Royal Danish Ballet's American Leading Ladies: Meet the Four Principals Taking Copenhagen by Storm

January 7, 2019

While dancing excerpts of August Bournonville’s Napoli this summer at the Massachusetts-based Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the artists of the Royal Danish Ballet were in perfect sync. The dancers exuded pure cheer, from their buoyant, clear footwork to the precise angle of their épaulement. This seemed fitting for a national company where most members train in the Danish style from age 7 and feed in from the school. Yet three of the principals onstage—Amy Watson, J’aime Crandall and Holly Jean Dorger—are in fact American.

The year 2008 marked a sea change for the Copenhagen-based company. Former RDB and New York City Ballet principal Nikolaj Hübbe took over as artistic director, and brought with him a more global outlook. Hübbe found that the RDB School wasn’t churning out enough dancers, so he turned his search outward. Today, four of the company’s six principal women are American. (Caroline Baldwin, the final member of the group, was injured and wasn’t able to join her colleagues on the Pillow tour.) “They’re all different, of course, but they all share a national trait,” says Hübbe. “They’re extremely professional, and their work ethic is very wholesome, which I’ve always admired so much in American dancers.”Upon their move to Copenhagen, all four ballerinas quickly realized that their new lives extended beyond the theater’s walls. They had to adapt to living and working in a culture with a very different value system. “Danes have something called the Jante Law, which is an unwritten and unspoken law that everyone’s created equal, no matter where you come from or what title you hold,” explains Watson. For American dancers who grew up in an atmosphere of fierce competition, this requires a complete change of perspective. “When I first got here I used to say that it was like being on the moon,” says Crandall.

Language also created a barrier. “It’s not easy to pick up, and it’s not particularly pretty,” adds Dorger. “The worst part is that the way it’s spelled is not how you pronounce it at all.” Despite any initial challenges, all four ballerinas stress the warm and welcoming feel of the company. “Everyone’s proud to be in the RDB, so once you’re part of it they want to invite you in and make it your family,” says Baldwin. For Hübbe, the company’s updated makeup has only made it better. “I love that mélange of different backgrounds and cultures, but assembled around something that they can all give themselves to,” he says. “I think there’s something beautiful about that.”