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Just Dance!

Interview with Diana Cuni

by Kate Snedeker

April 2, 2008 -- The Royal Theatre, Copenhagen

In recent years, Royal Danish Ballet soloist Diani Cuni has earned critical praise for her performances in a wide range of ballets from the company's signature Bournonville repertoire, to classical ballets such as "Don Quixote" and contemporary pieces like "Colour of Love".  Recently, I had the chance to talk with Cuni during a break in her busy rehearsal schedule.

As she would describe herself, Diana Cuni is "not a normal ballet girl".  The daughter of a football player and a gymnast, she grew up in the southern Copenhagen suburb of Brøndby. With such an athletic heritage, it's not surprising that Cuni developed a love of sports including tennis and football.  She still loves go see her hometown team, Brøndby IF, in action when she gets the chance.

Like many children in Denmark, she started taking ballroom dancing classes at a local dancing school as a toddler.  However, neither of Cuni’s parents had much interest in or knowledge about ballet.  Thus, it was only by chance that she ended up auditioning for the Royal Danish Ballet School.  When Cuni was 7, her mother happened to see the school’s ad in the local paper and suggested that her daughter give it a go. 

That year, more than 300 children tried out for fewer than two dozen openings at the school.  The audition took place prior to the construction of the new buildings in the Royal Theatre complex, and Cuni still clearly remembers the line of children and parents wrapping around the outside of the theatre.  Having been successful in the audition and the six-week trial course, she started at the Royal Danish Ballet School in the second grade.  More than 25 years later, Cuni is one of the senior soloists in the company.  Throughout that quarter-century, she's been grateful to her parents for supporting her, yet never pressuring or pushing her to continue dancing. The decision has always been hers alone.

Having been through the turbulent period during which the company passed through seven different artistic directorships in less than two decades, Cuni feels grateful to have had the experience of being taught and coached by some of the legends of the Royal Danish Ballet.  Her first teacher was Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter, who recently retired as director of the school, and her other teachers included Margaret Mercier and Pælle Jacobsen.  Classes with Jacobsen were especially worthwhile because he was one of the few male teachers she had, and he pushed his students to try new things.  However, it is Ulla Skow who stands out in Cuni's memory.  Skow, Cuni says, had a great sense of how to make classes fun, yet serious at the same time.  Students were able to learn a great deal along with having lighthearted moments.

As is the tradition at the ballet school, Cuni had many opportunities to perform in ballets with the company while still a student.  It was in the rehearsals and performances for these ballets that she got to work with some of the company's leading teachers such as Henning Kronstam and Hans Brenaa.  For Cuni, one particularly vivid memory is that of rehearsals with Hans Brenaa for “Coppelia” (she was a reserve for one of the children's roles).  Brenaa, she recounts, brought enthusiasm, humour and knowledge to the rehearsals, as well as creating a good spirit.  Cuni also has special memories of being one of the children in the reel of “La Sylphide” when Carla Fracci was dancing the lead role, and of dancing one of the children's roles in "Konservatoriet" for which Brenaa and Kronstam were coaches.

It was during this period that she also saw many of what she found to be memorable and inspiring performances.  When the Paris Opera Ballet visited the theatre in 1988, the children in the school were given special permission to skip Saturday class so that they could watch the matinee performance.  Cuni still remembers sitting in the gallery to see Rudolf Nureyev and Elisabeth Platel dance.  This was also the period when Nikolaj Hübbe was still dancing with the company, and his performances with Heidi Ryom in "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" also are treasured memories for Cuni.  Another highlight was seeing Hübbe with Lis Jeppesen in "La Sylphide".

Now that she's a member of the Royal Danish Ballet, she rarely gets a chance to see other companies perform, but when asked about favourite dancers, Cuni mentions Alina Cojocaru and Nikolaj Hübbe.  She feels very lucky to have had the chance to dance "Zakouski" with Hübbe on tour in Brazil just before his retirement.  She loves to watch Balanchine's ballets, including "Apollo" and "Rubies", because of their innate musicality and the attack in the choreography.  When asked about her own repertoire, she highlights the roles of Teresina in "Napoli" and Effy, James’ fiancee in "La Sylphide".  Cuni enjoys portraying the transformations that Teresina must undergo in the second act of "Napoli".  She credits the coaching of Eva Kloborg for helping her in this crucial second act.  Effy (in "La Sylphide"), she points out, is a role that has very little dancing – "you cannot dance your way out of it", thus the depth and characterization in the role have to come from somewhere else – the acting, the mime.  Cuni enjoys that challenge.

Currently, Cuni is dancing Kitri in Alicia Alonso's production of "Don Quixote", a role she's wanted to perform ever since seeing Heidi Ryom and Julio Bocca in a previous RDB production.  Cuni had the honour of performing on opening night, opposite Alessio Carbone, a guest dancer from the Paris Opera Ballet.  Though she was not originally intended to share the stage with Carbone, the partnership has been so successful that she traveled to Italy at Carbone’s invitation this past April to dance the Don Quixote pas de deux and the divertissement from "La Sylphide" with him.

Besides "Don Quixote", Cuni [at the time of this interview] was also rehearsing with Christopher Wheeldon for the up-coming world premiere of a then unnamed piece.  Working with Wheeldon has been "great" she says, and brings back fond memories of the summer of 1992.  Early that summer, after the company toured the United States, Cuni and a number of company aspirants and dancers stayed with a host family in Hartford, Connecticut while taking classes with Truman Finney.  She remembers Finney as being a teacher who emphasized musicality, phrasing and quality, as well as opening up to his students a new dimension of ballet.  Dancers from the New York City Ballet joined them in Connecticut between their commitments in Saratoga, and it was then that Cuni first met Wheeldon. 

Though she has worked with other choreographers, she says that her experience with Wheeldon has been very different, as he has a natural approach towards choreographing: he considers where the steps have come from, and thus where the flow should take them.  According to Cuni, there's a wonderful mix of humor and seriousness in Wheeldon's rehearsals.  She also speaks highly of Wheeldon's ability to communicate to the dancers what he wants from them.

At 33, Cuni prefers to think in the present.  She does not want to keep dancing simply because there's a pension waiting for her, but neither is she looking to leave the stage.  Her belief is that there's "always a solution…another door", and she will see how each season goes.  Debuts in roles as Kitri and Teresina (Napoli) in recent seasons have been a great pleasure, given the years of artistic directorial turmoil.  As Cuni relates, these years were tough for the dancers because the lack of consistent leadership meant that dancers could be overlooked or 'lost' in the continual changes in approach and repertoire.  Yet, Cuni feels that there were some positives to the situation – having a different director every few years meant that there were no long-term favorites – the dancers had to work to prove themselves and could not become "pampered".

While she does not have any long-term plans, Cuni is developing interests outside of performing.  One of her newer passions is painting, a talent she's nurtured in a number of summer courses.  The great appeal of painting, she says, is that there are no rules: no one telling her exactly how it should look, no one correcting her.  In that sense, it's a release from the often strict confines of the ballet world where (most of the time) she has little or no say in the choreography, the music, the sets, the costumes.  With painting, Cuni gets to make all the choices and the creation is all her own.  Along with painting, she is also interested in decorating her new apartment – she enjoys scouring flea markets for unique pieces of furniture that she then fixes up.  Cuni also loves to read, see Brøndby IF games, and watch movies when she has the time.

Also, perhaps not surprising for a dancer who has received critical praise for her dancing in Bournonville roles, she expresses an interest in the idea of teaching Bournonville classes to the oldest students in the school.  This interest came about partially though a chance opportunity last summer.  Fellow dancer Thomas Lund was asked to teach some Bournonville variations at a course for dance teachers in Warsaw, and invited Cuni to come along so that she could help demonstrate the female parts of the variations.  Experiencing Bournonville from the role of teacher gave her a new perspective on the steps, and once she started the teaching, she "was hooked on it".  In part, she sees Bournonville as being useful outside of the context of the ballets.  She says, "there are so many good steps beyond the ballets", and feels that the steps are of great use in teaching musicality and phrasing.  Cuni remembers what Truman Finney told her – if you can dance Bournonville, you can dance everything.

For now, however, it appears that these plans are still far in the future, and her current focus is to "just dance!"

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