Gudrun Bojesen was crying so hard her entire body was shaking. Minutes before, her breathtaking Sylph had died a painful death and her James, Thomas Lund, had taken his last steps as a principal dancer of The Royal Danish Ballet in front of a packed theatre.
It was one of those nights. Lund had chosen a delightfully Danish marathon to end his awe-inspiring career: Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson and August Bournonville’s La Sylphide. In The Lesson, he was joined by the young Ida Praetorius as the student, and his wonderful fellow principal dancer Gitte Lindstrøm as the pianist. And with Ms. Bojesen as his Sylph, here was a fitting end to a magnificent partnership that had lasted more than 20 years. While every single person on both sides of the curtain at The Royal Theatre was sad to see Mr. Lund go, it was clear to us that nobody would feel the loss more than his regular partner.
A few days earlier I had met Thomas Lund for a chat. Juggling two full-time jobs – he has been the headmaster of The Royal Danish Ballet School since August, while also dancing in Alexei Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel and preparing for his farewell performance – he’s had a hectic few months. This was fittingly illustrated by the fact that he had come straight from his final dress rehearsal, which inspired my first question: How does it feel to be preparing for your final bow? “It’s a big night, of course. And it’s also rather sad. Gudrun and I have danced together so much, that when you’re in the middle of it all, rehearsing Act 2 of La Sylphide, and Gudrun runs off to the woods, then the memories just start coming back. All the things we experienced together, all the places we have danced…and it hurts a little. But you have to allow yourself to put it into words and accept that it is somewhat melancholic. Still, we had moments during rehearsals where we both broke down a little and had to take a break. I just hope it all goes smoothly, but it won’t be without tears.”
Asked about what it means to have Ms. Bojesen at his side for his final performance, Lund is very clear: “I could not have danced with anybody else. I will actually say that it takes a fair bit of professionalism to make it a decent show because there is so much history. We went to school together, we have known each other since I was 11 years old; we even dated for a little while when we were kids! We have grown up together through the good times and the bad. And when we are on stage together, things just happen. They just emerge from the moment, through our musicality and our timing and because we know each other so well. Gudrun is just such a unique and fantastic artist.”
La Sylphide and The Lesson make for a popular combination at The Royal Danish Ballet. In terms of length the two ballets fill up an evening quite nicely, while also representing two of the most important choreographers in the history of the company. However, dancing the male lead in both of them on the same night is no easy feat, and Thomas Lund admits to feeling the pressure: “Both ballets are very intense. It’s a great programme because it gives me the entire range – from the romantic hero to the psychopath. First I kill, and then I am killed. And since my career has mainly taken place here in Copenhagen, it made sense to choose two Danish choreographers. It would have been nice to include Harald Lander as well, but we didn’t feel like we could squeeze Ètudes in there. That would have probably been pushing it…” As he breaks into laughter, I assure him that the audience certainly would have stuck around for it. He continues: “But honestly, it had to be a Bournonville ballet. And of course I could have done the 3rd act of Napoli, but somehow La Sylphide just made sense – for a Danish dancer, James is the equivalent of an actor getting to perform Hamlet.”
Like no other male dancer in his generation, Thomas Lund was the embodiment of the Bournonville tradition. And at perhaps the most pivotal point of his career, Bournonville turned out to be a bit of a lifesaver. From 1994 to 2002 – when Thomas Lund was a soloist in his early twenties – the RDB had five different artistic directors. Generally referred to as the ‘artistic director turbulence’, it was a time of turmoil, with every new director having to bring in international dancers and choreographers. But Lund decided his place was at the RDB: “The constant change of artistic directors was the challenge for me. Even though I have been in the same company throughout my career, it feels as if I have been in six different companies, because all the directors had different tastes. So if as a dancer you chose to stay, you had to fulfil the expectations of the constantly changing bosses, and that gave me versatility; it also broadened my horizon as a dancer. At the same time, I hadn’t been promoted to principal yet, and it was something I wanted to achieve. When the promotion finally came, I felt like I had put down my roots in Copenhagen and that I belonged here – this is where my heart is and always will be. The turbulent years also made me realise that the Bournonville tradition is my stability – it was like my mother tongue, something I could always return to.”
One of the many artistic directors to come through those ever revolving doors was Maina Gielgud – the first ever female director and the first foreigner since Bournonville’s father, Antoine. She brought with her a young Russian dancer by the name of Alexei Ratmansky, who ended up staying in Copenhagen a whole lot longer than she did – and who has recently returned to stage The Golden Cockerel. Ratmansky created the role of the eccentric Tsar Dodon on Thomas Lund – the final role of his dancing career. “Alexei and I actually had a bit of a laugh about it. I said to him; thank you, you’ve secured my retirement now – because he has created a character role for me, one that I can continue to perform even after I retire as a dancer. Alexei really understands the Danish tradition; you can tell that he used to be a part of the company. He likes creating narrative ballets, and he likes creating character roles. In general, working with him has been a great experience. He is incredibly talented and precise, yet very inquisitive at the same time. A very good combination of being well prepared and knowing the counts of the music, but still giving the dancers some freedom.”
About his future plans, Lund says: “For now, I want to focus on the school. But that being said, I have performed character roles before: the cross-dresser in Napoli, the troll in A Folk Tale…, so if the opportunity arises, it would be great to be able to return to the stage every once in a while, for my own pleasure, but also because I think it is important for the children in the school to see that I am not just their headmaster, and that I’m still an artist. They also need to see how tradition is kept alive, how the roles are handed down between generations. And I could be a living example of that, while hopefully also being a role model.”
It is obvious that the responsibility of training the future stars of RDB is something Lund has put a lot of thought into. As someone who has excelled in representing the Bournonville legacy, he clearly sees the beauty and the importance of the living tradition. At his farewell performance, this tradition was beautifully represented by 19-year old Ida Praetorius, who has only just become a full member of the company. “Ida is a fantastic example of the Danish tradition and the Danish school. When I look at her, I think about how I’ve been a part of upholding the legacy of the Danish ballet for so many years, and it makes me happy that the ones that are succeeding me are so talented. They are so young and so fresh and they just soar through the air. They probably don’t think about it, but I look at them and I see the food chain, the wheels that keep turning, and I become nostalgic. Dancing with Ida is the embodiment of that tradition; the experience she gets from dancing with me has an effect on her and it is something she takes with her to use at another time and in a different context – and that keeps the legacy alive.”
As Thomas and I are wrapping up our chat, we bump into several members of Acropolis, a social club for retired employees of the theatre. Suddenly Thomas finds himself surrounded by former teachers, wishing him good luck for Saturday, and welcoming him into their midst, as a retraité. How does that feel? “I have reached a point where it feels right. Had the job at the school become available two years ago, I would not have said yes, as it would have been too soon. I have been given so many wonderful roles and I have worked with so many talented choreographers – the only thing missing in my resume is Albrecht. And I can live without him.”
Back on stage a few days later, the applause was never-ending. Lund had been presented with red roses by an impressive line-up of former and current ballerinas – from 78-year old Kirsten Simone and Flindt’s ex-wife Vivi Flindt to the great Sorella Englund and of course his Sylph, Gudrun Bojesen. At the grand finale, artistic director Nikolaj Hübbe asked us all – the dancers, the orchestra and the audience – to bow to Mr. Lund, to show him our gratitude. And as the theatre fell silent, and we all bowed our heads to a unique artist, thanking him for dedicating his life and his career to The Royal Danish Ballet, Gudrun Bojesen wasn’t the only one crying.
About the Author:
Mette Windberg Baarup has a Master of Arts in Dance Studies and Communication & Arts Journalism from the University of Copenhagen. She is based in London where she works as a freelance writer and producer.
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