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Nicking Time With Nikolaj

Interview with the Royal Danish Ballet's Nikolaj Hübbe

by Kate Snedeker

April 11, 2008

The Royal Danish Ballet recently received rave reviews for Nikolaj Hübbe and Sorella Englund’s “Giselle”.   Earning 5 out of 6 stars from three of the top Danish newspapers, “Giselle” was the first new production for the company since Hübbe took over as artistic director.  Though he did not officially assume his leadership role until July 1, Hübbe spent a good deal of the 2007-08 season in Copenhagen teaching and coaching.   In April of 2008, he slipped on James’ kilt one more time to end his dancing career with a final performance of “La Sylphide”.  Shortly after this farewell performance, I had the pleasure of talking with him about his career and his outlook for the Royal Danish Ballet.

Hübbe, like many past and present Royal Danish Ballet dancers, was introduced to ballet from the red velvet seats of the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.   After being taken to see the “The Nutcracker” and “La Sylphide” as a young boy, he quickly fell in love with ballet.  Though he begged his parents – a doctor and a teacher – to audition for the Royal Danish Ballet’s school, they were reluctant because the school’s academic side had a very bad reputation (the school has since affiliated with the N. Zahle’s School, and recent pupils speak highly about the academics).  After some persuasion, Hübbe was finally allowed to audition, and at the age of ten, he embarked upon a balletic education led by some of the finest dancers and instructors in RDB history.  Among his teachers were Henning Kronstam, Neils Kehlet, Flemming Ryberg, Fredbjorn Bjornsson, Truman Finney and Stanley Williams.

Hübbe rose through the school, becoming an apprentice in 1984 and a member of the corps de ballet in 1986.   Having quickly been given leading roles, he was promoted to principal (the rank of soloist did not exist at that time) just two years later.   After several years on top, however, Hübbe began to consider the idea of looking further afield for new challenges.   He had performed all of the principal roles in the RDB’s repertory, and was, as he describes, “a big fish in a small pond” and “afraid of going stale”.   He feared becoming “provincial” and “not being nervous enough”.    The idea of joining a company abroad was not new in the Danish ballet world – such renowned Danish male dancers as Peter Martins, Peter Schaufuss and Ib Andersen had departed to dance with companies in the United States and England.

When the chance came, Hübbe leapt; in 1992 at the age of 25, he left Copenhagen to become a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.  He recalls the transition as being very easy, saying it “was as if [he] had always been here [NYCB]”.    Whilst out of the NYCB’s vast repertory, he had previously danced only a few ballets [notably “Apollo” and “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”], he “wanted it so much” that he “steeped himself” in NYCB.  Among the ballets he has particular memories of during his years at NYCB are “Apollo”, “La Sonnambula”, “Liebeslieder Walzer” and “Sleeping Beauty”.

Now, just over a decade and a half later, Hübbe has returned to his roots to direct the company where his career was born and nourished.  When asked about important factors, both in terms of his job and the skills required of an artistic director, Hübbe talks about communication and artistic integrity.

Firstly, he says, an artistic director must have great organizational skills, in particular the ability to have long foresight.  Yet he (or she) must still be able work ‘moment to moment’.   An artistic director, Hübbe feels, also must be able to change, to be bendable, and adapt when working – from person to person and story to story – because not all cases are the same.

Working at a theatre or opera house that has nightly performances, like the Royal Theatre, adds additional challenges because there are lots of emotions and different temperaments.  Thus, Hübbe thinks that another key skill is the ability to handle people – specifically the company dancers.  You have to know dancers as individuals, he says, know where they are as artists and technicians, “who can do what” in terms of roles. To some, technique is more natural; others have to work at it in class and rehearsals.   He believes in being harder on someone for whom the steps come naturally, but who doesn’t try in class or rehearsals, than on someone who can barely do the steps, but “tries with gritted teeth”, who has “devotion, dedication and humility”.  

Artistically, Hübbe feels that it is vital to maintain both personal and theatrical integrity.   As the artistic director you, he says, are the one to talk and to make decisions, thus you must “know your ideals”.  What you do must be “morally and aesthetically right for the art form”.  You have to go back after each performance, look at it from an artistic point of view and ask, “Was I true to my morals? Will Terpsichore come back to haunt me?” he says.    If your morals have been jeopardized – it must be for the greater good.  Otherwise, something is wrong.

Despite the challenges, Hübbe looks forward to the years ahead of him as the leader of the Royal Danes.  In particular, he is excited about his continued work with the dancers and also watching new dancers develop through the school and into the company.  He is happy to have the chance to promote dancers, “being a clay shaper” and “instigator in the studio”.   He does admit, though, to being less thrilled about the lack of money, the bureaucracy and “strange decrees” that are part and parcel of being heavily government subsidized.

Hübbe doesn’t, however, have any concerns about returning in a role where he is in a position of authority over former colleagues and teachers.  For one, he explains, he was gone so long that only a handful of dancers from his era remain in the company.  More importantly, Hübbe feels that he has gained authority by making a name for himself, and has always been a leader.  He started teaching when he was just 26, and describes himself as being verbal, opinionated and of strong beliefs.  It doesn’t hurt, also, that he’s picked up some good advice from teachers and fellow dancers along the way: “be humble, open your eyes, learn, be open and don’t know all the answers”.

In taking up the reins of such a storied company, Hübbe is faced with a lot of expectations regarding the future repertory and direction(s) of the company.   He says that –for now—he wants to focus on “classical ballet, classical ballet” and that this focus might come “at the sacrifice of new, modern choreographers”.  Yet, even doing the classics is not without risk.  When asked about ballets he would love to present but doesn’t think are feasible, he quickly mentions Balanchine’s “Liebeslieder Walzer”.   The ballet, with its quartet of expressive, but not overly technical, female roles would be perfect for the company now, he muses, because he has four wonderful, mature ballerinas.  However, he doesn’t think it would be a crowd pleaser – Copenhagen audiences still tend to display a marked preference for full-length ballets.  Also, he is not sure the audience is sophisticated enough for the likes of Liebeslieder.  

 Attracting and expanding this audience is one of Hübbe’s biggest challenges.  In order to keep up audience numbers and expand their horizons, he feels that he must attract the younger generation and “break down the stigma, prejudices”.  He hopes to do that by continuing programs like the pre-show studio ‘close-ups’ which give audience members a chance to learn more about ballet in the intimate setting of the studios.  Hübbe is keen to work with the programming – for instance he says, a ballet like Balanchine’s masterpiece “Symphony in C” could be a good opener, a good way to draw people into a mixed bill.

Finally, he looks to the future, and his hopes for his dancers, for the company.  One challenge will certainly be keeping up the flow of male dancers – more than half the male corps is now from outside Denmark.  Hübbe, for his part, wants to make the dancers “more agile, more chameleon, more bendable and changeable, more modern in their way of thinking”.  He wants dancers who, like their directors, are “moment to moment” and open to change. 

The rave reviews for “Giselle” suggest that the company is in good hands.  Over the next year, we will come to knowhow much change Hübbe intends to make, and how successful he will be, both with his dancers and his audiences.

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