Johan Kobborg, dressed in tracksuit and headband and fresh from morning rehearsals, was interviewed by Margaret Stonborough at this lunchtime Friends event.
He told the audience of his childhood in Odense, a small town in Denmark, where he grew up as a member of an artistic family. His Mother was an actor and showgirl, and his brother is an actor. As a child singer he toured England with a pianist as part of a Danish cultural promotion. He has performed as a circus artist. He can juggle and he can do magic tricks. The latter came in very useful for the RB’s Nutcracker this year when several were included in the Peter Wright production.
He had immense energy as child, and started attending weekly ballet classes at the age of 7. However, he did not learn about the existence of the Royal Danish Ballet (RDB) until he was 14. He decided to audition for the school just to see if it was possible to get a place. While technically too old to be accepted, he entered the RDB School when he was 16, but only attended for one year before he joined the company. He described life at the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen as like living in a “big family”. The ballet and opera company members mixed more than they do at the ROH. Such closeness, he observed, has its plus and minus points.
This led on to a discussion of the Bournonville technique and ballets. Kobborg explained that the technique is built upon the ballets, but that it is difficult for a company of some 90 dancers to maintain the style. In a typical Bournonville ballet no more than three dancers have any real dancing to do, with the rest wearing, as he put it, shoes with big heels. At the school the Bournonville style is taught in class using the routines taken from the ballets. The style is not in the use of the arms, but more the upper body and shoulders. Kobborg personally translates this style into the way he performs, in aiming not to do anything on stage unless there is a reason to do it, and expressing movement as naturally as possible. Kobborg observed that often Bournonville’s choreography is changed when it is produced outside of Denmark. For instance, when he danced Napoli at the Dowell Gala, it was the version that Dowell had performed that was required, not the one that he had seen danced in Denmark.
He mentioned that Bournonville’s ballets were created for small spaces. That was why the steps used were up and down or on the place – rather than running movements. This line of questioning led on to Ashton. When asked about his perception of Bouronville’s influence on Ashton, Kobborg replied that, while La Fille Mal Gardee could have been a Bournonville ballet, other Ashton ballets were not in the Bournonville style.
Kobborg explained that he liked ballets where he could associate with the character he was playing. Of the MacMillan repertoire, he had performed Concerto in Denmark. He had done his Romeo and Juliet, as well as Ashton’s and John Neumeier’s versions. He liked the drama of the latter, but felt that MacMillan’s pas de deux was stronger. He thought that a Romeo and Juliet where he could mix all three versions would be ideal with an emphasis on MacMillan’s work.
Several roles have been created on Kobborg. One in particular was Peter Schaufuss’ Hamlet. This led to his only major injury, resulting in the removal of a disk from his lower back. At first it was not thought to be too serious and he continued to perform the work in an open- air venue while eating pills to control the pain. But finally a scan revealed the injury, and he was out of action for a year.
He mentioned Frank Anderson as a particular influence. As Director of the RDB, Anderson had taught him about being honest on stage. Essentially, however, Kobborg likes to take the best of everyone and then translate the mix into his own way of doing things. He tends to remember performances, and when he goes to watch a performance he wants to be moved by what he sees.
He was inevitably asked why he decided to leave the RDB for the Royal Ballet. He gave two reasons. First, the fact that girl dancers in the RDB tended to be tall meant that there were limits on what he could perform there. The RB in contrast was, as he described it, “small girl heaven”. Second, the move gave him a chance to try something new. He had chosen RB over, say, the Bolshoi or the Kirov, because the way people thought in the RB was similar to what he was used to. He had performed La Sylphide at the Bolshoi in September, and described the experience as akin to dancing on a raked football pitch (a raked surface is evidently good for jumps but not for turns). The Bolshoi theatre is large and thereby necessitates bigger movements on stage, and this did not seem to attract Kobborg as a dancer.
Being firmly based at the ROH has its advantages. For example, while he was performing for the RDB in Paris, he was constantly going back and forth on Eurostar as he was in rehearsals for Masquerade for Dance Bites at the same time!
Ms Stonborough asked him about his performance as Solor in the previous evening’s La Bayadere. Kobborg explained that he had enjoyed dancing this new role, although he was struggling to understand Solor as a character. It was also not easy partnering two different girls in the same ballet. Pressed by the interviewer to explain, Kobborg mentioned that there was one moment in the wedding scene where he feared that he and Jamie Tapper, who was dancing Gamzatti, would end up on the floor. He thought a few more rehearsals would have helped.
Kobborg explained that the company was in the midst of rehearsing a large number of ballets, and working long hours. It was difficult to rehearse until 5 and then face a performance at 7.30. There was a limit to how far you could push the body. An athlete would train for a specific event and then be able to take it down a level. Dancers were, however, expected to be at event level all the time.
Margaret Stonborough asked about the previous Friday’s performance of Beyond Bach, which she understood had almost been pulled. Kobborg remarked that injuries always made it difficult, particularly when there were not that many dancers covering the same roles. He observed that maybe the RB needed more dancers or fewer ballets.
Referring to the ballets that had been performed on that evening, Kobborg said that the challenge of Beyond Bach was ensuring that the couples moved together. He particularly liked The Leaves are Fading, which he thought was a beautiful ballet that got better with each performance. That work required stamina and knowing one’s partner very well. Partnerships required a lot of work, he said. If you trusted your partner, you could relax and really let go. He enjoyed working with Alina.
He was asked how long it normally took him to learn a ballet. He replied that a month of rehearsal time was good, but if necessary he could do it in three days. As he rehearsed a ballet he got stronger, the ballet became easier and he could locate those places where it was possible to relax. He also drinks a lot of Red Bull!
To applause Kobborg left the Linbury Theatre to continue where he left off – rehearsing new works for the ROH stage.