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By Johan Kobborg
Elegance, precision, and emotional nuance have been signatures of Johan Kobborg’s dancing since he began performing, first with the Royal Danish Ballet, and then with The Royal Ballet. He has long excelled in classical danseur noble roles, like Albrecht in Giselle, but is a sensitive interpreter of contemporary work, like Tim Rushton’s new version of Afternoon of a Faun, as well. Born in Copenhagen, Kobborg trained in the Bournonville style at the Funen Ballet Academy and was admitted to the Royal Danish Ballet School at 16. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet in 1989, going on to win a host of awards in international competitions and becoming a principal in 1994. He migrated to The Royal Ballet in 1999, performing in a wide range of leading roles. He has staged a highly praised production of Bournonville’s La Sylphide at several major companies, including the Royal and the Bolshoi. And last spring, invited by ABT star Ethan Stiefel to choreograph for students at University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he created Salute, a Bournonville-inspired work. Along with the celebrated ballerina Alina Cojocaru, his partner both on- and offstage, he has appeared as a guest artist throughout Europe, the U.S., Russia, and Asia.
I love life, and ballet has been such a huge part of my life that I can’t separate the two. I don’t think that I’m what some would call a ballet nerd, but most things that I have come to know, I have learned through my journey in dance. Ballet has made me who I am.
I took my first ballet lesson at the age of 7 but only started focussing on it fully at 16. Before that I had spent my time singing, playing instruments, and acting in plays, musicals, and on television. Working towards perfecting the body appealed to me. And being the most talented of the very few boys attending the school was a huge boost. The excitement I got from being the only boy who could do three clean turns and a double tour (different times now!) and the thrill of performing live became the driving force for me. In an urgent need for more focus I realized I had to lose some of my other interests. Ballet was the perfect match. It had everything—music, stories, acting, and of course dancing. The three turns soon became six, then eight and so on.
I fell in love with the daily exercises and the almost military mentality with which one has to approach ballet. It is hard, yes, but it’s all aimed at gaining the strength and control we need to let loose, to let the body move freely and fly through space. Bringing the emotions and stories to life through our movements, letting it all be real and spontaneous, that’s when magic happens, when ballet lives and art is created.
Back when I was starting out, seeing how far I could push my body, setting goals to challenge myself, gave me a rush of pure enjoyment. It was fun when someone at school had a new video and weekends were spent deciding what “new” step to conquer next. There was no YouTube back then, and the tricks were pretty basic. Peter Schaufuss, a great teacher, once told me that class is like putting money in the bank, and so I did—lots of it!
What I love most now, at 38, is developing my artistic and emotional side, becoming someone else, creating characters based on my own experiences or imagination. As I get older, my interpretations change. Dancing with partners who change too keeps me exploring, searching, and developing. Stepping onto the stage, feeling the buzz from the audience, the exciting hours before the show, are all part of why I keep dancing, as well as the adrenaline rush that takes over your body when the curtain goes up (even to a small extent the aches and pains you get when you know you have worked really hard and given it your all!).
I feel so lucky that while still dancing, I’m also able to stage productions, create new ballets, and work with the dancers of the future at The Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Zurich Ballet, in Japan and Eastern Europe, as well as recently in North Carolina. What they give me always stays with me, and I hope that some of what I give them will have a life beyond the performance we worked on. Not a month goes by without me travelling somewhere to dance, see dance and dancers, be inspired, inspire, and most of all, live my life to the fullest.
I guess one day I am going to wake up to the real world, but for now I am living a dream.
Kobborg as Des Grieux in Manon. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy The Royal Ballet.