Dancers Trending

Nikolaj Hübbe on American Chutzpah and The Loneliness of Being a Director

Nikolaj Hübbe, photo via kglteater.dk

Nikolaj Hübbe has a confession: "I love dancers, I love dancers," he tells me. "I could eat them for breakfast. With the cornflakes, with milk on them."

It's a few hours before his dancers perform at Jacob's Pillow, and he has the barely-contained excitement of a Labrador Retriever about to go on a walk.


Although the Royal Danish Ballet artistic director speaks perfect English after spending 17 years as a principal with New York City Ballet, he gets so carried away talking about his company that his sentences sometimes turn into sound effects. "Bum bum bum bum bum," is how he describes how often he wants his dancers to take Bournonville classes. "We're gonna grrrrghhh get the men in there, too," he says of his plan to re-focus on the development of his male dancers.

Last week, Hübbe brought a handpicked group of principals, soloists and corps members to the Pillow, "a new generation of dancers that I can sort of say are 'my crop,'" he says. To no one's surprise, this crop shone particularly bright in the Bournonville selections on the program, with their sprightly jumps and delightfully personable performances.

I used the rare U.S. visit as an excuse to pick Hübbe's brain on his 10-year tenure as artistic director and get an idea of where he wants to see the company go next.

What American Dancers Bring To Danish Ballet

Out of the 11 dancers Hübbe brought to the Pillow, three were American: principals Amy Watson, J'Aime Crandall and Holly Jean Dorger. Back in Copenhagen, 18 current RDB dancers are from the U.S.

Hübbe feels Americans bring "energy, morale, ethics, and a bit of pizazz, which is suitable for our country, where everything is quite traditional," he says. "It's nice to have that American chutzpah."

What He's Learned in His 10 Years as Artistic Director

When asked to name the biggest lessons he's learned in his decade leading the company, Hübbe says, "Communicate and listen. And listen and communicate." Then he lets out a sheepish laugh.

"Also," he adds, "trust your dancers. Give them responsibility. They're grown-up people, they can handle it. Don't treat them like kids."

How Danish Company Culture is Different

Hübbe once told Roslyn Sulcas of The New York Times that he left RDB in 1992 because he felt the civil servant system there bred complacency. Today, although the same system is in place, Hübbe feels the company culture has changed.

"People are taken care of, but you also have to do your part," he says. "When I grew up, Denmark was very hippy dippy and extremely affluent, and it was, 'I want, I want, I want.' Today, it's, 'Yes, you want, but what are you gonna give then?' "

He believes that the Americans he's hired have contributed to a shift within RDB: "Americans have brought the idea that this is a vocation. And that has been a good combination for the company: there's personal ambition, but most of the time it's about the group before the 'me.' "

One Way The Company Is Pushing The Envelope: Hübberiet

Hübbe hosts evening-length programs that invite outsiders to perform for a show centered around a timely topic. Photo via kglteater.dk

Despite being a 250-year-old company so closely associated with the lovely but quaint Bournonville tradition, RDB isn't stuck in the past.

One of the most intriguing programs it's experimented with recently is Hübberiet: an evening centered around a timely topic—refugees, fear, men and women—where the company invites musicians, actors, or maybe a politician for their take on the topic, and, of course, weaves in relevant dance pieces, all hosted by Hübbe himself.

"It's like when you have a picture from Picasso's blue period, and a curator can put it into a different context where all of a sudden you see the work with a whole new kind of perception. How can we put another spotlight on this art form that will bring people to the theater and provoke something we didn't see before?"

Why He's Decided To Add Weekly Bournonville-Based Company Classes

The Royal Danish Ballet taking class onstage. Photo via Twitter

Although RDB's school has always given students solid training in the Bournonville technique, company members have only had Bounonville-based classes off and on in recent years. Hübbe recently decided that, starting next season, the company will have them once a week.

"I feel that I have to get back to more jumping, especially for the boys," he explains. He admits that he's focused mostly on raising the standard of the women over the past decade. "You almost take the Danish men for granted. But you have to cultivate them and keep pushing them, too." He also says that since he's hired so many foreign dancers, he wants to "reiterate this backbone" of the company.

But that doesn't mean the dancers will be taking a traditional Bournonville barre. "The barre, oyoyoy," he says. "It's 15 minutes long. Jeté comes before tendu, and in the middle there's grand battement." Hübbe explains that Bournonville's classes were assembled by his students, and he questions whether some of those students didn't take artistic license with the combinations. "Some of them are Bounonville, absolutely, but some of them, I don't know."

What He Misses About Being a Dancer

"Being one of the dancers, the clan, the tribe—that I can miss. Being a director is great, but a lot of things you do alone. You are removed. They have to rehearse and take care of their feet and their pirouettes and this and that and you help, but you know it's theirs. That thing of socially, just like, having a lunch and, you know, shooting the shit. And it's not family, it's a tribe. It's like dogs in a pack. School of fish. Whatever you call it. That thing. That I can miss. Because that's how you grew up, you know? Not like actors or singers; they grow up very much individual. We grow up in the studio, standing next to one another, bum bum bum bum bum. It gives you a sense of belonging. That camaraderie I can miss."

The Conversation
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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
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Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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