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Johan Renvall Gets His Chance With ABT : Swedish Native Waits Nine Years for a Slot as Principal Dancer

December 25, 1987|CATHY CURTIS

"I'm very hard on myself. And I can go and smash a door down if (a performance) doesn't go well." American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Johan Renvall laughs nervously. "Not really. But. . . ."

Intensive self-criticism seems to be the guiding principal of the slight, boyish Swedish-born dancer, who occasionally interjects brief, hurried asides into a guardedly upbeat conversation.

In a bleak cubbyhole of an office backstage at Shrine Auditorium after a "Nutcracker" matinee, Renvall politely discards his cigarette and smiles encouragingly at his interviewer.

A scant week earlier, he had opened the ballet's Los Angeles run with a performance of the Nutcracker Prince that provoked favorable comparisons with Mikhail Baryshnikov's own interpretation. In a few months, he will celebrate his 10th season with ABT.

Renvall had to wait nine years to achieve principal status, and he still doesn't get to dance many of the heavyweight roles. In "Giselle," he appears only in the pas de quatre. In "Romeo and Juliet," he's Mercutio. At 28, does he feel overlooked?

"It's hard, especially in a company like American Ballet Theatre, to get the opportunity finally to get to do things," he agrees cautiously. "It takes time, you have to give it enough time. But since I'm short, I have a feeling that's a part of it, as well. . . . Certain roles don't suit at all a short dancer."

Really? Even Romeo and Albrecht? Even in a company whose diminutive artistic director happens to be one of the world's foremost virtuosi?

"No," he says with a shy grin.

And, yes, he's dying to dance Romeo and Albrecht.

Renvall says he'll send copies of a recent glowing review of his "Nutcracker" to Sweden, in hopes of dancing Romeo in the Royal Swedish Ballet production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet." ("But it's all up to Sir Kenneth to decide.")

He danced Albrecht three years ago in Sweden with Marianna Tcherkassky, the ABT partner he adores ("she's like a goddess"). But back at Ballet Theatre the role is "a sore point with Misha (Baryshnikov). He doesn't think I'm suited to it."

Quiet persistence has paid off in the past, however.

"I wasn't learning James in 'La Sylphide,' but I went in and asked (Baryshnikov), 'Do you mind if I just learn it, just in case?' And he said, ' Wellll (Renvall turns his buoyant alto into a slow imitation growl), I guess not. But it doesn't mean you're going to do it.' And I said, 'No, I know that.'

"But you never know what's going to happen. . . . Two days later, he said to me, 'Well, do you think you can do the opening performance in Miami?' I said 'Sure.' " Quick grin. "So you never know."

Now that he is finally a principal, an honor he takes very seriously ("as a principal you should be the ultimate perfection"), Renvall is untroubled about the years it took him to join the company's top rank of dancers. In fact, he thinks the timing was exactly right.

"I haven't felt ready to become a principal dancer until last year, year-and-a-half," he says. "I felt I hadn't done enough, had enough experience. I hadn't done enough roles. Well, I mean, I had done a whole lot of roles. But still, there was something that was missing."

Technically? Emotionally?

"In myself. I still felt too young."

After the nurturing environment of the Royal Swedish Ballet School and his subsequent undemanding berth in the state company, the move to Ballet Theatre was "very tough," Renvall says. Struggles with the English language made it even tougher. He credits his habit of working on his own, outside of class, with helping to ease the transition.

Once ensconced at ABT, Renvall says he became "more or less, how shall we say, a modern dancer. There was a while when Misha had me do only modern ballets. Which I didn't mind, because I enjoy them."

Interestingly, considering the fact that his good notices tend to single out his technical virtuosity, the modern ballets he mentions with particular enthusiasm are Antony Tudor's "Shadowplay" and "Undertow."

"A lot of Tudor's ballets are very simple dance movements, but what each movement means is something! In classical ballet, like 'Nutcracker,' double tours ." A disparaging look. "But . . in Tudor's (ballets), every little step means something. And that's what I really enjoy doing--trying to build a character." In a hurried, soft voice: "So there should be more of those kinds of ballets!"

But those Tudor pieces are not in the current company repertory. Nor is "Billy the Kid," in which Renvall used to dance the title role. ("A lot of the time I feel as soon as I get to do something, they take it out of the repertory the next year.")

Next season, Renvall will be dancing one of the male leads in "The Informer," Agnes de Mille's new work. ("I get killed pretty quickly. Which is fun. Too bad it's not on-stage, though. I enjoy those.") He'll also be the Peruvian in Leonide Massine's "Gaite Parisienne" and, once again (he grimaces), the Bluebird in "Sleeping Beauty."

He doesn't like the Bluebird?

"Well, I hate to say it's too hard. . . ." In Renvall's mind, the role is part of the same exhausting category as the Harlequin in "Nutcracker."

But wait a minute, maybe he sounds too harsh about the Bluebird. "I guess it's a good thing to do," he says stoutly. "And I should enjoy it. And I will."

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