An interview with Saskia Beskow, New York City Ballet corps dancer
Interview conducted by Robert Abrams
April 3, 2003
I recently had an opportunity to chat with Saskia Beskow, one of the New York City Ballet's talented and thoughtful dancers. Saskia is also a spokesperson for Danskin. Here are her thoughts on her development as a dancer, what it is like to dance with the New York City Ballet, and where she sees dance going in the future.
New York City Ballet
The Four Seasons
Choreography by Jerome Robbins
Dancers: Saskia Beskow, Laura Paulus, Jenny Blascovich
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet
The Four Seasons
Choreography by Jerome Robbins
Dancer: Saskia Beskow
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik
Robert Abrams: How did you start dancing?
Saskia Beskow: Since I was able to walk when I was a little baby, I was always dancing around. My parents would be playing classical music. My dad is a painter. I would run around and dance in my dad's studio, getting paint on me. My parents said, "It is enough. This girl has to be a dancer!" My parents put me in private ballet school in Copenhagen, for two years. I loved it. My teacher thought I was talented enough to go to the Royal Danish Ballet School. After two years, I did an audition. At age 8, I was accepted right away. My parents were happy to get me away from oil paint and turpentine in my hair. I was in ballet school until 16. I did two years as an apprentice, and then got into a company of the Bournonville school (they focussed mainly on Bournonville technique). It was very exciting to participate in all the performances. They always use kids in performances in this company, dancing in operas, plays and ballets. They don't do that here when you are a child in the School of American Ballet. It was very different and exceptional. I was already acting when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was fun until I was 17. I got bored. There was too much acting. I wanted to dance more. Peter Martins came to Copenhagen to do a full length Swan Lake.
RA: Was this a production where he brought the New York City Ballet dancers to Denmark, or was he staging Swan Lake with the Danish dancers?
SB: He staged it with the Royal Danish Ballet dancers. He had already done part of Swan Lake for New York City Ballet dancers in a previous season in New York, so I am sure he knew he was going to do the full length Swan Lake in Denmark. We worked for four or five weeks. He saw I was very energetic. I had been coming here [to New York City] every summer to take classes at the School of American Ballet, so he knew I wanted to come to New York. I said to him that I really wanted to join the New York City Ballet. Mr. Martins said to come over and take an audition. After the audition, he took me in the company and now I am here.
RA: How is the dancing in Europe different from the dancing in the United States?
SB: It is such a different way of dancing here. You don't get to dance as much in Europe as here. In the first three months in this company here, I had danced more than I had in thirteen years in Copenhagen.
RA: Why is that?
SB: It is a different repertoire here. We don't do story ballets as much as in Europe. There are more short ballets here. Every night we do four or five short ballets. In Europe, ballets have a lot of waiting around and acting, and not really dancing. I had all this energy I didn't know what to do with. So, I thought this was the place to come. I loved the style of Balanchine. I love Peter's choreography, Peter Martin's. Dancing his choreography here, you can say my dream came true.
RA: That's good.
SB: I am a very happy girl.
RA: What makes you passionate about dance?
SB: I spend all my time on dancing and that is why I think I am getting better. I am a hard worker. This is very hard to answer. I love music. It is natural for me to move to music: it makes me so happy to dance. This is why I am so passionate about it. Dance is something I am born with. When I get on stage, I am never nervous and shy. I feel much stronger on stage. I can forget about all my little things. Dance makes me very happy. I find it is satisfying to move and use your body as an instrument and see it developing and changing. I was dancing so much, and getting better, my body changed. I love it. I love moving. I love sweating, like sweating from hard work.
RA: Is there a choreographer or dancer who inspires you?
SB: As far as a dancer goes, I have to say I don't have a specific dancer in the company - they are all amazing dancers, all so different, different qualities, different personalities. I admire bits and parts of every dancer. The whole company has talent at a high level. I look around the studio and I see these ballerinas - it is so exciting. It is a different atmosphere from what I am used to in Copenhagen. So I don't have a specific ballerina. As far as a choreographer goes, I am here because I love Balanchine. He is a genius.
RA: I realize that there are many superb dancers in the New York City Ballet. I am not asking you to pick one to judge one better than another. I am trying to help people understand what makes an inspirational dancer, and more importantly, how you find that inspiration. Can you pick one or two dancers and describe how they are inspirational, what you admire about them?
SB: Wendy Whelan is an extraordinary dancer. She moves her body and hands in way that is exquisite. Darci Kistler is beautiful. Miranda Weese is extremely technical. I am going to say them all. They all have something I love.
RA: That certainly is a good reason to be part of this company. Being around so many great dancers can help you expand your ability.
SB: I feel that when we do a short ballet with a principal couple and four or six girls behind that couple, that principal can get into her own way of moving. It is very strange. Something happens out there. It is magic. When you are in a ballet with Wendy in front, you get into her way of moving. This is the most amazing ballet corps in the world because you can get to dance so much. Each dancer in the corps is always out there. You can always see us. We get to do so much dancing. The corps dancers are never in the back hiding.
RA: What ballet do you especially like to perform? I understand that there are probably many such ballets, but just name one and tell me why you are drawn to it.
SB: Mozartiana has four girls in the corps. This ballet has beautiful music. It is more classical than the other ballets. It is very intense. Four girls dance - the dancing lasts a long time. We are out there doing beautiful movements and wearing beautiful costumes. You feel like a ballerina out there. I also like what we call the leotard ballets. We only wear tights and leotards. These are more neo-classical, more modern.
RA: You tend to like those for what reason?
SB: The neo-classical?
SB: They are so clean and strict… and clean. All Balanchine ballets are so intense: you don't have to tell a story but still you are dancing with your heart. Every ballet I do on stage, fun or sad pieces, modern or classical, I get into that mood and that way of moving and give everything I have.
RA: If you had your pick of roles, what role would you like to take on to challenge yourself?
SB: You always want to do more and more. Better parts, it is never enough, but that makes you get going and work hard and improve. I have gotten to do many nice things of the demi parts. The next step would be the soloists roles. I am so not good enough yet.
RA: I understand that you are working hard and will improve. Knowing something about what you are striving for will help people understand how a dancer works to reach that ever higher level.
SB: Moves is a Jerome Robbins ballet - we did it once two seasons ago. It is danced all in silence with no music. A few girls in the ballet all do different things. I am fascinated by parts in this ballet that are harder and more difficult.
RA: What makes these parts more difficult?
SB: They are harder because they have strong parts. They require a lot of attack and power. I am a soft dancer, my movements would want to be more sharp and stronger. I have to have more attack and finish in my dancing. It is always good to try to do these ballets you know you can't do. That you are not ready for. I need more speed and more attack, but I am getting there, getting better. My background is so different from what is taught at the School of American Ballet, for me to come here I had to change my way of moving and dancing. I am catching up pretty well.
RA: To improve, you have to understand what you are trying to improve. By being able to talk about it this way doesn't mean you aren't where you are supposed to be. You first have to know how to get there, where you want to go, so I think this is a good thing - that you are able to articulate where you want to work on your dancing. Earlier, you mentioned that you enjoy dancing in ballets that use beautiful costumes, as well as those that use simple leotards. What do you look for in dance clothes? What do you wear to rehearsals?
SB: What do I wear for class? Before I signed a contract with Danskin, I would wear really boring outfits, old leotards from Copenhagen, leg warmers, old shirts. Now I am wearing really nice outfits for rehearsals. In Europe dancers are a little sloppy. They rehearse in clothes with holes or an old sweater, with different colors, such as different colors of leg warmers. Here they have to see your body and what you look like. Here you have to present yourself to look your best. People all look so nice in this country. I am very aware of what I look like now. Having Danskin clothing helps, they send me all this wonderful dance wear. Nice clothes. It shouldn't be important what you wear: it is you and your dancing, but you feel better when you wear nice clothes. You want to look at beautiful tights and leotards when you are rehearsing. You feel better when you wear these nice leotards. Also, the boys can touch you better in nice clothes. It is easier for them to partner you if you wear something sleek and tight: they don't drop you on the floor. If you are wearing an old sweater, they may have to reach around too much. You don't want them to drop you on the floor.
RA: Definitely not.
SB: Some ballets call for the dancer to be dropped, carefully. There are some ballets where dancers are thrown in the air to drop to the floor, but we don't do many of those here.
RA: Is there a style of dance outside of ballet that you have explored or might like to explore?
SB: Last season, we did Italian choreographer Maurio Bigonzetti - it is still en pointe, but it is a very European neo-classical type of dance we don't do much in this company. It is not easy because there are different movements. I had to relax and let go. I was doing movements that should be easy, but when you have done strictly classical-trained ballet, it is hard to let go and relax. It was very exciting - I might do more of this later on, do more of the modern dancing in my career. It is nice to be able to do it all, classical, modern, bare feet. But it is not easy.
RA: Is there a style of dance you want to learn more about, even if you don't see yourself performing in that style?
SB: I like completely modern dancing. I very often go to BAM, to see dance companies such as William Forsythe. Extremely modern dance is so fascinating to watch. I would love to do that one day. I have never had modern training, though.
RA: Do you have any interest in partner styles of dance? Tango, Swing, Salsa?
SB: I very much like Swing dancing. It looks like a lot of fun. I have tried to do that. I did a Duke Ellingtion festival. I performed in one of the ballets in the program. I would love to go out dancing Swing, but have to find someone to dance with. Tango is a dance I have to learn one day. Moving Out, the Broadway show, is very exciting to watch. I am sure it is very fun to do.
RA: Is there a story that has never been set as a ballet that you dream of dancing?
SB: I am not interested in story ballets, I am interested in pure dancing to music. I did it [story ballets] from age 6 to 20. I did all of that. Now it is just pure dancing, 20 minute sections. Story ballets are pretty much done for me at this point. But I might get back to those story ballets one day - who knows! I might like to see Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, set as a ballet.
RA: Where do you see dance going in the next ten years?
SB: More modern, we will see more modern dance. The audience today wants more than Swan Lake and Giselle. They want more exciting pieces. There will always be an audience for the beautiful classical pieces, but the modern will go on, and a lot of new choreographers are coming up that we will look back and say "we have a lot of new things." Our new generation treats the new talents very well. Give them money so they can work. In Scandinavia, where I was recently on vacation, there are so many Danish choreographers, many exciting pieces. There is a lot of exciting work going on there. Maybe in ten years this will come out to the rest of the world.
RA: Is there anything else you would like to add?
SB: The Danskin work has been very exciting for me to do: doing the catalogs, trying to make little girls happy out there, signing posters for them. You don't do this sort of thing in Copenhagen. There are so many people interested in ballet and dance in New York, so many little girls. It is very exciting. The interest in dance here is amazing. All the children want to dance and are interested in dance. It is a big country with so much dance.