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Johan Kobborg: vibrant virtuoso.

Seated in the dramatic, mirrored u lobby of Manhattan's Royalton Hotel, Johan Kobborg, Royal Danish Ballet's latest white-hot virtuoso, manages to look both at ease and a bit amused by designer Philippe Starck's chic High-Eighties surroundings. Dressed in head-to-toe black, from his bulky sweater to his snug jeans, he blends in nicely in a room where black seems the only color knowledgeable patrons would dream of wearing. He's quietly striking, with his wide-set, Nordic blue eyes, sculpted jaw and collar-caressing blond hair. Around his neck, an antique Russian cross flashes silver.

"It's my good-luck cross," he says, handling it fondly.

Kobborg feels he's been unusually lucky so far during his brief but dazzling career, and at first glance it's hard to disagree. He didn't enter the Royal Danish Ballet School until what, by ballet standards, was the near-geriatric age of sixteen. Just one year later, in 1989, he was invited to join the ninety-member company as an apprentice. By 1993 he was a much-featured soloist. And last year, at a mere twenty-two, Johan Kobborg became one of the first dancers to be promoted to principal by Peter Schaufuss, RDB's new artistic director.

As Kobborg tells it, his luck kicked into high gear with the company's 1992 Bournonville Festival, a weeklong celebration of the great Danish choreographer's work. "I was the right age for many parts in Bournonville ballets," explains Kobborg, who won praise for everything from his Act III variations in Napoli to his pas de deux in Flower Festival in Genzano. "So many people from all over the world came to see us."

Those audiences, including a roster of influential critics, liked what they saw. Dance Magazine's Tobi Tobias declared Kobborg "a virtuoso so intoxicated with his own exuberance, you can't help grinning back at his seemingly spontaneous joy." And, relaying the buzz from festival enthusiasts, English critic Mary Clarke wrote, "Surely Johan Kobborg will be the company's next big male star."

Scrutinize Kobborg's career more closely, however, and it's clear that luck had less to do with his rapid rise than talent and, perhaps more important, old-fashioned hard work. The raw material was in place early on, from his magnificent jumps and pulse-quickening turns to his impeccable acting. But the precision, purity and utter lack of mannerism that define his dancing developed through considerable effort.

"I've had to work on getting it clean," Kobborg says. "I never had intense training, only two classes a week before I came to Copenhagen. My body wasn't shaped right to be a classical dancer. My muscles weren't really stretched out. And I wasn't very strong."

Along the way Kobborg perfected the classic Danish quality of making the hardest steps look utterly natural, as easy and elegant as can be. In short, his carefully honed technique rarely gets in the way of the dancing.

Kobborg credits his appetite for dance to his late arrival at the Royal Danish school. "If you're too young, it's all your parents pushing, and not really the children who have the desire," he says. "But since I came in so late, I was focused. I knew that I had to work 100 percent."

Kobborg's steely, if quiet, determination is well known in the company. "Johan's so focused," says Henriette Muus, a Royal Danish soloist and Kobborg's girlfriend (cast in the Flower Festival pas de deux four years ago, they've been together ever since). "He's always working after class, trying to do things better. He's very competitive with himself."

For an extra push, beginning in 1990 Kobborg signed up regularly for international ballet competitions and came away with a slew of awards, including the gold medal in the Erik Bruhn Competition in 1993 ("I was very pleased with that because Erik Bruhn was Danish," he says) and the grand prize at the First International Nureyev Ballet Competition in 1994.

"I know competitions are not really art," he says. "But for a young dancer they are really important. You see other dancers and can compare yourself. It's not a question of copying other styles. But you take what you can use and make it natural to you."

American audiences saw him dance off with the grand prize at the fifth USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, last year. They can see him again when the touring Royal Danish Ballet begins its performances in Costa Mesa, California, on May 23.)

As a videotape from Mississippi shows, Kobborg, partnered by Muus, impressed audiences, who applauded eagerly after nearly every variation. In the Flower Festival pas de deux, his dancing seemed to build, the pristine beats followed by the immaculate entrechats, all topped off with a string of leaps: high, precise, and delivered with a confident ease.

Kobborg chose his competition works deliberately to show off his stylistic versatility. "You often see competitors do Don Q, Corsaire, and Bayadere, which are all sort of the same," he says. Instead, besides the requisite Bournonville, expected if you're Danish, he explains, Kobborg danced contemporary solos by Danish choreographer and former ballerina Anna Laerkesen and Stephen Pier, a young American.

His competition days behind him, Kobborg's focus is currently beamed on dancing the classics, as many as possible. "I want to see how far I can go in the classical repertory," he says. "It's like a test for myself." What about choreographing? It's attractive, Kobborg admits, but he's in no hurry. "In Denmark we have workshops where dancers from the company can do choreography, and I could mix it," he says. "But I can wait. I have to finish this first." All bets are that he will.

For all his serious talk, Kobborg has an easy manner and a dry, self-effacing wit. "I pay her to say those things," he says playfully as Muus, when asked, reels off his virtues as a dancer. He apologizes for his dancing on a tape he has lent me, saying he's stronger than when it was recorded. But when I tell him the Danish tape couldn't be viewed on my American VCR, he chuckles, "Too bad. It's brilliant."

Seated comfortably on a tall white sofa at the Royalton, he and Muus display the relaxed camaraderie of longtime friends--and devoted balletomanes. "We walk the dogs," quips Muus when asked what they do when they aren't aren't busy dancing. (They have two Jack Russell terriers.)

With the ballet company in residence in Copenhagen almost year-round, classes, rehearsals and performances gobble up six days a week. But dance fills their downtime, too. Besides seeing visiting companies, they watch lots of dance videos. "Even if you don't like everything you see, you might see something interesting," says Muus, whose favorites include Gelsey Kirkland's performances with American Ballet Theatre.

During their recent weeklong holiday in New York, Kobborg took daily class with ABT, while Muus, recovering from knee surgery, worked out at Pilates. They also had dinner with friends most nights, shopped up a storm, and saw a couple of performances by New York City Ballet.

"They're great dancers with so much energy," says Kobburg of NYCB. But while he has danced Agon, Theme and Variations, and a sprightly Harlequin in Night Shadow, don't expect Kobborg to follow anytime soon in the Balanchinean footsteps of NYCB principal Nikolaj Hobbe, his former colleague at Royal Danish Ballet.

Kobborg likes his choreography liberally layered with characters, stories and acting. "I'm sure there's a meaning behind everything," he says. "But I prefer the meaning to come from a story. Even though Henriette and I know about ballet, we sometimes see things and say, What was that about? So if you're not a dancer, what are you to think? I like works you don't have to be an expert to understand and gain a meaning." He shrugs. "It's how we were brought up. Ours is an old tradition with mime classes in school."

Favorite roles to date include James in La Slyphide, Lensky in Onegin, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and Blue Bird in Sleeping Beauty. And the role he's been burning to do, Albrecht in Giselle, became his this past March. "I see Giselle as the most classical of the classical ballets, more classical, for me, than Swan Lake," he says. "I like the story. It's kind of straightforward. Swan Lake is a very hard story to put across."

Kobborg's regard for the classics comes in part because he finds that the ballets are so rich. "I've always liked it when people mix things," he says. Pointing to the contents of the nearby coffee table, he explains, "You can be good at making glasses, but if you also can make an ashtray, that's very good. Working on technique and perfecting classical pas de deux in ballets is beautiful. But acting is wonderful, too," he continues. "With the classics, you mix everything."

From an early age Kobborg wanted to try--and mix--everything. He grew up in a theatrical family--his mother was an actress--in the tiny town of Odense, famous as the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. As a child he acted in plays and studied the violin. But one day, when his violin teacher played him a recording by Yehudi Menuhin, seven-year-old Johan got up and started dancing. Immediately, his mother added dance classes to his smorgasbord of lessons.

When he was sixteen, his mother decided he should concentrate on one discipline. Ballet was the obvious choice. "In dance you're able to act and dance, and it's accompanied by music," he says.

Because the Royal Danish Ballet School lacks dorms, Kobborg's mother moved to Copenhagen so that her son could study there. Fortunately, he liked the school. "It's a great atmosphere," he recalls. "Kids studying Bournonville ballets can walk the corridors and meet older dancers."

And Kobborg is proud of his Bournonville training, which he eloquently displays on the 1992 video Bournonville Ballet Technique: Fifty Enchamements, performed with Royal Danish principal Rose Gad. "It's so right," he says of the nineteenth-century Dane's timeless choreography. "Very often I see some ballet, and it doesn't really touch me because I cannot believe in it. But Bournonville is very clear, very natural in the way you move. It doesn't seem artificial. There's a reason behind every gesture, every step . . .You get very strong, especially from the preparations for jumps," he says. "Out of nowhere you have to do a double turn. With Russian technique, you do a step, then you walk up to a corner and do another step. But with Bournonville, you do a step, then dance up to a corner.

"With some ballets, you can show it's hard," he continues. "But with Bournonville, it's joy. You shouldn't see any strain." He pauses. "It's kind of hard, but that's what's fun about it."

Ultimately, that effortless, joyful dancing is what makes Johan Kobborg, just one month shy of his twenty-third birthday, seem the most promising young male dancer in Denmark.

Terry Trucco is a free-lance writer who has contributed articles on ballet and the arts to the New York Times.
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Author:Trucco, Terry
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 1, 1995
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