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    Johan Kobborg 2021

    Johan Kobborg

    Former Principal, The Royal Ballet

    Interviewed by David Bain
    Zoom video conference, May 05 2021


    In welcoming Johan, David noted that it was more than 10 years since he had last spoken to the Association and that there was therefore a lot of catching up to be done.

    Johan was currently working on a revival of his and Ethan Steifel’s production of Giselle with the Royal New Zealand Ballet. The ballet had returned to the repertoire after a gap of some seven years and Johan was rehearsing the company online via Zoom while simultaneously collaborating with Ethan via phone and text. The process not only involved working across three widely differing time zones but also having to find satisfactory, if not ideal, staging methods in place of the usual physical involvement. Johan was conscious that his normal approach to choreographing and coaching was to begin with a few words but then use his body as his main means of communication. Sitting in a chair in front of a screen was no substitute for being with dancers in the studio, however well they responded, and some of the tweaks which he would have liked to have made to Giselle were not proving feasible.

    Johan’s work on Cinderella for the NBA Ballet Company Japan arose when the Director approached him with the proposal during Alina Cojocaru’s run of shows in early 2020. Cinderella had not been on Johan’s ‘to do’ list, possibly because he felt that the music dictated too strongly what the action had to be, so he did not accept immediately. Instead, he revisited the music and, as Covid-19 closed in on him, he began to envisage the story from a number of angles and see the score in a new light. Johan felt he had also struggled with the concept previously because, having performed in several versions himself, he needed, particularly, to erase Ashton’s almost perfect Act 2 from his memory. Having accepted the commission while in lockdown in London, creating his version of the ballet became Johan’s passion, his mind fully occupied by the challenge of a developing a full production in two acts, with the music abridged and differently configured.

    His detailed preparation enabled Johan to go to Japan and make the ballet in only 16 days. Getting that precious face-to-face time involved twice jumping on a plane at a moment’s notice to avoid travel restrictions and spending a total of 28 days quarantined in a hotel. The fact that, during one of those spells, his second daughter was born, and his dog had died served to emphasise the sacrifices which had needed to be made. However, Johan said that he was very proud of his two productions during the pandemic – his new daughter and Cinderella.

    Akane Takada was Johan’s Cinderella and having her there made him feel that everything would be alright. She was very responsive and a pleasure to work with. After he has set a ballet, Johan likes to spend time supporting the dancers in developing their roles but there was insufficient time for this while he was in the studio with them. The compulsory wearing of masks until the day before the première also made it difficult to judge whether the dancers were giving him the kind of minimalist acting which he was seeking from them. So, Johan is looking forward to revisiting the work with the eyes of a coach when circumstances permit.

    Asked about his time as Artistic Director in Romania, Johan replied that he had not spoken of it since he left – largely because people sensed that the subject might be off limits. He had “loved it unconditionally” and said that he found talking about the experience very difficult. The company had some very talented dancers but was stuck in the past, with classical productions looking like they were created in the 1940s. His vision had been to develop the dancers by enabling them to have new and different experiences so that, over time, they would become more receptive to change and better able to adapt to other kinds of works. Johan wanted the audiences to have a much updated and more ambitious offer too. So he had immediately begun to contact the people who held the rights to the ballets he wanted to introduce into the repertoire – for example, Manon, The Dream and pieces by Forsythe, Robbins, Kylian, Balanchine, Possokhov and Ratmansky. Johan felt that what he and the company had managed to do together in two and a half years was amazing and that everyone’s eyes had been opened to new possibilities.

    Johan had been hired originally by the theatre overall Director, newly in post, who had wanted to raise standards to an international level. However, unfortunately, allegations were made against him which resulted in his being removed from his position and a succession of no less than six Interim Directors being appointed in his wake. Although he tried to work with all of them, Johan knew that there could be no future for him in Bucharest as bringing in the repertoire he wanted and securing the help he needed was only possible if there was full support ‘above’ him.

    Leaving was the hardest decision that Johan had ever made and, five years later, he was still trying to fully absorb and understand all that had happened. “I tried everything”, he said, “but sometimes it’s better to just leave it”. Bucharest remained for him “an incredible place” and, despite it coming to an end, he would not have wanted to have been without the experience of being there and trying to make good things happen.

    Casting his mind back, Johan recalled that his first contact with The Royal Ballet had come during the 1996/97 season when the Royal Ballet was on tour in Copenhagen, dancing The Dream and Month in the Country among other works. His eyes had alighted on Bruce Samson, the greatest male dancer he had ever seen, whose dancing he found very elegant and to whom he could compare himself in stature. Whereas, in The Royal Danish Ballet, dancers tended to be compartmentalised as Danseurs Nobles or Character Artists, it seemed to Johan that, in the Royal Ballet, it was possible to be cast more broadly and the prospect of that appealed to him. Therefore, when he was invited by Scottish Ballet to guest with them in La Sylphide (alongside Tamara Rojo who was with that company at the time) and the tour was going to Woking, he contacted Anthony Dowell, the Royal Ballet’s Director, and invited him to come and watch. He did so, accompanied by Monica Mason, but the only outcome was a fax informing Johan that the Royal Ballet didn’t have a place for him.

    As the leading man in Denmark at that time, Johan was “unaccustomed to being turned down” and his private response was, “But The Royal Ballet is where I should be”. However, he was soon guesting with The National Ballet of Canada and had begun to think of joining them. Then, in the summer of 1999, he received a message from Michael Corder who was making a piece for the Royal Ballet’s planned Dance Bites tour with the possibility of dancing with, or alongside, Miyako Yoshida, Leanne Benjamin and Viviana Durante. Johan took up the invitation and, towards the end of the rehearsal period, Anthony enquired whether he would like to stay on once the tour was over. Johan commented that this was an example of why “one should never give up; there is always another way”.

    He joined the Royal Ballet at a point when the “whole environment was super exciting”. The House was about to re-open, there were posters everywhere publicising the Company and he was immediately aware that, among the Principals and Soloists, there were several female dancers who were not only ‘right’ for him physically but who also had “incredible artistic personalities”. Johan also appreciated the fact that his whole year was mapped out in advance: knowing that he had to deliver x role on y date not only assisted his preparation but made him feel more secure in himself. He thought that ‘not knowing’ was one of the worst things for dancers in terms of their development and self-belief and, yet, that situation seemed to arise so often.

    Johan enjoyed his early months working with various ballerinas but, when he was paired with Alina Cojocaru, “things took on another level of excitement”. “It seems like a lifetime ago but it’s just over 20 years,” he added. He thought that the Royal Ballet was in amazing shape back then, with the stars he had already mentioned alongside Carlos Acosta, Irek Mukhamedov and Jonathan Cope. ‘Stand-out’ memories for Johan were: discovering that the role of Onegin was ‘one for him’ after years of dancing Lensky; wearing white tights in The Nutcracker and playing Rudolf in Mayerling. Although he would have wanted more opportunity to feature in new works, having creations made on him by choreographers including Ashley Page, Liam Scarlett, David Bintley,Kim Brandstrup and Michael Corder was very memorable, but there wasn’t enough new work. Most special of all was Giselle,a ballet which he had “travelled the world with”. “To find myself at the Mariinsky dancing Albrecht was a most incredible stop on an incredible journey”, he said.

    Looking back, Johan thought that one of the contributory reasons for his leaving the Royal Ballet was that, after experiencing such a rich repertoire, he began to feel the need to live new kinds of stories. If anything, the pandemic had served to reinforce his decision to move onto other things in order to avoid repetition and have different aspects to his life. “But I’m still dancing”, he added.

    Johan had produced La Sylphide eight or nine times since his 2005 version for the Royal Ballet but, prior to that, he hadn’t considered himself to be a producer or choreographer. Unfortunately, versions such as the one he made for the Bolshoi, had become rather unrecognisable over the years and he was itching to tweak them. Although there was a possibility of another production in the pipeline, Johan had in his mind an alternative version which would convey the story in a more contemporary light. La Sylphide had proved to be a springboard to other ventures to the extent that, initially, the demands on Johan’s time reduced the amount of dancing that he was able to do himself.

    With his Romeo and Juliet featuring Sergei Polunin and Alina Cojocaru now re-scheduled for December at The Royal Albert Hall, Johan explained that, originally, he was going to mount a production in Novosibirsk. That didn’t materialise but, while he was in Atlanta staging La Sylphide,Sergei had approached him about a new creation for the Arena de Verona and Johan suggested a short one act version of Romeo and Juliet. Challenged to create and deliver a concept which would work without an interval, Johan drew on resources from many directions. For example, before going back to Sergei to say, “Can do”, he got in contact with a brutalist sculptor, whose work he had seen an image of on Instagram and thought perfect for his set, to see whether the original artwork could be produced on a gigantic scale. It could and Johan remains excited by it. Sergei’s PoluninInk team had then set up meetings with Johan’s favourite clothes brand/designers and other potential contributors to get the wheels in motion.

    Johan said that, personally, he struggles to watch ballet for over three hours, with interruptions for intervals, and thought that a faster pace (his Romeo and Juliet is 1 hour 20 minutes) was a better match for the modern world. He felt that, if ballet was allowed to flow differently, more diverse audiences might become drawn to it. He was now contemplating how the classics might be reconfigured so that, while still respecting the tradition, their ‘look’ would have wider appeal.

    The evening ended with Johan and David reminiscing about a shared experience in Naples after a performance of Napoli with former Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Ambra Vallo, before noting that so many aspects of Johan’s work and life remained to be discussed. They agreed that another date needed to be made – and sooner than ten years ahead! Johan responded to David’s grateful thanks for an extremely interesting evening by asking the Association to remember all the freelancers who made up the greater proportion of the dance world and who were not as fortunate as he had been in terms of being able to work during the pandemic.

    Report written by Linda Gainsbury and edited/approved by Johan Kobborg and David Bain

    © The Ballet Association 2021