Kim Brandstrup: The Marriage of Dance and Film

Kim Brandstrup photo Henrik Bjerregrav

Fresh from winning Britain’s National Dance Award for Best Modern Choreography, Kim Brandstrup discusses his love of dance and film.

Kim Brandstrup picks his words carefully. As carefully, in fact, as he lights upon the telling details that will bring his choreography to life.

It’s to do with his early training in, and continued love of film.

“My way of seeing is through a camera and probably I see close ups, how somebody attacks the music, where the gaze is, that slight hesitation before we move… All those little things are what I look out for.”

“Detail” is one word that recurs in our conversation, whether it focusses on dance and dancers, film, opera or theatre, where the Danish-born choreographer is in great demand.

We talk at London’s Lyric Hammersmith Theatre during a break in rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, for which Kim Brandstrup is Movement Director.

That choreography award, then. It was for his reading of Schönberg’s Transfigured Night for Rambert, a piece which The Guardian described as “superbly constructed, inventively musical, beautiful and profoundly humane.”

And yet, Brandstrup hesitated before taking up the commission.

“I was slightly apprehensive about the music’s emotional expressivity, I thought it may be hard to match. There are so many layers in it…

“But then I always found when you give yourself to these masterpieces suddenly they yield something completely unexpected. And it certainly did.”

He was uncertain, too, about the 19th century poem that inspired Schönberg.

“This woman who’s pregnant but she is terrified of telling her partner that it’s another man’s [child], but miraculously this man totally forgives her. And of course, I can see that being a beautiful idea at that time, but now it seems a little bit idealised.

“I think my take on it was (…) to try to find out the cost of that narrative, that it must not have been easy to forget, there must have been lack of trust, unfaithfulness.”

His narrative is, therefore, ambiguous; or, more precisely, the end…

“… is not completely transfigured.”

This commission from Rambert Director Mark Baldwin was special for Brandstrup for another reason:

“For the past ten years I’ve been working almost exclusively with ballet dancers. There’s something in that re-encounter with contemporary dancers that made it possible. I thought it was interesting to explore this territory with a contemporary language.”

Contemporary dance is where Brandstrup first developed his unique choreography. He moved to London in the late 1970s to study dance after obtaining a film degree by the University of Copenhagen, and took class at The Place – “where at that time they had formidable teachers” – before setting up his own company, ARC, in the 1980s.

“At that particular time, 80s and 90s, narrative work in contemporary dance was practically non-existent (…) And I wanted to explore that. And, of course, all those narrative works were much more related to my film training. At that time it was only through having my own company that I could do those experiments.”

ARC Crime - Elegy - History
ARC                    Crime                                                           Elegy                                                                  History

A narrative thread runs through all of Brandstrup’s works.

“My way of watching dancers is always to say, where did they come from, where do they go now (…) Whatever somebody does will embody a kind of intent, and that’s what I’m sensitive to and what I look for – it’s that strange kind of poignancy and alertness of going or being on the move.”

“Coming out of the past and projecting into the future” through movement and stage presence, or “tridimensionality” as he calls it,  is what Brandstrup looks for in dancers. Favourite interpreters include Irek Muhamedov, Zenaida Yanowsky and Alina Cojucaru, on all of whom he’s created work. And since 2015 Sara Mearns, New York City Ballet principal.

A question about Mearns yields the first moment when words fail Brandstrup.

“ Well, Sara…. I just saw her…. and I mean, what can I say? …. She’s a theatrical being, who lives on stage; there’s a tridimensionality to her presence that is fantastic. And she’s fearless!”

They came together when Brandstrup was invited by the NYCB Artistic Director, fellow Dane Peter Martins, to choreograph Jeux on Debussy’s score.

Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sarah Mearns with Amar Ramasar photo Paul Kolnick NYCB
Kim Brandstrup, Jeux, Sara Mearns with Amar Ramasar, photo Paul Kolnick NYCB

“We think that Balanchine is the great purist of form, abstract, that it’s the technique and the music that guides it rather than the narrative; but, of course, what we sometimes forget is that they also have Robbins, and that made me think I could tap into that vein.

“I had a great time there and I was astonished at how quick they were. You had to step up your game; and they would give you something at the end of each period.

“You’d get half-an-hour for a solo, you’d get an hour for duets and you’d get, if you were lucky, an hour-and-a-half for full corps. But even at the end of half-an-hour calls somebody would perform something for you, so it made the whole process very quick and very playful.”

The dancers, too, relished the novel experience. Sara Mearns was quoted was saying she found the whole process “liberating:”

“We realised, we are out of our comfort zone, but we are really free. He is directing us, but he will let us go where we want with the movement.”

I’m beginning to get the essence of what makes a Kim Brandstrup work. A narrative thread. Powerful, though understated feeling expressed through movement, rather than “histrionics” (“if you start pulling faces, you really lose your audience”), immersion in the score. And, of course, “detail.”

That’s why he so enjoys working with the Danish Royal Ballet, for whom last Spring he created a full length work, Shaken Mirror (Rystet spejl) – his fifth for the company.

Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet
Shaken Mirror, Dancers Sebastian Kloborg and Ida Praetorius, Royal Danish Ballet

“Looking across the ballet landscape there is great subtlety in the Danish tradition. I suppose because it was a small theatre and it preserved that quality of detail in the dancing and especially in the mime that I felt I could tap into.

“Also, I think it’s very important that the mime and the acting is never detached from the music, I mean, it was part of the choreographic fabric.”

Shaken Mirror takes its inspiration from the poetry of Brandstrup’s friend and contemporary, Søren Ulrik Thomsens. Here, too, he hesitated before plunging in- “I am always reluctant!” – but finally took the poetry as a starting point for a reflection – a shaken mirror – on a myriad of relationships between men and women.

As in all of Brandstrup’s works we are left with a sense of yearning, a suspended breath.

“Things change, disappear and you remember them and you try and hold them. (…) Choreography is a way of trying to pin down a moment, to recreate it… but of course, it will go away… I mean, it’s not necessarily sad, it’s just how it is.”

Having just celebrated a “significant birthday” Kim Brandstrup is on a roll: last October, an award from Denmark’s Wilhelm Hansen Foundation joined a growing collection that includes an Olivier and an Evening Standard Award, marking particular stages in a considerable body of work.

He has a major dance project underway for 2017, but so far we’re sworn to secrecy; NYCB are reprising Jeux in the Spring; Britten’s opera Billy Budd, on which he worked with Director Deborah Warner in Madrid last year, is embarking on an extensive tour; and he’s going back to his first love, film.

The film of Brandstrup’s Leda and the Swan, created in 2014 for Britain’s Royal Ballet, received critical acclaim. Now he’s putting the finishing touches to another film.

“I’ve done what I call three small portraits of three dancers. It’s basically them listening, marking and doing a few phrases of something that I keep track of very closely. I’m editing at the moment. It’s exciting and I managed to get Carlos [Acosta], Alina [Cojucaru] and Zen [Yanowsky] to do it.

And, of course, what he is trying to grasp “is the detail of what the dancers do.”

In the end, Brandstrup feels, detail is what keeps the audience watching:

“You’ve got to create a particular kind of concentration and emphatic watching of the detail in the audience. They have to lean forward and say, ‘what is this? what is it?’  (…) I feel less is more and you mustn’t lose the depth of the image and the depth of movement.”

Teresa Guerreiro





Bournonville: The Danish Way of Dancing

Konservatoriet Royal Danish Ballet dancers Gitte Lindstrøm, Thomas Lund, Gudrun Bojesen photo Martin Mydtskov Rønne

How the visionary Bournonvile came to develop a dancing style that would forever become the unique hallmark of Danish ballet.

Say “ballet” in Denmark, and before long you’ll hear one name: Bournonville. The Danes pronounce it: Bonn-ville.

That’s, of course, August Bournonville, the 19th century dancer and ballet master responsible for developing a uniquely Danish way of dancing.

August Bournonville Playbill for the première of Konservatoriet, 1849
August Bournonville                                                                                                 Playbill for the première of Konservatoriet, 1849                                                                                                                                                                                courtesy of  Ebbe Mørk

I visited Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, home to both the Royal Danish Ballet and its School, to learn more about Bournonville from his rightful ballet heirs.

There I met Fernando Mora, a Mexican dancer who made his career with the Royal Danish Ballet, and now teaches at the company’s School. How had he become interested in the Royal Danish Ballet? I asked.

“Well, it all started with Bournonville.”

Mora told me how, as a ballet student in his native Mexico, he came across the TV documentary series Dancer, presented by Peter Schaufuss, one of the 20th century’s foremost exponents of the Bournonville style.

It was Mora’s first contact with Bournonville. It was a revelation. He was hooked.

What is it about the Bournonville style that so fascinates and hooks dancers and audiences alike? I sought help from the experts.

Erik Bruhn
Erik Bruhn

The writer and ballet critic Ebbe Mørk, says one of its most distinctive features is “the illusion of imponderable lightness.”

So much so, that the greatest Danish male dancer of the 20th century, Erik Bruhn, wrote in the book he co-authored, Bournonville and Ballet Technique:

“In dancing Bournonville, the dancers often feel they spend more time in the air that on the floor.”

Two things came together to create the Bournonville style.

Firstly, as a young ballet student August (1805-1879) accompanied his ballet master father to Paris, then the centre of the ballet world.

This was the Romantic period and August was exposed to the latest trends in the world’s oldest and most prestigious ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet.

When he returned to his native Copenhagen and joined the Royal Danish Ballet, he found the repertoire boring and old-fashioned.

So, upon becoming choreographer for the company in 1830, and subsequently its director, he set about changing things.

He did so with pieces that Ebbe Mørk describes as “indelibly stamped with the spirit of Romanticism.”

Secondly, and just as importantly, Bournonvile created the chief roles of his ballets with himself in mind.

As the eminent Professor of Dance History, Erik Aschengreen, points out, Bournonville was not the tall, elegant danseur noble type.

“He was a shortish, but quick, nimble and adroit dancer, with a talent for the light-footed allegro dance.”

He was also a dancer of virtuosity and temper, but one who avoided “sheer bravura, as in his opinion dance should serve a higher purpose.”

And its higher purpose was storytelling, says Ebbe Mørk:

“His steps hold forth a continual storyline, never to be disturbed by spectacular bravura.”

His own highest ideal was “to make the most complicated technique look flawless.”

This, says Mørk, is amply illustrated by the dances from Napoli, the ballet which, in his view, shows us Bournonville at his most brilliant.

So, the illusion of lightness is one of the key features of the Bournonville style. Beyond that,

“There is a lot of delicate batterie.

“Jumps are never finished with a sustained position to disguise an abrupt landing, but often with a plié.

“Every climax in technique, every big leap or elegant turn, is founded on logical preparations in those currents of minor connecting steps which are the hallmark of his style.”

Mørk notes also that Bournonville follows the music but will often employ a musical accent in an unexpected way, for example, “syncopating steps that are normally executed smoothly.”

The Bournonville style is the main reason why, when we think of Danish ballet, it’s its male dancers that first come to mind; but, as Erik Aschengreen remarks,

“men alone do not make a ballet, certainly not in the age of Romanticism.”

So, Bournonville – who as a young man had partnered the great Marie Taglioni in Paris – created difficult challenges for his female dancers, too.

“They are light. Their dancing is soft and graceful, their jumps nimble and swift.

“They seem to touch the floor only to set off again.

“And always it looks effortless – when performed as it should be.”

Aschengreen goes on to argue that it is very difficult to master the lightness of the Bournonville style, and this is particularly apparent,

“when dancers trained in the great Russian or the Balanchine style try to get a footing in the world of Bournonville.”

Danish dancers and critics consider the sunny, joyful Napoli, inspired by the Romantic fascination with the exotic Mediterranean and its colourful characters, perhaps the most accomplished of Bournonville’s many ballets.

However, the one ballet that seems to have caught the imagination of dancers and audiences the world over is La Sylphide.


Los Angeles Ballet, La Sylphide, photo Reed Hutchinson
Los Angeles Ballet, La Sylphide, photo Reed Hutchinson

The Paris Opera created and owned the original La Sylphide, and Bournonville had intended to mount it in Copenhagen; but such were the obstacles raised by Paris, that he decided to choreograph his own version, based on the original libretto.

Bournonville’s La Sylphide is the only version that survives today.

It tells the über-Romantic story of a doomed love between a wood sylph and a feckless bridegroom to be, the young Scotsman, James.

Along with Gennaro, Napoli’s larky Fisherman, James was very much the favourite role of Thomas Lund, one of the most celebrated Bournonville dancers of his generation.

Lund is now the Director of the Royal Danish Ballet School, a job he took on following his retirement from dancing in 2012. He told me:

“For a Danish dancer, James is like Hamlet for any actor.”

Stressing that the Bournonville style demands an ability to act and master a specific kind of naturalistic mime, Lund went on:

“James requires a combination of dancing and acting. Also, it’s important that as a dancer you keep developing this role over the years.”

For Lund, dancing James throughout his career was “a journey, where you’re privileged to go back and see how you’ve been doing something.

“(…) You start to compare your own life with what you are doing on stage, and then you can understand what you are doing.”

So important was James for Lund that he chose La Sylphide as one of the pieces for his farewell performance at Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre.

August Bournonville gave Danish ballet an identity of which it is justly proud, and some of his prolific repertoire survives – and delights! – to this day.

The Bournonville style remains the basis from which everything else springs, and is imparted to students of the Royal Danish Ballet School like “mother’s milk,” in the words of Thomas Lund.

Erik Aschengreen puts it this way:

“The [Danish] dancer of today feels the after-effects of Bournonville on his body, as well as on his mind.

“They are there to be seen every time the Acropolis curtain rises on the Royal Theatre stage.”


by Teresa Guerreiro