Itâ€™s the first interval at Kenneth MacMillanâ€™s Manon, hauntingly performed by the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. Iâ€™m queuing for a drink, and so is a young couple right in front of me. It seems to be a classic situation: she is a ballet-lover and has brought her boyfriend/date/crush along. And just like the rest of the audience, she is gushing about Alban Lendorfâ€™s Des Grieux, trying to convey to her companion that he is not just a good dancer, but in fact a world-class one, very possibly in the top three of his generation. After all else fails, she falls back on the most unlikely of analogies: â€œYou have to understand – heâ€™s like Denmarkâ€™s Justin Bieber!â€
I had interviewed Alban the day before this performance, so unfortunately I was unable to bring up this gem of a (somewhat questionable) compliment. But even without the Bieber comparison at hand, Lendorf is charming and easy to talk to, and his passion for the art form is evident in everything he says and does. Like so many dancers, he talks with his entire body and makes his points with his arms and legs as much as with his words.
We start by going back in time to the autumn of 2009, when buzz was really starting to build about the 20-year-old corps de ballet dancer who suddenly found himself cast as Brown Boy in Jerome Robbinsâ€™s Dances at a Gathering, a role he shared with the extraordinary Thomas Lund, at the time a senior principal dancer, now director of the Royal Danish Ballet School. â€œIt was incredibly exciting,â€ says Lendorf about the experience, â€œBut I donâ€™t think I realised how quickly things were happening. Brown Boy was insanely difficult â€“ during the first rehearsals on stage I was so nervous. I had to start by just walking on to the stage, and I remember taking one step, and then another, and almost falling over â€“ and I hadnâ€™t even started dancing yet! Sharing the role with Thomas was crazy: heâ€™s a role model for me and had been a principal dancer since I got into the ballet school. That was probably the maddest thing about it all, sharing a part with Thomas Lund. And then during the curtain calls I had to hold Caroline Cavalloâ€™s hand: she was one of those big stars, you felt like you could hardly touch her!â€ Lendorf leans over and pretends not to be able to reach something, while laughing at the memory of how in awe he had been. â€œBut then again, itâ€™s work: you have to focus, do a good job, and not just stand there, staring at peopleâ€¦â€
The bold decision of casting such a young and inexperienced dancer in a demanding principal part was made by artistic director Nikolaj HÃ¼bbe, who has proven more than once that he is not afraid of taking a risk on a dancer he believes in. When I ask Lendorf what HÃ¼bbe means to him and his career, he doesnâ€™t hesitate: â€œEverything! He has thrown all these things at me: without him, there is no way I would have been a principal dancer at 21. If I can be a bit cheeky, Iâ€™m going to say that I would probably still be somewhere today, even without him, but he definitely sped up the process â€“ he has meant everything.â€
HÃ¼bbe certainly hasnâ€™t held back when asked to describe Lendorfâ€™s talent. From calling him the best dancer to come out of the RDB School in 50 years to comparing him to Baryshnikov and Nureyev, he isnâ€™t stingy when it comes to superlatives. Besides the obvious fact that these are great compliments, I ask Lendorf how they affect him. â€œItâ€™s awesome to hear these things, of course it is, but it does pile on the pressure. And Nikolaj knows this â€“ he has been there himself. When youâ€™re new and talented, and even when youâ€™re a soloist, if you mess up you can always say, â€˜Well Iâ€™m young, Iâ€™m not a principal dancer.â€™ But then suddenly you are a principal, and Nikolaj says youâ€™re the best thing everâ€¦ I remember something that happened last year during our season of open-air summer performances. I was about to go on stage and Nikolaj said: â€˜Alban has just come back from Moscow, where he won a very prestigious prize [the Benois de la Danse] and now he is here to perform for you.â€™â€ Lendorf opens his eyes wide and grabs his own neck as if something is strangling him. â€œI just thought: â€˜Please tell me you didnâ€™t just say that!â€™ Now they all go like this [he leans back, crosses his arms and puts on a stern face] and sit there thinking, â€˜Oh, this better be good.â€™â€
During our chat it becomes clear that Lendorf has a very 21st-century approach to his art form and the roles he dances. While he certainly appreciates the opportunities he is given, and doesnâ€™t feel entitled to a part just because of his rank as principal dancer, not every role is equally exciting for him to explore, even if it is considered one of the big classical parts. So what about the ones that he does find exciting? â€œDes Grieux is definitely a dream come true. Manon is one of my favourite ballets to watch, but absolutely also one of my favourites to perform. I have watched so much inspiring footage of other dancers performing in it â€“ Mads Blangstrup, Kenneth Greve, Nicolas Le Riche – and itâ€™s great to have access to their knowledge. Mads is my dressing room mateâ€ – all dancers at RDB share dressing rooms with a colleague, regardless of their rank in the company – â€œso I ask him stuff all the time: â€˜Do you remember this step, isnâ€™t it just ridiculously difficult?â€™ And then heâ€™ll say: â€˜Well if you do it like thisâ€¦â€™ Weâ€™re different dancers, but the experience means so much. When youâ€™ve danced a part before, you know what it requires, and you know how to divide your energy and where to put the seconds when you can take an extra breath.â€
How about James in La Sylphide? Lendorf breaks into a huge smile. â€œItâ€™s just the best Bournonville ballet. Itâ€™s the only one that doesnâ€™t have a Disney-style happy ending, and thatâ€™s probably what makes it so special. I mean, obviously what happens is terrible, but I really like the way the character of James develops, how he opens up: not so much towards the others on stage, but towards the audience. Itâ€™s very personal for him, so I really feel itâ€™s a heavyweight role, especially compared to others in the Bournonville repertoire, which is whatâ€™s great about it. You just feel for James, regardless of whether the sylph is something he has dreamt up, or if he is actually turned on by a woman other than the one he is meant to marry. Who knows, maybe he is the kind of person who canâ€™t be with only one woman, or maybe he just doesnâ€™t love Effy. Regardless of what it is, you feel for the guy. Youâ€™re in his corner.â€
Lendorf is slowly becoming a regular on the international guesting circuit, ticking off several big cities and companies in the last couple of years. What differences has he noticed when performing internationally? â€œThe Danes are a very reserved audience. In London, New York or Tokyo theyâ€™re not afraid of yelling and screaming if they like something â€“ and if they donâ€™t like it, youâ€™ll hear it too. In Denmark itâ€™s very neutral, very polite: they always applaud, but rarely with passion. Sometimes itâ€™s very clear that young people especially have this feeling that now theyâ€™re in the Royal Theatreâ€ – Lendorf makes a sour face and claps very politely – â€œwhereas on stage, weâ€™re just like: â€˜All right, letâ€™s give it everything!â€™ And of course thereâ€™s the fact that people wait at the stage door to get your autograph â€“ thatâ€™s incredible. They donâ€™t do that here. I mean, if you meet someone, they might ask you to sign a programme or something, but you donâ€™t have twenty people waiting at 11pm after a show.â€
On his most recent visit to London, when he stepped into English National Balletâ€™s Ecstasy and Death triple bill, dancing one of the principal men in Harald Landerâ€™s Etudes, Lendorf got to be on the other side of that experience in meeting Nicolas Le Riche. â€œIâ€™d seen him perform as Des Grieux with Silja Schandorff back in 2006, when I had just become an apprentice with RDB. I remember being cast as an understudy for the beggars, which I think is the lowest role in the entire ballet. Anyway, I thought he was amazing. And then suddenly Iâ€™m sharing a dressing room with him at ENB!â€ Lendorf pulls a face and starts laughing. â€œI was a total teenage girl, completely star-struck. I even got a photo with him! I was almost afraid to ask, but then I thought, â€˜This is ridiculous, I have to.â€™ And of course he is the nicest person youâ€™ll ever meet.â€
And what about the ballet he got to dance with ENB? â€œEtudes is definitely one of my favourites. The music is brilliant, I love the choreography, and the fact that it was created by a Danish choreographer makes me very proud, because it has conquered the world â€“ itâ€™s just such a showstopper. Every time you see it, the love of ballet is evident. But itâ€™s horrible to dance. I mean itâ€™s just so difficult, because itâ€™s all about technique, so if you miss just one pirouette you feel like itâ€™s been a sh*t performance. But itâ€™s the most amazing ballet: every time the silhouettes enter the stage and the music starts, I get goose bumps.â€
Of course there is another reason why it is special to Lendorf: he was promoted to principal dancer on stage after a performance of Etudes in April 2011. I ask him to share some of the emotions that went through his head in those moments, as HÃ¼bbe came on stage, preparing to make a speech. â€œMy first thought was: â€˜OK, if this is not what I think it might be, I canâ€™t be too disappointed. It might be someone else.â€™ But then I looked around me, counting heads: â€˜Heâ€™s a principal, sheâ€™s a principal, Iâ€™m the only person in the front row that is not a principal dancer.â€™ I mean, it just goes round and round in your head and you start eliminating all the other options. But at the same time, it could be something completely different… Maybe itâ€™s the conductorâ€™s birthday!
And then, as Nikolaj moved through his speech, and got closer and closer to the point, I remember thinking: â€˜This actually sounds like it might be it.â€™ And then it was, and I was completely overwhelmed by surprise and awe and humility. It was incredible! I wasnâ€™t even too happy with my performance that night. Iâ€™d been a bit nervous and almost fell at one point, but that all just disappeared. I felt so lucky. I thought: â€˜All right, now Iâ€™m probably going to get hit by lightning in a minute!â€™ To have an audience of 1500 people stand there and celebrate you â€“ well, thatâ€™s what it feels like anyway, even though some of them were probably thinking, â€˜Whoâ€™s that guy?â€™ â€“ thatâ€™s a very humbling experience.â€
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.
- Metteâ€™s website:Â www.turnout-arts.com
- Her blog:Â londonyall.blogspot.co.uk
- Follow Mette on TwitterÂ @mettewb