KING OF THE DANCE JOHAN KOBBORG
HAS MOVED FROM LONDON TO ST. PETERSBURG TO DIRECT
A DON QUIXOTE PRODUCTION AT THE
THE PURPOSE OF THIS EXPERIMENT IS TO GIVE A NEW,
YOUNGER FACE TO CLASSICAL BALLET.
Pictures by MORGAN NORMAN Text by ANNA GALAIDA
Amid the drab greyness of St. Petersburg in winter, Johan Kobborg stands out like the brightest burst of colour. A green pullover with a red Gucci tee peeking out underneath, silvery Balenciaga shoes, a vibrant bag, a cap, skull rings on his fingers. The 47-year-old Danish danseur, ex-principal of the British Royal Ballet and one of the very first Kings of the Dance, was not blessed by classical beauty when he was younger — but still managed to play the parts of princes, lovers, and madmen with such skill that the great choreographers of old might as well have created their ballets especially for him. After concluding his career as a dancer, he took up choreography, and today he has arrived in St. Petersburg to produce his unique version of one of the world's most classical ballets — Don Quixote — at the Yacobson Theatre.
The time and place could not have been better: the ballet life of St. Petersburg has just reached a crossroads. Around the mid-90s, the city spearheaded Russian ballet's progress. The Mariinsky Theatre was taken over by a youthful, determined team, headed by Valery Gergiev, who brought over Makhar Vaziev. The latter took to getting the dancers and the public acquainted with the major choreographers of the 20th century, Balanchine and Forsythe, as well as with emerging Russian creators, Aleksey Ratmansky for one. During the aughties, Vladimir Kekhman breathed a new life into the Mikhailovsky Theatre by inviting first Mikhail Messerer and then Nacho Duato.
But over the past few years, St. Petersburg's once boisterous ballet life has simmered down to tours and festivals. High-status theatres no longer produce news-making premières — which has opened a perfect window of opportunity for those who have had to live in their shadow for all these decades . Like the Leonid Yacobson Theatre. This troupe does not have a venue of its own, so it performs across a range of locations, from Mariinsky to Mikhailovsky to the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theatre. And barely scrapes together enough funding to put on one première per season. But what a première it is! A year ago, the Yacobson Theatre's art director, Mariinsky ex-principal Andrian Fadeev, left the whole city utterly stunned by the results of his collaboration with Jean-Guillaume Bart, Opéra de Paris etoile, who had come to Russia to stage The Sleeping Beauty. Bart's version of the ballet is very succinct, without the impossibly large-scale crowd scene of the peasant waltz, and yet still retains the key features of the classical original . This is the ideal solution for the small but very youthful and driven team, which cannot boast a lot of alumni of the Vaganova Russian Ballet Academy, but does have excellent performers, already quite experienced despite their young age, thanks to their diligent work at industrious small-town theatres. The stir caused by last year's premiere has brought the Yacobson Company into the spotlight. And its art director has already come up with a new project, asking Johan Kobborg to bring his concept to life. The choreographer has rewritten Don Quixote's libretto, and has thrown himself head-first into his work. Now wearing a pair of sweat pants, a T-shirt, and a bandana instead of a designer outfit, he is working tirelessly at the rehearsal hall day in and day out.
Not that long ago, Johan used to dance in this ballet himself (he made quite a dashing Basilio), and so he absolutely revels in the creative process, personally demonstrating every nuance of facial expression, every tiniest gesture, and every complex move. There are few other people in the ballet world who are capable of rehearsing the way Kobborg does: with meticulous and thoughtful attention to detail. The dancers follow him with an awestruck gaze: as the Leonid Yacobson team is very youthful, most of his members have always considered Kobborg to be a distant, unreachable star, whose performances they used to watch on recordings as a source of inspiration when they were kids.
'I realized straight away that this isn't Mariinsky or Bolshoi', Kobborg confesses. 'And this is precisely what makes the Yacobson Theatre interesting. It has so much vitality and young energy, and almost none of the dancers have backgrounds in academic theatres, where you start performing small parts in Don Quixote as a kid, literally growing up with this ballet. These folks, though, are not bound by tradition, they are ready to experiment in any way possible'.
Staging a three-act ballet, which has easily a few dozen solos and scenes with huge crowds, was Fadeev's idea. 'And on his head be it,' Kobborg laughs, perfectly aware that the ballet aficionados from St. Petersburg, who value adherence to tradition above everything else, are in for some intense stereotype-busting.
And this is precisely what the theatre's founder, the great Russian avant-garde choreographer Leonid Yacobson, would have wanted. Today, he is mostly known for his Vestris miniature, which he staged especially for the young Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1960s, shortly before his death. But in fact, Yacobson's career goes way back to the 1920s, when avant-garde was considered a symbol of the new world and Soviet art. In the 1930s, all avant-garde experiments were shut down, and the choreographer was forced to move to the Soviet Central Asia, where he eked out a living by staging folk dance performances. He managed to keep afloat thanks to his capacity to create dances without fouetté turns, entrechats, giant leaps, and other obvious acrobatic stunts. He was more interested in body language, especially the body language of ancient Greece and Rome, which he had spent years researching, by poring over picture albums and visiting the Hermitage. Yacobson had a unique gift: he could see dance anywhere, from the drip of thaw water to the the flight of a plane, from May Day parades to the workings of industrial machinery. His choreography would often get based on the simplest of motions, which flowed together in a breathtakingly smooth stream.
After the choreographer passed away, his Choreographic Miniatures Theatre faded into obscurity and, more than once, came dangerously close to a shut-down. But six years ago, Andrian Fadeev took it upon himself to bring the troupe back to life. Just as Johan Kobborg, he belongs to the brilliant generation that is currently undergoing a transformation from unique performers to smart managers and choreographers, always up to the challenge of crafting a new repertoire and a new image for their teams. The new art director started out by taking Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Paquita out of the mothballs. Then, he offered Irina Kolpakova, a long-time tutor and keeper of Marius Petipa's heritage at the American Ballet Theatre, to restore the Giselle production. And to complete the Theatre's rebirth, he collaborated with several up-and-coming choreographers: Anton Pimonov, Konstantin Keikhel, and Vladimir Varnava.
As the heir of a family of ballet dancers and alumnus of an academic ballet school, Fadeev invests heavily in the classics — but without the cobwebs, and with an almost nitpicky approach to quality. Which is just what the doctor ordered for the young and sophisticated ballet goers, who fell in love with the world of pointe shoes after marvelling at the projects by Sergei Danilian and the success of Natalia Osipova, Ivan Vasiliev, and Sergei Polunin. During their rise to glory, these star dancers set art goals that were very easy to grasp: they strove to spin faster, leap higher, and stretch further. Then, they all went their own separate ways, while the brand new generation of ballet lovers that they had birthed has stayed behind, thirsting for new great shows. And Kobborg's Don Quixote will quench their first.
Whereas Kobborg himself is the perfect candidate for the role of an illustrious revolutionary. Expert ballet tutors got hold of him phenomenally late, when he was already sixteen years old — an age when it is no longer considered possible to develop the flexibility, agility, and gait needed for professional ballet. Nevertheless, it took Johan only three years to complete a course at the Danish Royal Ballet School; and three more years later, he was promoted to principal at the very same Royal Ballet, where he performed in La Sylphide and other legendary ballets by August Bournonville, which Denmark cherishes with the same reverence as St. Petersburg cherishes the heritage of the great Petipa.
For Kobborg, classical ballet is a world of beauty and harmony, which must be preserved but cannot be allowed to decay. A few years ago, Kobborg showed the world what he sees as his ballet ideal. He did that at the Romanian National Opera (Opera Naţională București), which he has connections with through the British Royal Ballet's ex-prima, Alina Cojocaru, his partner and significant other of many years (in October, they had a baby daughter, Thalia Chulpan). The Romanians offered him to stand at the helm of their ballet troupe, which was on the verge of collapsing, and after less than three seasons, Johan gave its repertoire a full overhaul, adding productions by MacMillan and Forsythe, Ashton and Kylián, Ratmansky and Posokhov. Premières began pouring out as if from a cornucopia, and the impoverished theatre suddenly became a hub for dancers from far better-heeled ballet nations, who would come flocking in for a chance to build a career under Johan's tutelage. Then, one year ago, Kobborg's four-year contract was prematurely terminated; the scandalous campaign that followed deprived the troupe of not only its art director and dancers, but also of the entire repertoire it had built up, as the ballet world rallied together in support of Kobborg. While he himself wound up in St. Petersburg.
'Classical ballet may be an old-fashioned art,' the choreographer ponders on his life's calling. 'But it is an art for the ages. It has been working out its forms and standards for far too long; you cannot master them overnight. Very few countries and theatres in the world are capable of preserving the standards of this art form'. And Russia is one of them.
KOBBORG IS AN ADEPT OF CLASSICAL BALLET.
HE REFERS TO IT AS A WORLD OF BEAUTY AND HARMONY,
WHICH MUST BE PRESERVED,
BUT CANNOT BE ALLOWED TO DECAY.
'I REALIZED STRAIGHT AWAY THAT THIS ISN'T
MARIINSKY, OR BOLSHOI.
AND THIS IS PRECISELY WHAT MAKES
THE YACOBSON THEATRE
INTERESTING. IT HAS SO MUCH VITALITY AND YOUNG ENERGY,
AND IS READY TO EXPERIMENT'.