’88. 

And, also, you have experts who could sit at this table and [debate whether] the foot should be here or there, does that mean glissade that way or glissade that way.  So don’t tell me somebody knows exactly where anything should be.  I had to [decide] who’s going to be the deciding factor here.  So, for the most part, I used myself and looked at the dancers, to [decide what] doesn’t fit with the ideals of Bournonville, the harmony, the naturalism, the romanticism that he expressed in his dance.  That’s what I was looking for actually. 

And then I had, at my disposal, an assistant, Lis Jeppesen, who is the absolute best Bournonville ballerina I think there ever was.  And Christina Nilsson, who was also [here] in Hans Brenaa’s time. So I really felt I also had a connection - to the past of the theatre [and] to Hans though them, without having to imitate him or recreate anything and it was wonderful.

In the whole process of staging “Kermessen”, what was the most unexpected experience?

I wasn’t expecting anything – honestly - because I didn’t know what to expect. 

But, one thing I didn’t expect was how, [when] we finished the dress rehearsal today, I had no feeling…because I still see the things I need to fix, the things I need to develop, the things that maybe I could have done better.  It’s a never-ending process, and I never felt it so acutely as I did today. 

And if [there was] something that maybe I didn’t expect, it was that feeling, of never feeling like “yes, we did it “.

No “Eureka!” moment?

Exactly, Which I think is too often sought after today in dance. There is no Eureka moment, because there is no performance that is THE performance.  Even when Nureyev and Fonteyn would blow people away, those two would be in class the next day, working to improve themselves.  So if they’ve got everything, why are they going and improving themselves the next day?  They knew there is no Eureka moment. 

All the hoopla around, it seems that there is a eureka moment, but dancers ….we just dance, we just work, we just try to get better, to express things clearer, to communicate more.  It can’t be about the hoopla moment, and I feel sometimes in the dance world [in order] to survive financially, to compete with movies, MTV, they try to give us the eureka moment and it’s not built for that.

How did you decide on the casting for the various roles?

Casting is always a trick!  I am a guest instructor here  - I teach classes, I’ve staged [ballets] and danced with them sometimes, so I know the dancers a little bit.

My first priority with casting was to look at who the person was – not their stage persona, because I didn’t want any stage personas on the stage.  I wanted people – Bournonville doesn’t have kings dancing onstage; he has real people because he wanted the audience to feel that they were looking at themselves. 

This is a big point we have in Hamburg too.   Every time John creates a character, or brings a character to life from a [book], he tries to put himself and the dancer in that person’s shoes.  What does it feel like to be in that situation? Who is this person? Bournonville did that too, in a different style, in a different way.

So first I studied the ballet to find out what the roles [were]. My thinking was that ["Kermessen"] is a romantic ballet, and in the past we’ve been getting more and more into the comedy, but we forgot about the spiritual part.   And I think, this is where I probably [made] the biggest alterations, as far as Mirewelt and Eleonore went.

Mirewelt has always kind of been this typical, heavy mime character role, the father figure, the alchemist.  And the ballet is still a romantic ballet, which by definition just means an other-worldly aspect to it.  So Mirewelt is obviously that other-worldly aspect.  I don’t think he’s human – he’s some sort of being.  And his daughter is half that and half human, so she’s not a soubrette role. She’s a spiritual role, closer to a blend of a human and a sylph.  For me it adds another layer to the ballet, another physical quality also. 

 How did you choose the dancers for the lead roles, Eleonore and Carelis?

Eleonore and Carelis are roles, I think, that need to be done by people who are on the cusp of their next level.  To push younger dancers up to the next level, to teach them how to carry an evening and to teach them how to create a [character]. 

You know, the second scene in "Kermessen" is actually harder than the pas de deux in the first act; it has so many subtleties involved.   And just for young dancers to be able to work on a scene like that, to work on characters like that, is an important experience in their lives. 

Were you limited in your choice by the casting for “La Ventana”, which is being danced on the same program as Kermessen?

Yes, but Frank was very nice to try and give me the luxury of having first choice.  And he was also very helpful, because there are practical things about casting, as far as time constraints if a dancer is doing a lot of ballets… 

If you have a festival and you want to show off your company, you can’t have one person doing everything. There’s much more to [casting] than I ever realized as a dancer.  It’s an impossible [task].

Every principal dancer in the world is not right for every principal role in the world. And you’re never going to be a happy artist just because you’ve danced all the roles that there are to dance.  It’s wonderful to challenge yourself, but there are also certain roles that people are just destined for.  If you go stage and you try to be somebody you are not, audiences see that.  The audience is not in the same place that a dancer is, but they see energy, they see presence, they see focus, they don’t see dance steps, they see dancing. 

What about the sets?

The designer [Rikke Juellund] is brilliant.  She helped me come up with the ideas for the ballet, how to balance the old with the new.  When I talked to her, I said, how much do we need?  I didn’t want to have buildings on stage, I didn’t want be dominated by structures.  So onstage we have the ability to move through the set much easier and not be limited by it. It’s a modern way of staging a town in the 1650s.

It looks like Brugge is one square in the old production, and it is a typical ballet staging.  All the people in the town never go offstage and you don’t feel that there’s any place other than that square.  There are [actually] about 200 squares in Bruge and everywhere you go, you see a skyline and those skylines pass each other as you walk through the city.  

[So] I wanted to restage the first dance to get a feeling that we are passing through.  [The designer] came up with the idea of having the buildings on plates, so that as you move actually from one seat to another or from scene to scene they have their own interaction between each other.  It’s a work of art because it’s not just functional, it also has its own life. 

Also, if you’ve been to Brugge, you know that everywhere in the city you can see the bell tower, on the market.  And that’s why you can see it in every scene – even in the second scene you can see it in the painting.

Maybe I’m challenging people to try to find out why we didn’t put buildings on the stage. But that’s also what theatre should do, is bring the audience along with us.  We’re trying to take a picture of normal life and raise it to the level of art and that goes all the way from Bournonville’s time, it goes from the Flemish golden age of painting from around this time.

Why are all the buildings white?

Because [it’s the right color] when you’re not trying to make the buildings the star of the show and when you’re trying to create a setting which doesn’t make people ask so many questions.   The way it’s painted, it’s not just one color. And with our wonderful lighting design, the bricks take on a cold aspect, warm aspect, green aspect, moldy aspect, aspect full of life, blood, thunder, clouds.  I was quite amazed when we saw them on the stage, how versatile that simple idea became to show all these different things.

What about the ‘antiqued’ curtains?

[They] didn’t come about until about the third week of work, when we realized there was nothing really in the set that you could do [to indicate age].  How do you show age?  Because we’re taking place in 1650.

The way on stage that you create time period, is mainly by social relationships.  I worked for hours on how Carelis and Eleonore take each other’s hands - I realized that’s where 1650 comes in.  These two can’t just run up to each other and hug all the time; there has to be a tension because there are social rules.  And so he gives her the hand – but the hand is so special,  that [when] they bow at the end of the pas de deux, they don’t take a pose with his hand on her waist.

How were the costumes chosen?

It was important to us to create a world that was viable and to tell a story you have to suspend belief.  You have to create a world that audiences will sit on the edge of their seats and want to be a part of for a couple hours.

I think in a very un-balletic way, I can’t stand seeing twenty people in a village all dressed alike.  I have a really hard time with people in a ballet wearing dance clothes – tights and I’m getting into big trouble because Carelis has pants on.  But [people] are all just waiting to see this typical Bournonville half tights, white tights, split shoes.

Why do we have to pile characterization on top of artists in the form of a costume? Why not give them clothes that suit the person they are trying to become?

But I hope that people are so interested in the story and the people I put on the stage, that they can get over their discomfort in seeing Carelis in pants or at seeing a set which does not show them a full building with all of its architectural structures.  "Kermesse" isn’t about the buildings, it’s about the setting, it’s about the story. That was why we did it.

One of the few significant changes in the ballet was the Slowanka?  How did you alter that section? Why?

The Slowanka is from another ballet called “In the Carpathians” and was added [to "Kermessen"], I think, in Bournonville’s times.  It used to just sit by itself [in the ballet].  There also used to be a jester – which I didn’t really like because it clashed stylistically - it’s kind of a Petipaian, 1950s Russian invention. When you feel that the group dances are not interesting enough, you put in a little small dancer who can do a lot of tricks.  It doesn’t belong here. 

I think the job was to do the group dances so well that you realize that they are interesting formations and there is a life to them.  So I took the jester out and made the cirkusmeister the ringmaster of the circus [troop] from Slovakia.   So we have the Slowanka, and a clown, a line dancer, a strong-boy and a little clown.  They were the entertainment of this "Kermessen", and they added such a nice blood underneath the skin of the Brugglings, in the dances. It grew in this way. 

To conclude, what do you hope people will take away from this ballet?

I just hope people will use it as something to either discover Bournonville or rediscover it.  That’s all you can hope for.  I’m not trying to tell people this is how we should stage Bournonville ballets; it’s just that this is a way of looking at it…from a different angle. 

One of the themes of the ballet is, who am I? Who am I going to become? What person am I going to become.  And John [Neumeier] helped me find out who I am, so if I could, I would dedicate this piece to him, because he was the one person who really asked me that question for the first time.  And that’s what all the characters are going through in the ballet.


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