As the Royal Danish Ballet will tour USA May - June 2011, I am writing a number of articles leading up to the tour presenting ballets, dancers and the company history. We will kick off the series with an interview with Niels Balle, the leader of the ballet school and possible the most important person in securing the company's future.
Royal Danish Ballet School, a success story
After decades of dwindling numbers of applications and limited output, the Royal Danish Ballet School is up to the task and is now producing scores of talented young dancers. This year 7 apprentices have been promoted to first-year-dancers and a record of 9 students have been accepted to the apprentice programme.
You need volume to produce the elite. This is the philosophy of Niels Balle, who for the last five years has been director of the Royal Danish Ballet School. Mr. Balle, a fine representative of the celebrated Danish tradition of good male dancers, has, together with his team, modernized the school.
“During my time as a student at the school I only had three teachers before reaching apprentice level. This meant that to succeed in the school you had to fall very exactly into these teachers’ definition of a good dancer and therefore we had only one source of inspiration at the time. As the school also let go of students which they doubted would become dancers, it led to classes with less than three students. I know of dancers who spent their last years in school as the only student in class. This was not a fruitful environment for learning and developing,” says Niels Balle.
Safety in numbers
Now a student will be taught by seven different teachers through their dance education This means that they will be able to draw inspiration from more teachers and the mix of teachers can discover more facets in each student. Broadening the intake also makes a stronger social environment for the students.
In order to supplement the dwindling number of applicants from the Copenhagen area, the Royal Danish Ballet School now includes two satellite schools in the provinces, a boarding school, and has formalized ties with private ballet schools all over the country. Teachers at the private schools also get the offer to follow classes at RDBS and to share with the school’s faculty.
“We have created a syllabus, which we share with the private schools. This helps them reach a higher standard in their teaching and the students who join us from the private schools can better adapt” says Niels Balle.
Over the last years RDBS has also accepted foreign students in the last year of the junior school. This will give us and the students time to really adapt to our trademark style of dancing and thereby ease their way in the company”, explains Niels Balle.
It is important to Balle that the students become epitomes of the famed Danish tradition. Not only in the Bournonville style with its strong focus on jumps and beats, but also in the special Danish carriage/posture and three dimensional use of the upper body and movements of the arms. He and his faculty are also preparing the students to cover the whole spectre from Russian classical style to modern dance.
A great company cannot exist without a school and as Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the company, points out, the special qualities in the dancing are of equal importance with the famed dramatic tradition. In order to form and educate the students and to give them a better introduction to the professional life as a dancer, the school now includes Kompagni B, an initiative headed by Ann Crosset, a pioneer from the modern Danish scene.
Danish ballet students have a long tradition of performing children’s ballets, but in Kompagni B they are also involved in choreography, design and marketing.
“In Kompagni B they get to learn the life of a professional dancer at an early age. Not only do they get performance experience, they also experience all elements in producing a ballet. One student has shown an exceptional talent for designing costumes, others have created choreography based on their own ideas. The project supports a strong team spirit and as we have toured nationally and internationally with Kompagni B, the students have taken the responsibility of the project and they take pride in the effort. This gives us dedicated and confident students” concludes Niels Balle.
Looking back in the three century long history of RDBS, the school was not known for delicate handling of students. It resembled other international schools with a strong hierarchic stucture and little focus on the pedagogic methods. Today RDBS is one of the leading innovators of pedagogic methods, not only among ballet schools but also compared to other Danish educational institutions.
For several years the school has worked together with a mental coach. He helps the students with issues such as performance fear, how to handle it in the process of developing a performance, and how to set and reach their goals. The school also embraces the learning style principles where the teaching is based on the individual student’s learning style.
“RDBS offers an elite education and we must prepare the students on how to handle the demands of our special trade, physically, mentally and technically. Traditionally, a ballet school only focused on the latter, but by including the other elements, we can make the transition easier and give the students the tools to manage their careers better. We also encourage team spirit among the students because basically ballet is also a team effort”, says Niels Balle.
Focus on the individual
The individual approach also includes a more flexible attitude to formats. For instance two girls from 4th grade now follow 5th grade because they are ready to to take the step up. The company's rising star, Alban Lendorf, started pas de deux training early, because physically and technically he was ahead of the syllabus.
Alban Lendorf is probably the best example of the rejuvenated school results. He came out of the apprentice class a few years back bursting with talent and impressive skills and has in less than two years established himself as the leading male star. Lendorf is not only a story of extraordinary talent, he is also an example of careful talent management from the school and company. As a very young dancer he took a leading part in a youth oriented ballet based on Othello and he built up his confidence on stage by touring Danish schools with this work. Then he made his debut with the RDB as Harlequin in La Sonambule and third movement of Symphony in C before moving on to bigger parts and roles.
“I was Alban’s primary teacher in his formative years” says Niels Balle. “But I was aware that I could not cater to all his needs, so naturally, he was passed on to other teachers. The result is a full faceted dancer who can cover and handle a large repertoire and the responsibility of being the lead dancer at a very young age. Luckily, I can say that we have other very talented students, whom I look forward to passing on to the company in the coming seasons”.
With the broader intake, the question arises whether the company can engage all dancers educated.
“It is the prerogative of the artistic director to decide which dancers he can use in the company, and this year two students did not make it to the company. But we do not cut the ties to the students. Instead, like many other ballet schools, we help the students to apply for other international and leading ballet schools where they may finish their education. It is a new development for the school that we can also produce dancers for other schools and companies than the RDB. The Danish school combines a century old tradition and skills with a high level of professional education to the demands of today’s ballet scene. We do focus on the needs of the RDB company but the staff and I are proud that our students do well elsewhere and also have skills they can use in and outside the ballet world”, concludes Niels Balle.