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Danish Ballet, revamped, takes fresh U.S. tour

The Royal Danish Ballet, one of the world's oldest dance companies, is showing a fresh face during its first U.S. tour in 23 years.
/ Source: Reuters

The Royal Danish Ballet, one of the world's oldest dance companies, is showing a fresh face during its first U.S. tour in 23 years.

Nikolaj Hubbe, the former New York City Ballet star who took over as artistic director three years ago, is the man behind the makeover. Although the company is 250 years old, Hubbe said it didn't need a facelift.

"But you need to adjust the spirit so that there is still a sense of youthfulness and freshness about the face," he added.

The procedure was radical. Hubbe, fresh from his farewell performance at NY City Ballet in 2008, returned to Copenhagen to shake up the company that had nurtured him and which critics said had become stodgy after he moved to the Big Apple 16 years earlier.

Hubbe said discipline was lacking, dancers skipped daily classes, and an abundance of teachers led to a decline in classical technique.

"I just don't believe 24 different teachers in one year is conducive to any deeper understanding of classical technique," Hubbe said during an interview after a rehearsal at New York's Lincoln Center where the tours ends on Saturday.

Hubbe imposed full daily classes, stressed pointe work for women dancers and whittled down the teaching staff to less than 10 to create consistency.

On stage, he revamped venerated mid-19th century works by August Bournonville, the choreographer whose genteel Romantic style is most identified with Danish ballet.

His 1842 classic "Napoli" was transported to a 1950 setting that recalls Fellini's films, upsetting conservatives but delighting audiences eager for a breath of fresh air.

"Some people loved it and some hated it. No one was in the middle. I thought that was good," said Hubbe who, at age 20, had danced the same ballet during the company's U.S. tour in 1988.

The repertoire for the U.S. tour, which began on May 24 in California, includes modern pieces by Jorma Elo and Flemming Flindt.

With a year left to his four-year contract as artistic director, Hubbe is working quickly to extend his agenda.

"I don't know" if the contract will be extended, he said. "It's good not to know (because) it keeps you on your toes."

Hubbe is adding George Balanchine's neoclassical "Nutcracker" to the repertoire. "Chroma" by experimentalist Wayne McGregor, who incorporates computer imagery and digital soundscapes into his dances, will be added next year.

Asked how Bournonville's soft Romantic style would look if his company keeps moving toward virtuosic works that require stronger attack, higher legs and greater flexibility, Hubbe reflected deeply for about a minute.

"You see that?" he said, pointing to a clunky old TV set in his hotel room. "The old tube is extinct. Hopefully, it will look like Bournonville HD."

"Anyway, nobody knows what authentic is. You have to have a broad range of interpretations. Otherwise, you become a museum -- see, don't touch," Hubbe said.