Even in the cloistered world of classical ballet, being the daughter of a famous father has its drawbacks as well as advantages, as Dinna Bjorn can tell you.
Bjorn is cofounder and codirector of the Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet, the youthful touring troupe that opens a three-day engagement at Wolf Trap tonight. She is also the daughter of Niels Bjorn Larsen, the great mime and character dancer, now 70, who remains one of the grand patriarchs of the Danish company, which he served as artistic director in the past.
"My father has been lots of help to me and a tremendous inspiration," Bjorn says. "It's a good thing, though, that my mother wasn't the famous ballet dancer in the family--I'd have had to be compared to her all the time. As it was, my father was so special in his field, there wasn't that kind of danger.
"But there were problems. He was still artistic director of the company when I joined, and he retired two years after that. I won't say my coming was the reason, but it did play a role. He knew he'd be in trouble no matter what he did--if he gave me a part, they'd all say, oh, of course, she's his daughter. And if he did the opposite, not letting me dance something for which I was suited, that would have been just as unfair."
Though she grew up backstage, so to speak--her mother, a pianist, teaches music in the ballet's school, and she was taken to performances from the age of 2 on--Bjorn didn't nurture childhood dreams of being a dancer. "For me, it wasn't anything special, it just seemed like work. I really wanted to be a doctor. And my parents never took me to audition for the ballet school; they didn't want to pressure me."
Hence, Bjorn was a late starter. She had her first classes at 13. "What drew me in was the Pantomime Theater in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen , a wonderful fairy-tale theater. My father directed it for a while, and children often took part in the performances; I was dying to do this, so he told me I'd have to study the ballet. Eventually my private teacher pushed me to audition for the Royal Danish Ballet, but it was luck that got me in. That year, 1965, the company was planning a big American tour, and five female dancers were suddenly pregnant--they needed dancers desperately, and took three 17-year-olds, which was very unusual. I was one of them."
In 1975, Bjorn and fellow RDB dancer Frank Andersen put heads together to found the summer touring unit--now numbering 13 dancers--called the Soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet. "It all happened by odd coincidence," she says. "Frank had been studying in the States that summer and was called in to replace Peter Martins at Jacob's Pillow; everyone was talking about the great old days with the Danish dancers at the Pillow. In the meantime, I got a letter from a lady in the Virgin Islands, who wrote of a whole colony of Danes there longing to see us dance. So Frank and I put together a tour for the American bicentennial year, 1976, that went to these two places--we never thought it would last more than one summer but they all wanted us back. For us dancers it was a perfect combination--having dancing to do when the Royal Theater in Copenhagen was closed, bringing Bournonville ballets to stages too small for the large company, and seeing a bit of the world at the same time."
The parent company wasn't thrilled with the idea at the outset. "They were quite skeptical," Bjorn says, "worrying about the initiative we were taking without their direction. But then they found that instead of people saying, well, now I've seen Bournonville, I've seen Danish ballet, why bother to see more, in fact, Americans began to flock to Denmark to see the big company because they were so excited by what they'd seen of our little group."
Bjorn, who has chalked up an impressive career as a dancer, choreographer, producer (of historical reconstructions of Bournonville ballets) and teacher, says she has passed through her "restless" period--in 1977, with thoughts of relocating in this country, she took a year's leave of absence to teach, choreograph and stage ballets here. "When I returned to Denmark I realized I'd rather have the company and our group as a base . . . I realized too how great the competition among dancers is in the United States, especially among women--there are so many wonderful dancers around, to make a mark you have to be either very, very special or a defector from Russia."
Bjorn, however, is very enthusiastic about a Danish "defector," former RDB star Peter Martins, who has just taken over artistic direction of the New York City Ballet, in tandem with Jerome Robbins. " "Of course," she says, "Peter has been here so long I think he feels more American than Danish--not as a person, but in his approach to choreography. It's interesting that lately he seems to be using more and more of his Danish background in his ballets, although the Balanchine influence is still quite strong."
Martins has just announced his imminent retirement as a dancer, and though Bjorn looks and dances at least a decade younger than her 36 years (also Martins' age), she too is already having thoughts of ending her performing activities. "I want to choreograph lots more, for one thing," she says. "I don't know if I'd want to direct a company, but I might codirect one. I have no head for the financial, administrative or public relations side; I love to rehearse, plan programs, find choreographers. That's what I do for the Soloists, and Frank, who's good at it, takes care of the other side--that's why we work so well together."