New head of London Festival Ballet puts dance world on the lookout
London — The handsome bare-chested dancer, in baggy gold harem pants and a plumed, jeweled headband, sets off at a cracking pace around a plain television studio. He performs a dazzling nonstop array of spins, high leaps, and a circle of outstretched, difficult jet'es. He ends on one knee, one hand back on his shoulder, the other arm reaching upward. Pause. . . .
Then he walks nonchalantly toward the camera, takes off the headband, and panting only slightly, says, ``To be a male dancer is a proper job.'' People might think men who dance are different -- effeminate. Well, they are different: ``We are stronger, fitter, better trained than most athletes.''
This arresting figure is Peter Schaufuss, Danish-born top international dancer, new and dynamic artistic director of the London Festival Ballet (LFB), and star and presenter of a four-part TV series on the male dancer.
First seen to enormous acclaim on British TV last summer, the series has attracted the interest of the PBS-TV network in the United States. Negotiations are in progress.
For Mr. Schaufuss, the breathless pace of his TV solo from the ballet ``La Corsaire'' is typical of his days here in London. Director for only six months, he has brought about a terrific change in the LFB image -- so much so that word has spread that dancers with the Royal Ballet Company have been told to ``watch out.''
The TV series, three years in the making, was planned long before Schaufuss thought of joining the LFB. But with perfect timing, it was shown here just a few weeks before he became LFB director, and it's been no surprise that box-office receipts in London and elsewhere have been at an all-time high.
At Christmas, for example, tickets changed hands outside London's Festival Hall for 50 each ($64) as the company played its ``Nutcracker'' to full houses every night.
With this stronger audience following, the company's dancers have blossomed. Added inspiration has come with Schaufuss's own contacts in the ballet world. He has invited names such as Nureyev and Makarova, the young American superstar Katherine Healy, the Bolshoi's polished Vladimir Derevianko, speedy Frenchman Patrick Armand, and the romantic Italian Raffaele Paganini.
``It's been very hard work for the company since I came -- harder than I'd like it to be,'' Schaufuss told me in an interview, ``but we are achieving a polished technique, and the public is realizing it.''
In a long green dressing gown, black T-shirt, and a red hooded sweat shirt, he sat himself down in front of a well-filled desk and excused himself while he munched on a brown-bread sandwich.
He had just finished a two-hour rehearsal of Sir Frederick Ashton's ballet ``Romeo and Juliet'' to be re-created by the LFB this summer. Before that he had taught the company's daily ballet class and had begun the morning with a 9:30 planning meeting. He expected to be rehearsing other dances all afternoon and evening.
``I have an excellent staff to help me with all this,'' he said, waving at the piles of paper on his desk. ``I believe the director should stay with the company while it is touring. I'm taking two classes a week, and dancing [leading roles] myself three times a week.
``There's very little time for relaxation: I've got a bed in that room [he pointed behind him] but I've never had the time so far to rest on it. In fact, I've never even been able to get bedcovers for it,'' he laughed.
At 35, Schaufuss has had a life filled to overflowing with dance. His parents, Mona Vangsaae and Frank Schaufuss, were principal dancers with the Royal Danish Ballet, and Peter studied in and graduated from its school. He first saw the LFB on tour in Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens in 1957 and was impressed.
Rather than staying in Denmark he chose to travel, first to Canada and its National Ballet, then to London for a stint with the Festival Ballet he now heads, and on to the New York City Ballet.
He has retained his link with home by dancing with the Royal Danish Ballet on many occasions, and he has made a famous reputation in guest appearances with numerous companies partnering the world's top ballerinas with verve, very light and swift footwork, and boyish enthusiasm.
In 1979 he was invited by the LFB to stage Bournonville's ``La Sylphide,'' a ballet associated with the ethereal, neat, and technically demanding style of the Danish Ballet. The production won Schaufuss two major British theater awards and was filmed for television.
``I realized when I worked with the Festival Ballet that it had all the ingredients for a great company,'' he told me. ``But it needed challenging a little bit further. One good thing in its favor is its flexibility and independence from being chained to an opera house or theater.
``Touring is very good. We try things on the road and develop them there.''
While the LFB has a base for rehearsals and administration in a mews behind the Royal Albert Hall, it has only two major seasons in London (at the Festival hall at Christmas and at the Coliseum in July).
The LFB is benefiting not only from its director's dancing image but also from his sharp business eye, especially given today's troubled times in the British arts world. But during our interview, which took place just before new government arts grants were anounced, he shied away from direct answers on finances.
``I don't want to jeopardize or predict results -- it's too close to the funding dates,'' he said cautiously. ``We'll know soon enough.''
A little over half the company's expenses are subsidized by the government, with the rest coming from box-office receipts and private funds. After we talked, the government Arts Council announced an increase for the LFB of 2 percent -- well below the rate of inflation. At this writing, the company was looking to the Greater London Council to come up with a larger-than-usual grant. The funds won't affect this year or next year: The LFB has already laid plans for both of those.
The Arts Council did, however, set aside 93,000 ($119,040) to raise dancers' salaries in line with those of the Royal Ballet Company.
``We're working hard in obtaining sponsorships now,'' he said, ``but in England it's different to the US system, where sponsoring companies can claim tax deductions.''
His busy ballet whirl leaves Schaufuss little time for a personal life, although ``the company is like a big family.''
``Do you have any regrets?'' I asked. He shook his head. ``No,'' he answered carefully. ``Of course, I'd have liked a family.'' With a smile he added, ``But it's not too late.''