Gregory Dean Tackles Tradition With Royal Danish Ballet's 'Cinderella'
Updated: Apr 28, 2020
The Royal Danish Ballet is steeped in tradition dating back to 1748 in Copenhagen, Denmark. In the 1830's it was famed choreographer August Bournonville who led the company and whose work is still performed today.
In 2019, principal dancer Gregory Dean is leading the charge with the company's latest production, Askepot a.k.a. Cinderella. His reverence for the rich traditions of the ballet company, with a fresh nod to the future, is on full display at the Royal Danish Theatre through April 5th.
Dean spoke with Dance Dish about his work with the company as a choreographer and whether we will see him back performing with the Royal Danish Ballet soon.
Dance Dish: How do you honor the past while still making your mark with your choreography on a production like Cinderella?
Gregory Dean: With Cinderella, I decided to do a very both classical, neoclassical version of it. My way of doing a little hat's off to the house [Royal Danish Ballet Theatre] and its tradition was to do something in the first act. There's a dancing lesson with the stepsisters. So I thought it would be a nice inside joke if it was based on Le Conservatoire by Bournonville.
So the costume for the dancing master there is very similar to the dancing master in Le Conservatoire and some of the steps are similar. I pulled a lot for the stepsisters that fit the variations from the Bournonville influence. I did a lot of research with this video from one of the first recordings of dance to Bournonville. It has two ladies dancing together. I thought that it was hilarious for the stepsisters to be the two ladies dancing from the 1800s.
I see a lot of the former dancers, who are now in their sixties and seventies, who said to me, "It's so nice to see Bournonville being used in a new way." I feel happy that it worked.
DD: Since you dance with the company, do you feel you have an advantage as a choreographer because you know the company, their capabilities and how to work with them?
Gregory: When I cast the ballet, I tried to cast to people's strengths. For example, the Autumn Fairy variation, I knew it would be a lot of jumping, so I cast people who I knew had a very strong jump. The Summer variation was very lyrical, so I cast people who I think have a lovely port de bras.
We also have a very strong union in the Royal Danish Ballet and there are a lot of very specific working hours. So being in-house helped me know exactly when to start rehearsals and stop rehearsals. I knew what I was allowed to push and what I wasn't allowed to push.
And also the production team. I choreographed a children's ballet a couple of years ago, so I worked with them on that as well. I already had a relationship with them and it's always good to have the stage people on your side. You're always so pushed for time once you get to the stage. If they are enjoying working on the project, then that makes everything work a lot better.
DD: What inspired you to start choreographing?
Gregory: As a child, I wasn't really able to listen to music without thinking of movement, steps and images that could go along with the music. So it's always been a part of my imagination.
When I was in high school, choreography was a part of our dance education and you had to choreograph certain things. I won the choreographic prize at the school that I went to and that gave me confidence.
I guess it was just trying bits and bobs along the way. I don't think of myself as a choreographer. It's more that I have ideas and then other people like the ideas. It's putting that into practice and trying to stay true to the music as much as possible.
I do feel that some choreographers are breaking new territory and reinventing the wheel. I don't feel like my choreographic language is revolutionary or anything like that. It's not really what I'm interested in. I'm more interested in staying true to the music as much as possible and then trying to tell a true story or trying to convey a message to the audience. I try to make the audience feel something rather than just being impressed by choreographic techniques.
DD: Who are the choreographers who have inspired you?
Gregory: I grew up watching [Frederick] Ashton and [Kenneth] MacMillan, so they are huge influences. Then I worked with Ashley Page at Scottish Ballet, who was a former choreographer at Royal Ballet. He was a huge influence on musicality, physicality and trying to be inventive. Working with him, seeing how he worked and seeing how he ran a rehearsal has been a huge inspiration for how I like to work when I get into a studio.
Balanchine is obviously the master of corps de ballet and big group numbers. I love musicals, I love Disney films, I love old MGM movies. I like to be entertained more than just liking classical ballet.
DD: What do you think your biggest challenge was for you personally working on Cinderella?
Gregory: One of the challenges was that I came back from parental leave to do Cinderella. So my daughter just turned one. My mom came over to help look after her, but having my thoughts so wrapped up in that huge project was challenging. Then also, the usual time constraints, money constraints and trying to be solution-oriented all the time.
DD: Will we see you dancing back at Royal Danish Ballet?
Gregory: The premiere was on Saturday [March 9, 2019] and then I was back in the studio already on Tuesday. I'm learning [former American Ballet Theatre principal] Jeffrey Cirio's part in Wayne McGregor’s AFTERITE, his Le Sacre du Printemps ballet. So I'm back in the studio. I'm in rehearsals.
Then I have another full-length ballet that I'm choreographing in November for the company, Karen Blixen. It's a much more grown-up story, so it's using different muscles. Cinderella is very funny in a lot of places. With Karen Blixen, there are moments of joy, but it is a deeply emotional story about a real-life person, so it's very, very different.
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