A Dancer's Director
Johan Kobborg has transformed the National Ballet of Romania.
Kobborg rehearses with Alina Cojocaru at American Ballet Theatre’s studios for a gala in New York City. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
Johan Kobborg was in Bucharest staging La Sylphide for the National Ballet of Romania in 2013 when, out of the blue, he received a job offer: to become its artistic director. He wasn’t looking. “After I left The Royal Ballet, I was thinking, for the first time in my life, to not be part of a big institution,” he recalls during a recent visit to New York. “Now I use the words: ‘live my life.’ ” That meant anything—dancing, staging, choreographing. He adds, “I wasn’t afraid of suddenly being without anything.”
But those four weeks in Romania had gone so well that he happily accepted. Kobborg, 43 and engaged to Alina Cojocaru—the luminous Romanian ballerina who left The Royal for English National Ballet and is a guest artist with Kobborg’s company—is two years into a four-year contract. So far, he’s transformed the company, not only improving working conditions but adding new repertoire by choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, Sir Frederick Ashton, Jirí Kylián and Yuri Possokhov. In April, the troupe performs Manon; in June, it unveils William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated, George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and Jerome Robbins’ In the Night. Kobborg knew it wouldn’t be easy: “But,” he says with a smile, “I’ve enjoyed every single moment.”
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
So what hasn’t been easy?
I was, in many ways, entering a place that was stuck in the past. There were not many outside influences or different ways of looking at things. They were used to the same class every day, by the same teacher. The productions were really looking like they were from the ’40s and ’50s. I didn’t feel there had been any kind of, Let’s try making something better.
What did you do?
I entered with a management group that did not believe that just because things used to be done like this, that this was how we should do it. So there was a different energy and approach: How do we sell ballets? How do we get people involved? How do we raise money? The people in charge don’t want it the old way.
Also, I don’t have to work with a board of directors. I don’t have to ask anybody else’s opinion. I’ve entered this room where I don’t need to polish what’s already made. I almost consider it a blank canvas. It’s an extreme freedom. The only limits I have are financial.
What are the challenges of limited resources?
A gala to raise awareness of the company this winter included both Romanian dancers and stars from around the world, such as Daniel Ulbricht, at left. Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
It is a huge issue. Just a few months after I took over, the building went into refurbishment. It’s still being refurbished. Things take time. [Laughs] For the first almost-half year, the entire company would be changing in one room with a piece of cloth separating girls and boys. There were no studios; there was one room that had no sprung floor. And really, honestly, you don’t make much money in Romania from being a dancer. People would be shocked. Shocked. I can’t offer dancers much; what I can offer them is good rep. I still think like a dancer, and I know what worked in my career: It was to get opportunities. This is not a place where you have to sit and hold a spear for years and years. I don’t believe in waiting until you’re certain someone’s ready. Then it’s too late.
Did you have sprung floors installed?
Yes. When I was staging La Sylphide, I was taking class daily, and I couldn’t dance on those floors. It wasn’t just not strong, there were big holes. Now we have Harlequin floors in all the studios. We have a masseuse now. What we don’t have is a physio department. Alina has donated what I would call the beginning of a gym. Some weights. At first, we didn’t even have an ice machine. We had nothing. But then again, sometimes if you have everything, then you don’t appreciate it.
Did you think about how you didn’t want to treat dancers?
Yeah. [Smiles] And this is where it’s tricky. Sometimes it’s not possible to make things happen the way you would really like them to no matter how hard you try. I think I knew more about how I would not want to do things. The ballet department consists of me and two people; it doesn’t matter if it’s handing out pointe shoes, locking doors at night or making weekly schedules. So communication is very important. My door’s always open. I’ve seen too many people who have been stuck in a place and slowly the passion in them dies. Day by day by day. I’m really trying to make that not happen the best I can. I’m not your usual director, I can tell you that.
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
I don’t look like a typical director. I don’t necessarily speak with people as one. I believe respect is not some attitude you put on and then get. It comes from honesty, openness. I don’t like to play games. I don’t hold a grudge. It’s very important for me to hear what people think. Then, I’ll go, “Am I doing something wrong?” And this is happening in a place where there was no communication. It was run on fear and intimidation. So I’ve lost a few people who can’t function without power. When I’m in charge, I can’t have people being intimidated.
What are your future plans for the company?
I’m in talks with people coming and creating on us. We have to have classics and newer pieces and not go into one extreme. What I would really like is that, when or if one day I am no longer in Romania, the place doesn’t go back to what it was. I’m not saying my way is the right way. But I hope that I will manage to leave a structure behind. I also hope that whoever comes after me would realize that you should not let people say, “It is not possible because this is Romania.” It might not be the easy way, but anything is possible. What’s important is that you can make a difference. I’m certain that if I’m asked to stay longer in Romania, I would. I love the city.
Photo by Taylor-Ferné Morris
It’s a little bit like Cuba. You walk around and go, Wow, with a bit of paint—and sometimes more than paint, unfortunately—this city could be one of the most beautiful cities. The architecture is stunning.
Where do you live?
I’m renting a flat in central Bucharest. I’ve got a cockerel outside my window. I’m bang in the middle of quite a big city, and there’s a cockerel outside my window. It is fantastic.
Gia Kourlas writes on dance for The New York Times and other publications.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.
In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.
I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.
—Terry, Philadelphia, PA