Royal Treatment

The Royal Ballet's Johan Kobborg on life after Bournonville, his first major staging, and why ballet's darker characters are so appealing.
Published in the August/September 2007 issue.

When Johnny Eliasen saw Johan Kobborg for the first time, it was 1988 in Copenhagen, and Kobborg was just a teenager at the Royal Danish Ballet School. Eliasen, a renowned teacher, coach and August Bournonville expert, knew right away that Kobborg had something special. “I considered him a tremendously talented young dancer,” Eliasen recalls. “Early on, I saw a brilliant artist.”

Eliasen couldn’t have been more prescient. Kobborg has become one of the greatest dancers of his generation, joining a noble line of Danish male artists that includes Erik Bruhn, Peter Martins and Nikolaj Hübbe. Now a principal at London’s Royal Ballet, he humbly refers to himself as “one of the guys.” Kobborg is anything but ordinary.

With wide-set blue eyes, a loose crop of sandy blond hair and a boyish grin, Kobborg has cultivated an impressive dramatic range over the course of his career—he’s utterly charming in trademark roles like the sweet and swaggering Gennaro from Bournonville’s Napoli, but easily turns seductive as Cranko’s rakish Onegin. An elegant and leggy dancer known as much for his bravura as for his superior partnering, Kobborg has the precise technique and light step of someone schooled in the Bournonville tradition, but it’s charisma that Eliasen says keeps audiences coming back for more.

“You have people who can turn until the cows come home or jump to the moon, but it leaves you cold and empty,” says Eliasen. “Johan has those things, but he also has something that money can’t buy that makes him interesting to watch.”

At 35, Kobborg has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. When we talked in May, he’d just finished a long day at the theater in London that included class and Swan Lake rehearsals. After our chat, he has costume meetings about a production of La Sylphide he’s staging at the Bolshoi Ballet later this year. He says with a chuckle that this is the “quiet before the storm.”

The summer will be jam-packed with RB’s tour, rehearsals with Christopher Wheeldon’s new company, Morphoses, which has engagements in Vail, Colorado, in August, London in September and New York City in October (see page 22), and preparations for a busy guesting schedule with his longtime girlfriend and fellow RB principal, Alina Cojocaru. And he’s also getting started choreographing two new works to premiere in 2009. But this is exactly the life Kobborg wanted, one in which no day is routine or typical.

Kobborg’s start in ballet isn’t customary either, though he says he wouldn’t have had it any other way. Unlike most dancers, who begin serious training as children, Kobborg was 16. Born into a family of artists—his mom and half-brother are both actors—Kobborg grew up performing in children’s musicals in his native Odense, Denmark, and gave concerts all over Europe. He thought he was destined for a theater career.

Then his teacher told him about an audition “at this place called the Royal Danish Ballet School,” and Kobborg decided to check it out. “When I got in, I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalls. “Ballet mixes theater, music and moving—all the things I liked.” He entered the school in 1988.

For Kobborg, choosing to pursue ballet as a teenager meant that he had the maturity to understand the weight of his decision. “I don’t think a child at 10 can really know what they’re doing when they say they want to go to ballet school,” he explains. “When you’re 16, you’re not trying to live your parents’ dreams, you’re living your own dreams and it’s going to push you, because you want to catch up with all the things you haven’t learned from an early age.”

It didn’t take him long. Within a year, he debuted with the Royal Danish Ballet in Giselle’s peasant pas de deux. After a few years as an apprentice, in 1991, he joined the company. When Peter Schaufuss took the helm as artistic director in 1994, Kobborg, then just 22, was one of the first to be promoted to principal.

Though Kobborg’s time at the RDB was brief, the support he received from Schaufuss, Eliasen and others was integral to his success. “You need people to believe in you,” he says. “Without that, nobody is ever going to make it. When you’re young, you need to be guided, and I feel that I’ve been guided by some of the best.”

Kobborg’s biggest challenge as a young dancer was honing his technique to a degree that it didn’t interfere with his ability to perform. “When you’re very young, you try to push your technique as far as you can because that’s going to carry you for the rest of the career,” he says. “But I remember some of the first Giselles I did—I don’t think I was particularly bad, but my main focus was on the technical challenges. But Erik Bruhn and Nureyev and Fonteyn probably weren’t that interesting from a character point of view either at that age.”

By 1999, Kobborg was restless. A handful of guesting gigs had whetted his appetite for life beyond Bournonville. Overwhelmed by the sense that if he didn’t leave Denmark then, he never would, he joined The Royal Ballet as a principal that same year. “Because of my background, I’ve always loved doing ballets that tell a story, and I knew the repertoire was based on dramatic sorts of ballets,” he says of his decision to go to London. “I would give up a big part of me if I turned my back on the story ballets.”

Since then, Kobborg has come into his own as an artist of great versatility and has found a satisfying stage partnership with Cojocaru. The two first danced together when Cojocaru, with only a week’s notice, replaced Kobborg’s injured partner in Romeo and Juliet. “I think you know straight away if something is going to work, not necessarily from a technical point of view because you have to get used to each other, but the connection that you can’t discuss in a rehearsal because it is something different than technical timing,” says Kobborg. “It’s an unspoken understanding of each other.”

These days, Kobborg is drawn to more sinister characters, like the sadistic teacher in Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson. The appeal is both personal and artistic. “My career in Denmark was doing these sunny ballets,” Kobborg explains. “There comes a point when it’s still fun to do those of course, but you have to smile a lot onstage and you’d like to maybe not smile so much.”

It also gives him a chance to be wicked. “I love to act these disturbed and not very healthy people, who are completely opposite of who I am,” he says. “I love to find reasons for why they treat people the way they do, and I love to try and find a way of doing these roles in a way that I actually like the characters.”

Even though Kobborg has honed his craft in a diverse body of work, Bournonville remains close to his heart. Last year, he set his own version of La Sylphide (his first full-length staging) on RB to critical acclaim. He worked with a music historian in Denmark to recover some deleted scenes, using Bournonville’s handwritten notes. In addition to the Bolshoi Ballet, which will bring the production to Moscow in early 2008, at press time, Kobborg was in talks with several other European companies interested in performing it. 

Though the experience was rewarding—and one he would like to repeat—fans will be glad to hear that Kobborg doesn’t plan to leave the stage anytime soon. He says his main tasks are to stay fit “so I can keep dancing with Alina for a couple more years” and to find new ways to keep the ballets he’s been dancing for decades fresh and interesting. Always interested in pushing his own limits, he’s choreographing two new pieces (one of which is “quite a big ballet”) for a gala in London in 2009. And as if that isn’t enough, he’s decided to learn how to conduct a symphony, courtesy of lessons from the musical director at the Royal Opera House. “I’m definitely not one of those people who can only see ballet,” he says. “I like to give myself challenges, and I like many different things.”

Kristin Lewis is the former managing editor of Dance Spirit.