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Bournonville Emissary

Interview with Royal Danish Ballet Principal Dancer and Coach, Thomas Lund

by Kate Snedeker

March 22, 2004

Still six months shy of his thirtieth birthday, Royal Danish Ballet principal Thomas Lund has already made a lasting impact not only as a dancer, but also as a coach, teacher and conservator of the Bournonville legacy.

How did you start out dancing?

I started, actually, ballroom dancing. The first year my mom brought me I didnít like it and the only one I wanted to dance with was my mother. So that wasnít actually very successful. Then I got a little older, and we moved to a new city. I got a very nice dance teacher - ballroom teacher - there, which I was very happy about. And, so I stayed there from [the time I was] 7 years old until I started [at the Royal Danish Ballet School ] when I was eleven, just turning twelve.

I did the ballroom dancing competitions every weekend, so I got used to performing. I did the Latin American dancing and jazz and tap. So, I got a lot of rhythm and body awareness and control through that. But no ballet at all.

UntilÖ

Until a mother at a dancing [competition] asked if Iíd ever considered doing ballet. She knew a little bit about it. And I said, no, Iíd never actually thought about [ballet]. I always knew that I wanted to be on the stage. I always had that kind of inner feeling that that was what I wanted to do.

So I went home to my mother and I said, 'Well, I want to go to an audition for the Royal Ballet School' . And she was like, 'Oh, really! Well, if thatís what you want, letís check it out.' And so I came [to the audition], and I was accepted to the school. It was actually quite lucky - I think things happen for a reason - it was just a few weeks before [the audition was scheduled] that I got the idea and it was the last year before I was too old.

Later on I figured out that the director of the school - Anne Marie Vessel SchlŁter - her sister was in the same ballroom school. She [the sister] had already told [SchlŁter] that sheíd seen a boy who had some talent, so when I came to the [auditions], they already knew a little bit about me. But that story was told many years later, and I didnít know that from the beginning. So I was just accepted to the school as anybody else, and went I just went through the whole shebam.

I became an apprentice [at age] 16 and got accepted in the company in 1993 when I was 18 years old. Then I was promoted to soloist in '96, and 2000 I was promoted [to] principal dancer. After that, I started teaching and assisting a little bit in some of the instructing and I actually also was in charge of putting 'Konservatoriet' on stage two seasons ago. And then on the side, I also at the moment am doing a whole line of lectures [on Bournonville] towards the festival, so Iím going through all the different ballets. Itís an opportunity for interested audience to go to a smaller theatre [the Teater Museet], where Bournonville used to actually rehearse and perform. I was down there on Saturday talking about 'Abdalla', and that was the third lecture of six where we are going through all the ballets.
So Iím doing that as well, and just working with the Bournonville style and dancing the repertoire, where I do a lot of main characters. So Iím pretty covered, around the Bournonville from different angles.

How did you get into teaching?

I was asked.

The first [person to ask] was actually Maina Gielgud, when she was here as a director, and I didnít take it as a compliment. I took it as a maybe itís because she doesnít know [how] to use me as a dancer. She [asked if I could] start coaching or help some of the younger ones, and at that point, I was twenty-two myself, or maybe twenty-three years old. But why should I help anybody else when I still havenít started my own career, almost. But I think that quality that she sawÖmaybe she was right about it; I donít know.

But [several years] later they did ask me again, and I was a little older, and I was a principal by that time and I thought, yeah, I think I would like to try. Iíve done it three seasons now and enjoy it very much. But of course, as anything else, it takes a lot of preparation, so Iím pretty full with my schedule because Iím still dancing, teaching and then occasionally doing [the Bournonville] lectures. But, on the other hand, every time I do some of it I learn more about the whole tradition. So I find it also as a wonderful opportunity to try to be a part of this [tradition] because it is a Danish specialty.

I think we have not a duty, but I feel something towards doing all that work.. Otherwise I suppose I wouldnít do it.

On BournonvilleÖ

He was actually half Swedish, half French. He had Swedish mother and a French father. And the father was dancing in Sweden , I think, and thatís how he met the mother. And then they happened to move to Denmark , and his father became the director of what was at that time the Royal Danish Ballet - it was a very small company. [Bournonville] took over after his father when he came back from Paris - heíd been in Paris studying Ė and was then the director for about 42 years, from 30 all the way up to 76 or 77 something like that. And he died in '79, so he was director who stayed in that position for the longest.

The preservation of the Bournonville tradition by the Royal Danish Ballet has been major subject of discussion and debate. Opinions range from those who think the company is doing a good job to those who feel that the tradition is being destroyed. What do you think about all of this?

Well, I think this thing about destroying - you have to be very careful about using that word, because everybody is trying to do their best in what they know, and nobody really knows what [the Bournonville tradition] really was from the beginning.

And also, [the style] has taken a development in line with the classical technique that has developed. So, of course you donít dance how they used to do it, because you have the pointe work knowledge and the knowledge of many other things now that has brought the technique beyond what they knew at that point. They didnít even know how to spot [then]. And funny enough there was a lot of turns actually in the Bournonville repertoire but [they did] it with a stiff neck; it wasnít with a real turn.

You can always discuss what is good and what is not good, but I think at least you have to be really focused on keeping the tradition and making sure that you keep passing it on to the next generation. But also at the same time, itís important to try out new things, and if it is our [The Royal Danish Ballet] specialty, then we also have the responsibility of trying to bring it forward in different ways.

And what weíre doing at the moment, weíre trying to keep [the style, the ballets] very much how think they used to be - which is great and I donít want to take that away - but I think also we need to open up and see how we can use it in other ways. Because we do have the problem that there is not a whole big young audience. The next generation is maybe not that interested in watching the Bournonville- they like to go and watch some of the newer programs as well.

So, we have to balance it out and somehow keep waking the interest in these ballets.
[We could do this by] doing [the ballets] really well, the way we think they should be done, but also [by] trying to give them a new approach. I think thatís a very fine balance, between that and keeping the traditional performances as we have them. It is always a question of whoever is in charge of [the ballets] right now - someone else who could have done it might criticize that itís all ruined now.

When I look at the ballets - just going twenty years back, what you see on videos, or even in the beginning of the century when you had the first films that documented the dancing - I do think that they were not as specific with what they were doing as we are today. We are thinking
much more about each epaulment, and each leg, putting it forward or putting it back, putting the coup die pied high or low. We are much more aware of that. So its direct question of remembering all those things, and then on top of that not forgetting to dance it.

Itís very interesting now that we are working with the Bournonville videos. We are making a DVD of all the classes of Bournonville - there were Monday through Saturday classes. We are almost halfway, and we are going to do the rest so it will be finished for the festival in Ď05. There, I think, its very important to do those things very specifically and do it they way we think is the way our generation is dancing it. But once you do a performance, you have to glide out of the class and get onto a performing stage. I think that itís important to remember not to dance 'La Sylphide' like the Wednesday class, but you have the whole base there, so its two different things. That was a very long answer to your question, but I think I got around it

You talk about not knowing exactly what the Bournonville style wasÖdid Bournonville take notes on his ballets?

He wrote the ballets down, but itís very hard because his notations are for himself to remember his ballets, and it was put under the musical score. And this is very interesting - for instance, Hans Beck, who was a director in the beginning of this century - Bournonville saw [Beck] dance before he died and liked him as a dancer, and so Beck had a feeling for the whole style that shows how it goes onto the next generation. He created solos, five solos for 'Napoli', third act, and those solos were taken from 'Abdallah'. He read [the notations] in the score for 'Abdallah', and he didnít do [the solos] that specifically. Now weíve seen 'Napoli' so many times that we think that this is how it used to be.
Now Iím starting working with 'Abdallah'. Flemming Ryberg and Toni Lander reconstructed it, and they really went into the score of 'Abdallah' and took it word by word, and they reconstructed the solos that Hans Beck in a way also reconstructed, but put it in 'Napoli' and they got a very different result. So thatís very interesting and shows a little bit about reading those scores really carefully.

But is it just a question of reading carefully, or is no-one totally sureÖ

Well itís also a question of nobodyís totally sure, because sometimes [Bournonville] didnít write everything. So you just know that here thereís missing a step, but how would you get from [the previous] step to the next step. So with the knowledge you have as a Bournonville dancer, you fill in whatís missing

What do you enjoy specifically about the dancing, as opposed coaching or teaching?

What I enjoy about the dancingÖ Well, first of all, what I enjoy about the Bournonville repertoire is that when you are that privileged, as I have been, to get some of the leading parts, you get to do them over a longer period of time. You do a few shows, and then [the ballet] might not be in the repertoire for a year and then you do it again. So you keep getting back to the same part, and since its not just dancing, its also telling a story, your being a character on stage, you have to develop your character. You have a possibility of doing that, in terms of also getting older yourself, so you will develop with your character.
And I think thatís very interesting for me because when I was accepted to the school, it was because I knew I liked to be on the stage - I could have been an actor today, maybe, instead, but I ended up being a dancer. So of course, the dancing interests me, but also being a character, building a story.

And then you also keep developing your choreography, because the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the more it feels right in your body. So itís those two things [developing the character and the choreography] that glide togetherÖyou can actually grow in these ballets.

And then Ö. teaching, coaching and dancing at the same timeÖwhen you suddenly have to rethink what youíre doing and tell someone else to do it, I think you get wiser yourself and you learn something from that process. So, all in all, I think you get more aware because if itís not clear in your own mind, [your students] are going to be very confused.

Do you have a favorite dancer or dancers?

NoÖ No I donít. There are different dancers that I really enjoy here in Denmark and also in other companies. But, I think you know comparing big artists is like comparing big painters - theyíre all different and they have their own different personalities.

Sometimes I get asked ĎDo you have a favorite part?í too. And I have had some really nice experiences with different parts. For instance, doing James in 'La Sylphide' is something that for a Danish dancer is quite special, because it would be the same for actor to do Hamlet. So it means a lot to me every time I do it. And then I enjoy also doing the different repertoire. Sometimes itís nice to have a rest with the Bournonville and do more contemporary works and new classic works. And also learning something from [doing those other ballets] as well, getting some strength or getting some phrasing that you could maybe put into your Bournonville. Iím not changing [the Bournonville], but itís good to have both things against each other

Thomas Lund What other ballets have you done here recently that are not Bournonville?

Recently Iíve done some Peter Martins, then I did 'Nutcracker' and then Iíve done William Forsytheís 'In the Middle Somewhat Elevated', which was an great piece to do - very hard but very interesting. Itís a nice ballet; it was made on Sylvie Guillem, I think, at Paris Opera. And then Iíve done some Robbins stuff, 'The Concert', which is kind of fun, and with characters, again not so far from the Bournonville repertoire.

Are there any ballets that you like to watch, as opposed to dance in?

There are some ballets that are more fun watching, I suppose... [for instance] Hal Lander was the director here from around 1931, '32 until 1951, and at that time he created a masterpiece that was called 'Etudes'. The ballet was built on Czernyís 'Etudes', the music - when you learn to play piano, thereís a special book called Czernyís Etudes and you [play] all those 'Etudes', and you get a better technique. So, it was the same concept in the ballet - it starts with the barre, and builds up gradually, and then you see the ballerina, the prince and two guys on the side, and a pas de deux.

Itís a very technical ballet, its almost like 'Symphony in C' and itís a wonderful piece. And ['Etudes'] is technically very hard because it is very black and white - if you [make] a mistake itís very obvious, so if you are on, [itís] fantastic to do, and if you not on, you might be sitting in the audience, you will need to [get off] of the stage!

Is there a role[s] or a ballet[s] that youíve never done that you would like to do?

Yes. With this company, we have a tradition of tall boys doing the 'prince' parts. I do get to do some of them - James and the main parts in the Bournonville repertoire. Once you get into the Petipa, I more I get to do [parts like] Bluebird, for instance, in 'Sleeping Beauty'. Iíve also done the Prince in the 'Nutcracker'.

So, I would like to do maybe Albrecht in 'Giselle', something like that would be nice. And maybe the Prince in 'Swan Lake' - it would be nice to try and do that instead of maybe doing some of the divert [divertissement] dances. But otherwise I have being pretty lucky,

Itís always hard when you get into the category of being a smaller dancer in this company, because we have tall boys and do a lot of Bournonville repertory, which has that heavy flavor. So you easily get put into a box of being very good at being heavy and being sort of right there on the spot. I do feel that I have other qualities, as being a little more serious and not just being 'amusement'! And, the [dancers] that are doing Prince [roles] all the time probably want to have a little bit of fun sometimes!

But, I have done [many roles], so itís not that Iím really complaining. And now, we have the Bournonville Festival coming up, so of course a lot of those ballets are in the repertoire, so I will be doing a lot of [dancing]. But after the Festival, weíll see, maybe it will be a different matter. Hopefully I will get some new chances, and Iíve probably need that time, because then weíve have done a lot of Bournonville and weíll need a break from it.

Other than Royal Danish Ballet tours, Bournonville ballets are not often performed in places like the United States. How do you think Bournonville could be brought to more audiences?

[Companies] could do what the [ New York ] City Ballet has done Ė 'Bournonville Divertissements'. They could [perform] Ballabile from 'Napoli' first act, Jockey Dance, maybe 'La Ventana' pas de deux, Flower Festival and finish off with the pas de six from 'Napoli'. All those [pieces] could be done also in a mixed program where you have [pieces from] a Broadway choreographer, a Bournonville piece, [a ballet from a] European choreographer and something else. Whatever the concept would be for the evening, then there would be a handful of different [ballets] you could put in. It would be up to the individual director to [make] that decision, but I think it would be a good idea.

I think in a funny way the world has also gotten a lot smaller, because you do see many styles being done on different companies, and not so much [like] the old days when things were very separate. But if [another company] would like to do Bournonville somewhere and it works within the concept, I think that would be a wonderful idea, and if they need some help, we could help them out.

One final questionÖthereís a picture of you playing the piano on your website. How long have you played?

Since I was seven. So Iíve played piano for longer than Iíve actually danced! But [I havenít played much for] the last few years. My piano teacher moved - I had the same teacher [from the time] I was seven - and I didnít get a new one. At the same time I started coaching and teaching, and all of the time I used on just practicing piano, Iím suddenly now using to prepare for class. Itís a pity...I have my piano at home and I look at it, and [think] Iím gonna do it [play], Iím gonna do it, and I havenít done it. At one point I will [play] again because I played for 17, 18 years.


Edited by Holly Messitt

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