For several generations Denmark has provided the international ballet stage with male soloists. At the moment, Nikolaj Hübbe at New York City Ballet and Johan Kobborg at the Royal Ballet in London show that the tradition is being continued. The Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen is, albeit in different ways, the starting point for both stars. Hübbe is a son of the company, trained from early childhood at the ballet school that has existed since 1771. The Frenchman Pierre Laurent organised the first teaching in the Court theatre at Christiansborg Castle (now the Theatre Museum), which housed the ballet school well into the 19th century. Johan Kobborg is the first of our eminent male dancers not to have followed the traditional route from infant school to stage. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet as a 15-year-old, having received his early training at a local ballet school in Odense. He was a pupil at the school for one year before becoming an aspirant and developing with such conviction that it was not even apparent in the Bournonville roles that he had not grown up with the style.
It was also a dancer of international calibre who established the tradition for male dance in Denmark. August Bournonville came home to Denmark as ballet master and soloist in 1830, at the height of his active dance career, which began at the same time as the Golden Age of classical ballet - Marie Taglioni's first appearance on the stage of the Paris Opéra, July 23 1827. In the spring of that year Bournonville had, among other roles, danced to Rossiniís music in the first production of Gardel's Mosé. It says a lot about his standard, that on several occasions he partnered the very same Taglioni. Not only could Bournonville had stayed on in Paris, he was also in a position to have embarked upon an international career when, in 1829, he took a definitive decision and returned to the ballet in Copenhagen. He became its great reformer, and after his return home he danced almost exclusively his own choreography. Male dance was created with reference to his own technical accomplishments - while he was still a soloist - and while male dance other places in the world, especially in Paris, was superseded by the ever more soaring ballerinas, equality between the sexes was preserved on the ballet stage in Copenhagen, both in training and performance. Demanding parts for men were still created here and Bournonville's ballets continued to present a huge challenge both technically and dramatically.
On the last evening he ever spent at the theatre, November 28 1879, 74-year-old Bournonville witnessed a remarkable debut. By sheer coincidence, young Hans Beck danced the final number of the evening, Bournonville's Polka Militaire - which the master himself had danced for his own father, Antoine Bournonville, when he visited him just before he closed his eyes for the last time in 1843. Beck not only represented a continuation of the male line in dance, he was also the man who, as ballet master from 1894 to1915, organised the Bournonville training in the famous schools named after the days of the week.
Even though the Royal Danish Ballet experienced both stagnation and periods of decline after the Hans Beck era, Bournonville's legacy was the guarantee that the technical level was more or less maintained. Not many new challenges came along - the most influential being the visits of Fokine in the mid-1920s and Balanchine in 1930. It was Fokine who charted the course which led Børge Ralov to become the first modern male dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet. He had his breakthrough when Balanchine cast him as Miller in Massine's Le Tricorne (The Three-Cornered Hat) and Joseph in The Legend of Joseph. Børge Ralov built upon his wonderful technical virtuosity under Harald Lander's leadership (1932-1951) - impressive in Nijinsky's role in Le Spectre de la Rose and as a distinctive Petrouchka.
Erik Bruhn was the first of a new generation of dancers to conquer the world when he became affiliated to American Ballet Theater in 1949. As the noble Prince of Denmark, he soon ranked internationally with the American Edward Villella and the Soviet Vladimir Vasiliev. It was at this time that the most distinguished teacher of the modern era came to Copenhagen - Vera Volkova. Her background was in the Vaganova school, but she gradually realised that a combination of the Russian school and the Bournonville school could develop the sublime in both male and female dancers. Erik Bruhn always returned to Vera Volkova's schools. She was also of enormous importance to the finest dancer alongside Erik Bruhn: Henning Kronstam. While Bruhn thrilled the stages of the world with his brilliant style and elegance, Kronstam ruled over his home stage with supreme technique and a sensitivity and dramatic vigour which developed in psychological perspective. Both Bruhn and Kronstam were still in the making when the international critics, at the beginning of the 1950s, discovered and were enraptured by Danish ballet - which by this time had added a contemporary international piece to its classical repertoire: Harald Lander's Etudes.
Extensive tours in the USA - including Frederick Ashtonís first production in the West of the full-length ballet Romeo and Juliet, to Prokofiev's score - added respect to the Royal Danish Balletís reputation. At home the repertoire was augmented by visiting choreographers - the most eminent names of the time: Balanchine, Robbins, Lichine, Petit, Cullberg and MacMillan - who, alongside the Bournonville repertoire, presented rich scope for original demi-caractère dancers such as Fredbjørn Bjørnsson and Niels Kehlet. Even though there were outstanding ballerinas, it was the men who aroused the world's greatest interest, because there was no one like them elsewhere - for example, the volatile Flemming Flindt with supreme presence and a contemporary approach which made him fascinating for both Paris and London. With Erik Bruhn as their model, eminent dancers developed. Peter Martins was the first in a series of Danish male dancers to win status in New York City Ballet, of which he is today artistic director. Peter Schaufuss, Adam Lüders and Ib Andersen followed, and on stage in Copenhagen dancers such as Flemming Ryberg, Palle Jacobsen, Johnny Eliasen and Frank Andersen held the fort. Arne Villumsen was the outstanding dancer who, like Henning Kronstam, could have chosen the international stages, but preferred to stay at home. Alexander Kølpin had a short career, while his contemporary Peter Bo Bendixen, with his striking stage presence, is today flourishing as a character dancer. Proof that the tradition lives on is found in the ongoing careers of Nikolaj Hübbe and Johan Kobborg and with dancers such as Mads Blangstrup, Kenneth Greve and especially Thomas Lund who, in their individuality, confirm the versatility which contributes to the tradition of male dance in the Royal Danish Ballet as the strongest in the world in the way it has developed since August Bournonville's father enthusiastically motivated his son to embark on La Carrière plus glorieuse du Monde.
This article was written in august 2001