In 2011 I was lucky to make an interview with Mads Blangstrup, who is known for doing very few interviews. He prefere to make the dancing do the talking. As Blangstrup is now retiring as a principal dancer and starting a new career as a character dancer and teacher, it is a good time to celebrate his impressive career by making the interview available on the net.
A 21st Century Prince of Denmark
On the Royal Danish Ballet’s recent US tour Mads Blangstrup gave the audience a glimpse of his past and of his future. As James in La Sylphide he celebrated a role he danced in more than fifteen years. And in The Lesson he showed his development into more character-driven ballets. At 37 Blangstrup and his large audience can look back at a career in which he not only has danced a wider reper toire than most principals, but also has been the keeper and the champion of the famed Danish tradition for great male dancers. Seeing Blangstrup is seeing the lineage and following Blangstrup’s development builds the awareness on how much inherited qualities such as his can enhance a current repertoire.
Meeting Mads Blangstrup is meeting a dancer who oozes positivism. Even though he has suffered several serious injuries that have kept him from the stage for prolonged periods, he thrives on the opportunities he is offered and seems generally pleased with taking his career into a new and more mature territory. He has danced a fuller repertoire than most of his peers, and his outlook on his career also allows him to put a posi tive spin on the rather tumultuous developments the company has been through during a large part of his career.
“It is true that we went through a long line of short time ballet masters in my early years. But it also gave us a vast number of challenges we might not have had with a more stabile management. With Maina Gielgud we got Bejart in the repertoire, and I particularly en joyed his Bolero. Aage Thordal and Coleen Neary were Balanchine-oriented and that gave me a real Balanchine repertoire. Nevertheless I hope that Nikolaj Hübbe will stay my time out. Primarily because he brings so much to the company, but also because at this time of my career, I much prefer the stability factor, and a ballet master who knows what I can deliver,” says Blangstrup.
Staying at home
Blangstrup has been utterly faithful to his parent company, but he is not immune to the international scene.
“I love New York and have spent time there on scholarships and guest stays, so I almost feel part of the company [i.e., the New York City Ballet]. When I had a very difficult period personally, following the death of my brother, I seriously considered making the move, but I realized that I could not leave my repertoire. I felt I would have to give up roles that were so pivotal to me that moving to New York suddenly was no longer an option.”
So Blangstrup needed his home company, and as importantly the company needed Blangstrup. The Royal Danish Ballet tradition is built on the Bournonville repertoire with its technical and dramatically challenging male roles. Founded on Bournonville’s own qualities as a dancer and developed over the centuries by dancers like Erik Bruhn, Henning Kronstam and Arne Villumsen, the company will be in serious trouble if it lacks stars that can be at home as the fiery fisherman in Napoli, the Scottish dreamer in La Sylphide, Romeo, Onegin and the full suite of princes. And no one in his generation ticks so many boxes as Mads Blangstrup.
Foreign visitors to the Bournonville Festival in 2005 may have left with the impression that Thomas Lund was the king of the company with Blangstrup as his wingman. They would hardly notice a dancer like Kenneth Greve, who had practically no Bournonville repertoire.
But the reality in non-festival seasons was very different. Lund was relegated to smaller roles, while Greve and Blangstrup ruled the roost. Comparing the three male stars, Blangstrup had by far the widest repertoire, by the combination of his skill set and as importantly by being the natural heir of the company tradition.
Exactly what are Blangstrup’s unique qualities? This summer, I had a chance to compare him to dancers from the Mariinsky) Ballet, which made me further understand his special qualities. I was lucky enough to see the Mariinsky Ballet in London. The two programs I caught were an evening with Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony and Ballet Impe rial, and Robbins’ In the Night; and a performance of Alexey Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina, which was choreographed for the RDB with Blang strup as Vronsky. The first program especially was a hit with the London audience and one reviewer even stated that this was the best performance he had ever seen at Covent Garden. I enjoyed the programs but I also concluded that compared to the Mariinsky stars dancing the three main roles in these ballets, Blangstrup could certainly hold his own. He had never danced Scotch Symphony, but as it is inspired by La Sylphide, comparison is not far of the mark.
In performances I had seen of Blangstrup and his frequent partner, Marie Pierre Greve in the first movement of In the Night, the RDB dancers were able to infuse the pas de deux with a youthful and romantic feeling. The pre mier danseur in Ballet Imperial has a special sequence that can only be described as a pas de deux with several supporting women, five on each side. This sequence can easily look forced and dated, but Blangstrup always appeared totally in control with clean lines, and danced as though he was leading his flock through the patterns. in a breathtaking musical flow.
Ratmansky’s Anna Karenina reminded one of Blangstrup’s ability to create characters, mixing the heroic and flawed, and showing his great partnering skills. The good Mariinsky dancer was no match for Blangstrup’s unique gift for communicating utter despair, an ability spotted by Ratmansky, who for many years was a colleague of Blangstrup in the RDB, and used him to perfection in Vronsky.
The RDB tradition is often perceived as a purely dramatic one. Drama is certainly a strong element, but this tradition is as much about the pure dance elements. RDB dancers are not only great jumpers. They have a three dimensional quality to the lines and the port de bras is integrated with beautiful hand movements. I remember a performance of Bournonville highlights in London where Blangstrup and Silja Schandorff danced the divertissement from La Sylphide, and I realized that if one only could see their hands one would still get the whole story. At a discussion with The Friends of the Royal Danish Ballet a few years back, the celebrated Danish ballerina Mette Hønningen stated that the softness and the development from the Bournonville port de bras was the work of Vera Volkova, the Russian teacher who was the main influence behind the internationalization of the RDB in the 50ties and most probably the architect behind the RDB style as we know it today.
The Volkova principles were passed down through Kronstam at home and Stanley Williams in New York. Blangstrup cannot claim Kronstam as his teacher. He is too young for that. Yet he is probably the dancer in the current company whose style mostly recalls Kronstam’s qualities. In his early years at school Blangstrup was taught by Palle Jacobsen, best remembered for his partnering skills, and later Johnny Eliasen.
“Palle really built the base and Johnny was very good at turning me into a performer”, Blangstrup remembers fondly.
The national Latin champion
Blangstrup decided to become a ballet dancer after seeing a performance of Don Quixote with his parents. He immediately told them: “That is what I want to do!” His parents decided on a cooling period of one year. If he still wanted to be a dancer after a year, they would take him to the entrance exam. At that time little Mads Blangstrup was the reigning Danish champion in Latin dance, and his teacher Britt Bendixen (today one of the judges of Danish “Dancing with the Stars”) supported his quest. At age 9 Blangstrup entered the RDB School.
“It was a special moment 15 years later when I was made a principal dancer on stage following a performance as Basil in Don Quixote that it should happen with the ballet that originally was my motivation for wanting to be a ballet dancer. There was a feeling of coming full circle,” Blangstrup remembers.
Looking at the development of Blangstrup’s career, it has almost been textbook. Entering at nine, passing his aspirant exam at 18, he became a soloist at 22 and principal at 24. The milestones proved that his talent had been recognized early and that the system was set in motion for his progress. Nevertheless, Blangstrup suffered minor setbacks as a young dancer and had to work hard to build his roles:
“Flemming Flindt cast me as the supporting baddie, Enevold Brandt, in Caroline Mathilde, his historical romantic ballet, and was very annoyed by my lack of expression and inability to act the character. He dismissed me as to vague and green for the part. Luckily several years later, I was cast as the lead, Dr. Struensee, and had managed to develop stronger character skills, and at that time he was really satisfied with my performance.”
And so he should be. Blangstrup, in a cast with Gudrun Bojesen, Thomas Lund and Silja Schandorff in the other leading roles, managed the almost impossible task of saving a really bad ballet by good dancing and acting. It is an ongoing discussion what is best: Good choreography danced badly, or bad choreography danced well. This performance was a victory for the last option.
From juvenile roles to key player
If one is looking for a pattern in Blangstrup’s career, it’s that as his talent was recognized early, and he has had the opportunity to dance several roles in the same ballets. So he has been both Gurn and James (and James in two different versions) in La Sylphide; Paris, Romeo and now Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet (also in both the Ashton and Neumeier versions); Lenski and Onegin etc.
Maybe the two-step process has helped him to make a bigger splash when arriving in the key role. Regarding James, Blangstrup first got the role as a mere 20 year old in the Schaufuss version, a version that did not appeal to the Danish audience. When he got the role in the company’s standard version and later in Hübbe’s version, his dancing and acting reached new heights. Blangstrup has danced La Sylphide with many different ballerinas, and states that that is part of the allure:
“I have danced James opposite Silja Schandorff, Caroline Cavallo, Gudrun Bojesen, Christina Michanek, Rose Gad and Marie-Pierre Greve (in the Schaufuss version). My take on James takes a lot of inspiration from what the Sylph brings to the plate.
For instance Christina Michanek, who was very young when we first were paired in La Sylphide, neverthe- less has something dangerous in her otherwise very innocent Sylph, and that gave me something to play against.
My James may also change depending on who is playing Effy and their interpretation. Maybe the Effy in question makes me feel more at home in the Scottish environment. I may feel more in love with Effy, so I will be more resisting leaving with the Sylph.
If Effy is played too bourgeois, I may long for the woods more and almost beat the Sylph to the door. I have enjoyed all my Sylphs, and I was pleased to be James on Caroline Cavallo’s last performance with RDB. We have danced together in many ballets. It felt right that I should be there for her at this performance.”
Blangstrup also speaks highly of his partnership with Gudrun Bojesen. He and another colleague even went with Gudrun Bojesen to Argentina to learn more of her great passion, Argentine tango. One of the highlights of the partnership was in Nikolaj Hübbe’s production of Giselle in 2009. Bojesen and Blangstrup are true masters of the romantic ballet style, but the detail in their acting was the icing on the cake. Seeing Blangstrup in the opening scene, knocking on Giselle’s door, he is so detailed in his acting the impatient suitor that such a simple thing as the way he knocks on her door made the classic come alive, and as importantly stay alive, and even make Hübbe’s take on the ending (Albrecht is a man who can move on with his life in this production) make sense.
Master of duplicity
Blangstrup’s partnership with Marie Pierre Greve had a quality of its own and reached new heights in a series of ballets following the first outing in Schaufuss’s La Sylphide. They became an unbeatable romantic combination in ballets like In the Night; Anna Karenina, which was choreo-graphed on them, and even Bournonville’s Far from Denmark.
Far from Denmark is rightly considered the least interesting of Bournonville’s extant works and includes very little dancing. Nevertheless Blangstrup and Greve managed to change the sketchy relationship between the Danish naval lieutenant and the Argentine flirt into a multi- layered romance reminiscent of the plot in La Sylphide. Here Blangstrup’s talent for duplicity worked miracles in communicating the young sailor torn between the never-seen fiancée back in Copenhagen and Rosita. Another key role in the RDB repertoire requiring duplicity is Onegin, and Blangstrup has managed to create an Onegin which seems to be softer and more sympatric than the norm:
“I am a great admirer of Arne Villumsen and his groundbreaking Onegin and was pleased to learn that he was to coach me, but I did not really get the answers I needed from him. But at the same time he was an incredible help to Thomas Lund as Lenski, giving him so much support and confidence. Maybe my needs were different, but it is a role I really cherish and one I have been very happy to dance.”
The RDB’s repertoire only includes a few ballet choreographed directly on the company, but the company has produced two outstanding choreographers in the last generation, Alexei Ratmansky and Tim Rushton, and Blangstrup has been given leading roles in their largest works for the company:
“I do not feel very comfortable in a choreographic situation, as it so dif ferent from our normal work practice. It was strange to see Ratmansky, whom I have known for years as a calm and shy colleague, turn himself into a strong and confident choreographer. He was extremely well-prepared and knew exactly what he wanted to do stepwise. So my struggle was to express his very exact ideas. I liked the end product of Anna Karenina very much and am pleased that it is now in the repertoire of several other companies. Regarding Tim Rushton’s work, I really enjoyed being a part of Requiem which was new territory for us.”
In the last several seasons, injuries have cost Blangstrup many performances, including a part he was born to dance: the Poet in La Somnambula. He was injured at the general rehearsal, dancing in Symphony in C. But he is working hard to keep in shape and dances as much as possible. He has also started teaching the boys class at the Royal Danish Ballet School and sees his fu ture as being involved with the company. At present he has no wish to turn to acting, which several people have suggested. One hopes he will be able to dance more regularly. This fall, his repertory includes The Lesson and Bernardo in West Side Story Suite. The season concludes with John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camelias, and as Blangstrup has danced in all of the company’s previ- ous Neumeier productions, he is as intrigued by this production as every RDB dancer I have interviewed.
*The RDB is not known for their production of DVDs, but Blangstrup is featured in the Bournonville Schools on DVD and also in Ulrik Wivel’s films, which are available on DVD. Here we can see him in a modern/classical mix and in “I You Love”, a film about Hübbe’s La Sylphide. The latter should confirm all my musings on his talent and expressiveness. A visit to youtube will also show several snippets of his repertoire.
Published in Vol. 28, No. 4 Autumn 2011 DanceView