The Royal Danish Ballet ushers in a new boy wonder.
Mon Jun 6 2011
Alban Lendorf is one of ballet's latest golden boys: Recently appointed principal dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet by the company's artistic director, Nikolaj Hbbe, he has leaped swiftly through the company's ranks. (In ballet terminology, he is also what is known as a jumper.) Now 21, Lendorf began dancing at 12; at the time, he was happy playing soccer when "out of the blue," as he puts it, his mother mentioned that she wanted him to try ballet. Even without training, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Ballet School, and a particular movie released then aided his decision to attend: "I saw Billy Elliot," he says in a telephone interview from Copenhagen, "and then I was like, Okay. That's it. I'm going." During the Royal Danish Ballet's season at the David H. Koch Theater beginning Tuesday 14, Lendorf will appear in Bournonville Variations and will dance the lead in Napoli Act III on June 18. It's the matinee—so plan accordingly.
Tell me about your audition for the Royal Danish Ballet School. Were they just looking at your body?
Yeah, they were looking at my body and at my feet. I was like, Why are they looking at my feet? They asked, "Where have you been training?" And I was like, "I haven't been training." [Laughs] Then they asked me if I wanted to take a course for four weeks, and I did that and that was really fun. After, they offered me a place in the school.
You had been playing soccer: were you pretty athletic?
I guess I was. And I always liked to be in the school gym class or whatever you call it. There was an element of competition that turned me on. I really liked to run the fastest and jump the longest—I always really liked using my body in the extreme.
Don't students also attend academic classes at the ballet school? Didn't you have to change your whole lifestyle?
Yeah. But it was fun. For a little boy, a lot of things were happening. I came from a class with 28 students and then I joined the ballet school and I came into this little room and there are seven girls and I was like, Okay. That's great. [Laughs]
Do you have any idea why your mother wanted you to take ballet class?
I don't know. Maybe she doesn't like soccer. I really don't know. None of my family members have been ballet dances or anything like that.
What was your first year like?
It was the best year: I discovered it all. After a month, I was like, Okay, this is what I am going to do. We went and saw company rehearsals and that was the best part. I could not wait to grow up and get better and then go onstage and dance like all the grown-ups. I always felt that I had a really exciting future and that drove me the whole way.
Why did Billy Elliot spark such a reaction?
It was a very good movie. But now that I'm a ballet dancer, every time you see a ballet movie like Black Swan, you're like, Ugh, that's not how it is. But when I was 12 years old deciding if I wanted to do that ballet thing and saw the movie, I was like, Wow. That really helped me actually. I haven't seen it for a long time, actually. Maybe I should do that. [Laughs]
When were you first on stage?
We did a lot of school performances, but the first time it felt real was when I was an apprentice at 16. I was reserved [for] the ballet tudes and someone got sick or injured, and I was suddenly thrown in. I was so nervous. It was a small part, but it was real dancing—I wasn't some extra guard in the back of Don Q. I really felt like, This is my job. I'm a professional dancer. So I was really happy, and then I came offstage and took my ballet shoes off, and I was bleeding—somehow I cut myself on my toe—and I was like, Oh my God, that's great! I'm bleeding and I'm a real ballet dancer!
What part did you dance?
I was just one of the corps guys.
But there is a ton of dancing in that ballet.
It's a ton of dancing and it's classical, clean ballet; it's not some waltz in the background, and that's what made the difference. Right now, I'm doing the lead in tudes. It's amazing. The steps just fit the music like a foot in a sock. I haven't seen much other of his work—Harald Lander—but I'm sure it's not as good as this. It really is a showstopper. It takes the house down if it's done really well.
Tell me more about your schooling. Who did you study with? Who was important and how did you progress?
I started with Evo Kloborg, who is Frank Anderson's wife; he was the director at that time. I was coming from nothing and all the other students knew all the basic things. But she was good with helping me with extra classes because I was a little behind. Then came Niels Balle, who is the director of school. I joined his class the year after, and he was really good at giving me a strong, basic technique, which is so important for Bournonville.
As a young student, how did you catch up to the others?
I don't know. You know, you feel really dumb when you're the worst guy in the class. I was like, I have to pull myself together and focus and try to catch up, and eventually I did. Maybe I got a little further! I don't know. [Laughs] I'm just really grateful that I found my mtier and that I'm being rewarded, because it's an art form, and it's a matter of taste. You can be a really good dancer, but sometimes people look at you and they don't like you. [Laughs] It's like being a model, just better.
How did you get into the company?
You go through the school and then when you're 16, you get a two-year contract as an apprenticeship and then after those two years you finally get accepted into the corps de ballet. You have your last exam and then you wait a couple of hours biting your nails and then you go into the meeting. When I went to the exam, it was right when Nikolaj Hbbe came and became director, and I'd heard about him and maybe met him once and saw him dance a lot of times. I was really nervous. He shook my hand and said, "Welcome to the company." I was like, I passed! He was very nice. Nikolaj is a very good director in the way that he inspires people; he's like the artist you can be, in the purest way.
What else did you perform when you were an apprentice?
Not much. Corps work. I was pretty much reserved for everything. If somebody got sick, I got thrown in. It was like that, and then Nikolaj came and accepted me into the company and gave me some chances in a few ballets, and I did well, and I didn't get injured, and he gave me more parts—and then suddenly I was doing small solo stuff. Things went really fast. There are a lot of classical ballets that are in our rep where I sort of skipped all the corps parts. It's been going really fast, but I guess he trusted that I could do my job.
Your first big roles were in two Balanchine ballets: the third movement of Symphony in C and La Sonnambula.
Yes. I did the Harlequin [in La Sonnambula], which is the most fun. It was my first part, and you dance for a couple of minutes and you get out, and nobody expects you to be anything. The ballet has been going on and suddenly you come in and surprise people with split jumps. Symphony in C is much harder; you dance longer and you have a partner, so you have to have some partnering skills. It's not just me doing funny stuff onstage, you know? The attention you get in Sonnambula, you get much more credit for. Symphony in C is harder work, but it's the best experience I've ever had.
You like to jump?
I do. [Laughs]
When did you realize you had a jump?
I was in school and I did a jump and a teacher said, "What the hell? Can you do that again?" I thought, Oh my God, I've done something wrong. I thought she wanted to make an example of me: "Look how he does it, it's wrong—never do that!" So I did it again and she asked me to do it again. She said, "Wow. You have a really good jump." It was a big question mark, and then I realized it was a good thing. I was 13 or 14. Symphony in C is a great ballet, and the third movement is all about jumps; by the end you're like, maybe I should have reserved some energy, because if I do another jump, I'm going to break my shin. But it's a lot of joy. I was so young and Merrill Ashley came to set it. It was really exciting. It was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like, Wow. Oh my God. That's sort of it's dorky but...
Did you like working with Merrill Ashley?
Yeah. I love her. She was just so specific and she was not mean; she told you what she needed to see. No bullshit, if I may. That was really nice. And with Sonnambula, it was [staged by] Dick Tanner, and he's really funny and he's a great character. It as really amazing to have all these people—the big Americans—come over here to our little country and do all this. You felt so part of a big thing.
You're dancing Gennaro in Napoli, but what was your first experience in that Bournonville ballet?
I was a little fisher boy in Napoli. That's the great thing about Bournonville's ballets—you have been in them since you were a little kid. The ballet is really deep in me because it was one of the first I'd ever seen. So you have a relationship with it that's really great, and doing Gennaro is just fun: You come onstage with a cigarette in your mouth.
What are the challenges?
The challenge is to make it real. It's not just a pretty little ballet. There's a story in it, and you want people to be on the same team as Gennaro. It's like in a movie, in that you want people to cheer for the hero; it's really important to make the love between [Gennaro and Teresina] look real, because otherwise it's just a pretty ballet with stupid characters. That's a big challenge: making people believe in the story.
What does Bournonville mean to you?
It represents very strong feet and technique and beats. People are like, "Technique is doing ten pirouettes." That's not it. Technique is landing nicely in fifth and always being turned out, and Bournonville is all about that. Because sometimes you do a whole solo and your arms are [curving] down. Of course, you can use your upper body, but if the feet aren't pretty then it's hard to make a pretty face.
You've progressed so quickly. You were promoted to soloist in 2010 and in April to principal. Is that unusual? Stuff like that happens here, but is it unusual for Denmark?
Yes. It is unusual. But it does happen. [Laughs] Apparently. I guess it's rare, but I can only be happy about it. I wasn't expecting it actually. You know, some of my family members were still congratulating me on being promoted to soloist a week before I got promoted to principal. It was amazing.
How did it happen?
It was after the premiere of tudes. That night I was in a piece of Johan Kobborg's called Les Lutins. I did that and then tudes, and I was promoted after the curtain calls, onstage and in front of the audience. It was probably the best moment I've had in my career. Nobody knew; they make a big deal out of keeping it a secret. [Nikolaj came onstage] and I was like, Is he going to promote anybody? I was sort of looking to the side, and I saw that all of the soloists in the ballet were principal dancers. I thought, Maybe it's me?
You've played princes—in Swan Lake as well as in Christopher Wheeldon's production of The Sleeping Beauty. Do you identify with those characters?
It's kind of hard to be the prince because you're sort of...again, people have to identify with you and like you, and in Swan Lake, you walk around, you smile a bit, you don't say much—it's not a very strong character, but it still has to be strong in a princely way. Like, the first time I tried it I was like, Oh my God, this prince is a wuss. He's like, No, I don't want any girls. And then he finds a bird and he wants to marry that? He's sort of a weird character. But when we got through it and I did the premiere, it was the most amazing time I've ever had. Swan Lake is the ballet of the ballets. I don't like diaries or anything, but after that premiere, I went home and wrote a little page in a book, because I was like, Okay—now I did the Prince in Swan Lake. The dream has come true.
What about The Sleeping Beauty?
It was great because when someone comes and makes a new version, you're a big part of it. And Chris Wheeldon is a very good choreographer. It's very easy for the eye; it's nice to look at, and he makes the dancers dance the steps in a way that really fits the music. He doesn't like to say things twice, and as a dancer [it's important] to develop your technique and your working ethic.
What else do you have to look forward to?
I am really looking forward to doing Apollo next season. So many great dancers have done it. It's the shoes you step into, sort of—the feeling of, If you do that, then you made it. I've seen Nikolaj doing it and he was just amazing.
How do you continue to challenge yourself?
Well, it's not that difficult. The great thing about ballet is you can always get better and you are never the best. There is always someone in the world that can do something new. There are billions of roles that I haven't done yet, so it's not like I'm not motivated or, "Now I'm principal: what now?" Not at all.
You're getting a lot of attention. What keeps you in Denmark? Will you remain there?
I don't know yet. Now it's very cool because we have the strong stories like La Sylphide and Napoli and the classical repertoire—Swan Lake and Giselle and all that—and also all the Balanchine. Our vocabulary is really big, and I really like that. I've been guesting at a few places and right after the tour, I'm going to London to do Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet with Ivan Vasiliev and Natalia Osipova. I don't know if I'm going to stay or not. Right now I am. I need to get some more experience.
Does Copenhagen feel small to you?
Yeah. It does, especially when you come home from somewhere else like New York or another big city and you think, Wow, this is great, but where are all the people? And you do a performance and you're like, Where can I get something to eat? There's nowhere. So I have been in New York. I was there for four weeks training two years ago, and it's not a lot, but after four weeks, you sort of get used to the way. You sort of get the image of living there.
What kind of dancer do you want to become?
YouTube always inspires me. I watch Baryshnikov and Fernando Bujones and many different dancers. I don't know who I want to become and look like—of course, I want to be myself—but I really get inspired by a lot of other male dancers. Julio Bocca has strong technique and still manages to have charisma. Stage character is very important to me. Baryshnikov was really good, but he also had very strong stage power, and that made half of it.
Do you talk to Nikolaj about stuff like that?
All the time. And he has so much of it—I could slice him in half and I would have enough. We talk a lot. Every time he coaches, it's all about that. It comes naturally to him and his energy when he's coaching is like a contagious disease. I get energy from him.
How has he helped you in terms of Napoli?
He helped me to try to understand the character. You are in love with this woman, Teresina, but her mother doesn't think that you're good enough for her, and you probably aren't, because you're just a fisher boy. He's in love with a girl, but in the wrong moment, he can flirt with one of the hookers in the streets of Italy in the '50s. He is a boy. It's understanding all of these small stories within the ballet that the audience doesn't know, but if you understand them, they help you with the character. Like, the guy on the corner is blind because he had an argument with the guy on the other corner ten years ago. Nikolaj is really good at giving [that information].
How important is it to take risks?
Like giving it all onstage? It's very important. I've almost fallen a few times because I take the risk. I think the audience likes it when you go for it. It's not a nice feeling if you come home one night and you've done a big, three-act performance and you're like, Why didn't I just squeeze my butt cheeks and give that a little extra? It's nicer to be on the edge.
How do you take care of yourself?
I try to eat really healthy. I try to eat breakfast, but it doesn't always happen—it's really good to get the system going in the morning. Otherwise, I get massages and I ice whenever I can, but also I mentally talk care of myself in the way that I get away from the theater and I take a walk and I have friends outside the theater. It's not always ballet, ballet, ballet. If you're in great shape and you're strong, that's really good, but it doesn't matter if mentally you're not with it—if you work too much and get into a little box. It's important to have a life.
is at the David H. Koch Theater Tue 14—June 19.