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Prince of Denmark

An Interview with Johan Kobborg

By Judith Mackrell

September 2003

One of the Royal Ballet’s biggest box office draws, Johan Kobborg
branches out on his own with Out of Denmark, a showcase of 160 years of Danish ballet. JUDITH MACKRELL spoke to him.

Johan Kobborg had been a Principal with the Royal Danish Ballet for five years before he came to London in 1999. Yet during his first season at Covent Garden audiences were granted only erratic sightings of this slim, subtle, precisely poised dancer. The Royal Ballet seemed to be taking its time to appreciate the extraordinary artist it had acquired and few guessed that beneath Kobborg’s aristocratic technique lay a fierce theatrical intelligence.

Yet as soon as he started to dance roles in Giselle, Mayerling, Onegin and Manon, Kobborg’s emotional range became startlingly apparent. Here was a dancer who could modulate from seductive to psychotic, from analytic to passionate, from ardent to witty. Here was a master of that rare and precious balancing act – maintaining total control over his craft, yet also appearing to live his roles for real. Kobborg is now one of the Royal’s biggest box office draws, and, given his popularity, it’s not surprising that he feels ready to give his career an independent push.

This summer he’s been rehearsing a small group of dancers to perform a programme devised and headed by himself. Ballet stars launch similar projects all the time,but Kobborg’s show is unusual in its choreographic substance and its personal modesty. ‘I’m not interested in a “Johan and Friends” evening at all,’ he laughs, slightly self-consciously. Out of Denmark, as the title suggests, is nothing like a celebrity gala but a fascinating showcase of 160 years of Danish ballet. All of the repertory is work that Kobborg passionately wants London audiences to experience. ‘There are so many different styles in Denmark which haven’t really been seen here,’ but much of it is also work he passionately wants to dance. His career in Denmark wasn’t long enough to accommodate all the roles he would have wished to perform and he readily admits that an important reason for putting himself in charge was to cast himself in some of them.

At the heart of Kobborg’s programme are three pieces by August Bournonville, the 19th-century choreographer who virtually created Danish Classicism. Alongside Act III from Napoli is a pas de deux from William Tell, and most intriguingly the ‘Jockey Dance’ from Bournonville’s late travelogue ballet From Siberia to Moscow. But the show also gives stage room to modern Denmark, including a little-known pas de deux by Harald Lander, Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson (a ballet Kobborg has particularly longed to dance) and a new work by Kim Brandstrup. Kobborg admits that he would have ‘loved to choreograph a ballet’ himself but says he hasn’t had a second to spare. Organising the project has eaten away all of his summer break, and it’s a mark of his enthusiasm that he’s persuaded a superb cast including Alina Cojocaru and Zenaida Yanowsky to cut short their holidays too.

Kobborg feels very responsible for ensuring that these dancers look good in such unfamiliar repertory, but explains he ‘loves coaching’ and knows that they are all ‘very gifted and intelligent’. He’s not too worried either about putting them in the relatively small space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Some ballet dancers find it hard to scale their performances down from opera house dimensions. But Kobborg is convinced the repertory is suited to an intimate venue and knows how audiences relish the chance to see performers of this calibre close up. This programme should further prove Kobborg a versatile man of the theatre, which, given past experience, is not surprising: before he started full-time ballet training (at the late age of 16), he’d dabbled seriously in tap and jazz dance, singing, guitar and violin. He’s recently organised a Bournonville evening and a couple of galas outside the UK and has a dauntless capacity for work. He knows that he won’t be getting any rest this summer but Out of Denmark is more important to him than a vacation. ‘I really want to do this when I can,’ he insists, ‘while it feels like fun.’

Judith Mackrell is dance critic for the Guardian

This article was first published in the South Bank Magazine

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