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Royal Danish Ballet Principal Dancer Kenneth Greve

by Kate Snedeker

May 20, 2006 -- Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

How did you get started in dance?

My father’s a professional golf player, and I was always on the golf course, until I couldn’t get into kindergarten – there were no spaces. So it was either the golf course, or the only free thing was a dance school for ballroom dancing. And I wanted to go there because I quickly realized there was one boy and about 30 girls. I thought the women were beautiful, so gorgeous that it’s too good to be true. I also saw “Swan Lake” on TV – I think it was Peter Schaufuss dancing. And I just remember thinking this is brilliant, this is what I want to do. There’s one man and there’s 30 half-naked beautiful women around him. I was quite certain that that was what I wanted to do.

Then one of the ballerinas from the theatre, who was a teacher, her husband was playing golf... My mother said to her, “my son loves dancing” and she said “well let me see him”. She took a look at me, and I came in here [theatre], did an audition, and then joined the school – the artistic director was Flemming Flindt at that point.

I stayed in the school for some years, but then unfortunately I got kicked out at the age of 14, which was tough. I had grown almost a foot that year, so I was totally – lanky is not the word – I was one big uncoordinated… I couldn’t do anything. So I didn’t pass the exam. But I persisted, and Stanley Williams took me to New York. I joined School of American Ballet and consequently New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Paris Ballet and Stuttgart [Ballet]…

Who have been the biggest influences in your career?

My first artistic director here, who was Henning Kronstam, is one of the biggest influences.... And the first real teacher that I had, Niels Kehlet, gave me the real wish to dance, and gave me a wonderful base. Then I went on to SAB and met Stanley Williams, and Mischa who was also a big influence.

The biggest influence of course was Rudolf, who nominated me Dancer Etoile at the Paris Opera Ballet at 19. I would be very wrong not to include Flemming Flindt because he was my first director, he is still here with me and he is one of the people who I respect highly out of all of them.

What is the best advice that you’ve been given?

It’s very simple. The best advice I’ve ever been given is “Don’t be satisfied”. Rudolf always said the moment you stop questioning, you’re finished; you’re dead. Roll over and die. That’s Rudolf. And I would say, the moment you stop questioning, stop. Do something else.

You’ve been dancing for nearly 30 years…what would you consider to be the key moments in your career?

[The] first key moment was passing the audition, and getting into the whole environment of thetheatre as a very young child. And feeling that sensation at eight years old, thinking, “Wow, this is the theatre!”

Then I think the next moment was, having been [kicked out of the school] here, getting into SAB. My first class was with Stanley Williams. Baryshnikov walks in – I’m holding the door – he walks under my arm and he looks at me, and just grunts at me a little bit. And I think, “Oh my god, I’ll never get a contract with ABT!”

It was a key moment because he was very kind to me always after. When I had problems with mywork permit in America, he gave me a special contract and called Nancy Reagan; he made a big effort to make it happen for me. And of course, my biggest key moment is my nomination by Rudolf, my whole period with Rudolf and my first “Swan Lake” at Paris Opera.

How did you get into teaching?

Well, I started teaching the apprentices when Aage [Thordal] and Colleen [Neary] were here and I enjoyed that very much. My father was a teacher of golf, and my brother is now a golf teacher also, so it’s a bit in the family. At the same time, I was fortunate to have fantastic teachers, and I have amemory like an elephant – I remember a lot of the things that I was told. Sometimes [my mind] actually remembers really good stuff! And I am happy to [pass] them on, and even add my little bit of spice, from my point of view.

Does the company encourage dancers to teach?

Yes, but it’s a difficult process because you have to be in accordance with the [artistic] direction, and the direction has been changing for quite a bit. And while you’re still dancing it’s always very complicated.[Teaching] naturally comes if you have a respect from the other dancers. And in partnering and other things, I have lot of respect from people, so very often they ask me themselves. I’ve found that the best way [to teach] is to actually let them try it themselves, and [make] their own mistakes. And only at the end, once they are actually starting to risk getting injured or have real problems, then you tell them, do this. But let them do their own experience – they learn more from that than you just giving them the bottom line right away.

Where do you see yourself in the next five or ten years?

I will be a coach from next year – Frank has asked me. I coached “Etude” and have taught the aspirants and company class before. I just find that doing all of that, unfortunately, it limits me. If I teach class, I feel that I am not able to keep up my own standard. And as long as I am still trying to dance, which I won’t be for long, I do need to give myself a bit more. But I will be happy to help as of next year; I will be a full time dancer and instructor. And hopefully slowly will be reducing my workload.

I also hope to continue choreographing – classical full-length ballets. I’ve made one full-length ballet and now I have a contract for another one. I like the classics, and want to create classical ballet with a twist. The twist is that I want to bring them up to date, but keep the vocabulary. I like the pointe shoes, the tutus, the mime scenes, but I think that we need to update the ballets.

Neumeier, maybe, is the one person who has been best at telling stories for a long time. Apart from that, it is kind of not fashionable in the dance world. The peculiar thing is that the public loves the classics; they love the story ballets. So I think there’s a real need for it. And I enjoy them; they start to engulf me when I make productions.

How would you update the classical ballets?

If you take a normal classic ballet, let’s say “Swan Lake” or “Sleeping Beauty”, they are very often one-dimensional. I would like to add new dimensions [like] maybe cutting a bit: instead of having six different fairies come in and do their little variations, you shorten it. Because today we’re quicker, things go faster, and so we have to adapt. I believe that if [people] sit and watch 45 minutes of non-stop dancing, a lot of them will start to look for the remote control and find the fast forward button because they get bored.

Also new dimensions [can be] added not only in the dance but also in the visual – what you see – so that the public becomes more entertained. Instead of having one set of scenery that changes from one act to the next act, you change. Today we have projections; I used only projections for my “Hamlet” in South Africa – there was not one piece of furniture on stage. There were curtains, and I made physical walls by changing the lights.

I like magic! I like magic on the stage. For me some of the best magic moments are in “Napoli”. When the dress comes off and disappears into the floor, most people go “How did that happen?!” It’s so simple, but a lot of people are just like “Wow!” Those moments are enjoyable, and I think we need slightly more of that.

And then we need to sustain the classical steps. I’m not interested in the modern steps. I think the people who can do them beautifully, and who can choreograph with these modern steps are wonderful. But it’s not for me. I’ve looked back at some old Vaganova steps and Petipa steps. We’re today using about 30% of them, continuously repeating the same steps. There are whole sections that have disappeared, especially out of the Vaganova School.

Rudolf gave me a lot of old videos; he gave me boxes of it. It’s old film – there’s everything, even 8mm film and some of them are in slow motion; fortunately they’re still quite OK. They’re very funny, but they’re really very educational. And I have really enjoyed watching them. Very interesting to see, for instance, where Balanchine took some of his inspiration from, where Pushkin got his, where all of these things came from. You can understand where, for instance, Pushkin found a way to teach these kids that he made – among others Mischa – to phrase the music so that they looked different.

This whole school, this whole era, we haven’t exploited it at all – at least the quality of the steps and some of the pas de deux. Fantastic pas de deux! You can actually see them in the 1950s, 60s American dance films. There’s fantastic partnering and we have totally locked it out of the repertory today.

What happened, at that period, is that there was so much of [the dance] and it got so rich that it drowned itself. There was no resurrection of the steps, no new ways of looking at them. They just kept doing them over and over again, instead of maybe making some of the movements much less, but much more spectacular. [So they] disappeared and become just part of the soup. And now we don’t use them. We need to take some of these steps back; they’re brilliant.

Finally, you recently were on “Showtime”, a popular TV show in Denmark which is a singing competition for celebrities. Tell me about it…how did you get involved?

They had called [the theatre] and asked “do you have somebody?” Someone in the singing department said – “Oh, but ask Kenneth, he can sing, I’ve heard him sing a bit”. So they asked me, and I really didn’t have a clue. But then they said I could help the Children’s Fund.

So it was for charity?

Purely charity. I gave 150,000 kroner [$25,000] to charity, to the Children’s Fund in Denmark. It’s a fund that I like a lot. I support them with 200kr every month, but here was my chance, personally, to really help. And I thought OK, let’s do it!

I didn’t really realize how much I got into. [The show] was prime-time, Friday evening, live. 1.2 million people out of the Danish population of 4 and half million…like 25% of the population were watching it. It’s pretty scary.

This was over three months, and I did three shows. I did “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie with some of the dancers from the theatre. Then James Blunt’s “Goodbye My Lover” which is a very difficult [song], and I got to dance with my wife [Marie-Pierre Greve, also a principal dancer at RDB], which was very nice.

For the final, I thought, you know, I’d like to sing – just me, and not have a lot of jugglers or people coming in or a lot of chorus. So I said to Kjeld Wennick, who’s a record producer, and who was my coach, if my vocal can carry it, I’d like to do “The Show Must Go On” – no people with me.

I always thought that this song from Freddie Mercury, and the “Bohemian Rhapsody”, are fantastic pieces of music; I like the quality of the music and in the singing. Mercury had 4 1/2 octaves, and I have almost 5 1/2 octaves, so I can cover him. [Kjeld] said OK, let’s go out with style. We might not win, but we go out with style.

I chose to sing it the way Elton John sang in his remembrance, so it was not an attempt to copy Freddie Mercury, but an attempt to honor him. I think the song is fantastic – for me it’s the show must go, life must go on…no matter inside my heart it’s breaking, but my smile still stays on. It’s a fantastic message to be able to give.

And we won – with 70% of the vote. Which means that people did like it! What is peculiar is that now I am known all over Denmark, unbelievably known. It doesn’t matter where I go; people say “Oh, you won”… “it was nice”… “my wife voted for you” or “we sent an SMS”.

And even the kids in school here! I come out and they go “Ahhh!! He’s there, he’s there!!” I’ve danced here for years – they might have seen me do “A Folk Tale”, you know, but now I’m the winner of “Showtime”. Isn’t that amazing?!

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