Interview with the Royal Danish Ballet's Ulrik Birkkjær and Yao Wei
by Denise Sum
March 2, 2007 -- Toronto, Canada
Ulrik Birkkjær and Yao Wei were in Toronto to participate in the 7th International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize. I caught up with the pair backstage after their dress rehearsal, the night before the performance. Despite being exhausted and jet-lagged, both dancers were cheerful and a pleasure to talk to. They danced wonderfully together in the competition, and Birkkjær took home the male prize.
How did you get started in ballet?
Yao: I was 9 years old. I loved ballet when I was young. At the time in Shanghai Dance School there was an audition. From 2000 children they only took 20 kids – 10 girls and 10 boys. So I was one of 10 girls and I was there for 7 years. Then I went to the college for 2 years and then joined the Royal Danish Ballet.
Ulrik: I started when I was 6 at the Royal Danish Ballet School, so I’ve been there all my life. My sister wanted to do ballet and I just got dragged along. It’s kind of sad because she didn’t enter the school but I did. So that was kind of a crisis.
So when did you know that you wanted to become a professional dancer?
Yao: I was 9 years old. I knew what I was doing.
Ulrik: I didn’t really know. It was more like when you’re 14 or something you start to realize it’s serious.
Was there a performer or someone that influenced you a lot while you were students?
Yao: Yes. Ju Mei-Li.
Denise: From the Shanghai Dance School?
Yao: Yes. She was very nice. I think we loved each other so much so I could understand why she pushed me so much. Now we are good friends.
Ulrik: For me, it was more through watching performances that the company did. That’s always how I’ve been learning and getting inspired – watching other dancers.
Any particular dancers or just the entire company?
Ulrik: It’s been changing all the time, who I’ve been looking up to.
Okay. So Yao, what made you decide to go to Denmark? Did you always know that you wanted to go abroad after you graduated?
Yao: I was in a gala in Japan. That’s where I met Frank Anderson, in Nagoya. So afterwards, after a few months Frank sent an invitation to me asking if I would like to go there for a few months. If I liked it, then I could stay there and… I liked it!
Was it difficult for you to adjust to the Bournonville style? In Shanghai what was the main method that was taught?
Yao: In Shanghai we learned Vaganova. But it was not that hard for me.
Ulrik: Well in China they’re also very much about the upper body, right?
So Ulrik, what do you find unique or special about the Danish style?
Ulrik: That’s a tough one. I think you have to think a lot about the steps because all the steps are interlinked. You have to think of them as phrases and how you connect them. That’s very fun when you get it right, to dance the whole variation like it’s one continuous thing.
So for either of you, do you have a preference for more narrative or abstract works?
Yao: I mean, in our company we dance more of the big ballets with stories. I love it because you get to let people know what’s going on. Sometimes when you’re dancing just the steps, like in a modern piece, it’s like, just steps, you know? But both sides can be a lot of fun and I can learn a lot from both of them.
Ulrik: I think when it’s really good – like “La Sylphide” or something like that – when it really works it’s very, very strong to have a story. Abstract ballets can also be really strong but it’s harder, I think, and there are fewer good ones. Balanchine is someone that has really done some good stuff. But it’s also very easy to go wrong.
So, you’re both very young, but do you have any favourite roles so far or any roles that you would really like to dance in the future?
Yao: I wish I could dance all the big roles.
Well you already danced “Swan Lake”…
Yao: Yes. That was a huge thing. Almost killed me. [Laughs]. It’s true. But I wish I could dance it again. It’s a lot of fun, especially the black swan.
Ulrik: Maybe just the ballets I really like, like “Onegin”. Just the ones when you feel you’re proud of something because it’s really good.
Yao: “Romeo and Juliet”?
Ulrik: Yeah. It depends on the version.
So how often are you two paired together in Denmark?
Ulrik: Have we ever danced together before?
Ulrik: We’ve never danced together.
Yao: It’s our first time.
Ulrik: We’ve danced corps parts together, but no soloist parts.
What does it mean for you to be chosen to represent your company in this competition?
Yao: As a dancer, I’ll just do my best because every day is different… Just to be professional, to be a professional dancer, that’s my job!
Ulrik: I think it’s extremely nice to get this chance. I knew it was coming up and I really hoped that I would go. So I was very happy when Frank told me that he wanted me to go.
Growing up, did you hear a lot about Erik Bruhn?
Ulrik: It was mostly one teacher I had in the late classes, like Niels Balle, the director of the ballet school. He talked a lot about him. But actually, it’s mostly when we’re out of Denmark that people talk about Bruhn. There’s still people that knew him and danced with him, so they can talk about him which is nice. But also because he only worked with us as a dancer, people remember him as adancer and not an instructor or whatever.
Can you talk a little bit about your contemporary piece by Tim Rushton? What sorts of things did he tell you as he was creating this new work?
Yao: I think the idea is from the music. Because before, we had no idea what we were going to do. Then he found the music and something came out. We just tried a lot of different stuff and he changed a lot.
Ulrik: He was very much taking it from the dancers. It came out of the rehearsals. It was very nice of him because we asked him to do something he has already done and he said he’s actually rather do something new for us.
So do you find it hard to switch from classical to contemporary pieces in one evening?
Ulrik: We do it a lot in our company. It’s fine. It’s better when you do the classical first. If it’s the other way around it’s more difficult.
Yao, you’ve participated in a few international competitions. Do you feel that those experiences have prepared you a bit for the Bruhn Prize?
Yao: Yeah but this is kind of different. It’s like a gala or a performance. I don’t feel like it’s a competition.
Ulrik: It’s like a luxury competition. [Laughs].
Because there are so few dancers?
Ulrik: And they treat us so nicely.
Yao: Here everyone is talking to us and we feel so welcome.
Good, I’m glad! So do you normally get any stage fright at all?
Yao: Not really.
Ulrik: It’s mostly with ourselves I think. You don’t want to disappoint yourself.
So in your opinions, what do you think makes a great dancer?
Ulrik: You have to be very lucky to have a nice body and have a good expression on stage. But I think the most important thing to be really good is to have a good head and to think.
Yao: And of course, the technique should be very good and I think you have to give your heart and be a real person on stage. That’s what I think is hard for everyone. To make the acting natural.
Ulrik: That’s how dancers develop now. I mean, to be like Alina Cojocaru or whatever, all the technical things are the basics and it’s all the other things that count really.
Okay, so I just wanted to know if you have any hobbies outside of dance?
Yao: Um, no. Not really. What do you think?
Ulrik: The normal stuff like family and friends, music and travelling and all that. But you don’t really have time for hobbies.
Yao: If we have time I just go home and rest!
Finally, do you have any advice for some of our readers who are aspiring dancers?
Ulrik: Maybe just to look at what makes the really good dancers now – what makes them special is that they are very personal and they are themselves. I think they should try and do that.
Great. Anything else that you want to add?
Ulrik: Only that they are so nice here!
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.