Stage and Cinema film and theatre reviews



picture - Henning RubsamInterview 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 dance.


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.


picture - Henning Rubsam danceHow 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.


Could you 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.


picture - Henning Rubsam danceWhy did you name your company SenseDance?


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 Caves.


picture - Henning Rubsam danceAt 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 that group.


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.


picture - Henning Rubsam danceEva 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 @


all dance photographs are by Jan La Salle



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