Interview with Flemming Ryberg
(Principal Character dancer and Professor, Royal Theatre, Copenhagen)
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This is a slightly shortened version of an interview made in 1994, by Katharine Kanter, published in German translation in IBYKUS MAGAZIN. The original interview, in English, was published in DANCE NOW, and is republished here with the kind permission of its General Editor, David Leonard.
Q/ What do foreign dancers think about Bournonville ?
A/ Each time we hold our seminars in Copenhagen, or in America, dancers have been inspired, and they come again and again. All over the world, once they have seen Bournonville, they realise there is something special that is otherwise lacking in classical ballet. There is not only the charm, the elegance, and the art of gesture, but a special way of communicating on stage to shew each person: "Now it’s your turn to dance !" You speak to each other through dancing !
The audience recognises these things. It is not bravura, big bravura as such. It is something deeper, where they recognise that people have something in the spirit of love to give to each other, and to the audience. There is a joy in dancing; That is what I think is missing in a lot of dancing today - joy !
Q/ What do you think about technique as it is taught today ?
A/ Nowadays, both choreographers and teachers are demanding from the body more than it can take, by pushing us to over-stretch, to go for too much speed, and too much gymnastics. Where in my view, the dance has to be subordinated to a certain aesthetic, at present we tend to act as though we were at the Olympic Games - all the time. There is a feeling we should jump higher, and lift the leg higher, and so forth. That is not art, not as I see it !
It is not art when you just think of lifting things, and jumping high. Rather, you should follow what the music calls for, and dance as normal, natural people would do, not with the idea in mind: "next time I have to do it higher and higher". We are not aiming at the Guinness Book of Records ! You have to have your soul in the dance, which does not exclude trying each time to do better. I think that at the moment, we are tending to lose the notion of that kind of style in dancing !
Q/ Some foreign dancers say that Bournonville is bad for the body, because of all that jumping.
A/ No ! It is not true. When you jump, you have to have a good plié. Nowadays, I don’t think they use the plié really. To understand how to jump, look at the animals: they go down deep on their haunches, they jump, and they land softly. Today we land - one shouldn’t say like a cow, but we do land so hard on the floor ! That spoils the knee and the ankle and the hips too.
I think it comes from the modern Russian style. I was trained in the Vaganova style by Vera Volkova, which was soft and more natural. But today everything has to be so technical ! You have to finish in your position very hard, and show it so flashily that everyone will say: "What a technique !" That is not dancing !
The dance should be fluent. The audience should not specifically be thinking, "Now, six pirouettes", or, "Now, a big jump !" No, it should flow naturally from the dance !
I don’t think that Bournonville with all his jumps will spoil the knee or anything else. Of course, before you dance, you have to think of warming up the body, and then you can jump all Bournonville’s steps. It has never spoiled the Danish dancers. Now they ARE spoiled, because they have changed technique: they have Russian technique, they have Balanchine, they work in all different techniques, which call for much more leg extension, and much more turn-out. That makes it far more difficult: nowadays, you have to think very carefully about every movement you make, otherwise, by the age of thirty, you can’t dance any longer.
I was dancing double tour en l’air and such things on stage, until I was 47 ! And if they had asked me to continue - well, I was dancing on stage only once a month, and that was too little to keep in shape - but I could have continued, because I was good, since I always warmed up before doing anything. The muscles and the skeleton must be prepared for what you are going to do.
Another reason there are so many injuries now, has to do with how the steps should move. In Bournonville we move a lot. It goes, it floats, you move, you do not "sit" on a step when you land. And it goes up and down in the plié, go softly down on the floor. You have to go through your foot all the time.
At the moment, dancers think too much on the technique, on the turnout. To turn out the skeleton really has to work at it, because the muscles and the skeleton must be coherent at all times. You can’t turn the foot, without the knee. You have to turn the whole thing. If your knee tends to look ahead, while your feet look sideways, then, as soon as you plié, the knee twists wrongly. The knee must look over the toes. When young people start, they have to be taught the plié very carefully, i.e. how to turn out in a real way.
The first year I had Erik Bruhn as my teacher, I was twelve years old, and I only was allowed to do first, second, third, and a little fourth position in the first year. If you are not turned out enough for the fifth position, the knee will be spoilt. If you train every day and give a little more, then you do a third position. You should not go into this blocked position of fifth before you know exactly where you can place your hips and your turnout.
If you start too early you see a lot of children who are spoiled and it is very difficult to correct them later. They can’t jump really. It is difficult to land turned-out from a jump, if you do not have the real feeling for the knee being in the same alignment as the toes, as though you were ski-ing ! If we remember this, there will be less knee injuries.
Q/ What about the differentiated steps in Bournonville, between the small, the middling and the big steps ?
A/ I see it as something very like music. You can get very tired of hearing kinds of music that go up to those high pitches all the time. I know some composers do that ! But you get very tired of that ! The same is true for real dancing. You do small steps, they are combined, and then you finish with the big steps. If they were all on the same level - high, high, high - you wouldn’t recognise when it would be high ! Thus you have to make the small steps in-between, and THEN you see the jump. It’s very logical that the small steps be there before you do the big steps, which makes the latter much more fluid. In Bournonville, it’s fluid from the beginning to the end. You don’t walk in between ! In his choreography, I feel you don’t get so tired, sometimes you feel you could dance for hours, following the rhythm of the music in a natural way.
Quite different is the Russian school, the typical Petipa variations, where you stop, walk to the back of the stage, pause again, and then jump. Bournonville didn’t want walking around in between ! He said, once you have begun to dance, dance until the music ends.
Q/ Can it be that in the Nineteenth Century people didn’t force so much on the turn-out, and also didn’t pull up the knee so much, so it was more fluid ?
A/ I think so. I also think they were not so concentrated on the technique, as such. They were thinking of the dancing !
Bournonville played violin himself, and sang. He was extremely musical and always said, that when he worked with a composer on a score for his choreography, the dance must follow the music exactly, and end with the music. The dance is lifted by the music, but you must follow the music. That is what makes Bournonville’s steps so alive - he goes off on the first count, so you count One, and One-Two. It looks so easy, as though everybody could get up on stage and dance it. And dance should look like everybody could join in, that it is a joy to dance.
Q/ Has Bournonville too much mime ?
A/ We took some of his ballets out of the repertoire, because there was a great deal of mime. Today people want to see more dancing, whereas, in the old days, they loved the ballet d’action as Vincenzo Galeotti brought it from Italy, with the forty-nine ballets he put up her in Copenhagen.
Bournonville followed him in that respect. In those days, people thought you can’t dance all the time, but you had to tell a story. Through the mime, you can tell a story. That is what I feel makes the dance interesting, and much more serious.
Of course, there can be too much mime, if those who do it, don’t understand what they are doing. But the people who know what they are doing, know how to mime.
In life, you don’t necessarily have to speak with words. You can just look at people, and see what they think ! And that is the same with the pantomime. Look at them, and enjoy what they are doing, instead of always expecting them to open their mouths and say something !
In the summer of 1993, I put up a pantomime in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, where I used the mime gestures I learned from the Bournonville ballets, along with steps. It was great fun to work the gestures out; like words in a play, the gestures must be easily understood by the audience. I felt it succeeded !
Q/ You have danced all the great Bournonville roles.
A/ It was La Sylphide, that changed me. It gave me so much, not only the dancing, but also the mime, because you could go so deep into the mime and the gestures. The pressure inside, to do a gesture, is the same for me as doing a good step. It must come from within and go outward. I was lucky, because the Danish television filmed my performances of James twice; they were shewn on the television against recently, and I felt that it had been right, that the audience could grasp what I thought and felt. It was a very great thing to dance James. Every time I dance it, it gave me so much.
Q/ In teaching, what is the most important ?
A/ Most important, is to make everyone dance ! And that means to use the body, the épaulement, because that is what makes the dance interesting. If it is just the normal class, it is not as exciting as when you do Bournonville, where you have to use the coup d’oeil, and look at the working foot, and use the épaulement, and place the head in the right direction. Once you have told the students those simple things, once they have done it and have thought about it, then they dance ! Even if they are just standing, they will think about how to stand, how to do all those simple things with épaulement.
Then, they can bring it to all other kinds of ballet styles. It gives a real feeling for the dance, if you use the body in the right way, with the épaulement and the head - no matter how hard it is to keep those arms down ! Instead of letting them fly up as in Russian school, you must keep those arms down, you must use the "look under", and you must do it in the Romantic style.
Then you have learned !
In the beginning, it can be very hard for many dancers, but once they know where to place the arms, they feel more free. For children, it is very helpful for them to form a clear idea of exactly where they are in the room. If you have the Bournonville style with the arm down, and the épaulement with the right direction of the head, you feel certain.
Q/ What has to be changed in the teaching of ballet now ?
A/ Let them see the class, how the children behave when they dance Bournonville. They have to see the happiness in the children’s minds !
I also think we have reached a point today in ballet training, where teachers have to consider seriously why we have all these injuries. Do they push the children too hard by too much turnout, too high lifted legs ? There must be a reason why we have all these stress fractures and later, bad hips. We have to look at the choreography too, and COMPLAIN BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE. Today dancers have to work hard with different dance-styles, and this can lead to problems in the muscles and ligaments.
Q And what about hyperextensions ?
A/ I don’t think those hyperextensions are good for anybody ! The very high lifted legs in Bournonville’s ballets look awful, and it is very hard to do the épaulement right. Normally, the girls have long skirts in his ballets, and if you lift the leg too high, the skirt will slide down. The leg should only be lifted to about ninety or one hundred degrees - it is also a question of aesthetics ! Today, dancers often forget the line when they lift the leg à la seconde or en arabesque.
Bournonville writes in his memoirs: "The dance can, with the aid of music, rise to the heights of poetry. Or, through an excess of gymnastics, it can also degenerate into buffoonery."