Thursday, August 11, 2022 Aug 11, 2022
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Master of the Ballet

The maverick movements of Flemming Flindt
By Skip Hollandsworth |

it’s the one o’clock rehearsal, the Dallas Ballet, Thursday afternoon. A roach stands tentatively at the edge the dance floor. For weeks, roaches have been advancing on the little rehearsal building at the edge of downtown, and now they seem ready to take over. Dozens crawl along the ceiling light above the piano. The pianist, a bearded young man in shorts and jogging shoes, continues to play, refusing to yield. He is playing the Winter movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. His left hand pounds the bass line. The dancers seem to flash over the floor. The roaches fall like little paratroopers, one by one. They hit the chairs alongside the wall; one bounces off the piano.

An idle dancer, his blond hair flowing down his neck, takes a broom and sweeps the roaches to one side. The roaches stare back, their tentacles waving like strands of wheat. In a moment of irritation, the dancer raises the broom and jabs at the ceiling. For him, it is either art-or life. The roaches come tumbling down.

The quiet man sitting by the wall mirror never looks up. He is wearing the same thing he wears almost every day-black pants, a black cowboy shirt, black boots, black belt with a huge silver buckle. His eyes are riveted on one of his lead soloists, Christine Zembower, as she leaps past one dancer, turns, then gracefully moves toward the bugs. She is beautiful in the way all good ballerinas are beautiful: loose-limbed, light, her small head set far from the shoulder.

The roaches seem to sense her coming. For a moment, at least, they halt their attack. The music moves into the upper ranges. Imperceptibly, Zembower transfers her weight, and quick as a baby’s breath, floats back across the room. The man in black suddenly rises. The male dancer smashes a roach with his ballet slipper. The pianist misses a note on a long right-hand run. The man by the mirror claps his hands twice.

He is staring at Zembower. He has not even seen the roaches, nor does he hear the buzz of conversation. He says to his soloist in a thick Danish accent, “I tell you. Make your move a little quicker. Then look this way. I want to see the caring.”

The man in black, Flemming Flindt, director of the Dallas Ballet, claps his hands again. The music resumes, and so does the dance. Outside the full-length windows, two pigeons rise in flight, their wings flapping in time with Vivaldi.

INSIDE THE LITTLE building on Pearl Street is a world within a world. It is a world of sweat, of the smell of resin and the heavy sound of the piano. It is a world compressed on a rehearsal floor: women in leotards with their hair pulled back and slim men with thick muscles. Each day begins with plies at the barre, a classical version of the deep knee bend. The dancers almost never look out the window. Instead, they stare at the mirror, not out of narcissistic pleasure, but to see what needs correcting. Their scrutiny holds little pleasure.

And often, neither does the gaze of Flemming Flindt. He is the kind of man, with his silver-streaked hair and determined eyes, who can stand silent in a corner and draw the attention of the entire room. Although he says little, little escapes him. His is an analytical intelligence, yet he is far from cold. “His patience,” says ballerina Christine Zembower, “is frankly a little overwhelming at times.”

Flindt’s head may bob with a dancer as she comes across the floor. If she forgets a passage, he vaguely marks out the steps until her memory returns. Still, his face rarely fills up with joy. It is as if he is waiting-this man whose vision of humanity rests solely in the world of ballet-waiting for his young dancers to triumph in the way he knows is possible. His mind is constantly at work-on new ballets, on restaging great ballets, even on a Broadway musical he will soon choreograph. But in the end, he returns to teaching his Dallas dancers the classical tradition.

Here, at the Dallas ballet rehearsal studios, air conditioning is non-existent, roaches are abundant, the dressing rooms are small, the salaries are low, the season is short. Underworked dancers constantly work on plans to move elsewhere. And one of the world’s most respected ballet masters considers it the place that will make him happy.

Flemming Flindt, 48, is still largely unknown in this city, despite the fact that he arrived in 1981. It is doubtful he will ever be known except among the few here who follow ballet. But in the world of dance, Flindt is compared to an oil wildcatter whose many gambles have paid off. His power has not been ignored.

As a dancer, Flindt found fame first for his flamboyant and sometimes daring style. Former student Peter Martins, now director of the New York City Ballet, once wrote that Flindt always went for “the big hand, the big trick.” As a burgeoning soloist with the Royal Danish Ballet, he left for the London Festival because it offered more dramatic dance. Just as he was becoming known at the Festival, he went to the Paris Opera because there was drama of a different sort. He eventually returned to his native Denmark.

For 12 years, Flindt served as artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, an institution created in 1830 and revered for its unparalleled traditions. Its repertory and its dancing style have survived intact for generations. Other dancers marvel at the unique Danish dance method (called Bournonville), admired both for its intricate difficulty and its abiding romanticism.

Flindt carried the torch. He was charged with preserving the classics, and he did. But quietly, the dance maverick staged The Nutcracker in the Danish style, and choreographed a dozen new ballets-one of which, The Miraculous Mandarin, was hailed as the first great modern ballet created in Denmark.

Then, in 1971. Flindt presented Triumph of Death, a stunning depiction of a faltering society. At one point in the ballet, he not only staged females dancing nude, he came on stage himself in a dancing role, stripped nude, then was covered with a pink spray. The effect on the Royal Danish Ballet audience might be likened to the reaction of the Junior League if a motorcycle gang roared through its midst.

“But all along, he knew what he was doing,” says Claus Hjort, a Danish dancer who arrived at the Dallas Ballet this year just to work with Flindt. “People were talking about the ballet in the street. They were standing in line to see it. You could go into a bar and mention Flemming, and even old men who had never seen a ballet would know his name. Listen, there was excitement everywhere.”

“I will never forget,” recalls Flindt, sitting in his little bare office and tapping a finger against his skull, “when I walked down the street in Copenhagen, everyone spoke to me. Everyone. You might think, ’Ballet?’ But I tell you, it can have that effect. People who are in ballet there, they receive declarations by the king. If the king throws a big ball, he invites all the big bankers, then he invites the ballet dancers.”

Now Flindt stands in the rehearsal room, taut with concentration as he stares at a group of dancers struggling to learn the Bournonville dance style that their master grew up with. At the Royal Danish Ballet, Flindt directed 85 dancers. In Dallas, there are 26. The Danish dancers had life contracts and pensions when they retired. Here, dancers make a base of $440 a week for 33 weeks a year. “We’re all scared of retiring,” says Michael Hurd, who, at 32, is one of the older members of the Dallas company. “We wouldn’t know what to do.”

Why would someone of Flindt’s stature-still young, still restless to present great ballet, still sought after by prominent European dance companies-want to move his wife and three children to Dallas, Texas? What he has done is like Frank Sinatra’s moving to Indonesia to start a new singing career. “No one in Denmark knows Dallas,” says Soren Meyer, a Danish dancer who has joined the Dallas company. “Some think it is far out on the prairie.”

“Fleming could be anywhere,” says Flindt’s wife Vivi, once a star ballerina in Denmark. “It does not matter. Just as long as he has the chance to make art, to find a vision somewhere in his head, he is happy. Sometimes I watch him as he gets up to look in the refrigerator. Just as he reaches for the door handle, he stops and throws his arm up and makes a dance turn. He doesn’t even know what he is doing. He is always, in the back of his mind, thinking dance.”

Flindt says the act of being alive demands a love for dance: “You soon recognize that there is a religious aspect to dance, a ritual art form, and when you understand that ritual, then you realize you’re expanding your capacity to absorb life. It’s like-well, I’ve never taken drugs-but it must be something like taking LSD. Dance is an expansion, an expansion of your senses. And if that doesn’t happen, then you shouldn’t dance, because it’s too strenuous. There is nothing sensible in it if you don’t dream about it.”

Flindt left Europe because of the way governments had begun to control ballet companies. It has been a complaint of European artistic directors for nearly a decade, but not many people took the chance that Flemming Flindt did. “I really mean what I’m saying when I tell you how happy I am to have the simple opportunity to create ballet without interference. All the big companies in Europe are being run by majority decision. Well, you don’t make art like that. You don’t make art in groups. I will not stand for that.” And so, with barely a second thought, he left. “You know,” says Claus Hjort, “there was a group of dancers who weren’t that surprised when Flemming announced he was moving to a place called Texas. He’s always doing something like that.”

Flindt’s arrival in Dallas followed the decade-long tenure of Russian-born dancer/ director George Skibine, whose big, glorious, sometimes sloppy style gave dancers room to make mistakes. Skibine played well before Dallas audiences.

“When Flindt came,” says Christine Zembower, one of only four dancers to survive the Skibine era, “we suddenly found ourselves learning a new musical approach to dance. The quick steps became very important. We had to have our steps exactly at certain places in the music. We were doing new combinations. This is hard for me to admit, but I was so depressed that I wouldn’t come to class. I was afraid that I would never learn the steps. Here I was, a soloist, and I was embarrassed with myself. It took me a good two years to get going again.”

It was, indeed, a difficult transition. Half the company had left in the first year. The new performances made audiences uncomfortable and gave critics the excuse to grumble about the old days. Flindt, who had supervised eight teachers at the Danish ballet, found himself teaching elementary classes on the Bournonville style.

“What you have to remember” says Jacob Sparso, another Dane and one of the most impressive new soloists recruited by Flindt, “is that Flemming knows every single step of every Danish ballet that’s been done. That’s not an exaggeration. He thinks in terms of a lot of fancy footwork, with the upper body remaining rather still. And when he came down here to teach that, all of the dancers felt as if they were trying to balance a glass of water on the top of their heads.”

“But when it is done right,” says Fleming Flindt, his voice patient, “the effect is splendid. And I can wait for that effect.” It may very well be apparent this year, in the American premier of Flindt’s ballet, The Three Musketeers. Or perhaps at a performance of his The Miraculous Mandarin, Dallas audiences will see what the new Dallas Ballet will eventually become.

IN THE MIDDLE of a rehearsal, Flemming Flindt claps his hands to stop the music. Once again, with patience, he tells a dancer to hold his arms with more reserve. His voice barely filters across the room, but the point is made, and Flindt claps for the music again.

Throughout the long afternoon, he remains stoic by the mirrored wall. He says little, never showing his dancers exactly how to move. When he works with a soloist, they move to a room where they can work one-on-one. “I try to stay anonymous,” he says, “I give the dancers the text, and then they must interpret the steps out of their own experience. No matter what kind of great reputation a director has, it is ridiculous for him to try to twist his dancers all the right ways.” Occasionally, the dancers come so close to what he wants, he leaps out of his chair. Then he sits back down slowly, and lets the dance take its course.

“What we have here is a beginning,” he says after afternoon rehearsal. “There is no telling where we can go. I sometimes get the feeling that I am about to lose my breath-it is because of the kind of art that can come out of this company. We are so close.”

As he talks, the rush-hour sounds of the city penetrate his window. The rehearsal building is emptying of dancers, and the sun is beginning its slant behind the skyscrapers. Soon, Flindt and Vivi head for their car, just two more people leaving for home. But, as Flindt opens the door for his wife, he makes an unexpected, almost unconscious move. His left arm swings out, his foot slides out on the gravel. He seems lost in thought for a moment, then walks to the driver’s seat. In the deepest corner of his mind, Flem ming Flindt is thinking, once again, about ballet.

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