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Nikolaj Hübbe electrifies the Royal Danish Ballet

The former New York City Ballet star puts a 'completely new face' on his homeland's dance troupe.

May 22, 2011|By Kevin Berger, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Royal Danish Ballet Alba Nadal and Tim Matiakis in Los on Slow.
Royal Danish Ballet Alba Nadal and Tim Matiakis in Los on Slow. (Per Morten Abrahamsen /…)

Reporting from New York — — Inside the Guggenheim Museum, the women were rapt, breathless even, as Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, strolled among them. On this March evening, beneath the magnificent spiral rotunda, their voices swirled with memories as they recalled the native Dane's 15 years as a dancer with the New York City Ballet.

"Did you see his 'Apollo'? It was magical."

"He was the best Poet ever."

"I loved him in 'Sleeping Beauty.'"

"At his last show, everybody in the audience had tears in their eyes."

The women sipped champagne in flutes. Of course they had read the New York Times review, by dance critic Alastair Macaulay, of Hübbe's final performance in 2008.

"We hope the leading men of ballet will be heroes, poets, gods," Macaulay wrote. "Mr. Hübbe is all of these, and he is also both a dreamboat and a hunk."

Hübbe, 43, glided across the rotunda, parting the crowd. He wore tight black jeans and a black-and-white striped shirt. A black sweater, accented with red buttons, framed his trim body. His hair, slicked back on the sides, formed an Elvis pompadour on top.

"New York misses you, Nikolaj," the women called out.

"I miss New York," Hübbe sincerely called back.

Hübbe was in New York to promote the Royal Danish Ballet's U.S. tour, which begins Tuesday in Costa Mesa, its first Southern California stop in 16 years. In six performances at Segerstrom Hall, audiences will see how the magnetic Hübbe, who has been at the helm for three years, has electrified the legendary dance company, and not without controversy, on its 21st century course.

"I've been here 11 years and I've never, ever seen the level of technique higher or the atmosphere as charged," said Amy Watson, a principal dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet, during a phone interview from Copenhagen. "Nikolaj is always searching, and that's what makes him different. He doesn't have that closed-minded, old-school ballet master feeling of 'This is how it was done in 1955, and this is the way it's going to be.' He has made a huge difference."

A few days after the fancy Guggenheim affair, an unshaven Hübbe in jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes, did his best to explain what makes him different in a dim and cramped hotel room on the Upper East Side. (Clearly the state-funded Royal Danish Ballet doesn't have an extravagant expense account.)

New York dance critic Apollinaire Scherr said what made Hübbe "so alive on stage was a slight air of cruelty about him." It's not that he's cruel, it's that his emotional honesty cuts right through you.

The same is true in conversation. He's audacious without trying to be, his English punctuated by his dry Danish accent.

So why after all these years was the Royal Danish Ballet coming to America? "It's good to get out," Hübbe said.

The company had a "completely new face," he continued, and he was anxious to showcase its dancers in both modern works and the jubilant story ballets by 19th century choreographer and ballet master August Bournonville, patriarch of the Royal Danish Ballet.

But time didn't stand still. "We can't live in Bournonville's looming shadow and always be afraid," Hübbe said. "We have to trust that he is with us and go with our own theatrical perspective, our modern ethics. I like tradition but only because you have to jump from it."

For instance, take Bournonville's "Napoli," which will be featured in one of two programs at Segerstrom Hall. "It has always been sweet and quaint," Hübbe said. "But I wanted to get rid of the sweet and quaint."

While preserving the work's wonderful steps and story of an Italian girl, Teresina, who falls in love with a poor fisherman, Hübbe has moved the 19th century Naples setting to the 1950s and injected "the edge and roughness of Fellini" into the production.

Further, Hübbe has expelled from the cast a Catholic monk, who exhorts the love-struck fisherman to trust in God and he will find Teresina, lost in a storm. Hübbe has a female wayfarer counsel the fisherman to trust in love.

"I'm not religious," Hübbe explained. "If I have a religion, it must be dance. But I'm not a believer in that otherworldly stuff. To me, God is dead." Would he call himself an atheist? "Yes, absolutely."

When the Royal Danish Ballet staged "Napoli" in Copenhagen in 2009, Hübbe said, "people were offended because I took out the religious aspect. Bournonville was such a pious man. But I don't think the world is pious. It's much more interesting and believable that it's not holiness and God's belief that saves Teresina, it is true love."

Watson, who dances the role of Teresina, admitted she was nervous about Hübbe's changes. "I thought the older audience would be, 'Oh, my gosh, what's he doing? He's changing the crown jewels.'"

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