Last month we were lucky to catch The Royal Danish Ballet’s new production of A Folk Tale, one of Bournonville’s masterpieces.
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On that occasion, we were particularly taken with soloist Kizzy Matiakis’s performance as Miss Birthe. We thought Kizzy stole the show with her comic timing and strong characterisation of “a volatile maiden who struggles to keep her wild troll nature buried in order to keep her place in the civilized society”.
As the RDB now prepares for its US tour which kicks off 24 May and includes performances of A Folk Tale (in Washington DC, 7-9 June), North American audiences will have the opportunity to see the temperamental anti-heroine Miss Birthe in action. Ahead of the tour, we asked Kizzy to talk about this character and the process of reconstructing and updating a ballet like “A Folk Tale”. Kizzy also shared with us some insights and deep reflections on her past, present and dream projects:
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On playing Miss Birthe in A Folk Tale
I see Birthe as a young woman who is deeply tormented, trying desperately to find her calling. Nothing in her world feels quite right. Even the simple actions of dressing, or a mundane conversation irritate her. She is simply not comfortable in her own skin. I like to think of her as a child who wasn’t cuddled enough growing up! She can’t understand basic human relationships, but at the same time she strives for some kind of connection, which just makes it all even worse. When she is having a calm moment, she tries to fit in. But then, all of a sudden, something will make her snap. She has the mood swings of a pregnant teenager!
In the end, she finds freedom. Like most mad people, she finds her calling at the theatre (let’s face it, we artists have our own private spot on the “mad-o-meter”!). She dreams of becoming a dancer and this calling comes to her through Mr. Mogens and his proposal… She can now indulge her fantasies on stage, like we all dream of! It is quite hard to show all these emotions in one performance, and although I try to give the audience a clear idea of how manic she is, how complicated her psyche is, for each performance I did, I chose to put my focus on one inner demon to try and show how she copes with that.
On Miss Birthe and her men: Junker Ove vs. Mr Mogens
Junker Ove is like an alien to her. She understands that she is supposed to marry him, but the marriage means nothing. He scares her a little with his ability to be so in touch with his emotions and humanity. She wants his approval, because that is what she thinks she is ‘supposed’ to have… but each time she tries to be normal with him, something snaps and she runs away, or downplays it into a joke. A classic defense mechanism that I use in real life all the time!
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Mr. Mogens is a clever man, who adapts himself into whatever she wants or needs him to be; and also in order to gain power and wealth. Because of this, he bothers her less than anyone else, he doesn’t intimidate her, but to Birthe he is like a “puppy”. She marries him in the end out of convenience. All she really cares about is his ballet company, which gives her a chance to dance to her heart’s content.
Creating a character
I try not to do too much research prior to the first rehearsal, so that when I enter the studio I can be as open as possible, and try to achieve what is asked of me in a particular production rather than being clouded by how it’s been done in the past.
In this ballet, I really wanted to be able to start with an open mind, as A Folk Tale has been performed many times over so many years, and I knew Nikolaj [Hübbe] and Sorella [Englund] had many new ideas. Having said that, once I felt I had a grip on what the coaches and I wanted the character to be, I dove into videos of past Birthes, and took from them what I thought appropriate for me. There have been so many great ones at the Royal Danish Ballet, it was hard not to become daunted! Some of the dancers who had done it in the past were extremely helpful and supportive. Tina Hojland, who had been the last to dance the role, came and helped me, especially with how I could show such tiny, speedy changes in character, while still showing the audience the process of this change.
On this new production of A Folk Tale
Of course I am biased, but I feel this is the strongest version of A Folk Tale to date. Mia Steensgaard’s incredible sets and costumes alone give the audience a buzz (and I don’t think I’ve ever spent so long looking at myself in the mirror before, and loving it so much!), but Nikolaj and Sorella have given it their all, for the life and soul of the ballet. When setting a Bournonville ballet, you cannot and should not change the steps, so instead they updated the work by bringing every other element up to today’s standards, taking the ‘museum’ feel away.
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I think if Bournonville was alive today, he would be one happy man. If he saw his ballets being done in the exact way they were being done in his day, and not moving forward with the times, he would be furious! Every day we have to deal with our inner demons one way or another, and this is how I think A Folk Tale is relevant today. We all have an overwhelming need to fit in and be successful in society, just like Birthe does. But we also have a need to feel that love prevails over everything else and that destiny will bring us to the ones we are meant to share our lives with.
On the future of ballet
I am concerned. Not because there is a lack of choreographers or dancers of a high enough calibre, nor because “ballet is not evolving”. I think in the last twenty years choreographers who are just as innovative as the likes of Balanchine, Robbins, Macmillan, Ashton and co. have created pieces that have changed the art form. We have Wheeldon, Forsythe, Kylián, Ek, the duo Lightfoot León, Ratmansky and so many more greats who continue the evolution of this amazing art form. But I am concerned because the rest of the entertainment business is able to deliver products that are so easily accessible, both physically and financially. Not all of these are “live” forms of entertainment so they have the advantage of being far more complex and extreme; thus drawing an audience more easily.
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Only time will tell what is in store for ballet, and I only hope that it can be driven by hard work and passion as always, and be kept alive… A world without classical ballet is not one I want to be around to see.
On her training & career
To be honest, I struggled as a student at Central School of Ballet. Looking back, I realise that they simply didn’t know what to do with me. I think the ballet world in general sees students with a large personality as a problem, rather than seeing a struggling teenager, who is potentially a great stage personality, trying to perhaps fit into a world they are intimidated by. At Central, they always made me feel as though my personality was a bad thing, instead of using it to my advantage… but in the end I figured that out for myself.
The training itself was perfect for me and landed me a job with the Royal Swedish Ballet, directly after graduating. I was lucky to dance a lot in my first year – both classical and modern ballets – including some small soloist roles. This is where I think Central does their students a huge favour, training them in a variety of techniques, combined with a strong classical base. It made me an adaptable dancer who could easily be put in many different types of roles.
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After 3 years I moved to Copenhagen. Here I started again, slowly building up over a number of years. I was first noticed in a ballet by Angelin Preljoçaj (La Stravaganza) and received a scholarship from Frank Andersen on the night of the premiere. I slowly gained a confidence that had been missing for many years, and with a lot of hard work and a dash of luck I started dancing soloist roles.
My first big break came when Kenneth Greve gave me the first cast Sugar Plum Fairy in his new Nutcracker. I have never been so petrified in my life, but I’m forever grateful for that massive push. When Nikolaj came in as Director, I felt he was very much “on my side”. He cast me as Myrtha in his Giselle co-production with Sorella and I was promoted after my final performance. I wasn’t expecting it and I was beyond happy.
I feel extremely lucky to have been involved in some of these roles. My highlights have definitely been this season, where I got to show two very different sides of myself: with Aurora in Christopher Wheeldon’s new Sleeping Beauty – not only because working with Chris was incredible and I learnt so much about myself – and of course as Birthe in A Folk Tale.
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On life with RDB in Copenhagen
I am completely in love with this company and this city. A friend of mine put it fantastically, that Copenhagen is like a fickle mistress, with one swift move at springtime, you completely forget every pain she caused you all the previous months of winter.
The company really is one in a million. They are so supportive and although there is of course a level of competition and pressure, I feel we cope exceptionally well. I’ve done my best to adapt to Danish culture, but it hasn’t been so hard, because its traditions and values come high on my priority list too. These past years I have even had Danish Christmas and Easter food by choice! Language-wise I get along ok, my friends are excellent teachers. It does take time though, as most of the time everyone here speaks better English than me… what with me being an Essex girl and all!
On working with Cross Connection Ballet Company
Cross Connection Ballet Company fills a large void in the dance scene here in Copenhagen. They create a fantastic initiative to support and create new evolving and talented choreographers, both in Denmark, but also internationally with their annual choreography competition, gala performances, and ongoing projects. The standard is consistently higher every year. Their hard work, dedication and passion is very humbling.
I became involved when Constantine [Baecher] and Cedric [Lambrette], the co-founders of CCBC, invited me to become a founding member. Their vision was to bring together many different nationalities from different schools and backgrounds, and enjoy the creative results! I believe I was the first British member.
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Biggest career challenges
Without a doubt it was getting over a big eating disorder I suffered between 2000 and 2004. It took so much strength to fight, but I finally overcame it, with support and love around me. It almost cost me my career and many special relationships, but I am extremely proud to say I am healthy and balanced today. It is a reality in today’s culture, not just in the ballet world. One day I hope to be able to help other young people understand themselves and fight back, to overcome this horrible disease.
On Dream Roles and Favorite Choreographers
I feel very privileged to have worked with the choreographers I have; to have danced the roles I have been cast in. I feel so lucky. Having said that, it is not in my nature to be satisfied, so of course I want more! Roles I dream of dancing are the dramatic leading women; this is where I believe I am strongest on stage and most confident, when there is a story to tell. Roles like Juliet, Giselle, Marguerite in Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias and Tatiana in Onegin.
Choreographers that I would give an arm (but not a leg!) to work with in person are Forsythe, Lightfoot Leon, Mats Ek, and Alexander Ekman.
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Photo credits: Henrik Stenberg, Per Morten Abrahamsen, Costin Radu & Gregers Heering ©
The Royal Danish Ballet tours North America between 24 May and 19 June. For more information visit RDB’s US Tour microsite.