Her career have been a constant source of pleasure and artistic development and her high standards, integrity and faith in the classic company traditions may be the main reason why there still is a tradition to inherit. She has been the guarantee that the highest possible levels could and should be meet in decades of poor artistic management.
Luckily her career is now portrayed in a beautifully illustrated book by Ole Nørlyng.
Be a Diamond
When the young Silja Schandorff got the part as the ballerina in "Etudes", her mentor and coach, former Ballet Master Henning Kronstam told her to think of herself as a diamond, but that the diamond should be cut differently for each section of the ballet the adagio, the romantic solo, the Russian style brilliance etc. This is more than a good metaphor.This is a good game plan for a career that has managed to keep developing and conquering new territory for two decades.
With Silja Schandorff we do have the unusual advantage that her career in documented on film from the day she took the entrance exam to the Royal Ballet School as a cute six year old with long carefully styled bangles. Danish Television had started a project filming two year intake with the plan to a decade later to present a programme documenting the development from child to solo dancer. And one of the 25 children in that group was little Silja Schandorff.
It is often said that one should look to the parents to see how the child would develop, and Silja entered the ballet school with the parentage of a fairy Queen and an Olympic medalist. Silja's mother had been a dancer at the Pantomime Theater in TIVOLI taking the part as first fairy in the end of all the pantomimes. The corps of the small pantomime company included Helgi Thomasson, Egon Madsen and PalleJacobsen, who all later gained international fame. Her father had won a medal as a cyclist at the London Olympiad. So the gene pool combined two of the main characteristics of her talents, the fairy and the high powered athletic qualities, so often called for in the Balanchine repertoire.
In the Tv programmes which was first shown in 1991, the year when Silja was appointed soloist, it is possible to see her develop. It is also very clear from early on that her talent is substantially stronger than the rest of the group that includes Peter Bo Bendixen, Nilas Martins, Petruskja Broholm and Mette Bøtcher, who are all several years older than she. However it is not clear to the program maker Marianne Albrectslund, who is focusing the programme on the four year older Mette Bødtcher. There is no doubt that the theater had high hopes for the lovely miss Bødtcher, and when she was chosen as Ophelia in John Neumeier's "Amled" is was more or less expected that she would fit in the line of the Mette ballerinas, Hønningen and Kirk, whom she also resembled physically. But one must also conclude that Mette Bødtcher became the first victim of the Silja express. Tall and lean with a great stage persona it became clearer when compared to the younger girl, as tall, as lovely but so much stronger technically that it would not be Mette Bødtcher who would carry the mantle of Mette Hønningen and Anna Lærkesen, the first generation of tall, lean and dramatic expressive ballerinas and swans. And when Schandorff danced Swan Lake at her aspirant exams (as Bødtcher had done a few years earlier), former ballerina and Vice Ballet Master Kirsten Ralov concluded "We got a swan". A few months later Mrs. Ralov asked Silja to dance the pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty" at a matinee marking her 50 years jubilee.
A year earlier Schandorff had had her first solo part as second cast in the meander trio in Alvin Ailey´s "The River". On that premiere night I and several others gained a new favorite dancer in the tall, pliant and strangely expressive young dancer. Although Silja Schandorff 's potential and talents was supported by people like Henning Kronstam, Sorella Englund, Anna Lærkesen and Ib Andersen, who gave her the lead in his debut work as choreographer " 1 2 3 - 1 2", she was not considered the next big thing by Ballet Master Frank Andersen. Sure he could see a career for Silja Schandorff, but it was her teammate Rose Gad Poulsen whom he promoted and who became the first principal dancer from the group one year ahead of Schandorff. Not gainsaying the qualities of Rose Gad, who also had the advantage of being a Bournonville type, it was a strange and telling decision on Frank Andersen's part. In Ole Nørlyngs companion book, it becomes very clear that Schandorff constantly had been made aware of the disadvantage of her heigh and states that the company wanted small lovely dancers. Frank Andersen calling card as ballet master was Bournonville and most of the dancers hired from outside were indeed very small. Luckily the repertoire also included several Balanchine pieces and especially "Agon" and "Apollon" could not disguise Schandorff's unique qualities.
The Danish Farrell
Those two parts remains cornerstones in Schandorff's career. "Agon" shows her talents in a more modern and aggressive work and "Apollon", probably her best Balanchine role is perfectly phased for her slower than slow adagio qualities. It is also a role that caters to her sensual expressiveness, a quality she shares with Balanchine muse, Suzanne Farrell, who indeed years later directed Schandorff in "Tzigane". Balanchine more than any other choreographer became the foundation of Schandorff's career. An area where she ruled unrivaled and where she had danced a broad repertoire including, "Symphony in C ", "Serenade", "Theme and Variations", "Divertimento no. 15", "The Four Temperaments", "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," "Allegro Brilliante", "Rubies", "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" "Duo Concertante",and most importantly "La Sonnambula", which she got a young dancer and later in her final season. In this work Schandorffmanaged to draw the line between Balanchine and the romantic ballet, such an important part of her own heritage.
Balanchine proved a temporary solution for one of the big challenges in Schandorff's career: the lack of an equal partner, as much in talent as in height. In Balanchine, Hübbe and Lloyd Riggins could dance the lead man, and in "Agon", tall Lars Damsgaard could partner her, but neither was the solution for the big Russian ballets she was such a natural for, and although she could be Myrtha and the queen of the Dryads, she needed the leads and for that she needed a partner on equal level.
Luckily the solution was not far away. Kenneth Greve, tall, fair and handsome, and was in the same year that Schandorff had attended the school. But as Silja grew tall, Greve grow taller, and at one point was asked to leave the school because of his lankiness. Ambitious Greve went to NY and continued his education. As a member of the corps in ABT, he was spotted by Rudolf Nureyev and bought to Paris Opera Ballet as Etoile and as the prince in "Swan Lake", He continued in Vienna and was in 1991 invited back as guest to his parent company to partner Schandorff in "The Nutcracker" and rejoined the company the next season as a much needed principal.
This became the beginning of the greatest partnership in the company's newer history. The two dancers were simply born to dance together. Of course there were glitzes in the beginning but the magic was there and the partnership developed from the Russian classics " The Nutcracker", "The Sleeping Beauty", "Swan Lake", "Don Quixote" over the Romantic repertoire "Giselle" and "La Sylphide" , Balanchine, Robbins "In the Night", Flindt 's "Caroline Mathilde" and John Neumeier' s " "Odyssey".
It is difficult to pinpoint a few ballets from this important partnership. In general I would say that the partnership is the true testament and it is something that was denied Silja Schandorff predecessors typewise, Hønningen and Lærkesen, and unfortunately many other tall ballerinas, a career long equal partnership with a tall, talented and expressive partner. What was not clear at the beginning of the partnership was how far it was able to develop dramatically, but when "Manon" was brought into the repertoire in 2003, we saw the full scale and magic of the partnership brought to life.
A muse searching for a choreographer
Although Silja Schandorff has been involved in creating new ballets, the list is much to short and is dominated by to many small scale attempts. It cannot be denied that we lack the large big ballet choreographed for Schandorff and with her special talent in mind. In the beginning of her career Anna Lærkesen used her as her muse in several works, most prominently "Polacca" and "Partita", The later a pas de deux for Schandorff and Hübbe, but there has been no significantly larger work focused on Silja. How Alexei Ratmansky could do "Anna Karenina" without Silja Schandorff is beyond me. For John Neumeier it only amounted to the popular little humoresque "Yesterday" where Bournonville meets the Beatles.
Finally in her last season Schandorff found her choreographer in Christopher Wheeldon, who did "The Wanderer" for her and Greve. Luckily Schandorff was able to spend more time with Wheeldon in Australia and dance more of his choreography.
A great career
It is easy to say that Silja Schandorff has been given much: beautiful lines, an expressive face, musicality, a great partner, a strong pliant body, a suitability to the most coveted roles in ballet. and a mystique that enchant any audience. but the glorious career is probably more based on the fact that she has given even more and that she had demanded the ultimate of herself. If we look clinically at her career, save for her childhood and early adolescence where Henning Kronstam was the ballet master and her last season with Hübbe in the driving seat, her career had spend two decades where the company had not been led by a top artistic management and where one bad appointments have been followed by an even worse. Yet Schandorff the swan has managed not only to float, but to develop and inspire. She hasconquered roles outside her natural employ, and not only conquered them but enhanced them, as she did in "La Sylphide" and "Giselle". She has managed to get something out of everything and to grow on what little nutriment she could get. Even when the company was in deep crisis, and I think we must assume that some of these crisis have been deeper than what was visible to the outsiders, she kept bringing out the gold, giving the audience what was needed to stay on, commitment and art. For that her audience stay committed and graceful. Luckily it is likely that she will continue her association with the company as instructor and coach. She will be needed in that capacity as someone who can teach by example what ballet can be and how yo achieve it. In Ole Nørlyng book "Silja" Nikolaj Hübbe has written a poem to Schandorff, and poetry seems to be the right medium to celebrate her.
We really got a swan and so much more.
Photo copyright (c) The Royal Theater