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Interviews

a conversation with Ib Andersen
Autumn 1996
by Alexandra Tomalonis
© 1996

Ib Andersen was one of the finest dancers of his generation, enjoying distinguished careers with both the Royal Danish and New York City Ballets, and is also one of a very few interesting choreographers working in ballet today. Since retiring from City Ballet four years ago, Andersen has worked as both freelance choreographer, and on staff as choreographer and balletmaster for Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. He resigned from PBT last August after a disagreement with the company’s management. In a recent interview, Andersen spoke about some of the problems and possibilities of ballet today, and showed that his intelligence and understanding of dance politics, and the need to rise above them, is as keen and as sensitive as his dancing.—Alexandra Tomalonis

Tomalonis: You have a unique perspective on contemporary ballet, having been a member of two great ballet institutions, one European and one American, as well as working with one of America’s regional companies for several years. How have you seen the ballet world change during the course of your career?

Ib Andersen: I think when I grew up, there was a pioneering spirit, in terms of exploring. It was more for the choreographic process than for an incredible product. Where today, there's so much pressure on someone who choreographs to instantly succeed. Otherwise, it's not salable, and if it's not salable, you might as well consider yourself a dead choreographer—unless, of course, you are in charge of a company. Then you can do whatever you want—basically. Hopefully.

AT: Which is why so many choreographers want to be in charge of a company.

Ib Andersen: It's almost a necessity today. Because it's actually not very easy to get work. It's so expensive today to take a risk, which any new work is. It's like playing the lottery. It's so rare that you win.

It has become very difficult, not only in America, but also in Europe. There’s so much value today, at least in many cases, put on the production—things like scenery, lighting, costumes, effects—that what ballet is about is sometimes covered in so much that you cannot really see [the dancing]. So many people are fooled today. That's what I feel. They are fooled by this package of beautiful costumes, and this and that, and what you actually are seeing is many times not very interesting at all.

AT: Is that more what is happening in ballet outside of New York?

Ib Andersen: Well, maybe it is. New York City Ballet, of course, that's a whole different thing, what is happening there. Out in the regional companies—I've been in Pittsburgh, and I've been doing ballets here and there. So I've seen some of the different places.

AT: There’s pressure to produce a "hit."

Ib Andersen: Well, of course, everyone is aiming for that. There is a tremendous pressure now on choreographers for that, and for those who are directing a company, too. They cannot afford to have a big flop, because that will not go well with the board. Boards are becoming more and more strong, and unfortunately, in many cases, they don't really have that much knowledge or understanding of what it takes to create. The creative process is about exploring, and if it's not about exploring, then why do it? Then you are just rehashing, maintenance work.

AT: How do you get the audience to be interested in exploring? Do you think that's possible to do?

Ib Andersen: I don't know. I think what has happened is, over the years, people have gotten used to—through television, basically, these amazing ways of cutting things, of all these [special] effects that you can do. The manipulation that people are used to seeing, basically through film and television, has made it very hard to compete with the kind of attention you need [to have from an audience for] ballet. I think the attention span for the younger generation today, at least, is not very high. It's very hard to get them to actually listen and see, and get into it, and be interested in it. There's sort of a Catch-22 there. That's why the production values have become so important.

AT: No, and I think it's different today in American regional ballet companies, where you don't have a 30-week season, but several programs spaced weeks apart.

Ib Andersen: Yes. So each program has an importance.

AT: Right. Then you can't take the risk on an experimental work that backfires. Whereas in the in the Danish Ballet, at least, in the ‘50s and'60s there must have been sixty ballets in the repertory each season.

Ib Andersen: Yes. There was just a different spirit, also from the dancers' point of view. Today, the dancers only want to do great, great work. I do think, as a dancer, one of the most interesting aspects is to be part of a creative process.

AT: As a dancer, would you prefer doing new works than being in a repertory where you were dancing only old ballets—they might be proven masterworks, but they've already been done? Do you mean it in that way as well?

Ib Andersen: No. As a dancer, I've always liked to do a mix. Definitely. If you can get both. I've been extremely lucky. I had that. I have been lucky to at least work with some good ones.

What I see now, for many dancers, anyway, is that it has become much more of a job. There's a kind of naiveté that has been lost. But I think that goes for the whole world. We are not naive any more. There is no innocence. And that's not so beneficial, maybe, if you are working in something that has to do with creativity. You need to be open. You can't close doors. And that, I feel people are doing today. In general, for the dancers, it's become more like a job. It's a paycheck. In my generation, it was not really a matter of your paycheck or anything. It was just something that you had to do.

I do think that people have gotten discouraged. And I think there's reasons why. I do understand that attitude. It's become very difficult, because—of course, like anything else in this world right now, it's all about money, and that sort of kills everything.

AT: I think audiences have changed, as well.

Ib Andersen: They don't really have the sophistication to understand the language. It takes time to do that. Ballet is not easy, if you're talking on some higher level. If you look at Balanchine, at least for some people, they might not get it at all. And it's like that with anything. It's the same thing with painting. It's the same thing with plays. And books, whatever. Ballet is a language, and the more you know, the more you understand it, and the more you get out of it. But to get their attention to actually be interested in it today, I don't know.

I do think that, at least in regional companies, the way people are going about it, doing ballets like Beauty and the Beast, and God knows what, is not the right way. It's a dead end street that we are on right now.AT: I think you are right. Because if you give people work that's bad, even if it looks good --

Ib Andersen: There's no depth. How can it survive, and how can it actually appeal? I mean, it obviously does appeal, because people come. But I really think they will only come once. And I don't think that it necessarily will bring in a new audience. Maybe it will just bring in an audience for that kind of a ballet, but that, I think is wrong. We are going back. The idea of humanity is that we are evolving, and hopefully evolving into something that is better than what we have been. And I don't really see that. [Laughs] Actually, not at all. We're sort of going backwards.

AT: Also, there's no leader right now.

Ib Andersen: No.

AT: You know, when Balanchine was dominant—

Ib Andersen: Then I think it was easier for everyone to do something, because at least you knew that somewhere, some person was doing great work. It gave ballet a different energy. But now it's like a No Man's Land, with a lot of lost people.

AT: And so modern dance choreographers come in and do a ballet.

Ib Andersen: Yes. Sometimes, of course, that can create work that is interesting. I do not think that it's a bad thing, all in all. But I do think that work by modern choreographers who have no real knowledge of the classical vocabulary and how to use it; it does become very, very poor, because they don't really use the language. So you end up with something that is all sort of gloss, surface. It might be content at some kind of surface level, but I believe that content comes, at least in classical ballet, through vocabulary. And that's where dancing is—dancing is about dancing. It's not about using three steps for a whole ballet.

AT: I would also think people would lose their technique, if these works dominate a repertory.

Ib Andersen: Yes. As a dancer, you feel, "Why are you in class, if that's what you're going to do?" I mean, take an aerobic class.

AT: A director has to shape the whole repertory, which I'm not sure people do now. Part of it is what you're saying, the market pressures. And part of it is they don't know how.

Ib Andersen: It's become a world where if you are director, you almost need to be more of an administrator than an artistic director. Another question, of course, is how much do you have to give in to what you think the audience wants. I think you have to do it to a certain degree, but if you go all the way, then why are you a director?

I do think it is possible to educate an audience. I'm not saying it's easy. Nothing, in terms of directing, is easy. But if you have at least some kind of vision, and if you are allowed to go with it, without too many compromises—there are always going to be compromises if you're directing, but today maybe sometimes it takes over, because the board is demanding, and so it becomes a question of, either you stay and compromise a lot, or you leave. And that I do not think is good. Why have someone who has worked their whole life doing this leave, and instead have people who don’t a clue about it directing? All they look at is, of course, numbers. And if the numbers look good, then it’s, "Why don't we do more of those ballets?"

I feel something has to happen, you know. This trend of where ballet is going right now can become very dangerous. I think in the end, the audience will realize that. We are at a low—no. We are at a turning point. Maybe that's better to say.

AT: Some people think that classical ballet is a style whose time has passed. New ballet is Neumeier, or Forsythe. That's ballet. And nobody is going to go back and do a Balanchine or an Ashton kind of ballet.

Ib Andersen: Well, maybe not exactly like that. I would say what I believe in is the classical vocabulary. I believe in classical ballet in those terms—I don’t like the term, actually.

AT: What would you call it?

Ib Andersen: I’d call it ballet. "Classical" sounds like Swan Lake.

AT: But you think that ballet is still alive?

Ib Andersen: There's such richness, in terms of the language. I actually feel that it is endless, what you can do and how you can use that. And I do think that we are just at the beginning of exploring it. How old is ballet? Not that old.

But the support for it right now is not that great. And maybe that’s because there's not so many working in that area. Also, I think so many people have followed a trend, and feel that to be successful, you have to follow a trend.

AT: Yes. There is a pressure to do something that's "contemporary."

Ib Andersen: Yes. Whatever that is.

It's a game. And that's—you know, I think one of the reasons why you are not seeing such great work today is that because to create, you need consistency. With ballet, you cannot sit in an office and do it. You need something that actually costs a lot of money, meaning dancers and rehearsal space and hours.

AT: Do you think that you create better work if you have the same dancers?

Ib Andersen: Of course. I do think that once in awhile, for sure, if you are a choreographer, it can be very liberating and—what do you say—an eye opener to work with different dancers. But if you're trying to create your own language, then of course you need someone that actually can speak it. That’s the only way, if they are used to what it is you want. And that kind of consistency, very few people have today.

It's amazing what you can do, how you can color anything. The simplest step, how you can color it with the attack, the musicality, and that, of course, makes all the difference. And if you are not able to see the choreographer's intention in those terms, you don't really see the ballet. So in that sense, maybe there are better choreographers out there than we think. I would like to think that, anyway.

AT: I think a consistent audience would help. Sometimes an audience needs to see it over and over again.

Ib Andersen: Well, of course there's that familiarity. And that I've definitely been witness to, during my years at City Ballet. Even with Mozartiana, nobody liked it at first.

AT: Really?

Ib Andersen: Well, some did, but some people were very puzzled by it. And it took a long time, and then all of a sudden, they all unanimously called it a masterpiece. That was an interesting experience, to be part of that.

AT: Did Balanchine care?

Ib Andersen: I do think he cared, actually. I think he was kind of upset about the reception, because I think he knew what he had done. I just don't think we could dance it. That's the thing. It took us a long time to give it the shape that he wanted. I think that's what happened there.

AT: When you choreograph, how important to you is style? Would you want your dancers to have épaulement? Do you care how their hands are held?

Ib Andersen: I definitely care about it. You cannot do anything without articulation. And with articulation, you know, that means that you are really in control of what you're doing. You cannot do anything that's articulated without doing all the things you're saying. And through that, that is the only way where you can make it rich.

Look what Balanchine did, the inventiveness of using the whole body. And the dancers were so articulated, and so inventive in their way of using their arms, their heads, their legs. And so expressive.

It's not that I'm after exactly that, but I'm definitely—I think what makes anything interesting, in any ballet—you call it modern, you call it classical—is definitely articulation.

AT: One of the things that is often said about Balanchine is that he didn’t care about style. He just wanted speed

Ib Andersen: Oh, that's bull. Everything he wanted was articulation. I remember—just to take one example, when he choreographed Davidsbundlertanze, on Kay Mazzo and me, he was doing this little pas de deux. We were just walking, but he wanted something that was so specific in the way we were walking to the music that I actually do not think we ever got it. That had all to do with articulation. He wanted something that had a look that would translate into an emotion. In my opinion, he was all about that.

AT: When Balanchine rehearsed you—you already had the speed. Did he work with you on keeping the refinements, not just the speed—speed and energy. That's what is so often said.

Ib Andersen: I never felt that that was what it was about. I think he wanted something specific. Sometimes, of course, it had to do with speed, but it had more to do with how you did it. It had to do with the execution of the step, and it had to do with the way you colored it, not just speed and energy. That—never. I never got that impression.

He would sit in rehearsals, and sometimes scream, "More! More! Bigger! Bigger!" And of course, for some ballets, that is maybe what was required, but that definitely was not—I mean, he was not a one-note man. I don't think anyone would say that.

Apollo, he never got tired of that one. It was probably the only ballet that he really would get into rehearsing every time he was rehearsing it. I was only there the last two-and-a-half years, so, of course, I got him at the end. I can only talk from my own experience, but at the time I was there, that was a ballet that he never tired of. And he always looked at it, and wanted something specific.

AT: Can you remember another example of when Balanchine was working with you when he paid attention to stylistic things as opposed to technical thing?

Ib Andersen: Well, Midsummer, for sure. The mime. I remember going over that a lot with him. And being very specific, in terms of how it should be done. I remember he had a body language, even at that age, that was quite extraordinary. He was a very good mime. Very good. Excellent.

AT: Have you seen Paris Opera Ballet dance much Balanchine?

Ib Andersen: Not too much, but I think they are an incredible company. Even in class, there's always a poetic sensibility to what they are doing, that they have the épaulement, the breath, the whole thing. It's technical, but it also has the aspect of—let's say poetry. Where maybe other places it is more technical. They still have very much maintained a link to their past. They are beautiful, beautiful trained dancers.

[As to how they dance Balanchine] I'm guessing here, because I've not seen them much. But I would guess that they probably bring a dimension to it that maybe you don't see always in New York. But on the other hand, I'm sure they also are lacking a dimension, you know, in terms of the technical articulation of it. At least, that's how it was. I don't know how it is today. I have not seen City Ballet that much in the last, I would say, four years or so. I've seen them, but not much. So for me to be a critic of that—I can't.

AT: It's fascinating how things change, and it’s hard to put a finger on it.

Ib Andersen: Oh, I can put my finger on it. What I can say is that, considering Balanchine's legacy, for anyone to take over that, I definitely think you could have feared much worse than what has happened. Definitely. What has it been? Thirteen years now. It's still going on.

AT: And the ballets, you would still recognize them?

Ib Andersen: Yes. They are maybe a little watered down, some of them. But that probably would always be the case, when you don't have the person there who choreographed them. That is the only way that you can really keep life.

Of course, there are dancers who did this role or that, you know, and they could maybe have been more utilized than what has been done. That's for sure. I would say that much. But then, it's a huge institution that is definitely not easy to run. I do not envy Peter Martins running City Ballet. That is not an easy job.

But Balanchine will last. We are, thank God, in the video age—thank God, and thank God not. At City Ballet, they don't really have anything much older than 1980. And if things are being taught from a video from 1988, or something, I'm sure it's already a watered down version there. So that kind of a thing happens, but it's probably inevitable.

But I do believe, in terms of Balanchine, that people will come along and they will revive it, and it will look fresh, and it will be very exciting—probably in a very different way than it was originally, but it doesn't mean that it's necessarily uninteresting. But you know, I don't think the time is quite right for that yet. I think it's maybe getting there.

AT: What do you think of Ashton?

Ib Andersen: I respect Ashton immensely as a choreographer, because I do think he's the real thing. I cannot say I love Ashton. Sometimes I find it too British, in the sense of the preciousness. It can be a little too precious for my taste. I like something that has a sense of freedom to it, and sometimes I do think it is sort of artificially free—or the look of it is artificially free. It gets a little too precious. But he's definitely the real thing.

AT: I think he's very hard to maintain, I think maybe the hardest of all of them.

Ib Andersen: Probably, because it's so subtle.

AT: It's so subtle, and it was also done on such particular bodies.

Ib Andersen: But on the other hand, there is a very strong structure in his choreography. I just saw A Month in the Country when I was in Denmark. They [the Royal] did it last summer. And I actually thought, to do that on the Royal Danish Ballet now would not be possible, you know, because they don't have that kind of subtlety now.

AT: Yes. It's amazing how quickly that can go.

Ib Andersen: Yes. But when you don't have people around, and obviously, also, a repertory that caters to that kind of sensibility, you lose it very fast. It doesn't mean that you can't get it back. You just need to have ballets like that, ballets that requires so much, that are at such a mature level and depth. Of course, it really takes good dancers, to pull that off.

There was a time when they could have danced Month in the Country. I would not say now. But they could try, at least. And The Dream. The Dream, they could definitely do. In my opinion, that's the best Midsummer.

[What has happened in Copenhagen] is a real pity, because that company does have a history that would be—you know, it's so easy to destroy things, and you can do it so fast. It's so fragile. And in a way, that's what I think they're doing now. Slowly but surely.

AT: Well, if you get rid of the ballets, and you get rid of the people who know how to stage them, it would be hard to get back. You could get it back—

Ib Andersen: But in a different way, though.

AT: Yes. It will be different, because the line has been broken.

Ib Andersen: Yes. And it’s the first time in the history of the Danish ballet, I think. And the fact that [the new director, Maina Gielgud] is a foreigner—even if she’s the genius of the world, it will be difficult. It’s such a specific company.

I would have liked to see the Danish ballet continue the tradition of that company, the unbroken line, and for that you need to have someone who has grown up in that place to truly understand what the company is about. But they [the management of the Royal Theater] are after some quick fix, and they're thinking short term. There's no long term thinking there. And that is definitely exactly what they need now, is long term thinking.

They [the dancers] don't have a chance, because they won't have any role models. Just by that, it's broken. And also, it's broken in the sense that so many people have gone that were there, have either died or are just gone.

AT: Who was important to the company, in your day?

Ib Andersen: Henning Kronstam. He was the glue that held the company together. He was the only reason they held onto their international reputation as long as they did, and you can see that by what happened to it after he left.

AT: Is there a company that you can look at and say, "This is working?"

Ib Andersen: Well, Paris Opera is working in the sense that they got this lift through Rudi running it, and he blew so much life in it that it's sort of stayed like that. Of course, now they have someone running it who stands for something totally different, and what they're getting in now—I mean, it might be lost. But then, Paris Opera has always sort of run by itself. It's never really been run by a director.

But I do think Rudi was one of the few people, in a long time, anyway, who really managed to do something radical, and he brought up a whole new generation of great dancers.

AT: And he turned things around in about a year, but he could do it because of the School. They had not blown away their tradition.

Ib Andersen: Yes. In my opinion, it's the best school.

AT: Someone told me recently that Nureyev wanted to bring in the Bournonville Schools.

Ib Andersen: You know, if you watch the schools at the Paris Opera School, it's so Bournonville-oriented—Bournonville took it from there, of course, not the other way around, but they still have kept that tradition of small fast steps and very intricate variations. Extremely difficult. And they dance it from such a young age, these long variations. It's a phenomenal school.

AT: I think they have a good balletmasters, too.

Ib Andersen: Well, obviously, there are people. The most important thing there is that they all come from the same place, the people that are working there, so it has that continuity.

AT: I think that's also one of the things—back to the classicism—that everybody has to believe in it, from the dancers to the board.

Ib Andersen: Of course, but there is not that kind of tradition here. In America, if a company is twenty-five years old, then it's an old company. Most of those small companies are just trying to survive.

AT: And when you get into surviving—and I really do understand this—your standards go, because you get desperate, and it becomes, "If we don't have a hit, the company will be finished."

Ib Andersen: Yes. It's as simple as that. If you don't sell, you might not have a company. It's not an easy decision, but I do not think it's impossible. You just have to have goals, and hopefully some boundaries that you feel strongly about, that you cannot go beyond that. And then, hope for the best. [Laughs] That it will work or not work. And if it won't work, you know, then I mean—I do think there's a way out.

AT: What is the way out?

Ib Andersen: Well, the way out is to be creative, and think creatively of what you can do, where you don't have to compromise to the point where you lose the sense of why you did this to begin with.

Of course it comes down to the problem that there is no government support in this country for the arts. I do hope that they soon will find out how important it is to do that, for it to survive in a healthy way that will be beneficial for the country for years and years and years to come.

AT: Now that you have lived in a place that is far from New York, in many ways, for a few years, do you think—Do they care? Do they really want the fine arts?

Ib Andersen: I don't really think that they have a clue if they want it or they don't want it, to be quite honest.

AT: Yes. We're the do-it-yourselfers and the sports fans. There isn't the tradition of going to the theater here.

Ib Andersen: There's a tradition, I think, in the older generation, but what is difficult is to bring in the younger generation, to get them interested. Because I do think the older generations in America, and probably anywhere, are more educated in the arts than the younger generation.

It has to do with education here. I must say in Europe that you do see a lot more younger people [at theater performances]. They have an interest. But that's because they are better educated in the arts in the schools, and it's part of the culture there much more than it's part of the culture here.

AT: Yes. Because we don't grow up with it, and it's not on television, so many people don’t even know it exists.

Ib Andersen: Of course, you have New York, thank God, where there are still so many people who truly know, and truly have a love for it and an understanding of it. But out in the regions here, if you have an audience of 3,000, there are probably just a handful that actually know what they are looking at. So it's kind of easy to sell something that might not be very good, where something that actually might be very good could be very difficult to sell, because it might not be that easy to understand.

What ballet has become now is that people go and see some kind of production, and they leave, and they maybe have an experience of something that was pretty, but I don't think, in many cases, they really had some kind of deep—something that might change them in some ways forever. I think that is rare.


 

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