The reluctant star
Copenhagen — Arne Villumsen is not your typical romantic hero. Sure, he is as ''darkly handsome'' as the Royal Danish Ballet souvenir book says he is. And his technique is just as clean and inspiring as Anna Kisselgoff said it was in the New York Times.
But while he was rehearsing the ''Corsaire Pas de Deux,'' a famous, fiery love-duet between a pirate and a merchant's daughter, he did something that set him off from, say, Rudolf Nureyev, who has also danced that role. It wasn't the dancing. He bounded across the stage beautifully, reaching out with his legs into turns that looked like cartwheels tipped on their sides, his head whipping to the front with every whirl. When he landed, though, instead of looking dashing and triumphant, he turned around, blew out his cheeks thoughtfully, and, no doubt involved in some interior monologue, held his hands up and wiggled his fingers as if trying on surgeons' gloves.
The rehearsal audience, off-duty ballerinas lolling with their legs propped every which way on the backs of the red-velvet seats at the Royal Theater, giggled.
This is not your typical ballet company, either. These women are practically Arne Villumsen's sisters. They have spent their days together since the age of 7 , when students usually start attending ballet and academic classes at the Royal Ballet school by day, and performing in the ballets that require children by night. If they haven't been rejected in the yearly exams, by 18 they are ready to join the company. Villumsen, who didn't start at the school till he was 12, has always considered himself a late starter. Nonetheless, he is part of the family - and the family name is Bournonville.
August Bournonville was ballet master of the company 100 years ago, but what he said still goes. He wanted the company to be an ensemble of dancers who grew up together, with no acknowledged stars. He was against virtuoso dancing, the kind of pyrotechnics that were developing in Russia toward the end of the 19th century. Ballet music was composed with pauses for outbursts of thunderous applause, when, for example, the swan princess in ''Swan Lake'' did her 32 fouettes. But Bournonville dancers don't perform great feats. Rather, they dance twinkling, gemlike parts in his witty story ballets. A lot of the ballet is mime , and when they aren't miming, their feet are whisking through Bournonville's intricate steps, in long phrases to uninterrupted music.
They are invigorating to watch. The mime looks fresh, because it's naturalistic. The fast footwork looks intelligent rather than brawny, though it makes its own physical demands on the dancers.
You have to work hard to do Bournonville footwork, says Villumsen. Ballet children take a different class every day, each lesson a different set of steps. ''You haven't got any help from your arms sometimes,'' he says. ''So you really have to be placed,'' that is, perfectly balanced, with the body well aligned. Even then, movement can become rigid from trying to keep balanced, but ''when you are able to move like a Bournonville dancer, all the steps just come. They feel very natural,'' he says.
So natural, perhaps, that people aren't really convinced he works at it. Erik Aschengreen, dance critic for Copenhagen's newspaper Berlingske Tidende, finds him brilliant and talented, but befuddling. ''He has all this talent and this gift, but he needs someone to push him to get it out, because he is not going to push himself.'' He has been annoyed with him, ''but now I am very glad to see him because he is the most beautiful dancer we have.''
Villumsen sighed when asked if he had to work to compensate for his late start. ''I think I work very hard. I don't think some of the other people think I work very hard. They say, 'Oh, it's easy for you.' '' Perhaps it's not a lack of work that annoys, but Villumsen's nonchalant handling of all that talent.
He showed up for our interview fresh from his sideways cartwheels in a beige warmup suit with dark curls clinging Byronically to a pale, sweaty brow. He sat down under the portraits of past Royal Danish dancers and announced, ''I'm not good at this.''
People as ''darkly handsome'' as that shouldn't apologize; they should just brood with a Heathcliff-like intensity. But Villumsen is a happy, quiet man who likes Denmark and enjoys dancing with people he grew up with. There is no ''persona'' for this artist. I complimented him on his English and he removed any shred of glamour from his image by saying, self-effacingly, ''Bleeeaah,'' and waving his hand in front of his mouth, to express how he feels he is doing in this foreign language.
I also found myself arguing that he is too a good dancer.
''It's always a problem doing modern,'' he says. ''I don't feel good in that.''
You looked very good in the piece by Glen Tetley, I comment.
''But I'm not doing anything there,'' he says, and laughs.
Then there is his ambition. Ambition? ''I don't think I have ambitions, like to be something,'' he says, speaking such heresy in his bland, husky voice. ''Forgot about that 10 years ago. I said to myself, 'I have a nice time here. Many good things to do. Couldn't wish anything else.' If you're really going to be something, maybe you can work on that. If you're just feeling that you can [ get to] a certain level and stand there. . . . No, I don't have any ambition of being world master or something. ''
But he really is something. Erik Aschengreen feels, ''It takes someone to nurse and coach him.'' Right now, he added, Villumsen is being ''beaten and pushed'' into rising to the lead role in Yuri Grigorovich's ''Don Quixote.'' Villumsen, on the other hand, looked at me with liquid brown eyes that in novels are turbulent with the tortures of creating art (but on him are glassy calm), and said guilelessly, ''I think it's something to do with coming here as a child. . . . We're sort of put in by our parents, and if we succeed it's OK.''
Whether it means anything to him or not, he has succeeded. Partly by dint of the departure of a trio of great male dancers - Peter Martins, Peter Schaufuss, and Ib Anderson - for the New York City Ballet, and partly because of those expansive leaps and his perfect placement, he is whatever they call a star in a company founded on not having stars. When they danced last summer in New York, to enthusiastic reviews, Anna Kisselgoff, the Times's dance critic, singled him out. ''It's not true, incidentally, that there are no stars,'' she wrote. ''In this 'Firebird,' Arne Villumsen emerges as a male dancer of international rank. Over the years, Mr. Villumsen has become an increasingly noble classical dancer. In 'Firebird' he is cast in a relatively minor role that he makes major through the perfection of his every movement and stance, as well as an absorbing dramatic commitment. In the end, this 'Firebird' was a personal triumph for Mr. Villumsen and Linda Hindberg, in the title role.''
He doesn't seem to have taken this in. And he's not going to follow in the graceful footsteps of Peter Martins and company to the New York City Ballet. He knows why they left. ''Denmark is not a ballet land. It's too small, because [ the Royal Danish Ballet] is the only theater, the only ballet. If you wanted to do something else, you have to leave. If you're not satisfied . . . ''
But he is. ''I've thought about it a lot. I don't think there's any company where there's so much to dance [as] here. Classical, modern. New York is only Ballanchine - boring. I like to see one or two ballets, but if you're doing that all the time - '' he makes a face about the choreography the rest of the world agrees is the best of 20th-century ballet. ''I like to do some full-length ballets with some acting in them, then a modern piece,'' he concludes. He has a long career ahead of him. Royal Danish Ballet dancers, supported by the government, get pensions when they reach their 40s. But many remain, dancing character roles in the Bournonville crowd scenes. The merry old fisherman in a Bournonville ballet is likely not to need to powder his hair. ''You grow to the character parts,'' Villumsen explains. One dancer celebrated her 70th birthday on stage. ''I started on the bridge to Napoli,'' as a child watching from the bridge the finale of one of the company's most famous ballets, ''came to the floor, and then dancing,'' Villumsen recalls. He plans to grow old in that ballet.
This is not usually recognized as ambition. ''It's a good thing to be grown up together,'' he says happily. But don't you ever get too comfortable? ''Not as long as you have a lot to do. You really have to work. Imagine people who are doing the same thing over and over, that must be very uncomfortable. [Here] your ambitions go in whatever direction you want.''
So in the same night he is a romantic young pirate wheeling through the air, flinging himself at Linda Hindberg's feet, and an abstract character in Glen Tetley's ''Greening'' who carries her, legs pointed upward like star-points, across the stage, then stalks her in a strange pas de deux. In both works, he is always right where he should be, coming out of a turn, grabbing Hindberg's hand, turning her into a chain of pirouettes. His technique is beautiful. But he is not a passionate dancer. He is a good workman, who maneuvers Hindberg not with a lover's grasp, but like a friend giving her a hand. ''That's not really him,'' says Aschengreen of the role. ''He's elegant and nice, but he's not flamboyant.'' He is probably at his best prancing along at the center of the big old Napoli set, with memories of being a child on the bridge, happy to have the company of his elders on the sidelines.
Typically, he doesn't crow about the Royal Danish Ballet. ''Sometimes we think this is not the thing for a New York public to see all the trolls,'' he says with a quiet chuckle, referring to Bournonville's ''A Folk Tale.'' He needn't have worried. The trolls went over big in New York this summer, as everyone took to what Anna Kisselgoff called ''Bournonville's charming and poetically cheerful ballets.''
Though many companies have adopted Bournonville ballets, ''They don't dance it like we do. It's not Danish. I don't know, I think it's the atmosphere from the children and the old people and the crowds.'' Last summer at Jacob's Pillow, a New England dance festival, he and nine other company members danced a special group of excerpts from Bournonville. The audience was small. It was about 50 degrees outside and raining. But as we huddled in the barn that houses the theater, these clever, reasonable-looking dancers smiled, bobbed, and sparkled around the stage. The sun seemed to come out. Watching, I felt as though a very talented family were showing off for the audience, but so warmly that we all felt like cousins.
''There's many dancers in the world who can dance better than us,'' says Arne Villumsen nonchalantly. ''We're not the best, no, no. But I don't know, it's more joyful to look at a big family.''