In Conversation with Choreographer Johan Kobborg: Part I

Atlanta Ballet welcomed Johan Kobborg to the Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre, where he worked with Company and Atlanta Ballet 2 dancers to provide production and additional choreography for the September season opener, La Sylphide.

We spent time with Johan in the studio, observing him guide and coach our dancers, and took the opportunity to interview him about drama, perfectionism, and his passion for Bournonville’s legendary ballet, La Sylphide. In the first of a two-part interview, Johan talks about his career, his passion for classical ballet, and the art of reimagining Bournonville’s work.

Johan, you’re renowned for a distinguished career as a dancer and for your artistic accomplishments as a choreographer. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I like to think that I’m a creative person with a lot of imagination. I see narratives, inspiration comes easily, and I get around three or four ideas for new ballets every day. I could be in the car when I'll suddenly see something that starts a journey, a whole new fantasy. I try to go through life with an open mind; I observe my surroundings quite well and have a lot of energy. And, while there is a side to me that is flamboyant, creative and a little bit messy, there is also another side, the perfectionist side. It’s a fine balance. But while choreography needs to be perfect for me, at the same time I must let things go and recognize that not everything that is perfect is good. There is often something attractive about a bit of a mess.

Talking of perfectionism, you’ve spent time in the studio coaching the dancers in acting. Could you tell us how you worked with them today?

For me, there is no real right or wrong way to act. Acting is about reaction and timing, and if you get those two elements right, then most things make sense. But if performers turn their heads and walk to something that should be frightening, for example, and they don’t look frightened, then it doesn’t work for me. When I watch a performance, it is important that it is projected appropriately to the audience. I love drama. I love narrative. As a performer myself, I used to analyze things too much. Now I am sitting on the other side and watching more shows, I can be more abstract. It doesn’t all have to be natural, which was my focus as a dancer.

You were promoted to Principal of the Royal Danish Ballet in 1994 after a performance of the role of James. Did this role have any influence on the eventual direction you took to produce and choreograph La Sylphide?

La Sylphide is significant to any dancer brought up in Denmark. It is incredibly influential and we base our whole tradition around it. I’m not sure how it is now, but back then the role of James wasn’t given that easily. And of course, everybody wanted to be James. Being cast as James was of tremendous importance to me, more so than being promoted afterwards, although being promoted as a young dancer was a great personal achievement and marked the start of a shift in focus for me. Dancing is a hard profession. We all want to be the one in the center and to have the big roles, because there’s a natural urgency of “am I going to make it?” I have carried La Sylphide with me throughout my career, especially the way the characters co-exist and communicate with each other. I have even used the ballet’s way of storytelling in productions choreographed by other artists with a completely different stylistic focus. La Sylphide is a foundation, and I believe it is one of the best ballets for portraying human interaction.

Could you tell us about the stylistic differences that separates Bournonville from today’s choreographers, and from your choreographic style?

You cannot compare something that was created so long ago to the present day. Choreography is a developing art form, and we are inspired by society and other dance styles. When I am choreographing today, I am a classical ballet choreographer. My passion lies in classical ballet, it was what I was best at as a dancer, and it is where I feel there is the greatest need to work. I want to do what I can to keep classical ballet, and the classical way of communicating, alive. That is where my passion and my heart lie. Even if I choreograph a brand-new production, I still work within the framework of what you would consider classical.

Reviews around the world have marveled at your ability to create something new out of something old. What interests you about reimagining Bournonville’s work?

With all classical productions, there is a reason why these ballets are still being performed today. It is because there is something at the core of the narrative that touches us, something that we can all relate to and understand. That said, there are some elements in these classical productions that are outdated and don’t resonate well with us today. Their pace is slow, in a busy world where we are used to being quickly bombarded with information. I want to keep classical ballet alive for generations to come. I want to take the core and the very reason why this ballet is still alive and interesting, and then adjust the elements that could function better in today’s world. There is a fine line between updating and staying true to something. My interest is in updating yet respecting the original, and keeping what works. At the same time, I also think the human emotions portrayed in classical ballets such as La Sylphide keep them alive. My focus is to make sense of the human interactions in the ballet and to highlight the human narrative. If I can continue to do that, then I feel La Sylphide will be relevant for a long time to come.

Don’t miss Atlanta Ballet’s season opener La Sylphide, September 15-17, 2023, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Purchase your tickets today.

Johan Kobborg with Atlanta Ballet and Atlanta Ballet 2 dancers. Photo by Kim Kenney.