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An Interview With Peter Schaufuss

By Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 4 November 1997 - Could it be that a future centre of contemporary European ballet is now set among the agricultural Jutland farms around an obscure Danish town called Holstebro? Since the days of August Bournonville, probably the greatest choreographer of Romantic ballet, dance in Denmark has been centred in Copenhagen. It has long been regarded with affection, considered a noble art and has produced many popular stars including Erik Bruhn and Peter Schaufuss.

So it's perhaps not too surprising that the Ministry of Culture is willing to take the risk of financing 50% of a new creative company. The rest of the funding of the Ballet Peter Schaufuss, a troupe of twenty-three dancers from fourteen different countries run by Schaufuss himself, comes from Holstebro (35%), and the surrounding region of Ringkobing (15%).

Remote though it may be, Holstebro, a small town of 40,000 people with a big interest in the arts is known for its Odin Theatre Company. What is less known is that it also possesses a section of the Royal Danish Ballet school opened while Schaufuss was Director there last year, a music school, and two museums.

"There is also a 1400 seat theatre where we have our offices and rehearsal studios, and hold performances when not on tour", Schaufuss told me. "Five minutes in one direction you are in a field of cows and five minutes in the other takes you to the thriving business centre".

While so many of the smaller European companies can draw on their past glories, being steeped in over one hundred years of ballet history, the Ballet Peter Schaufuss came into being on July 1st 1997.

"It's just amazing that we've been able to achieve something new at a moment when so many other companies are either being closed or having to cut drastically on the number of productions and dancers", Schaufuss told me at the Théatre de Saint-Quentin-en- Yvelines. He has been staging his first production for the troupe there, a Tchaikovsky Trilogy, three separate but complementary works in which Tchaikovsky plays a central role, illustating his psychological development from a child in Swan Lake, an adolescent in Sleeping Beauty to the mature adult in The Nutcracker.

His new way of looking at the classics is just one of the reasons why the world famous Danish dancer has such a high profile on the international scene. The precocious choreographer, who had written four short works by the time he was twenty, restaged a highly praised version of Bournonville's La Sylphide in 1979 for the English Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet - he changed the name on becoming their director five years later ). He inserted sequences that had been omitted from the traditional Danish version and created passages of his own in Bournonville inspired choreography. He has since mounted the ballet for nineteen other companies as well as re-staging Napoli and A Folk Tale.

Peter Schaufuss was almost born on the stage as his parents, Frank Schaufuss and Mona Vangsaae ( who created the role of Juliet in Frederick Ashton's Romeo and Juliet in 1959) were both stars of the Royal Danish Ballet before becoming its co-directors. A pupil of the company's school, Peter entered the troupe at seventeen, but left soon after to embark on an international career. He made numerous guest appearances all over the world including the Kirov and the Bolshoi and was principal dancer of the New York City Ballet at twenty five. Balanchine, Ashton, MacMillan and Roland Petit all created several ballets for him.

"I've had a lot of invaluable experience as artistic director of three big companies, the English National Ballet, the Berlin Opera, and the Royal Danish Ballet", he told me, "so nothing is new to me, but I want to start finding my own choreographic language and that's only possible when you have your own dancers. I've wanted to have my own company for a long time and it has taken two years to get this far. Starting a troupe is the most exciting thing you can do because you have complete artistic freedom. I'm no longer bogged down by administrative problems". I want to reach a wider public," said Schaufuss. "The historical reconstitution of certain works is so costly that only the larger companies can afford it. Not everyone can go to the Paris Opera, Covent Garden or the Kirov so if you want to attract new audiences, and especially young ones, you must do something different. I see no reason why traditional stories shouldn't be given a modern setting and taken on tour to give everyone a chance to see them". Schaufuss has a small nucleus of people who have worked with him since his London days, Steven Scott, designer and lighting technician, teachers Adrienne Matheson and Tim Almaas who is also a dancer, soloist Zara Deakin and interestingly, more than half the dancers seem to have been trained at the Royal Ballet School. Schaufuss defends his choices: "I choose dancers as much for their personality as their technical ability," he said. "I engaged thirteen whose work I knew, and feeling we needed some new faces, held an audition in London. Three hundred and twenty people turned up for only ten posts so I simply took those I thought I would use in my choreography. It's a very different way of choosing dancers than for a large classical company because, strictly speaking there is no corps de ballet. Everyone pulls their weight".

The Ballet Peter Schaufuss is a classically- based company but it cannot be compared with the Royal Danish Ballet where there is a traditional standard repertory. "We will be doing new works all the time", stated their director, "even the Hamlet I'm planning for next spring will be original. This company is a major achievement for me although I do think the dancers and public will need to see other choreographers later on. Right now, I've never been so happy; I don't think there's a dancer in existence who hasn't dreamed of having his own company".

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