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Interview with Lis Jeppesen
(Professor, Royal Theatre, Copenhagen)
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"The subject of Bournonville is Beauty and Love"
Solo dancer, now Character Dancer and professor
at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen
Copenhagen, March 17th 1988
Q/ You are known as a muse of Bournonville...
A/ Bournonville is about beauty and love. If you love your work, if you know what love of the work is, love of the music, love of what you have to tell the audience, that is it.
I would tell people, that they should look at Bournonville like a beautiful painting, where the love is coming in focus. Bournonville said, that he doesn’t like anything that shews technique. He likes that it shews beauty and love. When you see it, it is a very large picture, and that is a good thing to look at. It is good, it is something you live through, you keep it. It is an experience, where there is only beauty and love. That gives you something to go home with, and maybe you can remember it for many years. It will come to mind again and again and again, like when you love a person.
Q/ Who were the major influences on you ?
A/ I think it was Henning Kronstam, the way he danced, the way he teaches, and then Hans Brenaa, as he has been setting out all the Bournonville repertoire.
Hans Brenaa, because he has such a good view – he can look at a performance, and see what’s wrong, he can look at you, and see what’s wrong, because I am changing, and he’s changing, and what was good last year, is not good this year. And then he can change it, so it’s good this year. And it will not go out, so it doesn’t tell the real story, it will tell the story right. And it will have the same result as it has to, as it was, when Hans Brenaa was a young boy, and saw all the Bournonville performances. Of course, he has to change it, so it is good for the audience today – he can do something, with the performances, so that it still lives for the people today. He can make it live. He is one of the very few people, who can change something, and it will still be right, because Bournonville is inside him, it is part of him.
Q/ What has your career been like ?
A/ There have been ups and downs. There are some periods of your youth, where you want to do something else. I remember, I was very fond of hippies, flower power, and I wanted to be a beat singer, really, that was it! But my teachers here in the Royal Theatre were quite hard.... and so was Vera Volkova (....) they said: you want to dance ? Then you have to do that. And then, I did that. It has been very exciting, very hard also. There have been a lot of ups and downs. You have the whole repertoire in your own life. If I should die now, I wouldn’t say that I had missed anything.
Q/ Some say Bournonville is only a style. Is it not rather, a different technique ?
A/ I also think that it is a different technique. But in the Royal Theatre, we dance French things, and Russian things, and it’s very hard. Sometimes we have eight styles in one day to rehearse, and it can make you very split up. I think the Bournonville technique is much different from the Russian or American. When you are doing the Bournonville technique, you have very hard legs, you have to be very strong to jump. And the women jump as much as the men ! When Peter Schaufuss was here, he said that all of the women’s solos could as well be done by the men. Also, the Bournonville style for the women, is a little more sweet, more gentle, than in the Russian technique.
Bournonville doesn’t want anything to shew technique, as I said before. And it’s very hard technically. But it’s so small, and doesn’t shew, but technique has to be there, because otherwise, you would see that it’s not there.
Then the style for the Russians: the Russian arms fling out all the time, shewing: Here I am, and here I am !” like a circus, and then you have to applaud, applaud, applaud. Whereas Bournonville is continuing a story all through. And sometimes, there is no applause, even if you’ve done a big solo, everything very nice, it’ll just take over into another dance. Sometimes you think: “Such a lot of work !” and then you don’t have any applause ! It’s quite funny ! But in fact, it’s nicer, because it is the whole piece, it’s very social.
I think it’s very hard to dance the two styles, or the eight styles ! It is crushing our bodies. We had so many accidents just last year. It’s awful. Because when you are working and working on, say, the Russian style, for Don Quixote, then you have Bournonville’s Napoli. Here in the Royal Theatre, we all know Napoli, so we don’t have any rehearsals on that. And then you just have one week, and then you go down, and it’s so hard, in another way, and you break down, sometimes even on stage, because you are not built up to that. And also I think, that all these Russian jumps and very high extensions, it’s more acrobatic. I don’t think we need all that, or other things. I think that when art is really simple, it’s really good.
You don’t have to add all those things. It’s more real. It’s much stronger. That’s something I have been learning from Hans Brenaa, and it works every time. I really feel it on the stage. If you add a lot of things, it’s because you’re not sure, if it’s good enough. If it’s there, clear and clean, it’s good enough. And you will feel it all the time, like in a painting.
Q/ You use your eyes, your hands, a good deal more than most dancers
A/ When I do something, I try to think, what my teacher wants, or what the choreographer wanted from this work, this character. For example, in La Sylphide, of course she has eyes, and she has to use her eyes, like Mona Lisa, where you don’t know what is what – well, she is smiling, but she is sorry, in her eyes. What is it ? It’s mystery. So James is going with her out to the wood, because he wants to see what is that. And that’s also, jumping ahead, in art, when you can shew something in your dance, and in your art, there is mystery. And something that you have to go back to, because there was something that you didn’t really get an answer. Or maybe, it was so much an answer, that you have to see it again. When you love someone, you have to hear, all the time, that he will say ‘Oh, I love you, I love you’, you cannot get enough of it. So that’s the same thing. So you have to use your eyes, and also the hands. It is telling the whole story.
And it’s not the steps, which are telling anything. You just have to do them, because it’s ballet. But in fact, you could stand still, and tell the whole story. Because that’s the point. I think that when you are dancing a role, you have to forget about the steps, you have to make the audience forget about the steps, because it’s not that, where there is the point. The point is, to tell the story. To tell them something completely different, than steps, or technique.
Q/ How do you compare Jules Perrot to Bournonville ?
A/ Giselle and Coppelia are the pieces which are closest to Bournonville. Giselle – I can only say, it is beautiful, it has good pieces for the corps de ballet too, and I think that it is much better than La Fille mal Gardée. There is so much psychological truth in it. There is very good dancing for the men also.
Also, there’s more technique in Giselle, she has to do a lot of things that are harder to do than in Bournonville. But you still have the role to hold on to, so you can forget about technique. When she is a spirit, when she is a ghost, I also tried to do it with this loving soul, still loving Albrecht, still asking Myrtha not to let him die. And still not sleeping. So you know that it is Giselle, it is Giselle still.
Q/ What do you think about international competitions ?
A/ I think it is awful. It has no way home for ballet, for art. It is like taking Mozart and Beethoven, and saying ‘Well how many points do you want to give them ?’ Because you can’t discuss art. I mean, sometimes you are jealous, if you don’t get a role, or if you have the same role as another dancer, and she does it a little better, you think. But it’s not that point, because some of the audience like the other dancer, and some prefer you, because you have something, and the other dancer has something. You can’t change your own personality. And therfeore, you can’t take a person in a competition, you can’t discuss your taste. You can’t say, ‘my taste is better than your taste’. There’s no point. I don’t like it. I am very much against it.
Q/ You are the only great Danish dancer in your age group, who has stayed in Denmark. Why did you not leave ?
A/ People have been asking me many times, and I was almost taking off. But my ambition is not to be a good dancer. It’s really awful to say that eh ! And my ambition is not to have a big career as a dancer. My ambition has always been to have a good life, and to find my love. And that’s very hard, and that is a very high ambition, I think. Well, I’ve been very lucky. I have found my love, and I have had a baby, and I hope it will keep on. But if I had been taken with Peter Schaufuss, for example, to London, and danced, or maybe America, I think I would have been prostituting myself, my feelings, and, in the last end, my feeling for the dance. For if I am an unhappy person, I can’t be a happy dancer. If it’s something you do becauase you are not happy, then of course comes something bad out of it. I don’t believe that you have to suffer all day to be a good artist. I think that you have to be happy. You have to have something calm in yourself, in your soul, so you can shew the audience, that you are a whole person.
And I think that is the most important. And for your whole life, it’s not important that you’re unhappy, and to get a big career, and everybody says, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful’, and then you have nothing to come home to, nothing to go back to, you have no background. You have only your barre, and your steps, and your performances. And one day, it’s over. And what then ?
Sometimes, it can be very boring to stay here, in Denmark. But if you have some role, when you are eighteen, and then there are five years, where there is nothing going on, no roles, nothing to develop you, you start thinking: ‘What am I doing here ? Should I get another job ?’ It has been a problem. Also because here at the Royal Theatre, we have three arts to one stage, opera, theatre, ballet. And there’s no money. And there’s a lot of problems. That’s also politics I think. They’d rather use the money to blow up airplanes, to play all this war, like small boys. They use so much money for terrorism. One bomb costs as much as putting on several ballets for the whole season. Now that I have a baby, I wonder even more, how people can kill like that ?
Q/ There’s a real cult of mediocrity in Denmark. How did you break out of being hyggelig (cosy) ?
A/ I don’t think I ever have been hyggelig. If I’m nice, it’s just natural (laughs). But on the stage, I’m quite brave. When I’m doing a role, it is the role that’s most importnat. I remembr, for example, once in Coppelia, there was a conductor who had only shewed up twice. It was the rehearsal before the dress rehearsal. And the time before the dress rehearsal, he had to go to a meeting, and he ran away. So we couldn’t discuss the tempi. It was spoiling all our solos. In the dress rehearsal, he was doing something: my last solo, and he began before I came onto the stage. And then I said: STOP! And I didn’t dance. And I said, STOP STOP STOP. In the dress rehearsal, you’re not allowed to do this, because there is audience watching. And Hans Brenaa and Henning Kronstam went up, and they were shaking, and he stopped all right. I said: ‘It was too fast, and you must not start before I come in. You have to do it over again’. Then the whole audience applauded me. It was really terrible ! Then we started again, and it went very well. But then I had to give the orchestra some wine ! So many things in that direction, I’ve been doing, stopping, and shouting ! When you are on stage, you are a little out of yourself. Then it’s the performance and the role that’s the most important. Then you forget about yourself – I forget about myself. And then you get so impulsive. You really just say what you mean. And that’s not nice, that’s not hyggelig. And that’s the same for Hans Brenaa, he is also, he can be, very rough.
Q/ What do you think about the future for the ballet ?
A/ If you use money for art, all over the world, for real art, and not for war, or for commercials. If we use a lot more money for art, we will have much more possibilities to again have art, because there has to be money in that. We have not enough money. We have so little repertoire here now – really it is nothing to write about. We don’t have so many, many ballets that we should have – for example, in the sixties, we had thirty different ballets, and we have five or at most ten now. It’s really nothing compared to that time. But there was more money then. And a lot more from the politicians’ side then, put to art, they had much more consideration for art. They cared more about it.
Q/ What do you think about high tuning, high concert pitch in music ?
A/ I think we have the same problem in ballet. When I see the rows of Russian girls with their very high extensions up to the ear, I think that is the same idea as high tuning.
Q/ Are you an admirer of Georges Balanchine ?
A/ I don’t like that the girls have to be so thin. I think it’s especially boring (laughs). Some of it is quite nice, some of his very first works. I much prefer Jerome Robbins, if I had to choose.