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Far From Denmark, Near to Ballet

Interview with Pacific Northwest Ballet's Flemming Halby

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

October 24, 2005 -- Pacific Northwest Ballet Studios

Flemming Halby has been a longtime Seattle ballet teacher, coming first to the Northwest to perform with First Chamber Dance Company, following a career at the Royal Danish Ballet.  He will retire from full-time teaching at the conclusion of this academic year and we thought we should catch up with him before his retirement plans carry him away to his new home in Mexico.  What follows is an edited version of our transcribed conversation.

How did you get started in ballet?

It was in 1952 – I was 12 years old – and had never even seen the ballet, but my mother brought me to audition at the Royal Danish Ballet with 360 other children.  Twelve were accepted: six boys and six girls.

What was this audition like?

They checked your rhythm, checked your feet, had a medical exam, and examined the parents – to see how you were going to turn out! [Laughs.] And the process of going through the school itself was a weeding-out process; there were only two from my group left.

As a youngster, I played the flute and French horn in the children’s guard of the Tivoli guard at the Tivoli Gardens.  It was like being in a cadet school – very formal.  I was later able to use this in ballet.

So what was life typically like in ballet school?

I believe classes were mixed boys and girls at the time and included some Bournonville training but not every day.  Erik Bruhn was one of my first teachers, as was Stanley Williams.  I was also taught by Niels Bjorn Larsen, Frank Schaufuss, and Flemming Flindt.

Hans Brenaa taught Bournonville.  This was at the end of Harald Landers' reign as Artistic Director.  Vera Volkova was also on the faculty.  She was a small Russian lady who spoke Russian, French, and English but refused to speak Danish, although she was married to a Dane who was a painter.

It took me awhile to adapt – it was a whole other world.  I was used to working on a farm for two months out of the year, for example.  I got in trouble in the first half year but ballet and the whole training experience gets in your blood after some experience, and this was true for me.

I was also a singer at this time and was often chosen for operas, significantly the lead boy in “Albert Herring” (Benjamin Britten), and the lead boy in “Napoli” –  carrying flags!  I raced through the school years and did lots of corps work.  While I could teach the mechanics of pantomime, I don’t know how to teach the feeling. It’s character work that comes from Denmark.  Everything is handed down from older dancers.  Erik Bruhn made me understand certain things before anyone else.  Everyone tried to dance like him; he made everything so beautiful.

How did you end up coming to the U.S.?

I first toured with RDB’s smaller, touring company in 1960 and later in 1965 with the main company.  We toured to South Africa, which was very interesting – Johannesburg and Durban and later to London with our production of “Swan Lake” with Nureyev.

I had an interest in medicine and thought about quitting ballet.  However, Flemming Flindt was the Artistic Director, and he brought lots of innovations.  He wanted to keep me, and instead of quitting, I was promoted to Principal!

As a dancer, I enjoyed “boy ballets” – something more physical such as “The Three Musketeers.”

Back to the U.S. story: I was honeymooning in LA and got a phone call from Charles Bennett, who had called Erik Bruhn.  He needed a quick replacement due to an injury to another dancer with First Chamber Dance Company in Seattle.  I needed to get permission from Flindt, which he gave, provided I would come back to RDB for a tour to Edinburgh.

With First Chamber, we toured to Central and South America, and I found I really liked being in a small, touring company.  I decided to retire from RDB and join First Chamber.

So what was it like?

We did lots of State Department tours – by bus.  Our bus had been surplused by Mt. Rainier National Park and was dubbed “Paradise.”  We also did lots of Cultural Enrichment Program performances.  This was in 1972 and there was not much going on in Seattle.  PNB was just newly-born but as Pacific Northwest Dance at that time and was a part of Seattle Opera.

We had eight dancers – all very diverse, strong, and versatile.  We started the Summer Dance Lab program at Fort Worden and did residencies and masterclasses. We were the last company to have Jose Limon’s “Moor’s Pavane” staged by himself.  That cast was Charles as the Moor, Sara de Luis, myself, and Marjorie Mussman.  Agnes de Mille also set her “Three Virgins and a Devil” on us.  Between us, we had over 100 years of performing experience.  I think she was a bit taken off guard by our outspoken group, but soon we all became comfortable.

After seven years of touring, First Chamber folded in 1979.  I did various masterclasses and residencies and even tried teaching for a dance school in Mt. Vernon where there was lots of tap, etc, but ballet didn’t make the bills. Ray Bussey, Sara de Luis, and I opened Dance Lab in Seattle.  Our initial ambition was to have it be a children’s ballet school but it ended up being mostly adults.  We survived and did some good work.

I came to PNB in 1986, when we were at our former location at the Good Shepherd Center.

What’s changed over the years?

Teaching has changed amazingly.  Dancing has become much more athletic.  There are few old-fashioned story-telling ballets.  Technique is much cleaner.  I find that I’ve changed a lot, too.  I believe Bournonville doesn’t need to be taught more than a couple of times a week, as it doesn’t transfer well to the contemporary repertory.  I very seldom do any Bournonville in my classes here but do throw in some now and then.  In our teaching here, I and the rest of the teachers try to go for the “look” of the School.

At PNB, it’s very collaborative, based around a syllabus, and it’s important for this reason to be a “team player.”  Emphasis may vary from teacher to teacher, but we’re all reaching for the same goal.  I like to have the students come out feeling happy at the end of class.

And one of the biggest and most exciting changes that I’ve observed at PNB has been the increased number of boys in the School and the addition of boys-only classes.

Yes.  We’ve just introduced a Boys’ Class for the five to seven year old range – similar to creative movement – and it’s being taught by Timothy Lynch.  DanceChance has brought in a lot of boys.  Level 4 has 16 boys; most are very serious.  We now have 129 boys in the PNB School, with the new DanceChance boys (40 3rd graders) enrolled this month.  There are over 900 students between both School locations.

As the Seattle PNB School Principal, you must have to deal with something that all dance teachers have to – working with parents and families.  What does this look like at PNB?

We do student conferences, where they come in with their parents.  We try to give them an assessment of how we believe it is going, what they need to work on, and what the future looks like.  We coach all of our students to do the best they can with the body and talents they have.  We’ve found that students usually understand what we are trying to convey but the parents don’t always get the translation.

If they’re having trouble with pointe work in the Levels 3/4, it isn’t going to work.  And sometimes maybe there are some who have “perfect” bodies at age 10 but by 12 they begin tightening up.  With hyper extended legs, the kids have a hard time.  Strength is not going to be there until they learn how to work it.  It takes determination to go against body type.  We had one boy whom we thought was going to have too many challenges but he set out to prove us wrong and did great things with stretching and working to improve himself.  Sometimes those with the most talent don’t make it for various reasons or drop out and those that have to work a little harder end up being beautiful dancers.

Tell us about your character dancing.

Demi-caractère roles have been among my favorite – Mercutio, Sancho Panza.  I liked drama, acting and the challenge of character development.  “The Moor’s Pavane” was one of my favorite ballets to dance with First Chamber.  Drosselmeyer is fun to do.  I take it as my role to keep the first act alive!

What’s on the horizon for you?  Tell us a little about your hobbies and interest outside of ballet.

I’ll be working full-time until June 17th and then we’re moving – myself and my wife Alexis Hoff – to a small place in Mexico that’s near Lake Chapala.  Our daughter, Christa, works as a concierge for the Sofitel Hotel in New York, after being a world-traveler and working with print media.  She had been a student here at PNB, through Level 7.

I like to cook and garden and am particularly fond of herbs that I can use in cooking.  I may be doing some guest teaching and coaching in the future.

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