Date and place of birth: 11 August 1968, Copenhagen.
As Director at the Finnish National Ballet, Kenneth Greve, draws on nearly three decades of dance experience to sculpt ballet encounters for everyone in Finland.
WALKING down a long corridor lined with costumes hanging on clothes racks, I wonder what to expect when meeting Kenneth Greve.
Now in his sixth season as Director at the Finnish National Ballet, Greve’s time in Finland almost seems the cherry on the cake of a long and illustrious career.
The New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet and the Vienna State Opera Ballet, performing as an étoile with the Paris Opera Ballet and principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet all feature prominently on his CV. Furthermore, he also worked as the Royal Danish Ballet’s ballet master in 2006-2008.
In recent years here up north, Greve has sought to develop a younger audience for ballet in Finland, in the hope that some will be just as enticed by the art as he was many years ago as a boy in his hometown of Copenhagen. Central to this strategy was Greve’s hugely successful production of The Snow Queen. Premiering in November 2012, and enjoying time on stage through until earlier this year, the production duly attracted a wide cross-section of audience members during its run.
And so, here inside Finnish National Opera, a door opens, and Greve appears. Standing close to two metres tall and extending a huge hand in welcome, he is congenial and professional, with a playful edge that belies the weight of the responsibilities he shoulders.
Given his task of transforming the face of ballet in Finland and making it exciting for younger people, it’s a surprise to see he still has time himself to dance these days. But for his forthcoming debut performance in Finland he has chosen not a small stage hidden away in the dark recesses of a sparsely populated building – the gala Kenneth & Friends, is being staged at Finnish National Opera on 23 and 24 May, surrounded by some of the most renowned dancers from around the world.
How does it feel to dance now?
It feels fantastic. I love it. This is a one-time possibility for me also to get to dance in Finland on the main stage. I don’t actually dance that often anymore. I’m well over the retirement age – even in Finland – for a dancer. I started very young, and have put a lot of miles on my body already. Now, I am a director, so my time should go to my dancers. I can’t focus on my own dancing. However, in this situation where I have to, of course, my vanity and demand for professionalism forces me to dance.
Does it feel the same now as what it did a number of years ago?
Actually, yes. This is my comfort zone; it is what I have perfected my body to do over the last 30 years or so. I feel back at home. It is much easier for me than speaking. I also feel that I am dancing in a certain area that I am able to do well in. My self-confidence is still up. I wouldn’t have picked something to dance that I couldn’t do decently.
This gala is a special opportunity that I was given. I thought I would have one show in Finland, and to have a chance to dance for the Finnish audience feels very good. I have never danced here on the main stage. I think I have guested in most other continents, except Antarctica. But otherwise I have danced more or less everywhere.
Do you feel you are still learning something about dancing?
Yes. I learn all the time. Even with my many years of experience, I immediately start learning and appreciating when standing in the studio with someone that I have never danced with before. This never dies in ballet. There never comes a ‘perfection moment’.
What drew you to dance in the first place?
I was dancing ballroom dancing when I was less than three years old. There were some kindergarten spaces and my mother put me in the ballroom class and I was doing polka and waltz. I had a great time. Also because there were 250 girls in that school and there were 23 boys, it was quite nice.
When I was nine years old I was watching TV with my father and there was Swan Lake on. I remember it very well. Dad was trying to change the channel. Back then we didn’t have a remote control, so we had a long golf club without the head on it. We could poke the big buttons to change the channels. I said, ‘Wait, can I just see this.’ It was amazing. There was one super-strong, beautiful man doing amazing stuff. He looked like some kind of gymnast. My brother was going to the gymnasium in those days and I said, ‘Look at this guy with big muscles and looking good – and there are 20-30 beautiful women.’ I asked him, ‘Is that a job; is that something you can actually do for a living? He said, ‘I think so.’
Then many times afterwards I dreamt about being this one man in the middle of these amazing, beautiful women. I wondered if this is an illusion or is it genuine. I thought it was a dream job and this amazing world to be able to be part of. It wasn’t only the women; it was the beauty, the aesthetics of the whole thing. The knowledge, the capacity of moving your body with such precision and capacity of motor skills, was just unsurpassed. It made me go ‘whoa’. I asked them to take me to the Royal Theatre, which they did. I auditioned, was accepted and since then I worked to become a ballet dancer.
Has your relationship to dancing changed, from your initial introduction?
I think since then there was a hunger for this knowledge of movement, balance and structure. Slowly, with a bit of age, understanding the artistic side of it and the expressive side became more and more part of me. Has it really changed? It is a big passion; it is still a big drive. Still today when I see something I have a big reaction. Today it can be not so technically orientated, but a more emotional reaction. With my life being much broader now with a wife and family you see life in different ways than you did when you were a little boy.
When you look back over your career thus far, what do you see?
I think I have been extraordinarily lucky and fortunate to be allowed into this world. It’s a world full of music, art, thoughts and movement. I see that I have enjoyed quite a substantial part of it. There have been very few times where I could say I didn’t like that, or enjoy it. Even things I didn’t directly appreciate, I derived some pleasure from them.
Many people think that it was hard, and yes, it was many, many hours of work. But it is a small price to pay for what I have harvested. My investment has been nominal in order to pull out this much interest. I see it that I have been allowed to invest in this bank, if one can metaphorically put it in a rather peculiar way. [laughs] I have been given such nice soil that I can plant in and harvest such great emotional experiences and sense of positivity.
Now today, with the opportunity not as a dancer but as a director, to enjoy this place and be here and watch dance and develop dance in Finland, I see it as a continuation of my world and appreciation of dance and wanting to give back to it.
This is now your sixth season here. Is being a ballet director something that you’ve always really wanted to do?
Yes, I like to direct. Being a director is more about people management. It is also about finding a balance in a house that also has an opera house and an orchestra, and making sure that this enormous place functions, so that we are finally able to let the dancers dance. When you are dancer you realise that ‘I have my shoes, I have to take career of this and these are my steps’. It is so demanding to be a dancer that it’s hard to see out of that world. Now, I have to see that the entire infrastructure is functioning optimally, and that I have the right image in the public, that we are fulfilling the criteria from the ministries, who provide our funding. The work that I am doing now is about people management, psychology and empathy.
What triggered your transformation from focusing on the self to taking care of so many?
In my early career I was exposed to very brilliant people. I blame it a lot on luck, good timing and perseverance. I said, ‘I want to learn more, I will not leave here until I learn’. Baryshnikov looked at me and said, ‘Who the hell are you?’ He wondered if I was a nutcase. But I was hungry. I have been pulling knowledge from them. I have a good memory. This stuff sticks.
When I look at young kids today and see that their brilliant knowledge has been filtered through me, I realise that I have given them something and someday maybe they can use it and support themselves. I feel I have something really substantial to give. It’s really natural. My father was a golf instructor. My brother is still a golf instructor. We have always been teaching in my family.
The fact is that when you are around 40, you should find ways to reduce the wear on your body. I looked at the alternatives: how can I stay in the dance world, what can I do and what is my competence level. My competence level at dance was good, but as a director it was poor. It has been a massive learning process.
Of course, it is very thrilling and exciting and I can still stay within dance and also develop more academic skills. My body cannot develop any more. It is in a state of decline in such a way that I cannot become a better dancer than I am now. But mentally I can, so I’ve been willing to jump on that track.
Why do all of this in Finland?
The funny thing is that it doesn’t necessarily make a big difference where. I would put the same work effort into it if I was doing this in your country, Australia, for example. It’s about the passion. I am fascinated by dance and movement. If it was Taiwanese, Bali dance or something like that, if it’s done beautifully well I will support it, I will put my effort into it. It is a passion.
I am enjoying it here in Finland immensely. I have received job offers from very exotic places, but do I need that? It’s not the place that will make me a better director. Right now I am here and I am doing my best for this place and I think I still have some things I can do here. I will put my full effort into it. I am very pleased. I have great facilities, I have close to 90 dancers and I have support. To be quite honest I think it is a fantastic place to be here in Finland right now.
What percentage of your dancers here are international?
When you look at the national heritage and nationalism here, I get criticism for my choice of dancers from abroad. Yes, I feel that it is very important that we have good Finnish dancers. I have a very clear rule of thumb that if I have a foreign dancer and a Finnish dancer that are equally good I will take the Finnish dancer. But if they are not as good, I don’t want a company full of bad Finnish dancers. There’s no point. Let’s instead have the people who are here dance for the Finnish National Ballet and perform for the Finnish audience. The idea is that I can have a fantastic girl who went to the Finnish Opera, another who is dancing as a principal girl in the Netherlands Dance Theatre, and one in American Dance Theater, and so on.
This is an international market. What it’s all about is dance, the entertainment value and the ballet quality that I give. I think that anybody that comes to see a ballet performance prefers to see a good performance. And if it has some nice great Finnish dancers there, perfect. But I would rather see a good performance than one of medium quality ‘because we hire the Finnish dancer’. We just don’t want that any more. That is the idea.
I have a great ballet school that I have been very lucky be able to develop, and in the last couple of years we are slowly getting boys in there, which has been a big process. I have complained to the press many times to help me out. Let’s change the image of ballet here. The biggest restriction seems to be the parents. ‘My son shouldn’t do ballet. He has to play hockey and shower with the other guys, he can’t go with the half-naked, beautiful women in the ballet company…’
There is an educational and social anthropology perception that ballet is equal to something feminine, fragile and homosexual. There’s a big phobia that if you are a ballet dancer then you are probably gay. I still have not yet met a guy who became gay from doing ballet. He probably came to ballet in the first place because he was attracted to it. Okay, ballet is not necessarily masculine all the time. Wearing makeup and white tights is definitely not as masculine as changing my gearbox in my car. I just did that; it’s fantastic. I do a lot of these manual tasks myself. My wife is very pleased that I am in touch with my feminine side, and I can put makeup on and I can be ‘wriggly wrists’, but I can also ‘be a man’. It gives me a great sense of peace. Also, to be a heterosexual in a ballet world is a pretty lucky position to be in; I don’t want to get into details. [laughs]
At this place down here [gestures to amphitheatre next to Töölönlahti], every evening people are dancing Finnish tango and jitterbug. They say that Finnish culture is a culture of hockey players – no there are definitively dancers here. All of these people are dancing and smiling and having fun. That’s why I want to get this into the schools to compete with technology [raises his smartphone], so that we can get them moving and remember what their heritage is; what thousands of years of building these bodies gives us, and have fun and good exercise.
It’s interesting the general attitude towards boys in ballet…
I have started a new programme called ‘So You Think You Can Move’ that I am pushing into schools. It is not necessarily ballet, but dancing. It’s only for boys; 6-8-year-old kids. They come and see a show, and dance and jump on one leg, and they are like, ‘Whoa, I want to do this, it’s great’. Very often we would then have a parent coming in, asking, ‘What do I say to my colleagues? Can I say that my son does ballet? Can I call it gymnastics, or hip-hop or something else?’ I ask them what’s wrong with ballet. For many of them it’s a butch thing: it’s better to have dirty hands, as then you are probably more masculine than the others. I think we should kill this idea. To be a ballet dancer is definitely not a soft, wimpy job.
Finally, your contract has been renewed until 2018, which will bring your time in this position to ten years. How do you think the Finnish National Ballet will have changed in the time you have been at the helm? How will you have made an impact?
Actually, I was given a gold medal from the city as an honorary citizen, from the Mayor because they said I have told so many beautiful stories. They call me ‘Mr Story’, as I was able to introduce all of these productions here. I actually then asked Mayor Pajunen if I now have a free parking spot, and if I get a parking ticket can I show the gold medal and not pay it. [laughs]
It was the first time that a non-Finn received a gold medal. I immediately thought it was a good, equal and non-racist thing to give it out to a non-Finn: if you are an honorary citizen your nationality doesn’t matter. I asked why I got it and they said, ‘Well, you are Scandinavian’. I asked if this should matter, and actually now anyone can be an honorary citizen.
It was big honour, and I immediately credited it to the company who has allowed me to do this. What I have done here is bring all of these people together who are very talented and who can do all of this. That is possibly my biggest joy. I hope that when I go away they say that ‘he started things up and things happened and now we have lots of things’. I hope many people were touched by what I’ve done, positively.
I’m not the clever one. I am good at letting people do their stuff and so perhaps I cannot take credit for having done it. A lot of credit goes to my support who have allowed my ideas to flourish. It’s the whole group who has done it. I’m just making sure it is the right people who are doing it.
Text James O’Sullivan,
Images Tomas Whitehouse.