Ballerina in Bloom

The Royal Danish Ballet’s Ida Praetorius brings instinct as well as a fierce work ethic to her roles.
Published in the February/March 2014 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

It’s 10 am on a cool fall morning in a Royal Danish Ballet studio, and only one dancer is wearing pointe shoes at the barre as company class starts: Ida Praetorius. The 20-year-old performs  tiny, fast ronds de jambe and expansive fondus with rapt, relentless dedication. At the end, barely pausing for breath, she squeezes a few more minutes in the studio and throws herself full-out into Balanchine’s fouettés for Dewdrop, which she will dance in the company’s upcoming production of his Nutcracker. It’s October and the rehearsals are still some time away, but she is visibly itching to tackle the role.

A product of the Royal Danish Ballet School, Praetorius joined RDB when she was 16. Four years later she has already become one of its major faces under Nikolaj Hübbe, who returned to his alma mater as artistic director in 2009. Her breakthrough came in 2011, when she was still an apprentice, in a dark Danish classic, Flemming Flindt’s macabre The Lesson. Her debut as the Student and subsequent performances showed raw talent, her sunny exuberance and coltish limbs an ideal match for the role of the pert young girl at first eager, then terrified by her ballet teacher. “It was perfect because she was really a teenager,” says Hübbe. “She was like a spring flower, excited and bubbly, and it made the story immediately tragic.”

Three years later, Praetorius has proved that it wasn’t beginner’s luck. Aided by the work ethic she displays in the studio, she looks poised to break the mold of the traditional Danish ballerina. Blessed with a slender frame and long legs, she seems the opposite of the compact body type and quicksilver footwork demanded by Bournonville, and far from merely pretty. Just as Hübbe is opening up the RDB with quirky productions of the classics, new work and imports from abroad (including a number of American dancers), his protégée’s uncanny ability to make characters seem modern and real stands out. Vivid and instinctive as she plays the awkward Student or falls on the stairs on her way to the ball as John Neumeier’s Juliet, she has poured her vitality into strikingly natural performances.

Born in Copenhagen, Praetorius practically grew up in the wings of the Royal Danish Theatre. The daughter of a former dancer with the Hamburg Ballet and an economist, she started asking for dance lessons by age 3. When she was 8, her dance school was offered a day trip behind the scenes at the Royal Danish Ballet. Praetorius was captivated, and a teacher, noticing her potential as she played around on the stage, suggested she audition for the RDB School.

She was accepted straightaway. “It was this magical place, because the school is in the theater,” she remembers. “You walk in the hallways and you see your idols every day. I always tried to talk to them, but I was very nervous.” While naturally flexible, Praetorius worked hard to compensate for her relative lack of turnout and still does daily exercises—pliés, relevés and ronds de jambe on the Pilates reformer—to help her strengthen those muscles. Her main inspiration was RDB principal Gudrun Bojesen, a consummate actress and Bournonville dancer with whom she now shares the stage (and even a couple of roles). Like all Danish students, she also found herself regularly cast in the Bournonville repertoire, which has plenty of roles for children.

That’s how Praetorius first met Hübbe, who came to set a new production of La Sylphide on the company in 2005. He cast her as the little girl who has a prominent part in Act I. Hübbe remembers his first impression vividly: “She was curious, eager, a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed little squirrel. You saw immediately that this was a girl who was coordinated, musical, who could dance.” She affectionately became known to the company as “Lille-Ida,” Danish for “Little Ida,” and Hübbe didn’t think twice about hiring her as an apprentice in 2010.

Praetorius was 16 at the time, and a late growth spurt—she shot up to 5' 7"—proved an unexpected challenge as she navigated the exacting RDB apprentice schedule, which involves two classes a day in addition to rehearsals and shows. “I was doing small girls’ roles when I joined, but I grew between 16 and 18, and suddenly I was medium-tall. I had to work on my balance.” Hübbe jokes: “All of a sudden we turned around and Lille-Ida wasn’t that little anymore.”

Hübbe soon took on the role of mentor. In 2012, as Praetorius was starting her first year as a corps member, he entered her and another dancer, Andreas Kaas, in The Erik Bruhn Prize competition. They swept the awards, taking home the two Best Dancer prizes and the choreographic prize for a contemporary pas de deux created for them by Alessandro Sousa Pereira. Hübbe travelled with the young pair and coached them. “He is very easy to talk to, very open and straightforward,” Praetorius says. “At night he would text us to say: ‘You were so great today, I’m so proud of you!’ ”

A roller coaster of a season followed for Praetorius in Copenhagen. In a symbolic passing of the torch between generations, Danish star Thomas Lund chose her to share the stage with him in The Lesson for his farewell performance. Last spring, she also made her debut in two leading roles: Eleonore in Kermesse in Bruges—an opportunity to show that despite her body type, she has mastered the Bournonville style—and Juliet in John Neumeier’s version of the classic story. When it came to learning Juliet, Praetorius followed her instincts and let her personality and youthful awkwardness color it. “Juliet is a little clumsy in this version,” she says. “She’s barefoot and a mess in the first scene, and it just came naturally.” The role was a milestone for her, says Hübbe. “Ida can often be the good girl, because she’s so unbelievably conscientious. With Juliet, all of a sudden her palette got bigger. We saw a tragic Ida, a strong Ida, a girl becoming a woman.”

Neumeier himself was impressed, and soon came an invitation to take part in Hamburg Ballet’s prestigious Nijinsky Gala. Praetorius relished the opportunity to work with her mother’s former company. “She retrained as a doctor, so I never knew her as a dancer,” she says. “But I saw a picture of her on the wall there, and it made it so real.” Neumeier taught Praetorius his Daphnis and Chloe himself, changing details along the way to suit her and Kaas. The choreographer has already cast her in the lead role of Lady of the Camellias, which returns to the RDB repertoire next fall.

Praetorius has a built-in support system at the RDB: She has inspired her two younger brothers to follow in her footsteps at the company school. Tobias, 17, is now an apprentice with the company; Lucas, 13, is still a student. Are they planning to take over the Danish ballet world? “We’re the freaky family—we’re starting our own company soon,” Praetorius jokes. Looking ahead, her wish list includes the ultimate Danish classic, La Sylphide, and a creation with Neumeier. In the meantime, she fits into Hübbe’s plans for a diverse repertoire in Copenhagen. “She has a brilliant technique, a beautiful body, and she’s growing in a very organic way,“ he says. “With time, I can imagine her as a versatile principal who can do everything—classical, modern, romantic.” He adds with a smile: “It’s a feel-good story with her.”

Laura Cappelle is a dance writer based in France.