An interview with SFB’s Ulrik Birkkjaer

Mathilde Froustey, Sasha de Sola, Yuan Yuan Tan and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Alexei Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony.

This week, San Francisco Ballet returns to London after a 7-year absence. On display at Sadler’s Wells are many of the new works premiered last year during the company’s Unbound Festival, plus Ratmansky’s exhilarating Shostakovich Trilogy. So, what to look for in each of the four programmes?

  • Programme B is the most eclectic in terms of mix of styles. We have contemporary chic in Edwaard Liang’s The Infinite Ocean alongside Cathy Marston’s mini narrative gem, Snowblind, and the fantastically surreal Björk Ballet by Arthur Pita to close. Unmissable. 
  • The irresistible Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming – the Justin Peck work in Programme C - is pure joy, and is paired with a nice Liam Scarlett piece, Hummingbird, which had its European premiere during SFB’s 2014 tour to Paris. We’re less into Programme D, with all the swirling bodies in the Wheeldon and Dawson works, but still worth checking it out for the beautiful lines of Sofiane Sylve (Anima Animus). 
  • The ambitious Shostakovich Trilogy forms the must-watch Programme A. We discuss some aspects of the work in this interview with principal dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer:

TBB: You are cast as the lead in Chamber Symphony, the second work in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy. How are rehearsals going?

Ulrik Birkkjaer: It has been really amazing because I am big fan of Alexei’s work. He claims it is an abstract piece, but I find so many backstories to it… it’s a very Russian work and I’ve been reading a lot about Shostakovich, so I have this feeling that I would want him to see the ballet Alexei has created, because he was so censored and he was not really a free artist at his time, which in turn might also have inspired him. It could have been a good/bad thing for his art ultimately, yet it is so apparent in his work and I feel that is what Alexei shows in this piece. I find it so touching and especially for Shostakovich, it would have been great for him to see these ballets because I think they reflect his own inspiration for the compositions.

Mathilde Froustey, Sasha de Sola, Yuan Yuan Tan and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Alexei Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony.

Mathilde Froustey, Sasha de Sola, Yuan Yuan Tan and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony. Photo: © Eric Tomasson

TBB: What can you tell us about your three muses in the ballet?

UB:  The piece is super autobiographical. Shostakovich had three loves in his life: the first, whom he didn’t marry, was his young love during the war. The second one, with whom he had two children, was the main love of his live and when he was older he met his third wife, who was actually only 27 at the time (he was in his late 50s), and who took care of him and supported him. So that is why I don’t see it as an abstract piece, as the pas de deux are very clearly about them. There’s the young love (Sasha de Sola), and then Mathilde Froustey comes along and there is this flirtatious pas de deux and later she dies, and the angels take her away and that is my favourite part of the ballet. And after that, with the last wife (Yuan Yuan Tan) there is this feeling of deep, supportive love. At the end of the piece, he organises the company members in a formation, and he composes his last note, his last composition and goes to rest. He sets them up and moves them around as if he was composing and then there is one note, gesture, and then the ballet ends. It is so cool…

TBB: …And quite an imaginative choreographic response to something like Chamber Symphony, which is so complex.

UB: It is also very interesting that we are coming straight from performing Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid and, in that ballet, I was performing the role of the poet, and it is also kind of autobiographical, so in that sense the roles are similar. Obviously, they are very different in tone and I try to keep a fresh take on it, so it is not the same person twice, when we rehearse back to back like that.

San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky's Chamber Symphony.

San Francisco Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony. Photo: © Eric Tomasson

TBB: Are you involved in any of the other two ballets?

UB: I am also involved in Symphony No. 9. I am preparing the second couple pas de deux in that one. The piece features such a dream couple. It is this Soviet dream couple, a “propaganda poster” couple, and the second couple is maybe the opposite… the couple that doesn’t work in that society, and that is trying to either find a way out or is just not functioning. And I find it such a unique theme, not fitting in a society. The fact Alexei can show that in a ballet is amazing. That is when ballet becomes the right medium for that expression.

TBB: Since coming to San Francisco Ballet, you have been cast in lots of different roles and have had roles choreographed on you. At this stage in your career, how do you feel about being here?

UB: When I first joined, it was literally at the start of the Unbound Festival so my first three months with the company were spent creating four new ballets, so that was an amazing experience. It is a dream to start like that in a company, not having to fill old shoes. I feel very lucky about that, and it is funny because I have met people who asked me if I missed the storytelling aspect of ballet, because the image of a North-American company like SFB is more contemporary. But then, I find myself in a situation where I can do a lot of storytelling anyway and a lot of other artistic development, so I am really enjoying that.

Ulrik Birkkjaer, Yuan Yuan Tan and Wei Wang in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid.

Ulrik Birkkjaer, Yuan Yuan Tan and Wei Wang in John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid. Photo: © Eric Tomasson

TBB: It is interesting you mention this contrast, because the other Ratmansky ballet we saw you in (some time ago) was The Golden Cockerel, which is pure storytelling.

UB: I think that might have been the last one, but when I was growing up, Ratmansky was a Royal Danish Ballet principal. I must have been 14-15 years old, and I admired him greatly as a dancer, and then he also started choreographing in Copenhagen. I remember he got this last minute gig. A director pulled out from The Nutcracker and he stepped in, with just a few months to prepare. So I was part of that when I was 16, dancing in the corps de ballet. I did a mouse and one of the bees in his Waltz of the Flowers.

TBB: Is his Nutcracker for RDB similar to the one he did for American Ballet Theatre then?

UB:  I haven’t seen the whole of ABT’s version, but I’ve seen clips of it. We did that Nutcracker for a number of years and then I understudied the central pas de deux, so I know that old version quite well. I’ve now watched some clips of ABT’s Nutcracker on YouTube and my reaction is ‘oh my God, that is the same, but it looks so much harder now’. It must be one of the hardest pas de deux ever.

TBB:  Coming back to The Golden Cockerel, you created the role of Prince Guidon?

UB: The Golden Cockerel was a very Russian piece – the sets were so colourful and extreme – and maybe the RDB was a little bit like ‘huh?’. So I remember him telling us to forget about small, natural gestures, that they had to be ‘Bolshoi gestures’. I remember when I created Guidon, the solo was so intense. Working with him in the studio was the best, he is such a demanding balletmaster!

Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey in Cathy Marston's Snowblind.

Sarah Van Patten, Ulrik Birkkjaer and Mathilde Froustey in Cathy Marston’s Snowblind. Photo: © Eric Tomasson

TBB: Do you have any current side projects or future plans?

UB: My immediate future plan is that we are going to be at the Joyce Theatre in New York this July, with a group of dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet, which I am actually organising because I already did something similar there, the Bournonville Celebration, which we also did in London (in 2015).

TBB: We remember it and it was an amazing evening!

UB:  The Joyce asked us to do it again. So we want to bring it back, but not just repeat the programme completely, which is a little difficult because you could in theory take other work that hasn’t been performed in a long time, but if the dancers haven’t done it recently, it would take a while to put together. We are still bringing the second act of La Sylphide, because it still is Bournonville’s most  important work, and we are also doing Napoli. Besides that, we are doing different ballets which are also currently in rep at the company.

What I found effective last time was the simplicity of the message: what it is about Bournonville that makes him special in the dance world. One thing is the sense of community on stage, and also in a lot of ballets, like Kermesse in Bruges, you have the “love pas de deux” taking place in front of the whole village per se. All these typical villagers coming together and within that there is a story about normal people taking place. So I wanted to do with this programme as well, so we will try. For this year, the first part of the programme represents the darkness, going through some trouble and finding the positive at the end. So we are starting with La Sylphide Act 2. And the second part of the programme will take place in a village setting, with the love story of the Kermesse in Bruges that everyone watches, and then the lovers become the wedding couple from Napoli.

Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Millepied's Appassionata

Dores André and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata. Photo: © Erik Tomasson

TBB: In London you had dancers like Gudrun Bojesen, who are no longer performing. Who is coming this time, a new generation?

UB That is also the challenge, and part of the reason why I chose Kermesse, because it has a younger feel. Some of the younger dancers can excel in that. And tours like that are important for them to realise how vital Bournonville is to the Royal Danish Ballet.

TBB: You’ve had a long career performing so many different roles from so many genius choreographers. Are there any other ballets left to conquer?

UB:  Of course, Mayerling and Onegin for instance, I haven’t done. But I think it is important not to wish you were anywhere else in a sense, because if you are always striving, saying ‘if only I were like that’ or ‘if only this happened to me, then I would be happy, and then I would be the artist I want to be’. Ultimately, it is about whatever process you are in. So yes, I would love to try Mayerling and Onegin, but it is way more about process and who you are working with, balletmasters or partners, rather than any ballet. Smaller works can also be amazing experiences.

Then that becomes a real experience, and if you are always dreaming away from the moment you are in, then you won’t really experience it. And you might get to do Onegin, but you might not get along with your partner, or the person who sets the ballet doesn’t like you. There are so many variables and then it can be a horrible experience even if it is an amazing ballet. So I try to live by that, at least. It is about making every day your life.


San Francisco Ballet is at Sadler’s Wells, London until 8 June 2019. For tickets and more information on the four different programmes being presented, visit the Sadler’s Wells website.

Likes ballets that taste like 85% cocoa: pure, extra bitter, dark or intense. Her favorites are La Sylphide, Manon, Mayerling, Ondine, Symphonic Variations and McGregor's Chroma. Her favorite Ratmansky ballets are: The Little Humpbacked Horse, Russian Seasons, Cinderella and The Shostakovich Trilogy. She is always ready to chase new Ratmanskys around the globe. Non ballet: literature, theatre, opera, rock, art, food, travel, fashion, translating and interpreting.

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