Royal Danish Ballet’s Nikolaj Hubbe, stepping boldly into the lead

One of the last times Washington saw Nikolaj Hubbe, he was on the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage with the New York City Ballet, leading a regiment of frisky dancers through Scottish military tattoos in George Balanchine’s exuberant “Union Jack.” Physically speaking, with his athletic Nordic looks and noble proportions, Hubbe was a corporal authority you’d gladly follow into battle.

That was five years ago. Back then, Hubbe was one of the most glamorous male ballet stars to grace these shores in a generation. Yet he returns to the Kennedy Center this week in command of even grander ranks than those he led in “Union Jack.”

For the past three years, Hubbe has been artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, where he is in charge of nearly 90 dancers — not to mention dozens of teachers, physiotherapists, sports psychologists, shoe specialists and other human assets of a state-supported institution with an extensive heritage.

In performances at the Opera House from Tuesday through Sunday, the company will present two full-length ballets by the 19th-century Danish master August Bournonville: “A Folk Tale,” concerning trolls, changelings and the triumph of love, and “Napoli,” a seaside romance set in Italy.

The question is, will these ballets that Hubbe now leads from behind the scenes set off the kind of sparks he once generated in the spotlight?

One thing is clear: Hubbe, 43, has brought to his new job some of the fiery intensity that drove him as a dancer. He is not playing it safe on this monthlong tour, the company’s biggest in 50 years. Consider that in a recent phone call from Copenhagen, Hubbe quoted German experimental choreographer and noted provocateur Pina Bausch: “In the ugly there can be great beauty.”

He invoked Bausch while speaking about his brazen new production of “Napoli,” one of the touchstones of the great Danish ballet tradition, which traces its light, fast footwork and sunny modesty to Bournonville’s creations. Hubbe thought the time-honored version of “Napoli” that the company had been dancing since 1842 looked “too Danish” for a ballet set in Naples. (Hubbe is disarmingly candid. That’s also what made his dancing so exciting, its quality of raw, unexpected honesty.)

“I wanted it to be colorful, with just a dollop of the grotesque,” Hubbe said. He helped the dancers in the leading roles of Gennaro, a fisherman, and Teresina, his lover, to create lively characters that are “naive and very feisty. Where you can almost feel the blood rolling in them. I wanted that kind of ‘Napoli’ where it’s very gritty. Even if he was brilliant he was a bastard, and she was sexy.”

Certainly, this Danish-born perfectionist with a dramatic side does not lack for ambition. Hubbe announced plans for this tour almost immediately upon taking over the company in 2008, as “a benchmark for us. We’ll present a new generation of dancers — and my view, the view of the next generation of Bournonville stagers.” The company started the tour in Orange County and Berkeley, Calif., and will finish at Lincoln Center after the Washington engagement. (How Hubbe and the dancers must have relished California sun. As we spoke, it was pouring buckets of Baltic rain outside Hubbe’s office at Det Kongelige Teater, the Royal Danish Theater, which houses the ballet troupe as well as opera, orchestra and theater companies.)

“I’ve danced in all these houses that we are going to,” said Hubbe. “And I found it important to set a goal right when I came in.”

Another goal was to enliven the Bournonville repertoire — which Hubbe thought had a tendency to look stale in some cases. “Napoli” has always required audience patience, with a zesty third-act wedding celebration coming only after copious pantomime and slow-moving exposition in the first and second acts. The second act, in fact, was nicknamed for the cafe across the street from the theater, because the audience typically skipped it and went out for coffee. Hubbe thought the whole ballet was on autopilot.

“It’s like, ‘Let’s put the “Napoli” cloak on tonight.’ You know what I mean? I’m so afraid of that,” he said. “It’s like a great actor, he puts on that makeup and puts on that costume, and he does this shtick that’s good if you are a fantastic Hamlet. Then 20 years later it’s like, is he still involved? Does the Royal Danish Ballet just put on the ‘Napoli’ cloak? This is the blessing and the curse of tradition.

“When I watched the old version, I almost didn’t know anymore, there was so much wallpaper,” Hubbe continued. “We put on the glue and the next generation puts on more glue. . . . There was charm, but also a lot of schlag,” he said, using the German culinary term for whipped cream. You can imagine that, having just left the well-oiled modern-art machine of the New York City Ballet, Hubbe must have looked around at the somewhat staid Old-Europe Danish troupe and thought, if some companies revel in decorative and insubstantial fluff, this was not going to be one of them.

“What is authentic and what is not? Somebody in the ’30s was great at it and everybody started mimicking him,” Hubbe said. Scrape away the schlag, and maybe there would be some truth underneath.

“I wanted to do a bit of a clean slate. Between me and August.” He laughs. He has pondered the father of the Danish ballet style so much that the old man haunts his dreams, Hubbe said: Sometimes he’s kind, and sometimes . . . “he’s a ghoul.”

In the end, Hubbe realized the answer lay in Italy itself — hot, salty, dirty Italy. He took ”Napoli” out of its 19th-century postcard-prettiness and restaged it in the 1950s, in a Naples of Fellini and the mob, where fishnets weren’t only for fish and Sophia Loren was a bigger knockout than Rocky Marciano. He also rechoreographed the second act and added new music. It is a bracingly different look for “Napoli” — in the first act, the ballerinas wear stilettos and smoke cigarettes — but Hubbe insists that the atmosphere it evokes is in keeping with Bournonville’s intentions.

When Bournonville first staged it 170 years ago, Hubbe said, “I’m sure the audience smelled this foreign city, this exotic city that they had maybe only read about. . . . I wanted to give that cinematic Technicolor sensation. Like the first time you saw ‘Roma.’ With a hint of Sophia Loren, and Marcello Mastroianni in ‘La Dolce Vita.’ ”

Other directors have tread more softly around Bournonville. But though audience reception to the new “Napoli” in Denmark has been mixed, many have admired Hubbe’s courage.

“It’s hard when you have something as important as the Danish tradition,” says dancer Thomas Lund, an 18-year veteran of the company. “It takes a lot of guts to do something new with it. But on the other hand, I also think it’s an important part of the tradition that you dare to do something with it. . . . If you don’t experiment with it, it dies. If you don’t update things, you can be sure they will not survive. ”

For younger dancers, it’s not so much Hubbe’s innovations as his mere presence that is a charge. Though he spent most of his career — 18 years — at New York City Ballet, Hubbe had also been a principal dancer at the Royal Danish Ballet, trained at its school and was something of a celebrity in absentia back home.

“He’s a very artistic person, and it shines out of him, when he’s instructing or teaching, this enthusiasm for the ballet and for the storytelling in the ballets,” said Alban Lendorf, whom Hubbe hired in his first weeks as director. Lendorf is now a principal dancer, having risen rapidly under Hubbe’s grooming, and is seen by many as the new face of Danish dance. (He will dance the lead in “Napoli” on Saturday night and soloist roles in other performances.)

For all his ideas and zest, Hubbe says it has taken him a while to get used to living in his birthplace again — in New York, “there’s rhythm and a pulse that is like sticking your finger in an electric socket. Denmark is a slower pace.” Harder, though, was getting used to being in charge.

“In the beginning I think I was thinking, what would Peter Martins do?” Hubbe said, referring to the New York City Ballet’s longtime ballet master in chief, a fellow Dane. “But I don’t do that anymore.”

Now he is focused more on refining the company’s style and importing some of the speed and clarity he absorbed from the New York City Ballet.

“We used to all have a TV with that big back thing where the tube was. Now they are flat-screen and high-definition. If anything that is the metaphor” for how he is trying to reshape Danish dancing, Hubbe said. “More defined . . . defining a role with the brain, the heart and the body.

“I think the execution of the steps, the phrasing of the steps, the definition of the dancing, and the way they are set up against the story and scenography and decor, I think this is now.

Royal Danish Ballet

performing “A Folk Tale,” Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., and “Napoli,” Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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