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Danish dance magnet Nikolaj Hubbe

May 21, 2011 |  9:45 am

Hubbe While interviewing Amy Watson, a principal dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet (which performs next week in Costa Mesa), for a Sunday Arts & Books profile of her boss, Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the company, I told her about watching Hübbe, formerly a beloved dancer in the New York City Ballet, walk through a reception for him at the Guggenheim Museum. It was like watching a prince glide through his adoring minions, I said. "Oh, yeah," she said, laughing.

Watson, born in Oceanside (she was a military kid and lived on Camp Pendleton until she was 10), offered that when she was a teenager at the School of American Ballet in New York, and Hübbe came to teach, "We used to put on special makeup. We used to say, 'Ohmigod, Nikolaj's teaching, we have to wear makeup today and our pretty leotards.' Yeah, he's a magnet. He's a magnet to women and men. He just has this persona around him. When he comes into a room, his persona demands attention."

I asked her if acclaimed dancers always made good teachers. "It definitely does not go hand-in-hand," she said. "I've worked with phenomenal dancers who have had phenomenal careers and it has not been the same when they have made that transition into being a coach or instructor." But Hübbe, Watson said, was the exception: he was a sensational teacher and mentor.

"He is the most passionate person I know when it comes to this art form. He knows everything about it. He knows the history of every ballet, of every ballerina. You can talk to him about every style, every company, this person, that person. He gives all his knowledge." 

His passion, she said, ran both ways. "He can be passionate about something being phenomenal, and he can be passionate about something that he highly disagrees with you on. He likes to argue. So you get a good debate going with him, I'll say that. But he always wants the best for the art form, the best for you."

I asked Hübbe himself about making the transition from dancer to artistic director, during an interview in New York. Did he miss dancing? No, he said, after more than 30 years, his body was done. 
"What I miss is that heightened state of being on stage," he said. 

"Because when you're on stage it's so much about 'the now.' Every second on the stage, especially toward the end of my career, was the most immediate I could be. It was like a resonance, like in a loud speaker, the sub-woofer, the rumble -- vrrrrrrrr, raaaahhh -- that thing of being."

Now he was transferring that thing to his dancers. "It goes from you to them and all of a sudden it's theirs," he said. "And that enhances you." He couldn't imagine any other life. "I have to be in a theater," he declared. "This thing of curtain down, curtain up. It's still, after so many years, magical. That's such a cliché, but it's 'that other world.' You're in the dark, the lights come up, and it's another reality. It's more real. It's a heightened reality. I don't think I could be without that."

-- Kevin Berger

Photo: Nikolaj Hübbe. Credit: Segerstrom Center for the Arts