Interview with Morten Eggert
by Kate Snedeker
April 8, 2008 -- Copenhagen
In ballet, male dancers tend to fall into distinct categories such as the danseur noble, or the demi-caractère. This characterization can be a blessing or a curse as it can cause roles to be opened up or forever closed off to a particular type of dancer. However, there are a few dancers who manage to escape a label, and in doing so create a unique repertory for themselves. One of these "wildcards" of the ballet world is Royal Danish Ballet soloist Morten Eggert.
Promoted to soloist at 23, Eggert was a relative latecomer to the Royal Theatre. The son of a doctor, he was raised in a small town 100km south of Copenhagen where he attended a Steiner [Waldorf] school from an early age. Based on the principles espoused by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher/artist/educator, Steiner schools allow students to take a self-directed, interdisciplinary approach to education that includes a heavy focus on the arts. As Eggert explains, they "wanted to protect boys' imagination…", which included starting formal reading instruction in Year 4 [age 7 to 9]. Until then, pupils were frequently read to, and Eggert vividly remembers that after he finally learned to read, his biggest fear "was [that] they'd stop telling us stories…".
Typically, performing arts are intrinsic to Steiner curricula, with lessons involving movement, visual arts, theatre, music and crafts. At Eggert’s school, in particular, the students frequently put on plays and mini-festivals. It was from these theatrical experiences that the young Eggert first developed an interest in the arts. For him, the theatre was a fantasy world where "men were noble".
Ballet entered the equation by way of The Three Musketeers. After reading Dumas' book, Eggert became fascinated with the youngest musketeer, D'Artagnon, who is told that to become a musketeer he must master three skills – dancing, sword-fighting and horseback riding. In emulation of D’Artagnon, Eggert started lessons in ballet, fencing and horseback riding. Having developed a particular interest in ballet, he auditioned unsuccessfully several times for the Royal Ballet School. It wasn't until he was 13 that he was accepted as one of the special 'dispensation' students (who enter the school at the age of 12 or older with previous ballet experience).
Needless to say, for a boy who'd grown up in the unique setting of a Steiner school, the transition to the Royal Danish Ballet School was a shock. The majority of the students had been in the school since they were seven or eight, so Eggert was very much an outsider. As a result, Eggert feels that he has always been a bit different – a "wildcard". His decision to pursue ballet as a career was also initially hard for his father, who had always wanted his son to become doctor and take over his local practice.
As a student and young apprentice, Eggert benefited from the teaching of Truman Finney and Adam Lüders, whom he describes as being like "professors of dance". They were, he recalls, very academic, wearing tweed and cashmere, and treated their students like fine horses. Both men emphasized taking charge of the moment, and, Lüders, in particular, worked on really honing his students’ technique. The idea was to train to the extent that technique became second nature, allowing the dancers to move beyond the technique and "set themselves free".
As a company member, Eggert still treads his own unique paths. He admits to disliking barre, much preferring the freedom of centre work. He also hates uniforms and uniformity, but says that "it's easier [dealing with it] now" because he has learned, as his father reminds him, "to pick your battles carefully". What he loves is being onstage, performing.
In explaining how he sees himself, Eggert talks about how Nikolaj Hübbe perceives dancers and the audience. Dancers, he says, are exhibitionists whilst the audience members are silent voyeurs. Yes, audiences do applaud, but to a dancer they are mostly 'silent' because [usually] they are made invisible by the intense stage lighting. Yet, the dancers do know when there's an audience -- Eggert says there is a clear change from a dress rehearsal in front of a mostly empty theatre to a performance in front of an audience of thousands.
As a dancer, he's been acclaimed for his skills as a mime, but his repertoire is hardly limited to roles associated with mime or demi-caractere dancing. Mime, Eggert relates, has come naturally to him because he loves to express himself. Over his years as a student and professional dancer, he's studied mime with Niels Bjorn Larsen and Flemming Ryberg among others. But Eggert also looks beyond ballet for inspiration in creating characters. He mentions the German actor Peter Law and also Bela Lugosi, who were unique, according to Eggert, because rather than projecting feelings outwards, they took the feelings in.
Eggert’s unique combination of mimetic and dancing skills has served him well in his favorite roles, including the balletmaster in Flemming Flindt's "The Lesson". Eggert describes the ballet as an "intimate, diabolic, claustrophobic battle between a hunter and his victim…". When asked about the difficulty of stepping into such a depraved character, he comments that if the role fits, it's not a challenge. Yet, sometimes when it's time to go home, and he has to shed the character, he does wonder who he really is.
Another role that Eggert loves is that of King in "Caroline Mathilde". He also enjoys playing jesters, in particular those who are somewhat diabolical. The jester in Peter Martins' "Swan Lake" and the jester-like character in "Kermessen in Bruges" are among those Eggert mentions, as well as the jester/Pierrot in Balanchine's "La Sonnambula" which the company will perform during the 2008-09 season. What he finds most difficult and uncomfortable is performing in “bad modern ballets”. Eggert explains that you’re often close to the audience, and you don’t know what kind of a face to put on.
When not on stage, Eggert likes to watch characters that he describes as "heroic, old foolish men". These include James in "La Sylphide", Onegin in "Onegin" and “Romeo and Juliet’s” Mercutio, "a joker who never got the last laugh". Mercutio, in particular, is the type of character Eggert would like to dance, along with Iago in any version of “Othello” and Madge in "La Sylphide". In recent years, the role Madge has only been played by women. However, there have been male Madges in the past and Eggert points out that Johan Kobborg is currently performing the role in his own production at the Bolshoi.
Looking back at his career, Eggert picks out several high points. It was always a highlight, he recalls, to dance with former Royal Danish Ballet soloist Izabela Sokolowska. They had the kind of chemistry, when dancing in ballets like "The Lesson" and "Caroline Mathilde" that, he says, gave their performances that little bit more. Eggert also will never forget the experience of dancing in Bejart's "Gaite Parisienne" at the Palais Garnier when the Royal Danish Ballet toured to Paris in 1998. He was 19, and part of his role including reciting a few lines in French on stage. That experience, "was like coming to Camelot".
When not in the theatre, Eggert enjoys spending time with his girlfriend. He also has bought a house dating back to circa 1860, which he is restoring bit by bit during the summer holidays. There's always something that needs work, something crumbling – it’s a matter, he says, of keeping one step ahead of the house. The house also has a garden, which he hopes to keep and bring back to its former glory.
However, the house and garden will have to continue to be relegated to the summer months. At 29, Eggert has more than a decade left as a dancer, and he has no intention of cutting that time short. In fact, he hopes to continue on as a character dancer, taking on the roles now performed by his mentors such as Flemming Ryberg. He also muses about possibly one day directing the Pantomime theatre in Tivoli, a company now run by former Royal Danish Ballet dancer and character dancer Peter Bo Bendixen. But for now, the focus is on the present, and the roles which Nikolaj Hübbe’s first season will offer for the company’s “wild card”.
The Royal Danish Ballet’s 2008-09 season opens with a tour to China in August 2008.