THE THINKING MAN’S CHOREOGRAPHER
Interview by William Gooch
published June 12, 2009
An Interview with Henning Rübsam
artistic director of Sensedance and choreographer
Henning Rübsam easily stands
out in a crowd, even when he not trying to. And that’s a good thing. I first met Henning at a panel discussion about the lack of black
ballerinas in mainstream ballet companies. With his thick mane of blond hair, psychedelic sports jacket, and very few whites in
attendance, Henning wasn’t easy to miss. But he stood out for more reasons than that. During the Q&A, Henning spoke passionately about
how the ballet world was limiting itself by excluding a segment of the population that has been so important to American
After spending some time with Henning, I realized that this is a man who not only has unbelievable knowledge of
different movement styles, but also has his finger on the pulse of where concert dance should be going. Not content to just create
pretty, pastel ballets to recognizable music from the great masters, Henning is pushing the creative envelope, choreographing dance
works that evoke mood, tantalize the senses, and always, always, always provide insight into the human condition.
How did you first become interested in dance?
Henning Rübsam: As a child I was always singing and dancing. When I was five my mom took me to a ballet
class at a local ballet school to see if it was something I would be interested in. I had never seen ballet, but I loved moving. After I
watched the class, I decided that ballet was something I wanted to do, so it was my choice.
talk about your studies at the Hamburg Ballet School?
Henning Rübsam: My teachers felt that if I wanted to really pursue ballet as a profession, I should study
at the Hamburg School. I got a scholarship to the school and studied there from the age of fifteen until I graduated. At that time Hamburg
didn’t have dorms, so I actually lived alone in my own studio apartment; my parents only insisted I keep my grades up.
Why did you decide to come to New
York City to study at Juilliard?
Henning Rübsam: I was really influenced by Jenny Coogan, a modern dancer/teacher. I really looked up to her; she was my goddess. Duncan MacFarland, who taught at The Laban Institute and at The Place in London, knew that I wanted to learn more about the Limon
technique and felt that Juilliard was the perfect place to get that training, and also get a college education. He choreographed a solo audition
for my entrance exam. The Hamburg School was not supportive of my decision. At the time, I thought they were being very rigid and not
generous. But in retrospect perhaps they felt I was betraying my classical training. I found Julliard to have a less hierarchical
teaching system than Hamburg. It was a more collaborative, better environment for me. But I must say without the strong classical
base I got at Hamburg, I wouldn’t have been accepted in Juilliard.
Why did you name your company
Henning Rübsam: Dancing is not just something that is taken in visually. I feel that when I am dancing, my
sensory awareness has to be there. I am setting my creative temperature when I dance. You
know, where is the wind coming from; is the sun there; when I am walking, what surface am I walking on; all those things. Audience members
may not see all those things, but hopefully they see that I am engaged. I am living in that world that I have created on stage and my
senses are alert. If audiences open themselves to that experience, they get that much more.
Your musical tastes are so diverse,
from Bach and Brahms to jazz guitar and Iraqi music. How do you choose your music?
Henning Rübsam: I do work with a number of contemporary composers. The music that I use is not necessarily
music that will entertain an audience. It is not necessarily the most accessible music, but the more you listen to it, the more you open
up to it. I have used music from the classical masters as well as music by Laura Nyro.
Your ballet Caves bears some resemblance to Jerome Robbins’ The Cage.
Have you been inspired by Balanchine and Robbins’ work?
Henning Rübsam: I do see a lot of dance. During the ballet season, I will see ABT and New York City ballet
a lot. After the ballet season, I will see my modern colleagues downtown. Although my work is informed by my dance life and studies, each
piece comes from a deep place inside of me. In retrospect, my dance piece, Litanei und Frühlingsglaube, the roundness and sense of weight comes from work I danced in the
Limon company. When I worked with Andrea Long on Caves, I think I really focused on her
abilities and what she looked good doing. I understood that Andrea had danced with New York City Ballet and in some Robbins’ ballets, and
that influenced how the work was developed. That said, Andrea did a spectacular job in
Caves, which was a tribute to her unique abilities. Andrea never got the opportunity to dance
the lead in Robbins’ The Cage, so she was happy when she got to dance the principal role in
At one point, your choreography was more modern based, but recently you have incorporated more pointe work, why is that?
Henning Rübsam: When The Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) went on hiatus five years ago, I asked a few of the
dancers if they were available. I had a great interest in learning about and incorporating pointe work into my ballets. Before working with DTH dancers I had not had the opportunity to work with
women who were very skilled in pointe work. I didn’t want to work with students who hadn’t
really mastered pointe work, so I was fortunate to get a hold of these dancers at that time. I
really challenged the DTH dancers. Because I didn’t quite understand how women worked on pointe, I was asking them to do things they had never done before. They made the seemingly impossible
possible. It was interesting for both parties. In the beginning, I had DTH dancers Akua Parker, Maria Phegan, and Melissa Morrissey, and
they were very patient with me.
In certain dance circles, there is
conversation that black dancers possess a certain movement quality. Do you subscribe to that school of thought?
Henning Rübsam: I do not. Look at the black dancers I have used. For example, Jamar Goodman, Dartanion Reed (ABT) and Ramon Thielen (DTH and
Cleveland Ballet) are very distinct dancer personalities with very different movement qualities. I happen to like those
qualities; however, there are some black dancers that I am not interested in, just as there are white dancers that I am not interested
in. I look at the dancer as an individual. I don’t believe any ethnic group has a specific movement aesthetic that is representative of
However, for certain ballets, race may be a consideration. Take for example, Allegra Kent and Arthur Mitchell in
Agon or Bugaku. Race was a consideration because she was so fair and he was
dark, and the contrast in skin tones worked for the themes of those ballets, but weren’t stereotypes about any racial movement
qualities. So for sculptural reasons or aesthetics, perhaps race could be a consideration.
Eva Evdokimova, the great prima ballerina assoluta, who was a mentor to you, recently died. Could you
talk about your relationship with her?
Henning Rübsam: I took ballet class with her at Ballet Arts religiously from the year 2000 on. She was so
kind and helpful in her criticism because she knew I really wanted to learn. She helped me embrace ballet technique as a choreographer. I
invited Eva to a performance of Sensedance in 2001. She was thrilled about my work and was so supportive in getting my work on bigger
stages. In 2002 I had planned a season at The Kitchen and I asked Eva if she would be interested in performing a solo with my company.
Since it was the 10th anniversary of Sensedance, I had asked other former guest artists to perform. Eva agreed to do it but on
the condition that I create a new work for her. [Laughter] We had ten performances at The Kitchen, and each
night a different guest artist performed.
Eva was so knowledgeable about music that she helped me pick the Schubert
lieder. We really got to know each other collaborating on this solo (Litanei und Frühlingsglaube) . She performed the piece several times, and it
was such a rewarding experience for both of us. Through working together, we became quite close.
What’s next for you and what do you
want audiences to get from your work?
Henning Rübsam: I am teaching at the Texas Academy of Ballet in June. We will have a season in Puerto Rico
in October and we are planning a ten-city tour in Mexico in 2010. I hope audiences really feel like going out and dancing after seeing
Sensedance. I want them to have a kinetic response to my work.
Henning Rübsam is the artistic director of Sensedance. He is
also on the faculty of the Julliard School and resident choreographer of the Hartford City Ballet.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
all dance photographs are by Jan La Salle