Royal Danish Ballet returns to Jacob’s Pillow

In the summer of 1954, in the middle of his international dance festival, Ted Shawn was staying up nights and sending long-distance cables. Just before the curtain of his next performance, a key dancer had dropped out, and Shawn found himself reaching out to a woman and a company with a bare toehold on this side of the Atlantic. That last-minute change led to a relationship that has lasted more than 60 years, influenced dance in Scandinavia and the U.S., and made Shawn a knight for the King of Denmark. This summer the Royal Danish Ballet will return to the Pillow to open the 2018 festival for the first time in 10 years, since Jacob’s Pillow alum Nikolaj Hübbe became its director.

Their performance grows out of a long and warm relationship on both sides, said Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow.

“One Danish critic called it a love affair,” he said.

It began on a mountaintop. Ted Shawn had formed his company of Men Dancers in the outbuildings of an old farm, and they were creating a new idea of what men’s dance could be, a muscular and multicultural exercise.

They laid a new floor in the barn for a studio and gave informal performances on the deck. By 1942, Jacob’s Pillow had evolved into a summer festival, with the first theater in the country designed for dance, and it had grown a following — people walked up the mountain, or rode horseback, to see ballet and modern dance, folk and classical dance from traditions around the world.

In 1954, on Aug. 11, in the third week of the Celtic Ballet of Scotland, Shawn learned that André Eglevsky, a principal dancer with George Balanchine (co-founder of the New York City Ballet), had to cancel his engagement.

Scrambling in the small hours, he found that Inge Sand, a leading soloist of the Royal Danish Ballet, was in New York for a few weeks. He moved forward a performance by Ram Gopal, a modernist dancer and one of the first to perform classical Indian dance in this country, and Sand came to the Pillow.

She performed a pas-de-deux with Vladimir Dokoudovsky (a founding member of the American Ballet Theatre) — and two solos choreographed by August Bournonville, who led the RDB company in the 1830s and influences it to this day.

It was the first time anyone in the U.S. has seen Bournonville’s choreography, Owen said — and the response was electric.

His work is lyrical, romantic, said Pillow director Pamela Tatge.

Owen finds Bournonville’s style distinctive even today. He had a turn for complicated leaps and footwork, and arms held down at the sides to call attention to the feet, instead of in the air to draw the eye to the upper body. Studied strictly, his method has a detailed structure. And a taste convinced Shawn that he and the U.S. needed to see more.

He invited soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet in his next summer’s program, in 1955, for three weeks, and the whole country took notice.

“Every dance writer in America came here,” Owen said. “It was covered by Time Magazine — all the national publications.”

Ten leading dancers performed ballets from choreographers this country had never seen … and opened a new era.

The full DRB company played the Metropolitan Opera House the following year, Owen said, and they have since toured the U.S. and played the Pillow so many times, and have become so familiar and respected that now it is hard to think back to a time when they were unknown here.

The king of Denmark made Shawn a Knight of Dannebrog for his services to the arts, and dancers come to the DRB company today from many different backgrounds. They have not all grown up steeped in the Danish tradition, Owen said.

But Hübbe has. The company’s artistic director was raised in the Royal Danish Ballet school, and he came to the Pillow school as a student in ballet in 1985. He was 17. Owen was running the school then, and two years before the school had begun offering scholarships to RDB dancers. Hübbe came for a five-week ballet program — advanced performers from top companies studied together and ended with a show in the Ted Shawn Theatre. Hübbe performed a world premiere piece choreographed by Benjamin Harkavy, who was then director of the program.

He holds the Pillow and his experience here in great affection, Tatge said, and he wanted his dancers to have a share in that experience.

“What I remember of him then is that he was a standout,” Owen said. “It was clear he was going to be a star. He had remarkable technique and remarkable personal style.”

Hübbe would join the Royal Danish Ballet and then become a principal at the New York City Ballet, and in 2007, when he was still in New York and was offered the directorship of the Royal Danish Ballet, he met members of the company at the Pillow, and in a way his new job took root on this mountain.

This summer marks the first time members of the RDB have come to the Pillow since then, and the first time its dancers under Hübbe’s leadership have performed here. As in 1955, this summer a group of soloists will come to the Pillow, performing pas de deux and classic pieces including Bournonville’s La Sylphide, Napoli and A Folk Tale.

Warm in his connection with the Pillow, Hübbe himself will come and speak about his work and his time here, and the Pillow is waiting eagerly to learn how the company and its work has grown in his hands.

“Nikolaj on Bournonville is the one we’re all waiting to see,” Tatge said.

Under Hübbe’s eye, the company not only performs in Copenhagen but tours all of Denmark to share their work and has created a lab for the development of new dance.

“All of these dancers are dancers Nikolaj has chosen,” Owen said, “so we’re looking forward to this, and we hope their next visit will come sooner.”


This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to Features Editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh. Photo: The Royal Danish Ballet, photo by Claus Vedfelt, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

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