House of Dolls and Flying Daggers

In 2004, when The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott reviewed the action movie ’House of Flying Daggers’ by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, he called the movie ”a gorgeous entertainment, a feast of blood, passion and silk brocade.” Even if Scott clearly was referring to a movie about a squad of assassins waging insurgency against a corrupt government set in the Tang Dynasty, the description is in many ways apt for describing modern ballet in general and The Royal Danish Ballet in particular.

Indeed, blood, passion, and silk brocade are key ingredients in any contemporary ballet company, and just as daggers and arrows soar through the air in Yimou’s glamorous action flick, so have the punches and verbal jabs echoed through the inner corridors of The Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. Or, rather, that is how it used to be. The skeletons came tumbling out of the royal closet in June 2011, when a highly controversial internal report about The Royal Danish Ballet was leaked to the press. Not only did the report reveal an alleged widespread cocaine abuse among dancers and the ballet master Nikolaj Hübbe himself. It also emerged that 31 per cent of the dancers felt bullied, while ten percent had felt sexually assaulted or been subjected to firing threats.

The management and the ballet master denied all drug accusations, even as the plot thickened when an 11-page letter from the consultant responsible for the report – sent to the theatre’s management – was later made public. According to the letter, Mr Hübbe had admitted cocaine abuse to the consultant, although the ballet master also denied ever having taken illegal substances with dancers at the theatre.

In the end the drug allegations were never verified and Erik Jacobsen, then Royal Theatre Director, stood by his ballet master with a press release denying all charges. Likewise, Nikolaj Hübbe has since emphatically denied any wrongdoing, most recently in a 2012 interview in The New York Times. As Anne Middelboe Christensen, a theatre critic at the Danish daily Information, wrote at the time, the situation was reminiscent of the Harald Lander case more than 50 years ago. Back then, the ballet master at The Royal Danish Ballet was also accused of wrongdoing – in this case alleged amoral dealings with the female dancers – but, again, the allegations were never substantiated. Nevertheless the allegations of sexual harassment were fatal, both for Harald Lander personally and for the entire the Royal Ballet.

”Rumours are hard to wash off. That also goes for ballet shoes. And it takes more than a few blood tests to clarify what the study was really about. Was it about cocaine or management, […] about a ballet master abusing his position or about the theatre manager’s empowerment?” she asks and concludes: ”Hübbe himself has often behaved so eccentrically and erratically that you’d be excused if you believe he was on something. But at the same time, it must be emphasized that Nikolaj Hübbe behaves exactly the way that he has always done, from the time he broke through as a teenage dancer: tireless and limitless.”

There is something disarming about a grown man standing in nothing but socks and boxer shorts. Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of The Royal Danish Ballet, apologizes for his emergency striptease, performed behind the desk of his airy corner office. In a matter of seconds the ballet master changes from jeans, white T-shirt, and sneakers, into a shirt, blue suit, and pointy brown leather shoes. He then lands in a leather chair, runs a hand through his hair and lights up a Marlboro Light.

”Talk to me, Harry Winston!” he says with a boyish smile, echoing the lyrics of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, a Broadway classic made famous by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen prefer Blondes

Continue reading in Oak volume Two