Interview with Lloyd Riggins
Former principal dancer, Royal Ballet, Copenhagen
Now Principal dancer with the Hamburg Ballet
From 2002-2003, he has begun to assist Frank Andersen, Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, Copenhagen
Interiewer: Katharine Kanter
1/ Where did you first meet Bournonville ?
I was introduced to Bournonville in a little place called Midland, Michigan. This was where the staff of the Royal Danish Ballet was holding the Second Annual Bournonville Summer Academy. A woman named Rochelle Zide-Booth, who had attended the first workshop, was in Florida staging her Midsummer Night's Dream on my mother's company, Southern Ballet Theatre. She was discussing the seminar with my mother, Barbara Riggins, and she said it might be an interesting experience for me.
Off I went the next summer, with a partial scholarship, not realising that my life was about to change dramatically. My training up to that point had been very crucial, I believe, in setting me up to take in the Bournonville style and school. Under my mother's training, I had learned the versatility it takes to ascertain the style, or at least the spirit, of different choreographers. My mother also loved to experiment with petit allegro combinations, often changing directions, or reversing entire combinations, much like the Bournonville School requires. The most important thing she taught me was to dance with my BRAIN as well as my body. All of this was a great preparation for the world of Bournonville.
From the first day of the workshop, I felt a kind of immediate understanding of the logic in this School. It wasn't until after many years that I started to scratch the surface of accomplishment, but it all felt just natural. After the seminar was over, I was approached by the teachers, Flemming Ryberg, Dinna Bjoern, and Anne-Marie Vessel. They asked me if I would like to come to Denmark to train, first hand, in the land of Bournonville. I was so happy to have the chance to continue to learn, that I really didn't think much about travelling to a foreign country. Nor did I even think that it would lead to my joining the Royal Danish Ballet.
When I returned home from Copenhagen with contract in hand, I could sense my mother was a bit torn. As a Director, she would have still liked me in her company, but as a former-dancer-mother-of-a-dancer, she knew I should grab this chance to try my wings. Whatever I have accomplished, or will accomplish, is due to the training and wisdom she passed on to me, and I will always be thankful to her for that.
2/ Did you have difficulty adjusting to life without television ?
When I first moved to Denmark, I realised that TV wasn't a staple of this culture. I also didn't OWN a TV to supply my "normal" entertainment. It was good for me, because I discovered books and museums, which, I think, stimulate knowledge, imagination, emotions and creativity. I believe an artist should have a sense of who they are and what they want to stand for, because when you go on stage, you must be able to express something to the public. For myself, having the confidence of self-awareness, helps me truly BELIEVE in what I'm saying, or expressing.
3/ Other experience in the theatre ?
The Royal Theatre is a wonderful place for the young ballet students to grow up in. It helps them learn about tradition, and gives them a sense of belonging. Being exposed to other art forms expands their knowledge, which will enhance their work. Luckily, when I was young, in the United States, I was also able to experience other art forms, acting in musical comedies, doing commercials, and studying the piano. At a certain point, I had to put these aside to give myself fully to my art, but the experience was very helpful. As with the children of the theatre, it helped me find out about being on the stage, and more importantly, it taught me respect for art.
4/ Bournonville's characters ?
Bournonville roles are wonderful because they are so human. I don't think Bournonville wanted the audience to feel distanced from his works. The best example I can give was explained to me by Kirsten Ralov coaching me for the first time I was to perform a solo in the pas de six in the Third Act of Napoli. I had a tendency towards flashing each step, as if to show off the beats or musicality. She explained to me that the reason for the calm upper body and épaulement of Bournonville, was to give a sense of ease. First of all, to draw attention to the footwork and patterns, but more importantly, to tell the audience "this is fun and easy ! Come up here with us and DANCE !" Especially in the following Tarantella, they should want to come up and join in the festivities.
As far as comparing Bournonville roles with those of the classic repertoire, I can only say that I try to create, with every role, a character the audience can believe. I know that what I have learned from Bournonville, and my mentor here in Copenhagen, Henning Kronstam, has helped me accomplish this. There is a certain naturalness, which must be learned in order to project a character across the footlights, be it a farmer, a fisherman, or a prince.
5/ What do you think about Bournonville's mime ?
My first experience with Bournonville's mime was with the great Niels Bjoern Larsen. He taught us at the workshop in Michigan, and his energy captivated us. This wonderful man who has given his whole life to the theatre really made me understand the importance of mime in Bournonville's world (I had the honour of dancing Frantz to his Dr. Coppelius on his 80th birthday!!!). Then when I moved to Denmark, I was able to watch the likes of Flemming Ryberg, Niels Kehlet, and the late Fredbjoern Bjoernson, from whom I learned a great deal.
I did find the mime difficult at first, because of many reasons. It must be natural-looking, musical, and spontaneous. My greatest help was Henning Kronstam. The years I got to work with him are the high point of my life. When he demonstrated a passage, you saw and felt what he was saying. Plus; he always treated me as an individual, never saying "Do it the way I do".
He had a keen eye as to what worked best for you, and he would allow you to follow your heart, giving guidance when needed.
Going back to the theatre children, this is another reason why they have such a wonderful education. To be surrounded by all these great artists, gives you something to strive for.
6/ From "self-centred work" in the studio, to the stage
The art of dance, to me, is not just the movement of a body through space (or just a body, period). We must use the body as a tool of expression, which means there must be a mind behind that body. Bournonville GAVE something to the audience. This generous act of giving is my reason for dancing.
To give something of yourself, to send it out and have it touch them, is a wonderful thing, I think. After all the self-centred work in the studio, I have to transfer that into the self-less act of sharing when I go on stage. That is why I particularly enjoy dancing Bournonville's works. Just like his signature grand jeté, his ballets truly give.
7/ Port de bras and épaulement
The Bournonville school is difficult especially if you haven't been brought up in the theatre here. When you dance a solo, for instance, you never finish a phrase, and then walk to the corner to begin the next section. If you have to go to another place on the stage, Bournonville will always dance you there. Bournonville requires a great deal of stamina because of this, and it took me a long time to build enough stamina to finish a solo with the ease required.
The port de bras and épaulement are another area I had difficulty in. I cringe looking at old videos of myself dancing certain things. I would hold my arms down, for example, in bras bas, and they would be completely stiff along with my upper body, giving away the exertion of my legs. I like to think of the Bournonville School in terms of "Heaven and Earth". The legs are the solid beings, clearly shewing the intricate steps while the upper body, arms and back, are floating above with ease.
My favourite thing about Bournonville is his musicality. With his incredible variety of connecting steps and enchaînements, he was able to create phrases of refined musicianship. He gives you the chance to make music with your body.
All these qualities that I have learned from the Bournonville school, have been increasingly helpful in ascertaining other styles and choreography.
8/ Choreography and music
I believe that in choreography, the music and movement must be woven together like a braided rope. Like the rope, the piece becomes stronger and more beautiful. I have been lucky enough to have danced many ballets, and the only thing I truly dislike is the unmusical. I agree that some sort of musical training is vital to dancers and chorographers. What would a painter do if he knew nothing of brushes or canvas ? Have you ever seen a watercolour on typing paper ?
9/ Story ballets
One of my main goals is to create new story ballets. From the books I read, I try and outline ballets from them, finding out what is suitable or do-able. Eventually, I would like to try maybe commissioning libretti from writers or poets, after discussing with them the world of the story ballet. I have already found half a dozen stories, that I've outlined into ballets, that I would like to produce and choreograph.
10/ The role of James in La Sylphide
The role of James in La Sylphide is, to me, the greatest in the Bournonville repertory. I believe it's because the ballet has so many opportunities to develop the character and his situation. When I first danced the role, I would have to say I gave a very general interpretation. It wasn't until many years of dancing the ballet, when the role became my own. Finding out how James related to me, then adding the nuances and subtleties to express these thoughts to the audience.
James is a dreamer. He has the heart of an artist, in the world of the common man. He knows and strives for something, which he cannot see. When the Sylph appears before him, he senses this is a way out of the common, and into the spiritual. I think it is the selfish act of trying to keep the spirit and beauty of the pure Sylph all to himself, that in the end destroys him.
Having been married myself, I can relate to his feelings on the day of his marriage. He is nervous and vulnerable, and when he sees the witch, he over-reacts and casts her out.
The witch, a being of both worlds, can sense James' inner turmoil between the earthly and spiritual worlds, and recognises this weak spot.
Maybe she, like Effy, has been wronged by a dreamer in the past.
This is a truly great ballet, because it is so musical, so beautiful, and it reaches out and embraces the audience to touch them. James is a great role, because it is able to continually develop as the dancer develops, both as an artist, and as a person.
11/ The Bournonville technique
The Bournonville School should be studied by future dancers not only because it is great in itself, but also because it is so beneficial to all areas of dance. I will definitely teach it when I retire. It has become such a staple of my training, the ideals of the school - I mean, that it would be impossible not to have it as a main line in my teaching.