Thursday, July 18, 2013

Blood, sweat and tears - or money?

Back in 2008, I was working on my thesis for my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Copenhagen. I wrote about August Bournonville’s ballet Napoli, and I talked to many people who had a special relation to Napoli or a specific knowledge about the Bournonville heritage. One of them was a very clever and talented young dancer – she was 14 at the time and a student at the Royal Danish Ballet School. She was a perfect example of the Bournonville tradition, having entered the school at 8 years old and gone through many of the traditional children’s roles in the repertoire. But perhaps more importantly, she was at that interesting stage where she was still a child, yet she already had that grown-up, somewhat serious demeanour that many young dancers have – presumably caused by the knowledge that the career they are about to embark on is a tough one, both mentally and physically, and that it requires them to show more responsibility than their non-dancing peers. This girl, however, loved every second of it, and it was obvious that she had the drive and the determination to go far.
A few weeks ago, I got to interview her again – this time for the lovely ladies over at The Ballet Bag. When she realised that I was the same person who had interviewed her all those years ago, she burst into a big smile and said: “Wow, a lot has happened since then – I’m a ballet dancer now!” Indeed she is, and a very good one at that. Ida Praetorius is one of the brightest stars at the Royal Danish Ballet, and she has just finished up a season that would leave many accomplished artists short of breath – you can read more about that in my interview with her.
Throughout my chat with Ida, she was incredibly humble about the opportunities she has been given and the speed with which her career is developing. As a stark contrast, the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet visited London last week, bringing back none other than ballet’s (self-proclaimed?) bad boy – Sergei Polunin. Seeing the posters promoting their season at the London Coliseum, I was struck by the fact that Polunin's name was set apart from all the others - in red letters and a line above everybody else. Ahead of the tour, he was interviewed for several papers, saying more or less the same every time: that ballet isn’t cool and that he is in it for the money. And while he is certainly a very, very good dancer, statements like that – along with the red letters, raised above everybody else – made me not want to buy a ticket to watch him dance. I find his behaviour incredibly juvenile and disrespectful – of artists like Ida, who put their entire heart and soul into making a career for themselves. And of the many contemporary dancers that I work with, who accept almost embarrassingly low fees to be part of a project, because they believe in it and just want to dance. Which may sound like a horrible cliché, but the fact is that dance is becoming an increasingly unsustainable business, only kept afloat by the passion and commitment of the people who keep on going – regardless of whether or not they get paid. And while I am very well aware that Polunin is not the only well-paid dancer out there, he is certainly the only one to be so blunt about it.
Fact is, that the vast majority of dancers are not in it for the money – they are in it because there is nothing else they would rather spend their life doing. Yet another cliché, but a true one. And in my opinion, Sergei Polunin is stepping on every single one of them with his immature comments.
Towards the end of my interview with Ida I asked her what she would do if the world were at her feet – any country, any company, any choreographer! Her answer? “I just want to dance as much as possible – it’s what makes me happy. That’s why I’m a ballet dancer!”
Or, in the words of her colleague Carling Talcott, known over on Twitter as the always entertaining @darlingwithaC:         

Are you listening, Sergei?

Monday, May 13, 2013


When I was in kindergarten, I remember thinking that school kids – not the big ones, mind you, just the ones that were still in kindergarten a year ago – were incredibly grown up. Primary school – that’s where you want to be! Then I got to primary school, and the next goal was 6th grade, because the sixth graders got to do a play at the annual Christmas party. Big time grown up stuff! And as I kept reaching all those tiny milestones throughout the years, I remember thinking that the next one was incredibly far away, and surely I would never get there. But nonetheless, I graduated high school, I even graduated college and lo and behold – now I’m getting married!
Now, I don’t remember all the intricacies of my 10-year old brain, but I’m pretty sure that once rehearsals for that sixth grade play started, I knew it was happening. And as I was writing my dissertation a few years ago, I knew for sure that I was about to graduate college, and I couldn’t wait. But this wedding business? I’ve been planning it for 9 months, and it still hasn’t sunk in that in less than a week I’ll be walking down that aisle.      
Everything is ready. Every detail is either already done, or I know exactly when I’m going to do it. I’ve even bought (and tested) the nail polish I’m going to wear. But as soon as I start thinking about the actual day, my brain just goes foggy. It would appear that said brain, which has otherwise served me pretty well so far, just cannot comprehend that this is actually happening.
I guess getting married is one of those things. When you’re a little girl, you watch all the Disney princesses marry Prince Charming and live happily ever after. And just like the sixth grade play and graduating college, you know that there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll be you one day. On that stage, clutching that diploma or wearing that white dress. Then, as you grow up, it starts happening – the princesses start being replaced by your real-life friends. One by one, they get hitched  and next thing you know, you’re it! And while I am beyond excited about the actual day, the enormity of what it all means, beyond white dresses and champagne, has really begun to sink in lately. There’s this amazing guy, who loves me enough to go out and buy a gorgeous ring and get down on one knee and ask me to marry him. And as if that wasn’t enough, he’s about to stand in front of all the people we love the most (and the big guy on the top floor, too) and promise to do just that, love me, for the rest of his life. This is major stuff, you guys!
I guess what really separates this milestone from all the other ones, is that it’s not just about reaching it – it’s about everything that happens after you have reached it. It’s about calling each other husband and wife. It’s about that extra level of commitment that is inevitably created by standing in front of all your loved ones and saying yes to each other. For me, it has also been about seeing the anticipation and excitement in the eyes of my family and friends, and feeling incredibly lucky that these wonderful people are so genuinely happy for the man and myself – and the underlying trust that this signifies, in us and the fact that we’re right for each other.
Over the last few weeks, people have kept asking me if I’m nervous. Or, depending on how bold they are, telling me that I’m much too calm… But honestly, I don’t know why I should be nervous. Excited? Yes! Butterflies? Plenty! But nervous is what you are, when you don’t know how something will turn out, or whether it will go well or not. And I have no doubt whatsoever that this Saturday will be absolutely brilliant – I can’t wait to walk down that aisle!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mrs. Something-or-other

When my parents got married, they both kept their last names. And my sister and I – in the true spirit of the seventies – were given both names. For a couple that got married 35 years ago, this was very forward thinking  and more than once it has caused just a tiny bit of confusion. The lovely hostess at the campsite in Austria, where I spent most of my childhood summers, always referred to my mom as Mrs. ‘my-dad’s-name’. This caused a great deal of puzzlement in my little head back then, because – dude, that’s not her name! As a child I obviously thought that everybody’s parents had different last names, and – again, obviously – as a product of your parents, you had both names. Made complete sense to me. Well, it didn’t make sense to the very traditional folks in southern Austria. Then, several years later, when I spent my junior year of high school in the lovely town of Andalusia, Alabama, I found myself explaining the whole name thing again – except this time it was triggered by some horrified Baptist kid asking »So are your parents not married?«      
Now, while my last names have always caused confusion, my first name is in a somewhat different category – in fact, it is the single most common name among Danish women in my age group and I share it with roughly 40.000 other ladies in Denmark. So while I lived in Denmark, my last names were a way of standing out, distinguishing myself from the other 39.999 women. Having moved to England about 2 years ago, my first name is now equally confusing to people, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, what I’m trying to tell you here is that I’m pretty attached to my last names. And now I’m getting married. Do you see where I’m going with this? All my life, I have been adamant about not changing my name – ever. But now that it’s actually happening, I am actually getting married to the man (in exactly 2 months and 5 days, not that I’m counting…), it looks like I’ve changed my mind. Not completely, mind you – I’m not taking his name. But now that we’re going from boyfriend and girlfriend to husband and wife, my stomach is telling me that I would actually like us to be Mr. and Mrs. ‘the-same-name’. So we’re discussing possible combinations of our names – we do have four of them altogether, so it should be possible to find something that isn’t completely jarring.
Interestingly enough, this is a subject that most people have an opinion on. And when I look at my married friends and acquaintances, only a handful of women have chosen the traditional route of completely discarding their own name and taking their husband’s instead. Several have just kept their own names, while quite a few women have added their husband’s name to their own – assuming they only had one name to begin with, obviously. A few chosen men have taken their wife’s name – and while my parents may have been ahead of the curve in the seventies, this is apparently still extremely forward thinking in 2013. And to be honest, that brings out my inner feminist – why should it be less natural for a man to take his wife’s name, than the other way around? If her name is simply prettier, or more unusual, it makes complete sense to me. On the other hand, I have a friend whose last name involves the word c*ck – unsurprisingly, she is more than happy to give up her name in favour of her future husband’s. My point is, that there seems to be a never-ending number of solutions to this issue and in this day and age I simply don’t understand why one should be more acceptable than the other.
And how does the man feel about this topic? Well, his initial reaction when I suggested combining our names to form a, hopefully somewhat pleasant-sounding, unit, shows how well he knows me – he was shocked that it was even an option! So we’re approaching this whole name-changing business in a very democratic way – we have both been able to veto something (a name, a specific combination, a certain order) and we both have to make a strong case for our favourites. The discussions are ongoing and hopefully we’ll be able to find the perfect solution before the 18th of May. And then – welcome to the world of Mr. and Mrs. Hyphenated and Double-Barrelled!    

PS. Some very clever people have written about this subject recently – Jill Filipovic in The Guardian and William MacAskill on Quartz.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Stuff of Legends

On my very first trip to the Royal Opera House, I sat next to a lovely Irish lady. While waiting for the curtain to rise, we started chatting and next thing I knew she was telling me about one of her first trips to this very place – when, as a young girl, she had travelled over from Ireland to see Margot Fonteyn dance with Rudolf Nureyev. »I was sitting all the way up there« she said, pointing to the very back of the Amphitheatre, »And it was magic. Even after they stopped dancing, I couldn’t move – I just sat there.« Needless to say, I was completely in awe. With Dame Margot passing away in 1991, and Nureyev in 1993, I never had the chance to see these exceptional artists perform, so sitting next to someone who had – well, that was as close as I’d ever been.
Last week, it felt like I got a tiny bit closer. As some of you might remember, a young man named Sergei Polunin caused quite a stir just over a year ago when he walked out on his employer, The Royal Ballet. A few months later, a lady named Tamara Rojo caused a somewhat more dignified stir, when she announced that she too would be leaving her position as a principal dancer with the company to become artistic director of the English National Ballet. Now, Polunin of course didn’t get a proper farewell – he left behind a massive mess of ballerinas without a partner and ballets having to be re-cast, so a farewell performance was never really in the cards. Ms Rojo’s exit was perhaps not quite as unexpected – her ambitions of directing a company were well known – but it still didn’t feel like she was given a suitable send off. While the choreographer Wayne McGregor did break his adamant ‘no flowers on stage’ rule for her last performance, which of course resulted in several gorgeous bouquets, the true centre of attention that evening was somebody else: Dame Monica Mason, who was the artistic director of The Royal Ballet for 10 years, and celebrated her last performance at the helm of the company that very same night. I suppose that was a pretty good excuse for stealing Tamara’s thunder… Anyway, last week these two super stars returned to The Royal Opera House to dance the iconic title roles in Frederick Ashton’s ‘Marguerite and Armand’. And I think it’s safe to say that their return was a glorious one – Sergei Polunin was full of high-jumping, cape-swishing passion and Tamara Rojo was perfectly breathtaking as the ailing yet graceful courtesan, spending her last hours reliving their tragic love story.
‘Marguerite and Armand’ was created especially for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev – Ashton wanted to showcase their unique partnership, giving Fonteyn, who was well into her forties at the time, a vehicle for her incredible stage presence and emotionally strong dancing and granting the young Nureyev a dramatic role full of jumps and balances. And as I sat at The Royal Opera House last week – all the way up in the Upper Slips – I tried my hardest not to blink while Rojo and Polunin revived this intense love story, drawing a direct line back to Fonteyn and Nureyev and showing us exactly what ballet is all about. Because while there is no doubt that Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are unrivalled – both as individuals and in their partnership – Rojo and Polunin aren’t too shabby themselves. And I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few members of the audience had travelled a lot longer than my 20-minute bike ride to be in Covent Garden that evening. Because having reached a point where I have to buy programs in order to keep track of the shows I’ve seen, there are still some performances that stand out and will stay with you forever – even from the Upper Slips or the very back of the Amphitheatre.                    

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wedding Planning 101

One of my very lovely friends is one of those people who seem to do everything at half speed. You know – eating, putting on makeup, getting out the door… Her dad used to say that this was due to the fact that she was born 3 weeks late, and she simply never managed to get up to speed. Well, it looks like my upcoming nuptials are suffering the same fate. At least according to Brides Magazine, or whatever that massive collection of diamonds and white silk, that is currently sitting on my living room table is called. Despite having been engaged for almost 6 months now, I have only purchased two wedding-related magazines. Why? Because they are a little scary. The first one was acquired back in September, when I was newly engaged and didn’t know any better. Another one made it into my possession on an early December morning at Gatwick Airport, under the excuse that I needed something to read on my flight home for Christmas. And this particular magazine had an added bonus – a wedding planner, including something as brilliant as ‘a stress-proof countdown.’ Not so scary, right? Wrong. Because as I was working my way through said countdown, I realized that I’d never had a chance of being up to speed, simply because there is less than a year between my engagement and my wedding. Apparently, you need to decide on your guest list 12 months before your wedding, send out save-the-dates 11 months ahead of time and confirm the menu for the party 9 months before you’re actually sitting down to eat it. Oh, and half of the points on the list are about reminding your future husband of his duties – such as making sure he has something to wear on the big day. I won’t even comment on that.
Yes, planning your wedding is a massive thing. And yes, there are important decisions to be made. But when push comes to shove, isn’t it just about gathering all the people that you love the most and then have the time of your life with them? I’m honestly not trying to be all holier than holy here, but of course you’ll need an entire year to plan everything if you’re handwriting all your invitations in calligraphy and you haven’t taken Calligraphy 101 yet. And don’t even get me started on all the other things that you apparently need to have printed. I love pretty stationery as much as the next girl, but is it really necessary to chop down an entire rain forest every time somebody gets married? Sorry, veering into holier-than-holy-territory again.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am ridiculously excited about the fact that I’ll soon be married to the love of my life. And I am equally excited about the actual wedding, because I have no doubt that saying yes to the man will be one of the biggest moments of my life. And of course I want to look pretty while saying yes, and I’d also like to have a few nice shots of the day to look at in years to come. But I have absolutely no intention of showing up on the big day with dark circles under my eyes, because a good night’s sleep has been replaced with tying bows on to wedding favors or hand-stamping name cards.
The funny thing is – despite stress-inducing countdowns in daunting magazines; I don’t feel like I’m running behind. Whenever a big decision has come up, the right choice has just been so obvious that the decision was a really quick one - which means that it never felt that big and time-consuming after all. And the wedding magazines? Well, they’re still a bit scary. How can they not be, with things like a list of 55 mandatory wedding pictures – from ‘bride having her hair and makeup done’ to ‘groom with (insert name of every single family member or wedding guest)’. But I guess that’s the wedding industry for ya’. Personally, I have reached a point where flicking through pages of dresses, flowers and music choices mainly makes me relax. Because our flower-guy lives right around the corner from us, and we know him because we walk our dogs in the same parks. Our band consists of some of the man’s fabulous colleagues, who are very talented musicians in their spare time. And my dress - my dress is being made for me by one of my dearest friends who happens to be a kick-ass designer. That’s how I plan a wedding.     

Friday, October 26, 2012

My favourite kind of magic...

About 4½ years ago, I witnessed a magic night at The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Nikolaj Hübbe, principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, had returned to Copenhagen to become artistic director of the ballet company he grew up in. And he would be wrapping up his career by dancing James in La Sylphide – an absolute masterpiece and my favorite ballet! Needless to say, it was a night I will never forget.
After the performance, the man (who has recently become the fiancé – more about that in another post) and I were walking the dog. We lived right down the street from the stage door of The Royal Theatre, and running into dancers and actors while walking the dog was nothing unusual – albeit still exciting. And lo and behold, while walking along and minding our own business, I realized that the slender man with the ridiculously turned-out feet who was walking in front of us was none other than the man we had been applauding a few hours earlier – Nikolaj Hübbe. Now, 4½ years ago, I was still at university. I had begun doing internships in the dance world, and had met a few people that would later become close colleagues, but The Royal Danish Ballet was still a closed world to me. I didn’t know any of the dancers personally, and still found myself giggling quietly when I spotted one of my favorites in the street. And Hübbe wasn’t just a favorite – he was a superstar. Strongly encouraged by the man, I decided to be bold –I caught up with Nikolaj, introduced myself and told him what an honor, what an unparalleled experience, it had been to witness his last performance. He was very sweet, thanking me and saying that it meant a lot to hear that. I thanked him again, and skipped back to the man and the dog – probably with a rather stupid smile on my face. 
A few weeks ago, I got to experience another one of those nights. As I mentioned in this declaration of my undying love for La Sylphide, Thomas Lund, principal dancer extraordinaire, retired from dancing on September 29th. And boy, did he go out with style! So much style – and emotion – that his Sylph, the superb Gudrun Bojesen, forgot to bring the conductor onstage during the curtain calls… Definitely a night that will go down in ballet history. And not only was I there to witness it – I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Thomas a few days before the monumental performance. During the interview – in between taking notes, asking new questions and anxiously eyeing the flashing battery light of my recording device – I had to remind myself to appreciate the moment. Because I was in a situation that I wouldn’t have dared dreaming of when I caught up with Nikolaj Hübbe in the street that night 4½ years ago – not only was I backstage at The Royal Theatre, I was interviewing one of the best ballet dancers in the world!
Now, my work won’t ever make me rich. And I will never have a normal 9-5 career. But working alongside the idols of my youth and childhood is something I will never get tired of. And after Thomas Lund’s monumental farewell performance, as I was having a drink and a chat with Nikolaj Hübbe – much more relaxed, now that I actually know him – I considered telling him about that night after his own final performance – that I was the star struck girl, trying to put into words my admiration for him. Did I? Nah… Some things are better left unsaid.

PS. Head over to The Ballet Bag to check out my interview with Thomas.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Olympic Bug

Okay then. I’ll admit it. I caught the Olympic Bug. It must be a strong little fellow, because it managed to creep past a gigantic wall of cynicism, as well as a dislike of anything associated with too much tacky and overpriced merchandise. It even wiped out the three months of corporate mumbo-jumbo and too many Power Point presentations that are apparently a prerequisite for working at the Olympics. Then again – somewhere deep down, I always knew it would. I always knew, that once I was released by the high-rises of Canary Wharf and let loose in the Olympic Park, the magic would start. And it did!
Now, obviously working at the Olympics is not only fun but also a good bit of hard work - for everybody involved. And getting up at 5 am every day doesn’t do very much for your social skills. At least not in my case. So while I didn’t get to enjoy any of the live sites around London, I have to say I felt quite privileged to go to work every day in a place that a lot of people would literally sell their soul to get in to. Walking through the Olympic Park to get to my venue at 6 am, with only a handful of people around, was a lovely way to start the day. Needless to say, trying to get home towards the end of the day was a rather different experience…
Early mornings and crazy hours aside, what probably surprised me the most in this whole process is how London’s attitude towards the Games seemed to almost change overnight. Up until the 27th of July, it felt like London 2012 was completely drowned out by Games Lanes, G4S and just a general expectation of complete chaos. But when the magic Friday came, and Danny Boyle blew everyone away with his beautifully British Opening Ceremony, it was as if London caught the bug… And lets be honest – if the Opening Ceremony didn’t do it for you, then at least Super Saturday must have dragged you in and given you a full-blown Olympic infection!
I for one have never really cared about athletics. Or ball games. Or cycling. Every once in a while I’d watch the odd gymnastics event or a bit of equestrian. And that was it. Well, fast forward to Super Saturday and I’m the crazy lady jumping up and down in front of the TV screaming »Come on Jess! YOU CAN DO IT!!« The only thing that amazed me even more than the exceptional performances given by Team GB that night, was the way the crowd carried them across the finish line. To see how much energy Mo Farah got from the roaring fans in the stadium and how he just left everybody behind with that energy – I think that’s when I really, really realized how big a deal this Olympics business actually is.
But to be honest, I caught the bug a bit earlier than that. At around 3 pm on Friday the 27th of July, to be exact – that’s when my boss asked me if I wanted a ticket for the Opening Ceremony. And while athletics have never really been my thing before, I have always been a sucker for just about anything that happens on a stage and involves some sort of dancing. So obviously I jumped on my bike, raced home to change out of the poppy and purple nightmare that I have been required to wear, and raced back to Stratford to take my seat in the Olympic Stadium. And I won’t even try to describe that night – partly because you probably all watched it on TV, but also because there are no words to describe how it felt to sit in that stadium and witness pure magic. And while the show was everything I expected it to be  and more  I was actually surprised by one of the things that touched me the most: when Lord Seb Coe gave his speech and he started out by welcoming the entire world to London. That triggered one of the biggest roars of the night! Now, I don’t have an ounce of British blood to my name, but that evening I was very proud to be a Londoner.                
Of course my cynicism hasn’t disappeared completely. I still think that the uniform is the most frightfully ugly thing I’ve ever worn. I still find the London 2012 font utterly ridiculous. And I still can’t look at the logo without seeing Lisa Simpson doing something very R-rated that has definitely never been an Olympic discipline. But nonetheless, helping deliver London’s third Olympic Games has been an experience that I wouldn’t want to be without. Now bring on the Paralympics!