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Interviews

A Change of Direction in Copenhagen
a conversation with Nikolaj Hü
bbe
Spring 2000
by Alexandra Tomalonis

Editor’s note: DanceView’s readers are by now familiar with the trials and tribulations the Royal Danish Ballet has endured this past decade. Late in 1998, a new crisis loomed. Maina Gielgud, whose good intentions had misfired with both the Danish dancers and audience, resigned at the end of November of that year, a year-and-a-half before her contract was due to expire. The director’s position was open for the fourth time in five years.

Rumors swirled for the next seven months, with some intriguing, and some terrifying, possibilities mentioned as potential directors. For the first time, however, the candidates, whose identities were usually guarded like a state secret, ostensibly for privacy protection, were actually known. They were all Danes: Ib Andersen, Peter Bo Bendixen, Nikolaj Hübbe, Alexander Kølpin, and Aage Thordal-Christensen. Throughout the spring, there were persistent rumors that the job had already been promised to Hübbe. Several articles in the Danish press seemed to assume that he would be the next director. However, in early June, a few days after the company had dispersed for the summer, the announcement was made that Aage Thordal-Christensen, 32, and a soloist with the company, would be the new director; his wife, Colleen Neary, would be the chief ballet mistress.

Since this publication has been trying to record the history of this company, it seemed important to learn what had actually happened, and so I contacted Nikolaj Hübbe [a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet since 1992, as well as a teacher in the School of American Ballet] and asked him if he would consent to speak on the record, telling us what he knew of the selection process. This interview was conducted by telephone on Monday, December 13, 1999.

DanceView: When did you first begin discussions with the Royal Theatre about the possibility of your becoming artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet?

Hübbe: In May of 1998, I went to Denmark and I talked to Niels Jørgen Kaiser [then Chairman of the Board of the Royal Theatre] about taking over the Royal Danish Ballet after Maina Gielgud.

DanceView: Were you just looking for a job change?

Hübbe: No. Dancers had been calling me and saying that what was the essence and spirit and coil of the Royal Danish Ballet is disintegrating, it’s horrible. Somebody should take over this company who’s Danish, who understands the tradition, who knows the house, who knows about Bournonville.

I had just staged Bournonville divertissements for New York City Ballet. I had always thought that I would never apply for the artistic director’s position in that house, because I’ve always thought of it as a rat’s nest. Probably that house, and the other old opera houses, are so hideously difficult: all politics and intrigues, and to get something done, you have to go through all kinds of bureaucracy before you get what you want. So I always thought that I would never apply for it; I would never be director of the Royal Danish Ballet.

But on the other hand, I also felt almost like there was an obligation. And this is not to make myself sound like a godsend to the company, but more that I have a deep, true love for that house, and certainly for Bournonville and those ballets and that tradition — and for dance in general, I would say.

DanceView: It’s like looking at a family in trouble and you’re part of that family.

Hübbe: It is. It really is. Even though you’re the uncle who left for America, you’re still part of that family. And so I thought that I would try to get my foot in the door.

So I contacted Niels Jørgen Kaiser, and he was interested. He said, “You’re a very young man, and do you know what this would involve? What would you do?” And in my young man’s fashion, I said, “I’ll do this and I’ll do that, and this one should go and that one should come back.” And he said, “You can’t just go in and change things overnight. One doesn’t do that. That has to come little by little.” And then he set up a meeting with Michael Christiansen, who I met with a couple of times.

DanceView: Did they also see problems with what was going on at the Theatre then?

Hübbe: Yes. They acknowledged that there was a big problem at the Theatre, a big problem, between the dancers and Maina Gielgud, who was the director at that time.

DanceView: Did they feel that there was an artistic problem?

Hübbe: Yes. There were artistic problems. As Niels Jørgen Kaiser said, she didn’t understand the company or the Northern European culture that goes with it. You know, there’s a big difference between the French-Italian ballet culture and the Danish point of view. For the audience up north in Copenhagen, it’s very different, and what she’s serving them is what you would have in a ballet house in Rome or Venice. And he said it just doesn’t jell. She’s not really thought about what house she’s in, what that tradition entails and what she’s dealing with. And I think he was absolutely right.

So I met with Michael Christiansen and then I think the two of them talked, and we were supposed to have a meeting, the three of us, but it never happened. It was Niels Jørgen’s idea that I should come in for six months under Maina as her artistic liaison, or assistant of some sort and then that way take over the company. Sort of like the Dauphin.

And I thought that was beating around the bush too much, and it would be difficult, because I wasn’t sympathetic to Maina Gielgud’s artistic point of view. I asked if there would be a public statement that after six months I’d take over the company. No, I should just come in there and learn the forretningsgang — how you run shop.

DanceView: Gielgud’s contract was not up in six months. Her contract had quite awhile to run, in the summer of 1998.

Hübbe: Yes. Maybe they wanted me in there around Christmas or something, so that the last half-year, maybe year, I would be there with her. I said, then from the time I step into the Theatre, it has to be publicly known that it is because I would take over the company. Because otherwise I would be associated with her. I would have to be loyal to her, because she’s my boss. And I didn’t agree with what she was doing.

DanceView: And how did they take that?

Hübbe: Well, Niels Jørgen Kaiser said he was very sorry that I didn’t like the idea, because he thought it was a brilliant idea. And Michael Christiansen, he was thinking like me. He thought, well, no, it’s not out in the open enough.

Later on I heard that Michael said that they offered me six months with Maina, and I said that Maina Gielgud could not teach me anything, which is a big lie. I never said that. I would never say anything like that.

Then I left and didn’t hear anything from them. I called Niels Jørgen once and asked what was going on, and he said, “Well, I’d love to know what’s going on with Michael Christiansen, because I certainly don’t know.” By that time, I think Michael and Niels Jørgen’s relationship was really, really strained. When he had just found Michael Christiansen they were pals, but in the end, about a year and a half ago, they were basically not speaking.

So they became more and more estranged. Also, at that time in the fall of ’98, the mission plan for the Royal Theatre was going to be published. That would deal with the Minister of Culture and finances, and always when such a big institution does something like that, it’s big time; all the journalists are like sharks and swim around it and attack it in every way, and the artists, too. So they spent months on that, and the bad situation at the Theatre sort of took second place.

Then after all this, Maina Gielgud suddenly resigned in late November of ‘98.

Then there was the 250th anniversary of the Royal Theatre, and I was invited home to dance; Peter Martins had also been invited to choreograph something for that special evening. And so we were there together, and Michael Christiansen had a meeting with Peter where he sort of probed, asking him about me. And after they’d talked, I got a phone call to contact Michael Christiansen, and he calls me in to tell me that now the position for the director of the Royal Danish Ballet would be open and that I am the only one he will ask to apply for the job. And I said, “Well, by saying that, you are saying that I’m your man?” And he said, “Yes.”

And then he said, “Now, when you do the application, you have to do this and that.” He was very political. He said, It has to be written in a way that you say a lot without saying anything. Promise a lot without promising anything. This is a quote: “It has to be something that you can run away from.”

So I did that. And we discussed the ins and outs of administration and structure, different structure for the top management of the company, fewer people. And he said, “For the first year, you will have to have the people that are there, because they are contractually bound to projects, but after that, it’s yours and you can do what you want and choose your own people.”

DanceView: Did Michael Christiansen ever actually say, “The position is yours?”

Hübbe: He said it in many different ways. I even asked him, “What if the dancers don’t want me?” He said, “Don’t worry. They’ll want you.”

DanceView: You had been there a lot that year, hadn’t you?

Hübbe: Yes. I’d done Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Gladsaxe Theatre, which ran for three months.

DanceView: Were you taking class every day?

Hübbe: Yes.

DanceView: Were you talking to people?

Hübbe: Yes, but I wasn’t corridor schmoozing, if that’s what you mean. I wasn’t doing a presidential election.

DanceView: All right. So Maina Gielgud has resigned, and you think you have been promised by the Theatre Chief that you have the job. What happened then?

Hübbe: At the same time, by the way, I also was supposed to start preparing a production of Giselle with Heidi [Ryom].

DanceView: Is this from Michael Christiansen as well?

Hübbe: Michael had mentioned it, but it was “and then you’ll do Giselle, but you know, by that time, you’ll be the director, and you can stage it.” It was, let’s not spend too much time on that, because that’s a given. You are in the house anyway.

DanceView: So in other words, you had conversations in which he was assuming things like “after you become director,” and “when you’re here?”

Hübbe: Yes. So time goes by, and the deadline [for choosing the artistic director] was the 1st of April, I believe. And I heard nothing. And then I got a letter that it has been postponed, a month or something. And then all of a sudden we [all the candidates] were summoned to court. Tthat was in April of ’99, and we did these tests that they give if you have to take over a big pharmaceutical company or if you are going to produce cars in Sweden.

DanceView: You had to take a business management test?

Hübbe: Yes. And then we had to talk with the panel which was: Niels Jørgen Kaiser; Michael Christiansen; a Theatre secretary called Bentsen; an actor called Henning Jensen, who was on the board; and then from the dancer’s committee was Henning Albrechtsen, who was head of the dancer’s union, and then Kenneth Greve, Jessie Lee and Tina Højlund.

Now, this is a big job, it’s a big old company and a big old tradition, and when you hear about meetings here in America where dancers and the board meet with the applicants, they can last for days, and they really scrutinize the person and everybody sort of gets to know him. But here, this took three-quarters of an hour, and it was extremely superficial.

DanceView: Were you answering questions thinking that you were just going through an exercise, because the decision had already been made?

Hübbe: No, not any more. I did not know who to believe or what to think. And in the middle of all this, the repertory for 1999-2000 was publicized and it said in the paper that Giselle will return, but that no stage directors have been found yet. So Heidi marched down to Michael Christiansen’s office and asked what’s going on. And he said, “Calm down. It’s just because we don’t want to say it’s you and Nik because we don’t want to step on Johnny’s [Eliason] toes.”

And so I went in also, to ask what’s happening and he said, “Listen. A word is a word. Here’s my hand; shake it.”

Then it was the beginning of May and I went back to New York to dance, and Niels Jørgen Kaiser came over.

DanceView: Did you talk to him when he was there?

Hübbe: No. He said “Hello” and “How are you” and “Thank you for a wonderful Apollo,” and “goodnight.” That was all. He was at City Ballet for at least three shows, and I danced most of them. And I thought, well, I guess it’s not me, because we would have to start talking about the contract, or whatever.

So I sat around and waited for a month, and one day I came home and there was a message from Michael Christiansen on my answering machine saying, “I’m just calling you to let you know that on Tuesday it will be made public who is the new artistic director and it is not you. I cannot reveal who it is, but it will be in the papers and you will receive a letter officially from the Theatre.”

DanceView: Were you ever given a reason?

Hübbe: Never. I think Christiansen spoke too soon. I think he started dangling the carrot in front of my nose too soon, without really having the back up from Niels Jørgen Kaiser, or the dancers. And that he promised me a position when he didn’t know whether the dancers wanted me, or the board wanted me.

DanceView: One of the theories I’ve heard was that it wasn’t so much that the dancers wanted Aage Thordal-Christensen as that he was the only one who didn’t have a block of dancers against him. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Hübbe: Well, I do think there’s a certain group in the Royal Danish Ballet who finds me extremely intimidating.

I think it was that Niels Jørgen Kaiser, and Michael Christiansen wanted to have their back free. They wanted to be able to say to the dancers when the first complaint came in with the new tenure of the new man, “You’ve made your bed. Now lie in it.”

DanceView: But you were still scheduled to direct Giselle with Heidi Ryom.

Hübbe: Very shortly after the announcement had been made, Aage Thordal contacted me and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come and do Giselle.” And I said, “I had a deal with the Theatre.” And he said: “Yeah, but that was then, and this is now, and I don’t want you to do it, and I think it’s too early compared to what we’ve just been through. Also, it’s a big production; you’ve never done that.”

DanceView: And he had?

Hübbe: That’s what I said. “And you have?” And then I thought, “Well, you know, he might have this brilliant idea. Maybe he’s going to have Natasha [Makarova] come in and do it. Wow! Fantastic. Isn’t that great? Or maybe he’ll get one of those old Russian legends from over there — Dudinskaya, or somebody. Wow. That might actually be quite something. Maybe he has a point.” That’s how I would think, artistically. But he just didn’t want me to do it.

Then I called Michael Christiansen and asked, what’s going on. And there were calls back and forth, and it turned out that Aage was going to stage it himself, with his wife, Colleen Neary, who is the chief ballet mistress now, and Johnny Eliason. Finally, they said, “We want you to be there. It would be wonderful. It would be great if you were there, but Aage will have the last artistic say.” And I said, “Of course. He’s the artistic director. But are you talking about the details of the production?” And Aage said, “Yes, that’s it.” And then I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

DanceView: To be clear, originally it would have been Giselle, produced by Nikolaj Hübbe and Heidi Ryom. So you would have divided the work, if you will, any way you wanted. And then the way it ended up, it was going to be—

Hübbe: Heidi and me and Johnny and Colleen and Aage. Heidi and I should take the principals. Johnny would take the corps de ballet first act, and Colleen would take corps de ballet second act, plus Myrtha. And I think Johnny would also take peasant pas.

DanceView: So it wouldn’t really be anybody’s production?

Hübbe: Exactly. And I couldn’t do that.

I want to state for the record that I would have loved to have done that production, because I love that ballet. I find it a great Romantic ballet. And to have the opportunity to work with that company on a full-length production of Giselle in that house—well, do I have to say anything more? On the other hand, I felt I was having my wings clipped artistically. So I couldn’t say yes. It would completely disagree with my moral obligation and commitment to the ballet.

DanceView: What do you think the Royal Danish Ballet needs right now?

Hübbe: They have to find their faith again, and it will be a different faith, but they have to go back. They have to go look at the past. It’s not that I’m saying they have to dance backward, but they have to dig into history. What was done? When were we best, and why? They have to go back and learn from their history. They have to dig into the tradition, and not think of it like it’s some cross to bear. I think also they have to realize that the tradition is bigger and larger than them, so they might as well confine themselves to it and make that tradition be their face and personality, because it is so unique that if you want to be outstanding and not look like everybody else, that’s what you have to do. Those are your roots. That’s your flesh and blood.

I don’t know what it is like there now. It’s probably stable and calm. That’s probably what they wanted.

DanceView: One of the things at the press conference where Michael Christiansen announced the new director, he said that Aage Thordal-Christensen was the only one of the candidates who made no demands on us. What demands did you make?

Hübbe: I made the demand not to work with Johnny Eliasen. That was it.

I can see that Johnny would be a useful advantage for a young director who has never been on that side of the fence in that house, because he knows the house in that respect—going to the meetings, and how you have to handle this and that, and tackle problems day to day. But I’d rather not work with him.

DanceView: Could we say that you are artistically incompatible?

Hübbe: We could say that.

DanceView: What do you think will happen to the Bournonville ballets? Do you see any people who might be likely candidates as good stagers of Bournonville ballets? Do you think there is lost talent that isn’t being used? Or do you think the current stagers, Frank [Andersen] and Dinna [Bjørn], are good stagers?

Hübbe: I do not think that the current stagers are up to par. You can’t put a finger on their accuracy, but you can certainly put a finger on their theatricality. I don’t think they have produced anything significant.

You know who I would love to see tackle Bournonville? Lis Jeppesen, Sorella Englund, Ib Andersen. I think maybe also Anna [Laerkesen], and there are some younger people, like Thomas Lund.

Q Even though you’re now a New Yorker, do you still have an interest in the Bournonville ballets?

Hübbe: Oh, yes. I’m going to do Konservatoriet for the School of American Ballet, for the Workshop 2000.

DanceView: Why that one?

Hübbe: Because it’s a school: school doing school; it can’t be better. You don’t need a set. You could do it in practice clothes, but I think we’re going to do it in Romantic costumes — which was their practice clothes! It’s a great little ballet — it’s hard as hell — and I think it would be good for them. It could be fun. It’s been done before, but that was 15 years ago.

DanceView: That’s a nice tradition to revive. Do you have interest in staging more?

Hübbe: Oh, yes. I had so much fun when I did the Bournonville Divertissements for the company. I couldn’t wait to get into the studio and throw those steps at them.

 

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