In 1992, Nikolaj H‹bbe was already a star with the Royal Danish Ballet when Peter Martins offered him a place at New York City Ballet as a principal dancer. The tall, handsome 24-year-old Dane with the noble bearing and a profile to match visited New York and fell in love with City Ballet's dynamic way of dancing. Eager to spread his wings, Mr. H‹bbe accepted Mr. Martins' offer on the spot.
With Mr. H‹bbe's farewell performance on February 10, New York City Ballet is losing an astonishingly accomplished and charismatic star. For the last 16 years Mr. H‹bbe has danced a comprehensive range of the Company's repertory with enormous success, undiminished technical ability, and ever-expanding artistic excellence.
Born in Copenhagen to a theatrical family who encouraged his pursuit of dance, Mr. H‹bbe began ballet training at age 10 at the Royal Danish Ballet School in the traditional 19th-century style of August Bournonville that focuses on fleet, light, and articulate technique. At 19, after only two years in the RDB, he zoomed to principal status, and he also danced his first Balanchine ballet, Apollo. "I had a good upbringing," Mr. H‹bbe says, when asked about this speedy rise. "I think I had morally and aesthetically sane influences, particularly when it comes to hard work." At RDB, Mr. H‹bbe also acquired a repertoire of full-length story ballets such as Onegin, Romeo and Juliet, and La Sylphide‹his favorite, and a ballet he has staged for numerous companies.
From the moment Mr. H‹bbe made his NYCB debut in Saratoga Springs in Balanchine's Donizetti Variations‹a delectable Bournonville-style ballet that highlighted his agile buoyancy and charismatic stage presence‹he became an instant box-office draw. At the time, Stanley Williams, the eminent Danish ballet teacher, was on staff at the School of American Ballet (NYCB's school); Williams became Mr. H‹bbe's primary teacher, quickly getting him up to speed in the Company style. His ever-growing repertory not only challenged him technically but also increased his speed and stamina. Mr. Martins created new ballets for him‹Zakouski (which marked his debut at the New York State Theater), Symphonic Dances, Jazz (Six Syncopated Movements), and Adams Violin Concerto, among others‹and cast him in major Balanchine roles, including Agon, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and Rubies from Jewels.
In addition to the abstract repertory, Mr. H‹bbe has made an indelible mark in the Romantic and classical roles. As the Poet in La Sonnambula, he exudes a powerful magnetism as he first woos the Coquette and then pursues the Sleepwalker with ardent intensity. Wendy Whelan, who frequently dances the Sleepwalker opposite him, says, "Nikolaj definitely brings something special to the partnership. He is not afraid to look into your eyes and draw something profound out of you."
Jerome Robbins quickly discovered that this new principal dancer could dance just about anything, and he frequently cast Mr. H‹bbe in a wide variety of his ballets such as Afternoon of a Faun, The Four Seasons, I'm Old Fashioned, Opus19/The Dreamer, and many others. The role Mr. H‹bbe didn't expect was Riff, the gang leader of the Jets in West Side Story Suite. "We rehearsed it forever," Mr. H‹bbe remembers. "Jerry saw me as sort of a bully but also a prince, and he thought I had the sensitivity." He initially felt timid in the role, especially when it was time to sing "Cool"; those rehearsals could be intimidating for a dancer, as Mr. H‹bbe remembers. "Jerry yelled at me, 'You sound like a foreigner!' So I replied, 'Well darn, that is because I am a foreigner.' Jerry softened up and said, 'Oh, your first record deal? I get ten percent.'"
Riff became one of Mr. H‹bbe's favorite roles, and he has chosen "Cool" for the program of his final performance at New York City Ballet. The other ballets on that program are Apollo (a signature role), Mr. Martins' Zakouski, and the final movement of Balanchine's Western Symphony, where he gets to be a thoroughly convincing Danish cowboy. And in April, for his final performance with the Royal Danish Ballet, he'll dance his favorite Bournonville role: James in La Sylphide.
After 16 years in New York, Mr. H‹bbe has come full circle. He is moving back to Denmark to become Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet. He has been spending quite a bit of time in Copenhagen, learning the ropes, and, he admits, "It's been hard." RDB has changed a lot since his day, so he has had a lot to learn. "I've been ballet mastering, teaching classes, going to meetings, and acquainting myself with the procedures of the different departments, which have grown in complexity and numbers. When I left there were 500 employees; now there are 1300."
It's a formidable challenge, to be sure, but one for which Mr. H‹bbe seems to be ideally suited. He has the Danish training, an American sensibility, and an international perspective. And his experience teaching class (he has been on the faculty of the School of American Ballet since 2005) and staging ballets (for companies such as the National Ballet of Canada) will come in handy. "I started teaching when I was 26, and out of teaching came staging ballets‹moving people about and developing the works. From there, the natural progression for me is to direct a ballet company." But while Mr. H‹bbe is clearly looking forward to the challenges ahead, this is a bittersweet time for him. "I will miss New York, and I will miss City Ballet; it has been such a large part of my career, and it shaped me so much as a person and as an artist."
And his fans and colleagues will miss him and his undeniable presence. Yvonne Borree, a ballerina who frequently dances with him, says the chemistry that Mr. H‹bbe creates with his partner is palpable. She recalls a Duo Concertant rehearsal in which Mr. H‹bbe ran towards her, did a huge jet_, and landed on his knees in front of her. "I'm standing there on my two feet‹not moving, not off-balance‹and when he landed in front of me, I just fell over," Ms. Borree says. "That is the kind of energy force that Nikolaj has."
Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to dance and theater publications.