Interview: Ulrik Birkkjær

Tuesday 23 December 2014 by Laura Dodge

Royal Danish Ballet - Ulrik Birkkjaer & Susanne Grinder - 'Napoli'. Photo: Costin Radu

January may feel like a way off yet, but dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet coming to the Peacock Theatre to perform a mixed programme of choreography by August Bournonville, is a dance highlight to look forward to. Producer and Principal dancer Ulrik Birkkjær with the company talks to Laura Dodge…

How would you describe the Danish ballet (Bournonville) style?
The Bournonville style can be described as harmonious, fluent and dynamic. Bournonville created phrases of steps that are interlinked and have to be danced as continuous movement. The arms and upper body are usually the melody while the legs are the rhythm, so it’s very advanced musically. There is a big emphasis on jumping, but not all jumps are equal height. There is the opportunity to decide how you would like to ‘speak’ your variations, as you can’t accent every single step. Bournonville viewed ballet as a thing of beauty – it shouldn’t be obvious how difficult the steps are. It’s quite a challenge.

What qualities does a Bournonville dancer embody?
A very strong coordination helps. A natural jump or bounce is important too, as is the ability to make the body sing with the music. Today’s ideal ballet body is actually not very suited for Bournonville style as dancers in the 19th Century were much shorter with bulky legs. Strong calf muscles and knees are a godsend for his choreography!

How did you select the works to be performed in the Bournonville Celebration programme?
Bournonville created more than 50 ballets for the Royal Danish Ballet but unfortunately only five or so full length ballets are still actively in the repertoire. His ballets are great for gala programmes, because he created lots of pas de sixes and pas de septs, so it’s not just pas de deux after pas de deux! I chose what I think is his best work and also what the dancers are familiar with. Even for the most experienced company members, learning a new Bournonville variation takes a long time due to the coordination and musicality required.
The programme is performed by a group of soloists and principals from the Royal Danish Ballet. Although it’s not the full company, I still wanted to showcase our mime and story-telling tradition, so we will be performing almost the entire second act of La Sylphide with its story and dancing interlinked as Bournonville intended.

What is your favourite work being performed?
It’s definitely La Sylphide. It’s truly special. All the scenes in the ballet build up dramatically and the music is wonderful. The story deals with themes that will be forever relevant because they are part of human nature. But I love La Sylphide most of all because the possibilities for interpretation are endless, and I think that’s because Bournonville’s choreography is so strong.

Are there any other choreographers/works that you would have liked to include in the programme?
One of the great gifts Bournonville left the Royal Danish Ballet was a sense of great drama, story-telling and stage presence. If I could have expanded the programme to include non-Bournonville ballets, I would have liked to show what we can do in dramatic ballets, such as some of John Neumeier’s work.

How have you found both dancing in and producing the show?
I’ve tried to separate the two things. I feel more like a caretaker than a creator with this tour, as the Royal Danish Ballet will still be around in 100 years with future generations of dancers dancing Bournonville. It’s been a great experience producing, as I’ve been able to use my knowledge as a dancer. But once the show is on, I will be 100% ‘the dancer’ and will probably complain about how the whole thing was planned!

Do you think there are differences between Danish and British audiences?
Danish audiences love a good story and appreciate dancers who are great actors. I’m not sure they necessarily always appreciate pure movement. I don’t know British dance audiences very well but my impression is that they are very fine-tuned and can appreciate small details in a performance. They seem to enjoy the Bournonville subtlety, perhaps because the English Cecchetti style of teaching is relatively close to Bournonville style.
In both Denmark and Britain, audiences seem to love ballet as an art form and not just as a competition or sport. That makes it a joy to perform.

The Royal Danish Ballet Soloists and Principals — Bournonville Celebration
9 & 10 January, 7:30pm, Sat 2:30pm
£18 – £48

Photo: Ulrik Birkkjaer with Susanne Grinder & Royal Danish Ballet in Napoli – Costin Radu

Laura Dodge writes for Dancing Times, Dance Today, Londonist, Bachtrack, amongst other publications. Find her on Twitter @DodgeDance

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