Children are important at the Royal Danish Ballet

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Here, in this dance-school complex, children are as important to ballet as are the adult dancers and are cherished as next in line to carry on the tradition. For this is the Royal Danish Ballet at home, where a school for would-be ballet dancers is an integral part of the ambiance of the world-famous company.

Watching the children's ballet classes for several mornings this American observer noticed how polite and well-disciplened the youngsters are. But they are far from subdued. Performing every night, learning during the day, they still could hang on the gym bars, go in for a bit of roughhousing, or get into mischief as readily as any kid in an American elementary school might do. But then, energy not one whit abated, they settle into plies and pirouettes. And while waiting their calls to show the teacher the simpler variations of their classwork, they practice double turns in the back of the class. Unfailingly polite to the American visitor, they take absolutely no more notice of me. Poised, that's what they are.

At night the youngsters share the stage with the company dancers. And they share friendship with them, too. One adult dancer told me "While we rub our muscles at rehearsals the children rush in and try to dance our difficult parts."

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In "Konservatoriet," the Bournonville ballet seen on opening night of the recent ballet festival here, the kids really came into their own. In the ballet , three rows of children demonstrate on stage some of the exercises of the Paris studio of the 1820s (where August Bournonville, shaper of the tradition of the Royal Danish Ballet himself danced as a student), doing a less complicated version of the steps that make up the ballet.

And in the front row was 13-year-old Nilas, son of Peter Martins, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. Father and son both started their training in the Danish company. Bournonville also followed his father onto the stage. It is a continuing tradition with the Royal Danish.

And at 8:15 very morning, one can see a number of children dropped off at the stage door because they, too, are part of this backstage world. As students at the Royal Danish Ballet School, these children perform in the storybook ballets from the 19th century that make up part of the repertory of the Royal Danish Ballet.

In a tradition that predates Hans Christian Andersen, who was a pupil in the Danish Ballet School more than 150 years ago, children from the ages of seven to 11 come here each year to audition, to see if they will be among the few to spend the rest of their lives as members of the ballet company. For the 13 children picked out of 100 applicants in 1979, this is probably the first year of a lifelong career.

Normally the children remain in the school until they are 16, apprentice with the company for two years, then are taken into the company at 18. The government retires women with full pension at age 43 to 45; men at 48, but many of the dancers continue to perform long after retirement. Niels Bjorn- Larsen has spent 60 years on the stage of the Royal Danish Theater.His daughter, Dinna Bjorn, is also a member of the company.

For the 53 children now enrolled in the Royal Danish Ballet School, which meets daily upstairs in the Royal Danish Theater, the schedule is demanding: On arrival at the theater each morning, they change into leotards and tights (for the girls) and warm-up suits (for the boys), covered by warm bathrobes. You can see these children in their robes flying up and down the staircases at the theater, in perpetual motion as they move from ballet classes to academic classes (for this is total education, not just dance school) to rehearsals.

After morning ballet class, taught by current of former members of the company, come showers and a meal, then school subjects until 4 p.m., with only a 15-minute afternoon break for a snack. the children do not live at the school (unlike children who train at the ballet companies in the USSR), so if they are to appear in an evening performance they can go home but must return to the theater by 7:30 p.m.

The children are paid 27 Danish kroner ($4.97) for appearing in each performance, because they must pay the cost of their makeup themselves. However , the government pays for their schooling. the children take special government examinations to be sure that they are keeping up in academic subjects. In the summers there is a 2 1/2- month holiday.

When the royal danish Ballet comes to the United States again in 1982, probably the children I saw roughhousing will be on stage in Act 3 of "Napoli" and "Konservatoriet" and other ballets in the repertory. And, if they look like proper little angels, always remember that they are real children, mischief and all.

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