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The Erik Bruhn Competition Experience

An Interview with the Royal Danish Ballet's Shelby Elsbree & Jon-Axel Fransson

by Kate Snedeker

March 2011 -- Toronto, Ontario, CA

On the morning of the Erik Bruhn Competition, I had the pleasure of talking with the competitors from the Royal Danish Ballet, Shelby Elsbree and Jón Axel Fransson. Elsbree, who is originally from Florida, joined the company in 2009, while Fransson, a native of Iceland, is just finishing his first year in the corps.

How did you get started in ballet?
JAF: My sister was going to audition for the Royal Danish Ballet [school]. It was only my mom, my sister and me who lived in Denmark at that time - I’m originally from Iceland. [My mother] was going to go with my sister, but she couldn’t leave me at home alone. She asked me if I wanted to go with them, but I was like ‘ballet is for girls’ … no, definitely no. But I finally went - I don’t know how she convinced me – and I thought it was amazing. I got through the audition, and my sister [did not] and lost interest.

SE: I actually was a gymnast when I was 7, 8 and 9 [but] I broke my arm, and kind of lost interest. We were selling our house, and the woman selling our house told us that her daughter owned a ballet studio [the Florida Ballet Arts Academy] and that I should give ballet a try. I decided to just give it a go – and it just clicked and I really enjoyed it. I moved to SAB when I was thirteen. I was there for about 4 and a half years before I came to Denmark.

What did it mean to be selected to compete in the Erik Bruhn Competition?
SE: I was just beyond honored actually, to think that they would have the trust and belief in a non-Dane to represent a Danish company. It was a really big compliment, a really big honor and very humbling for me.
JAF: I was really surprised – I didn’t get the news from Nikolaj himself - it kind of slipped [out], the news … so I was just very surprised! Being picked was such an honor. You have all these great talents in the Royal Danish Ballet, [so] to be picked was one of my greatest [accomplishments].

What did you know about Erik Bruhn, and the Erik Bruhn Competition before being selected for the competition?
SE: To be honest, I did not know a whole lot about him. I knew he was a revered dancer and had quite an international acclaim, but I didn’t even know much about the competition.

JAF: I [remember] when Alban went [to the competition]… and Ulrik, so it’s been like a great big thing. I had a teacher – his name was Truman Finney – and he used to talk about [Erik Bruhn] all the time … one of the great greats. He loved him!

What has your schedule been like at the competition?
SE: We arrived Wednesday. Generally it’s been class in the morning, followed by anywhere from half an hour to an hour of rehearsal in the studio or on stage. Our first day that was it, and then we had a dress rehearsal last night, and today is show day!

Each couple at the Erik Bruhn Competition has to perform a classical pas de deux and a contemporary pas de deux. Elsbree and Fransson peformed the ‘Flower Festival from Genzano Pas de Deux’, and a brand new piece by company member Louise Midjord.

What was it like to rehearse the ‘Flower Festival’ pas de deux?

JAF: It was very different for me, even though I’ve been through the school and we’ve had Bournonville exams. It was so different to have a variation to practice so much.

SE: It was definitely a challenge for me. Bournonville is not my mother tongue when it comes to ballet styles, and I obviously felt the pressure of representing the heart and home of Bournonville [the RDB]. It was such a incredible growing and learning process for me as a dancer - physically, mentally, working with a partner and stylistically. I really enjoyed developing and getting an entirely new appreciation for Bournonville, and how hard it is and how fun it can be at the same time!
We watched several different videos. Gudrun [Bojeson] and Mads [Blangstrup]– they were probably the ones we looked at the most because it was the most recent. [Also] Thomas Lund and Gudrun, Rose Gad and Johan Kobborg, and some young American dancers from the Houston Ballet. Alina Cojocaru and Johan – whew, that was some big inspiration! It was really fun to see how different people interpret the same piece, as well at the same time being able to find our own interpretation.

Can you tell us anything about Louise Midjord’s contemporary piece?
SE: It’s a brand new piece; it’s absolutely beautiful! The music is kind of Jewish folklore… and it’s a story about a relationship between… a young boy and a young girl. The girl in particular is very excited and flirty, and little bit crazy about being in love. The boy is a little bit more passive - he likes her, but doesn’t need to show his emotions so outwardly and anxiously as she does. It’s a really beautiful piece and we’ve enjoyed developing it as a story and as partners.

Is it the first time you’ve had a piece choreographed on you?
JA: For me it is.
SE: Professionally, yes. When I was in the School of American Ballet we did choreography workshops, so I’ve had that experience of choreographers working on you before … inspiring them and being inspired by their vision for you. I really enjoyed getting back into that process, because it’s an entirely different creative atmosphere than learning a ballet that is older.

Is this your first competition?
JAF: Yes
SE: I actually did the Youth America Grand Prix in 2004. That was an entirely different experience – I much prefer this one.

What has been the highlight of this experience for you [so far]?
SE: The highlight of this experience has been without a doubt our training experience with Silja [Schandorff] and Louise: hearing of their experiences and learning from their knowledge and their incredibly creative & experienced eyes. It’s been amazing, an invaluable experience and something I’ll never forget. We were already saying how much we’re going to miss it. How maybe we should wean off our rehearsals (laughs)…
JAF: Just keep running [through the piece] every now and then!
SE: I would say of my career so far, my first season with the company, I got to do blue girl in Dances With a Gathering. My mom and her parents were visiting England, and they were able to fly over for our premiere, which was also my premiere. Bowing after that performance was perhaps the highlight of my career so far. It was a breakthrough for me as a dancer, and the fact that my family was in the audience somewhere so far from home was just amazing.

JA: My premiere for Swan Lake when I did the jester. That was incredible…hearing the audience and we’re alone during the bow and it’s crazy. It’s worth everything!

When you get back, the company will be premiering a new production of Bournonville’s ‘A FolkTale’. What are your impressions of the production?
SE: Choreography-wise I’m sure it’s amazing, [but] I haven’t actually seen much of it because of our rehearsal schedule! The set design and costume design is by Mia Stengaard – she’s this unbelievable visionary. She’s so talented! I think it’s going to be a very entertaining performance and that the audience is really going to enjoy it.
JAF: It looks very interesting. I look forward to seeing how it is going to go. I’ve only seen a few costumes - a little bit of the trolls, and the trolls look amazing. Really creative!

What is your favorite ballet to dance?
JAF: Swan Lake
SE: We done so much in a short period of time that we’ve both been dancing professionally … I have different appreciations for different ballets for different reasons. As far as the enjoyment, I’d have to say Flower Festival. To really become a character, and be challenged by technique, choreography, style, by portraying a story, it’s really been such a healthy, challenging experience.
JAF: True, but I didn’t think about it, [since] we have not actually performed it yet!
SE: [Laughs] We ‘performed’ it like 25 times in the last month, I think. That counts!

Do you have ballets that you particularly like to watch?
SE: Well I love absolutely anything Balanchine. That’s just my training! I think he has such a brilliant style and eye for choreography and musicality. It’s truly mesmerizing. I also loved Onegin – it was one of the first ballets I saw Royal Danish Ballet do when I moved. It was completely breathtaking – my mom and I were just sobbing in the audience.
JAF: Etudes. Just the simplicity, and how it’s built up and the progression [of the ballet steps].

What hobbies or activities do you enjoy outside of the theatre?
JA: My friends moved back to Denmark in the summer, and then they moved back to Iceland, and that was basically my interest. I was hanging out with them – playing Playstation and watching TV - and enjoying (it) because we have such a great comradery.
SE: I love to cook and bake and photograph, and to food style. I love doing something completely opposite of ballet when I’m not in the theatre, so have a blog.

Was it difficult trying to find ingredients for your recipes when you moved to Denmark?
Yes! I’m afraid I bring a few things back with me whenever I go home. But it’s been a good challenge to learn how to alter recipes and make things work.

What do you miss most from home?
SE: Besides my family and my friends?! Definitely the variety of grocery stores, and the easiness and convenience of living in a (large) country!
JAF: Twenty-four hour (opening hours)!
SE: Yes, I miss the working hours of America!

It wouldn’t be a ballet interview without a Black Swan question! What did you like least about Black Swan?
SE: When they come out with a ballet movie you generally think all these little girls are going to want to rush and see it. So I was a little bit scarred, a little bit traumatized. I thought that Natalie not being a dancer, she did a very good job, but I was kind of saddened to see the impression that it can give of the dance world
JAF: I didn’t feel that way. I didn’t want to go – I thought it was just going to be another cheesy movie about ballet and be really cliché. My mom and my sister wanted to go and see it, and I was like, I have to see it of course! Then I watched, and got captured from the first moment. [Portman] became a ballerina for me, and I didn’t really think about the impression it was going to give of ballet.

As a final question, can you tell us something totally unique about yourself?
SE: My brother and sister and I are all black belts in Tae Kwan Do, which we received before I ever started ballet. I think it definitely keeps me grounded and not so bun-headish as dancers can be often – that’s something that I am thankful for.
JAF: It’s not me that’s unique – it’s my family, the support and the togetherness. {We have] a great connection. and I think without their support I wouldn’t be here. Most of my family lives in Iceland – it’s only my mom, my sister and me.
SE: I second that as well. Family – without it I wouldn’t be here, for sure.

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