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A Moveable Interview (and Feast) with the Royal Danish Ballet's Jonathan Chmelensky

by Toba Singer

While he was in Berkeley, California dancing with the Royal Danish Ballet, what was scheduled as a telephone interview with Jonathan Chmelensky, turned into a moveable feast.  We spent an evening viewing a work-in-progress film of Alicia Alonso and the Cuban National Ballet, while enjoying our host’s home-cooked Cuban cuisine. The following afternoon, we met between rehearsal and the company’s evening performance to share a Cuban café con leche at my favorite haunt, The Actual Café, in nearby Oakland. Chmelensky, who is French, comes from a Venezuelan-Czech-U.S. family of ballet dancers. He trained at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris, the Escuela Nacional des Artes in Havana, and besides dancing with the Royal Danish, is an after-hours DJ in Copenhagen.

TS: You come from a family of international dancers. Was it taken for granted that you would follow in their footsteps?

JC: I started studying ballet with my grandmother, Margarita Medina, as an after-school activity. There is no school on Wednesdays in France so that children can have time to pursue other interests. For example, later on, I played soccer on Wednesdays. I was raised primarily by my mother and grandmother. My grandmother wanted me out of the house and active. I studied piano, took music and choral lessons, and ballet at the conservatory where my grandmother taught. I didn’t take it very seriously at the time, only going twice a week, but I didn’t question it either. I enjoyed preparing for showcases, putting on costumes and the rush of pre-performance adrenaline, even dancing those basic choreographies—all of that. By the time I was 13, when I decided to have a serious go at it for a year, it was too late to start at Paris Opera school. I studied at the Stanlowa School, where my grandfather, Antonio Alvarado, had taught and where there was very strict Russian training. They stretched your legs into those high extensions! I began viewing videos of Baryshnikov and the Cubans. Up to then I had been kind of on the margins of the school, but then I had a breakthrough and people noticed. “He has dehors [turnout]!” In a year or two, I went from inflexible to suddenly becoming the favorite. I was enjoying performing on the day-long tours we made to the French provinces, but eventually the school became too small for me. Since I had passed the age limit for entering the Paris Opera School, I auditioned for the Conservatoire National Supérieur.

My mother was skeptical. She preferred that I do sports or become a serious student. The question was settled once and for all when I was accepted at the Conservatoire. It was a great institution, but again, I wanted more, and in my fourth year there I decided that rather than graduate, I would participate in several competitions. I won third prize in the elder division in Rome. I also went to Jackson, where I was confronted with such dancers as Daniel Simkin and Isaac Hernández, and really saw what the competition looked like.

TS: How was it that you decided to train in Cuba, and what was it like to study there?

JC: After taking classes at ABT, I was considering joining their studio company, but communication got stalled, and not wanting to wait, I decided to go to Cuba and train there instead. I spent 1.5 years studying at the ENA (Escuela Nacional des Artes), having arrived during one of their best generations of students. Dancers such as Yonah Acosta were in my class—all are soloists today. I was thrilled! The other male dancers were like a locomotive pushing me, inspiring me to do more. Day-to-day life in Cuba wasn’t easy for a boy from Paris. At first I shared a dorm room with nine other boys; we had cube-like lockers that would get stuck, no hot water for showers, a limited menu, and I wasn’t used to the flora in the drinking water, so I became very sick for awhile, but I recovered, and I was fine! I moved in with a family, and I viewed the experience kind of like military service or boot camp, which would in the long run prepare me for anything that came my way. I am very grateful to Fernando Alonso, who chaired the audition jury and said, “This boy has to be in the school.” Thanks to him and Ramona de Sáa, I was accepted. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. My other teacher there was Marta-Iris Fernández, who was co-director of the school and my assigned teacher. [In Cuba, they assign each student a teacher who remains a mentor until graduation.] Each male student is paired with a female partner for daily pas de deux training and practice. My partner was Marisé Fumero, and we worked very hard on our Le Corsaire pas. I won a Best Dancer prize. I joined the company for awhile and later toured with them in Italy. It was a great working experience. I was in the best shape of my life.

TS: What remains with you from the Cuban experience?

JC: I learned how to turn and jump from the Cubans. I knew how before, but I took it to the Cuban level while there. When we were watching the film last night on Alicia and discussing the Cuban style, this is what I’m referring to here—that bravura. Now that I am at Royal Danish, it is both an asset and an obstacle. The Royal Danish Bournonville style has no preparations, where the Cubans have elaborate ones. There are entirely different accents and rhythms. At Royal Danish they don’t split the legs as far as it is possible to make them go. The music rules in Denmark. It won’t wait for you. In Cuba, you have more interplay between the music and the steps. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my Cuban training for anything else. The Cuban style gives you virtuosity, ownership of the stage, fearlessness in the face of anything you attempt—just do it and worry about it later. Bournonville, on the other hand, gives you the lyric side.

There is a subtle relationship between James and the dying sylph in “La Sylphide” [a Bournonville signature piece], whereas the Cubans tend to over-act their roles. Peter Schauffus, Peter Martins, Johan Klobborg, Nikolaj Hübbe—are all living references for how to dance Bournonville. Carlos Acosta, the Carreños [Lázaro, José Manuel and Yoel], and Jorge Esquivel, are all living references for how to dance the Cuban style. I never neglect my Cuban formation, while at the same time adapting to the new style I have been learning at Royal Danish, keeping it clean, lean and lyrical, with that Cuban spark!

TS: What changes are taking place at the Royal Danish?

JC: I arrived during the transition there. I was the last dancer accepted under Frank Andersen’s directorship. I am very proud of that. He did great things for the Royal Danish, and was the curator of Bournonville style and technique. Now he travels the world restaging works because he has such a great eye for it. Some might say that the Royal Danish was locked into Bournonville. Hübbe has unlocked the company. Nikolaj has the difficult task of reshaping the company to allow it to do classics such as “Swan Lake.” The company was plagued by a lot of injuries. Technique is changing and maybe that is the reason for all the injuries. Frank was the first to begin hiring non-Danes. Now, under Hübbe, the company is 50% Danish and 50% non-Danish, more international than ever.

TS: Times are hard for dancers, as companies fold, and yet, dance is as popular as ever, as evidenced by the popularity of the film “Black Swan” and TV shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance?” How can young dancers play a role in assuring the future of the art?

JC: In the previous decade, it looked as if ballet had disappeared from our culture. In this decade, starting with “Black Swan,” which brought attention to ballet, we are seeing a resurgence. A lot of ballet people didn’t like the film because of the stereotyping, but in 1.5 hours it did show the complex, difficult work involved in a dance career. People now want to know whether it is accurate. They say they didn’t realize it was so hard. “So You Think You Can Dance?” looks like a show in which most of the contestants have had some formal dance training. The younger generation is challenged with the difficult task of continuity, renewing itself, staying true to ballet, but at the same time, not getting stuck in it. Do we keep performing “Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” each year, or searching for the next step? Eventually, some of us will have the power to change things. Some think Kylian is the way; others love the classics. The important thing is to reach new audiences, bringing ballet to the youth. Royal Danish offered a $13 or $15 ticket recently—just a little more than a movie would cost, and less than a rock concert—and the house was sold out—and the average age dropped. The enthusiasm was immediately felt by the dancers. This was not grandmothers dragging their kids to “Nutcracker.” This was an authentic audience of young people. It was a simple way of offering an appetizer to young people to keep them coming back for more, and it worked!

TS: What about street dance artists, such as those here in Oakland—pop and lock, hip hop, etc.?

JC: There are so many currents of street dance styles now, the American school, French, Japanese, etc. They have to find their own continuity, and not let it slip out of control. They have to become artists. In the theater in Denmark, there is an inscription above the stage, a quote from Bournonville that says: “Not just for fun.”

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