On a stage filled with dainty Danish dancers, Shelby Elsbree looks very American: spunky, playful and a little bit feisty. Even in the prim, polite confines of Bournonville choreography, this 20-year-old Royal Danish Ballet corps member moves with a sense of bubbly abandon.
As a student, Elsbree never imagined she would begin her career in such an old-fashioned European company. Born in Sarasota, Florida, she started ballet at a local Vaganova studio at 9 after breaking her arm in gymnastics. She quickly grew serious, and at 13 moved to New York to train at the School of American Ballet. “Balanchine technique felt like a breath of fresh air to me,” she says. “I loved it.”
In 2007, Elsbree was one of four students chosen to be Peter Martins’ choreographic muses for the heroine of New York City Ballet’s new Romeo + Juliet. Although Martins eventually cast company dancers to perform the role, Elsbree relished being part of the choreographic process. “As a 16-year-old student,” she says, “it was life-changing to work directly with Peter Martins and professional dancers.”
Dancing the role of Friar Lawrence was Nikolaj Hübbe, then a principal at NYCB. He recognized Elsbree two years later when she arrived in Copenhagen to take a company class audition for the Royal Danish Ballet, where Hübbe had since become artistic director.
“Before my last year at SAB, Aaron Watkin, director of Dresden Semperoper Ballet, saw me at Pacific Northwest Ballet’s summer intensive and offered me a job,” she says. “Before that, I’d only ever wanted to dance in New York, but suddenly my eyes opened up to Europe.” As long as she was crossing the Atlantic to check out Dresden, Elsbree decided to audition for other European companies that intrigued her as well. She researched repertoires, asked older friends for suggestions, then mapped out a strategic itinerary. After eight days and five companies in five different countries, Elsbree was offered four corps contracts. “I chose Royal Danish Ballet because I knew Nikolaj and was excited for the Balanchine rep he’d bring in,” says Elsbree. “Plus, everyone here speaks flawless English.”
Even though the company has over 100 dancers, Elsbree isn’t getting lost in the corps. She joined in March 2009, and by that September, she was dancing alongside principals and soloists as the Blue Girl in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. “Shelby is very precise, but dances with a wonderful freedom,” says Hübbe. “I like her superb willingness.”
So far, the biggest challenge for Elsbree has been mastering the Bournonville style—especially the arms. “When I get excited, it’s easy to let my arms get carried away,” she says. “I have to keep that extra sense of control.”
She’s also had to acclimate to the mellower work ethic in Denmark. “Everyone here works very hard, but not in a competitive way against their peers,” says Elsbree. “Sometimes you feel like you don’t have to fight as much, which can be good and bad.” Although the camaraderie is refreshing, she has to push herself to keep the same drive she had in New York.
She keeps friends and family back home updated through her blog, tutusandtea.wordpress.com, where she chronicles her ballet life—and her baking. “One thing I miss is the Food Network,” she admits. “Every free evening, you’ll find me in my happy place with a fabulous cookbook, my camera (nicknamed “Little Chef”) to take photos for my blog and plenty of flour and butter.”
Although she misses home, Elsbree says Europe has expanded her view of the ballet world. “I used to be narrowly focused on one or two companies, but there are so many more opportunities—companies, choreographers, styles—than I ever realized,” she says. “My tunnel vision has completely opened up.”
at a glance
Name: Shelby Elsbree
Company: Royal Danish Ballet
Training: School of American Ballet
Favorite role: Blue Girl in Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering
Dream roles: Giselle and Juliet