Principal Dancer, The Royal Ballet
interviewed by Sylvia Tyler
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,
London, 16 February 2011.
DEPUTY CHAIRMAN SYLVIA TYLER welcomed our guest, Nehemiah Kish, and suggested he began by telling us how he got into dance. Nehemiah said he’d started gymnastics at an early age with his brother and sister and then his mother (who wanted him to do tap which he didn’t enjoy) persuaded him to do a jazz class after he’d seen Baryshnikov in White Nights in the 80s. After a couple of years he entered regional competitions where it was suggested that he do ballet to improve his jazz technique. His mum asked if he’d like to do ballet, which he’d always wanted to do but hadn’t known how to ask as it was a bit unusual for a boy from small town Michigan. He was eager, really enjoyed it and liked the discipline from the beginning. He began doing summer schools and a mid-west workshop with Joffrey Ballet where a teacher, Julie Rice, who taught dance at the University of Michigan and had trained in Toronto at the National Ballet of Canada School (NBS), said that NBS, which was set up in the 50s by Celia Franca, would be a good choice for Nehemiah. He did the summer programme there and was accepted into the full-time programme when he was thirteen after which he began training professionally.
It wasn’t too hard for him to settle in Canada, Michigan being quite close. Having looked at various US ballet schools, his parents were very impressed with the NBS not only because it was relatively close to home but it had a good academic programme included – and they certainly thought it preferable to going to New York at his age! The summer school was intensive with incredible teachers who included the late Glen Gilmore, who taught the Cecchetti style, Betty Oliphant who’d been with Rambert and had known Dame Ninette, Lindsay Fischer who’d trained in NBS and been a principal with New York City Ballet, and Sergiu Stefanschi from the Vaganova school where he’d shared a room with Nureyev and had a lot of interesting stories to tell! So they came from different ballet disciplines which made a good mix of styles all of which had their particular strengths which Nehemiah believed was important – the Russian style had the power, the US was faster and smaller so it meant you could dance a variety of works. Nehemiah spent four years at the school and then joined the Company where he stayed eight years initially under the directorship of James Kudelka, who created a lot of interesting choreography and particularly pas de deux. Nothing was simple and always went against the way the body wanted to go naturally. They were some of the hardest ballets he has done, each one seeming harder than the last, but it helped his partnering a lot. Unfortunately we see little of Kudelka’s choreography in the UK.
Nehemiah Kish. Photo by Alex Paul.
Nehemiah’s first role with the Company was in The Contract, a modern Pied Piper story based on a Christian evangelical speaker brought to bring spiritual healing to the town, which is based on an American woman (Aimee Semple McPherson) who had an affair with a younger man, danced by Guillaume Côté in the first cast with Nehemiah in the second. It was a great opportunity to partner an established ballerina, Jennifer Boyes. He was young but she was experienced and expected the best. She was tough but great to perform with, and he learned a lot from her. The next year he danced with her again in Firebird when he felt more equal to the task. Even while doing Contract and Firebird he was of course still dancing in the corps de ballet and doing other roles. It’s a big company where everyone does a variety of roles. The first two years he was in the corps de ballet, was then promoted second soloist and then first soloist. Roles as second soloist were much the same as before. Those are the most difficult years for a young dancer as you have to manage all sorts of parts when you’d rather focus on principal roles. Nehemiah said if you are doing a solo and then a principal role in the same ballet in quick succession it wasn’t difficult to readjust choreographically, but was certainly more difficult emotionally. It’s tricky when you’re young to put it all into perspective. For Nehemiah everything was happening fast but for him not fast enough! But sometimes you need to learn to keep your ambition in check.
His first full length ballet was Rudolf Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty in which of course he had created good male solos, and then Peter Wright’s beautiful Giselle, both of which are big ballets. NBC also have Onegin in which Nehemiah danced Lensky with Nikolaj Hübbe, who eventually became his boss in Denmark, as Onegin. He was great – a lot of fun in the studio and on stage. Nehemiah was also there for three years of Karen Kain’s directorship when they had the excitement of starting work in the new opera house. She was very supportive when he was coming up and one of the first ballets he did was a short work in a mixed programme, Eliot Feld’s Intermezzo. Eliot chose Nehemiah from the corps which also pleased Karen who’d worked with him while still dancing. Karen has always been a huge part of the NBC and very important to the Company and, as well as using Kudelka’s ballets, is bringing in a lot of other interesting work. They have Ashton’s Fille mal gardée and while in the school he saw Karen dance Month in the Country which inspired his interest in the Royal Ballet. He also did Solitaire, when Donald MacLeary came to work with them, and Macmillan’s Song of the Earth, which was a huge opportunity for Nehemiah. The rep in Canada isn’t so different from the Royal Ballet’s with a lot of the same full-length works but in different versions. They have Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet and Taming of the Shrew in their rep (perhaps the Royal should bring that back!).
Audio clip - moving from Canada to Europe:
Nehemiah said ever since being at the ballet school he’d wanted to dance in Europe and particularly the Royal Ballet after seeing Month in the Country. About three years ago he felt confident and ready to make the move and Karen was very supportive so that during 2008, his first year with the Royal Danish Ballet, he returned to Canada to do Romeo and Juliet and Nutcracker, making the transition a lot easier. He would still love to go back again to dance in Canada. It was a big adjustment in style in Denmark. There is less Bournonville training now than previously but his ballets require lots of small foot work, story-telling and mime. Much of Kudelka’s work intentionally had no mime as he wanted the story to be told through the movement and steps so this was the big difference. Nehemiah had danced La Sylphide when he was about 16 at school and also Napoli, so felt comfortable with the style. It was helpful to have worked with Nikolai, who by then had taken over the company in Denmark, and he knew there were some other incredible artists there. Sorella Englund, who came to rehearse Madge when Johan Kobborg put on his La Sylphide, had visited throughout his time in the ballet school, and there were still Canadian connections with Erik Bruhn. Sorella’s connection is more with the director of the NBC – they are close friends and both interesting women. He’d also done the summer programme there when young. There are a lot of strong male dancers in Denmark some of whom, like Peter Martins and Erik Bruhn, have influenced North American ballet in a big way and have left their mark in other parts of the ballet world. When you think of Denmark, you think of the strong male dancers – Sylvia agreed, saying that because the male technique is different it makes more of an impression than that of the female.
His first ballet in Denmark was La Sylphide. He was asked to go early to join a group of ten dancers from the company on a short tour to Spain. As he didn’t have friends there it was a good opportunity to go on tour and get to know them. Then the Company went to China with La Sylphide and Napoli. During that time he’d intended to learn some Danish through Rosetta Stone and get used to the city, but this didn’t happen as Nikolai said he was going on the tour and although he hadn’t danced La Sylphide for three years he was given a week to prepare for what was his first show with the Company. It was a big deal but it was good to be thrown in at the deep end and means you get to know everyone quickly. They were performing in Beijing, where there’s a massive, beautiful theatre, during the opening of the summer Olympic Games, at about the same time as the Royal Ballet. While in Denmark Nehemiah was in just about every production. They did Onegin and Tim Rushton’s new Cinderella which was one of their first works after the China tour. The Danes also have lots of Kylian’s work, a Nutcracker, Midsummer Night’s Dream. Also Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. It was a very interesting and varied rep and gave him the chance to work with some great people. Bournonville’s are the signature works and although they do them on tour they now do less at home than people imagine. They have an American tour this summer taking new works as well as their classics.
Nehemiah loves touring – Japan is a favourite and Tokyo an incredible city where he loves the food and shopping, and the audiences are very generous and happy to see ballet. He was also in Cuba earlier this year for the ballet festival which was very interesting. Since going to Denmark he has seen a lot more of the world and is dancing in front of different audiences. With NBC they tended to tour North America – Canada, San Francisco, New York and Washington DC. Although they did so in the past, NBC unfortunately doesn’t come here very often now which is a pity as it’s a beautiful company and there’s a good relationship between the Royal and the NBC.
Nehemiah said it was the Royal Ballet that made him want to come to London. By his second season in Denmark he was dancing all the roles he could possibly want but it wasn’t the place where he could see himself staying for ever. They have a massive theatre and three stages in Copenhagen alone but he wanted to be in London where there is so much happening and it’s very inspiring. Before going to Denmark he’d spoken to Monica Mason when he was here doing a Chris Wheeldon pas de deux with Alina Cojocaru at Sadler’s Wells, but there were no positions available. Later he talked to Monica again saying he was in Europe and she went to see him in a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Copenhagen which was good as it’s a full length production, initially very modern then classical in the last act, with big pas de deux, lots of good dancing and different characterisations. He was pleased the timing allowed Monica to see him in that role rather than La Sylphide which was her original intention.
His first roles here were La Valse, Winter Dreams, Swan Lake and Theme and Variations. The first programme was quite intense. Next it will be Still Life at the Penguin Cafe where he is the Man. Then Cinderella and Manon. Now he’s lucky to be doing three shows of Swan Lake. His parents have to come to see him in London as they didn’t get to Denmark. They visited Canada a lot and saw him again when he went back to Canada during his first year in Denmark. Perhaps Nehemiah’s nieces and nephews keep them at home – if he had children they might make more effort!! They are very pleased that he is happy but perhaps don’t quite understand that it’s a big deal to be dancing with the Royal in Covent Garden.
This summer the Company will be touring in Taiwan for the first time. There’ll also be Romeo and Juliet at the O2 Arena which speaks of the popularity of the Company that they can put on a production there. Being a huge venue there’ll probably be screens which will make it a different experience. Nehemiah said that in the 80s when Nureyev was dancing with NBC and ballet was very popular in North America they also did performances in massive concert venues. Anything that brings in a new audience is good. The film ‘Black Swan’ has created a lot of interest in Swan Lake so this might encourage a different audience. So far, since he’s been here everything including mixed ballets has been sold out.
Future roles Nehemiah has on his wish list are Mayerling, Month, and Fille. Manon is a big ballet and he is focussing on what he’s doing this year rather than thinking ahead. He’s worked with some great people – Jonny Cope on Winter Dreams, Alexander Agadzhanov on Swan Lake, Chris Saunders and Pat Neary on Theme and Variations, and Christopher Carr who was fantastic with La Valse. He’s danced with several different ballerinas, initially with Lauren Cuthbertson in La Valse. He enjoyed doing the new Alastair Marriott piece for the televised Royal Variety Show although there was chaos around the Palladium at the time with the student demonstrations. Nehemiah loves Balanchine and did a lot of his works in Canada, Apollo being fascinating and a particular favourite. He’s also done 2nd and 3rd movements in Symphony in C, Theme and Variations, and Jewels (Diamonds) – it’s all about the joy of movement.
Did he have special coaching for the Bournonville style? Once in Denmark he did have some coaching but he had worked with Nikolaj, and Sorella and others who had visited Canada when putting on the Bournonville classics so he already had a good understanding of the style and felt quite comfortable before he went.
Having seen Nehemiah that week an audience member commented that he never looked out of breath. He thought that was good but perhaps he should push himself harder! There is a lot of great stuff in Swan Lake for the man and you are on the stage a lot. Conditioning, rehearsing well and cardio training – biking, but not machines – all help and there is some emphasis on the importance of cardiovascular and aerobic training. (At NBC there was aerobics in the morning and there was a swimming pool which is low impact and generally builds the right muscles for ballet.) He does a little weight training but not for strength in partnering. Lifting weights isn’t something he enjoys and while rehearsing they do a lot of partnering and lifting a woman is the best way to build the right strength. Bodies bend in different ways and partnering a woman mustn’t look like a weight-lifting exercise! Strength is important and there are professionals at their disposal who show them the correct way and this rarely involves weight lifting. The Company brings people in to work with the dancers and it’s up to the dancers to make use of them so as not want to do anything that’s going to hurt you. As for sports, Nehemiah said he was pretty OK at basketball as a youngster!
Nehemiah was asked if, having mentioned dancing with a variety of partners, he would like to establish a partnership with one dancer. He said it’s fun and enjoyable to dance with all these fantastic dancers though sometimes it’s nice to establish a partnership if the chemistry is right. But Tamara, Lauren, Zenaida, and Marianela, although all very different, are generous and wonderful to work with in the studio and on stage.
Asked if he has to adapt his approach with different dancers, Nehemiah said everybody’s different but it’s spontaneous which is exciting. There’s obviously an adjustment to be made between tall and short dancers, so it brings different challenges as some moves are easier than others. But it’s mostly the placement and adjustment of weight which makes the difference.
Asked if he’d like to dance Wayne McGregor’s ballets, Nehemiah said Chroma got a great reception at the National Ballet of Canada, the first item on a mixed bill which was a big deal. He’d love to do some of Wayne’s work which so far he’s seen on DVD. Nehemiah enjoys working with Chris Wheeldon who’s an inspiration. He’s not sure if he’ll be in DGV when it comes back.
Nehemiah said the origin of his surname is Hungarian with slight alterations. He speaks none of the language but his great grand-parents did although in their time it was also very important to assimilate into their new surroundings. His father regrets that he didn’t learn more of what isn’t an easy language to grasp.
In his spare time Nehemiah watches films, goes to museums and galleries where you can browse at leisure. He has been to Sadler’s Wells a few times but not to many plays, although The Children’s Hour is on his list. The stuff on his iPod is different from the music he hears all day.
With his experience of working in three different companies, is he developing an urge to choreograph? Nehemiah said he’d been thinking about choreographing, possibly something for New Works. Originally he’d not considered it but now he has begun to think it might be interesting. Perhaps he might do something more experimental for himself. As for a potential choreographic style, Nehemiah has no idea. You use all the knowledge you’ve amassed over the years but you could just see where it leads you, or the music may take you there.
Answering a question of where he would be in 10 or 20 years time, Nehemiah said he had no idea. Fortunately things have taken him in the right direction so far. He does enjoy teaching and taught some pas de deux classes in Banff a couple of years ago which gave him a new understanding of, and different slant on, his own dancing. NBC have a good teaching programme and he may do that this summer if there’s time. As for directing, who knows?
After a fascinating evening, Sylvia ended by thanking Nehemiah very much for an interesting overview of his life and career so far and said we all looked forward to seeing his forthcoming performances.
Report written by Liz Bouttell, corrected by Nehemiah Kish and Sylvia Tyler ©The Ballet Association 2011.