During the winter season we will take a closer look of some of the foreign stars of Royal Danish Ballet and learn their way to the top of the company. First out is French soloist Jonathan Chmelensky who is in his seventh season at RDB.
RDB soloist Jonathan Chmelensky has had a marvelous year and is now one of the top guys in Nikolaj Hübbe’s company. No mean feat for a French guy with a Cuban training who lives by one rule: Never say no!
In France ballet works by strict rules, and when a young boy older than the stipulated entry age takes up ballet, there is no back door into the institutions. Even with a family background in ballet, Jonathan Chmelensky had to find his own way, when he as a young teen developed his dancing bones. That route took him to Cuba, where he spent 2 years at the national ballet school. At the graduation event he was approached by Danish Ballet Master Frank Andersen, who invited him to come and train with the RDB.
“I had a mosquito bite that blotted one half of my face and covered my left eye, so one of Frank Andersen’s questions was: “Do you always look like that” and he requested a photograph”, Jonathan Chmelensky says.
Once Frank Andersen was assured that Chmelensky indeed had two good eyes, the Copenhagen summer training took place, and one day Chmelensky was asked to come to his office and realized that a contract was on the table with an immediate starting date.
As Frank Andersen was on his last season in his second run as director, former RDB and NYCB star Nikolaj Hübbe, who was to take over the company the following season attended the meeting and Chmelensky is certain that he would not have been hired without Hübbe’s approval.
Next week, following three days in France to clear out his stuff, Chmelensky was back in Copenhagen and in the lineup.
Both Frank Andersen and Nikolaj Hübbe have stated that it was Chmelensky’s high jumps and strong pirouettes that opened the door to RDB for him:
“In Cuba it was all about the big stuff and the style was in second place. The more difficult you could make it look to higher the applause. In Copenhagen I was even requested to attend the apprentice class to get the company basic.”
In aspirant class Chmelensky meet a younger boy, a late starter like himself and a technical whiz kid, Alban Lendorf. The two guys hit it off and enjoyed challenging each other technically.
The following season Nikolaj Hübbe took over and Chmelensky got a front seat - and later a front row position to follow Hübbe’s plan that created a massive boost of the company’s skill and style.
“Nikolaj Hübbe is so passionate about the ballet and his quest. The company is developing to a higher level and I would not want to be anywhere else. I truly feel that by staying here and response to every opportunity I can develop more than anywhere else”.
Hübbe toke over the RDB same year as Alban Lendorf entered the company. Hübbe early identified the young teenager as his potential leading star. Alban Lendorf’s raise has been meteoric. Jonathan Chmelensky expresses it like this:
“Hübbe is driving a steam locomotive with Alban on the front and I am trying to hang on to the train with everything I got”.
In the Shadows
Being in a company with such a shining light as Alban Lendorf can be problematic for the other leading male dancers. The company PR machine uses Lendorf as the poster boy and off course he gets all the meaty roles – or most of them. Jonathan Chmelensky has a different view on the situation.
“With a dancer of Alban’s level in the company, the barre rise and so does the repertoire. That creates a lot of opportunities for the other male dancers. I have had good roles and several leads these last few years. I am almost in any program and often do more than one role in an evening”.
One of Chmelensky’s forces is his verticality, physically and technically. Of medium height he can partner most of the leading ballerinas. He is neither too tall or too short for anyone. And role wise although taller than most Bluebirds, he has the speed and lightness to match the role and can also do the prince as well.
He is ambitious, but he is also probably the hardest working dancer in the company. He is analytic and he has a game plan for every role and opportunity:
“I am the guy who does not say no, when asked to take over a role with very short notice. It has given me chances to show what I can do and it has helped to broaden my repertoire.”
This has probably been a key factor in moving from the divertissement roles to the big leads. That Chmelensky could do more was first hinted in “Tchaikovsky pas de deux”, where he and partner Camilla Ruelykke Holst was the only pairing out of three (the other two casts was all principal dancers) to get the playfulness and budding romance in the ballet right.
The real breakthrough happened last spring when Chmelensky took on the big challenge as Solor in “La Bayadére”. It was a debut in two steps, as he first danced the Shadow Act in a mixed program before dancing the whole ballet two weeks later.
My review read: “When recently appointed soloist Jonathan Chmelensky first did the third act as part of the recent Dance2Go program one was impressed by his light jumps and sure pirouettes, but frankly by little less. His posture and his line needed at lot of work. He did not project so one was a bit worried how he would handle the full role and the dramatic content. Well, I have never seen two weeks spent so well. Yesterday there was a formulated character, there were lines and posture. There was stage appeal. In contrast to the two more senior "Sirs", Chmelensky had the stamina to go the whole way. He managed the pyrotechnics and for the first time in his career he looked like a potential leading man and not just a divertissement dancer”.
“I was very happy about that conclusion”, Chmelensky explains, “I had set myself the task of staying in character though the whole ballet. Whatever happened, and the technical content is daunting, my game plan was to focus on the dramatic content, no matter what ”.
Since then he has bagged several successes as a dramatic dancer. He was the macho brother in Ib Andersen’s production of Bournonville’s “The Kermesse in Bruges” and took over the key role in Twyla Tharp’s homage to Frank Sinatra “Come Fly Away" when Alban Lendorf suffered a minor injury. Even though the role, Sid represents the mature Sinatra in the ballet, it has been cast with very young dancers in the RDB production.
“It is technically very difficult”, explains Chmelensky, who is very satisfied to get this chance to express the brooding anti-hero. Otherwise this season he has danced one of the soloists in Balanchine’s “Stravinsky Symphony in Three Movements” and the Cavalier in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker”. The spring season will give him two meaty new roles as Golfo in Nikolaj Hübbe’s version of “Napoli” and the devious Lescaut in Kenneth Macmillan’s “Manon”.
Chmelensky look forward to these roles. His take on Lescaut is not to treat it as the villain’s role:
“He does care about his sister, although his methods look devious from a modern perspective. Being French I have known the story since childhood as it is part of the school curriculum, so I might have a small advantage here”.
Another reason why Chmelensky is pleased with the two roles is because he sees it a long term investment:
“I honestly believe that I have my best years before me. Typewise I feel that there are a lot of the more mature and versatile roles that I am suited for and that can give me a very interesting and long career. Lescaut gives me the chance to show that I can do a multilayered character.”
Jonathan Chmelensky sees the RDB as his company for the coming years:
“Nikolaj Hübbe is so passionate about RDB and has a clear vision of where he wants to take the company. The development curve is so steep and to me this is the most exiting company to be in now. I learn so much and I have got great opportunities to develop and prove myself.”
This he certainly has and he has become a vastly improved dancer before our eyes. It could reasonably be argued that he is the dancer who had developed most under Hübbe’s tutelage. But there is also no doubt that Chmelensky own contribution in the form of willingness to work and his intelligence has been deciding factors. His strategy of never saying no and his analytical approach has created opportunities to develop in many areas and directions. He is now close to the very top of the company and although Alban Lendorf remains the leading star, Chmelensky’s versatility and improved level has carved him a very interesting future career and prominence.
Photo Credits: 1 + 2 Christian Als. Copyright: Jonathan Chmelensky
3: Copyright The Royal Danish Ballet