“Erik Bruhn – billedet indeni” (The Picture Within)
Alexander Meinertz has written a superb biography of Erik Bruhn that sets new standards for a ballet biography. Unfortunately, this far it is only availably in Danish but hopefully an English version will follow: as the book demonstrates, Bruhn was as much a product of his international years as his Danish heritage and should be of interest to an international audience.
As in his brilliant biography of Vera Volkova, Alexander Meinertz has proven himself to being an ideal ballet biographer. He is vastly knowledgeable on ballet style and technique, he has a strong research gene and a talent to find the right sources and make them talk, But his greatest gift is his ability never to judge and never to claim accolades for his subjects. He sees no need to establish Vera Volkova as the greatest teacher or Erik Bruhn as the greatest dancer. Instead he shows the context and the impression that his subject created on in his or her day and age, and whenever possible makes the subject speak for himself. Meinertz has never seen a live performance of Erik Bruhn – and still he is able to bring both Bruhn the dancer and Bruhn the private person to life.
Two Men On a Boat
In the book, there’s a picture of two men on a water bike, trotting in perfect symmetry. How better could you illustrate the rivalry and love relationship between Erik Bruhn and Rudolf Nureyev. Although that relationship is a vital part of the book, Meinertz neither sensationalises it, not does he overemphasise it. It has become a common myth that Nureyev’s arrival on the ballet scene and in the private life of Erik Bruhn caused the breakdown of Bruhn's career and loss of his status as the leading danseur noble of the Western world. Meinertz puts the two dancers’ relationship in context and argues successfully that Bruhn in fact had some of his greatest years during and after his relationship with Nureyev – and that he more than held his own against the media hyped Russian.
Bruhn’s quest for international recognition was marred not by Nureyev but by that fact that he arrived on the scene too soon. When Bruhn was ready to conquer the international dance world, it was still early days for the American and European dance scenes. Effectively, they had only just advanced from amateur to professional levels and were still damaged by the War years. Neither ATB, Royal Ballet or NYCB were the great cultural institutions we know today. State companies like Paris Opera Ballet and Bruhn’s alma mater, The Royal Danish Ballet, were national companies not open to outsiders. The great Russian companies Kirov and Bolshoi were literally behind the iron curtain. At times, Bruhn was forced to continue his international career with various small-time albeit idealistic tours and although he won a contract with ABT he was not immediately recognised as a future star.
Erik Bruhn was just six year older than his compatriot Henning Kronstam but the training they received at the Royal Danish Ballet was radically different. Bruhn was trained and beaten through by the old training system that dated back to the Bournonville period: although Lander had been ballet master for more than a decade, he had introduced no reforms in the ballet school and had few specific teachings for the company’s aspirants and young dancers. Kronstam, on the contrary, had the good fortune to benefit from Vera Volkova's arrival in Copenhagen while he was still in his formative years.
Bruhn went to war with an antique schooling and no Russian input. A few years into his international career he returned to Copenhagen and now had the benefit of the Volkova training, but Bruhn being Bruhn he subsequently rebelled against Volkova and put himself in charge of his technical development. Only later did he acknowledge her as the greatest influence on his dancing. Volkova, on the other hand, sensed early on that Bruhn would be destroyed by his private troubles and thought he did not have the intellect to help him conquer his demons.
The Prodigal Son
Meinertz puts the relationship between Bruhn and his mother company into its proper perspective. It was never a happy relationship and although Bruhn’s career was often used to boast the quality of the Danish tradition of fine male dancers, it is questionable how much pride the institution can take in his success. At least twice, Bruhn was a candidate for the position of ballet master in Copenhagen. First during the Second Lander Affair, where he was the dancer’s candidate, and then again in the mid-sixties where Flemming Flindt took the job when Bruhn couldn’t clear his calendar and Kronstam refused the post.
In Erik Aschengreen’s Lander-biography much is made of the antagonistic relationship between ballet master-turned-refugee Harald Lander and the star pupil/traitor Erik Bruhn. The relationship may have been important seen from Lander’s perspective but Meinertz shows that for Bruhn it was just one in a pattern of many conflicts with bosses and co-workers. The book also shows how the leading Danish critics in the 50s and early 60s compromised their roles by actively involving themselves in intrigues and mudslinging on behalf of Harald Lander. Later, the book shows that Bruhn gave as good as he got and was not too proud to use the media to forward his own agendas. As it is, Bruhn's relationship with his parent company remained difficult. He was a marquee name on major tours and created some of his best roles like Don Jose in Petit’s “Carmen” with the Royal Danish Ballet yet the company never fully capitalised on his experience. When he became ballet master for the Swedish Royal Ballet, his first major contribution to the Swedish repertoire was a personal take on the Danish national treasure, Bournonville’s ballet “La Sylphide”.
Growing old without a company is a difficult task for a ballet star, and especially for one with the artistic standards Erik Bruhn had. The book shows how his late career took its toll but it also reveals that the sources of his malaise - the stomach pains, the drinking and the habit of being his own worst enemy – perhaps is to be found in Copenhagen: not at the Royal Danish Ballet School but at home, in his relationship with his formidable but tyrannical mother, Ellen Evers Bruhn.
The Queen Mother
Erik Bruhn was born in a matriarchy. His mother, a successful hairdresser, had kicked out her never-do-lucky husband and instead formed a family with her sister, four daughters and only son. A picture from Bruhn’s 18th birthday shows him surrounded by no less than eight women at the coffee table. He had an antagonistic relationship with his mother. He was her favourite child, yet she bullied him. A short story written by Bruhn later in life hints that she may even have sexually abused him. In any case, he struggled his whole life to loose his mother’s shadow, yet he kept vigil to it and maintained his childhood home after her death and for the rest of his own life. When he created his version of Swan Lake, Rothbart became the Black Queen.
Over the years Bruhn built a surrogate family from a set of close and understanding friends but his childhood experience of being totally alone and abandoned stayed with him his whole life. If he indeed was sexually abused - and the case is strong - it serves to explain a lot of the self hate, destructive behaviour, sexual ambiguity and deep unhappiness that characterised him. But does it also explain his ability to shine on stage, to create an ideal and handsome outer version, the perfect prince on stage? Maybe it does. It may also explain why he so desperately needed to find his own way and shape his own career. To owe nothing to nobody. As the book shows it was a very hard way to walk, and Bruhn himself once said: “I have run out of companies.”
Alexander Meinertz argues that dancers like Nureyev and Baryshnikov owed much of their greatness to the Russian schooling they brought to the West, while Bruhn was the self-made star. He shaped and came to personify the ideal of Danseur Noble role as we know it today. Bruhn remains the standard for dancers of that emploi.
Finally, Meinertz’ Bruhn biography also tells us that behind the unhappiness, bitterness and inclination to alienate people, there was a man of strong principles not always understood, a great teacher and a man of great compassion who paid a heavy price to be at the top of his profession. The many facets of a man loved by the audience but unable to love himself. As with the Volkova biography, Meinertz shows himself on top of his own profession in giving voice to an artist who devoted his life to the most elusive art form there is.