Whipped Cream by New York’s American Ballet Theatre preview for Hong Kong Arts Festival: interview with Daniil Simkin
Russian ballet dancer Daniil Simkin talks about playing a boy who eats too much whipped cream in upcoming Hong Kong Arts Festival ballet, and reveals his favourite dance roles and why he is joining Germany’s Staatsballett Berlin
Daniil Simkin, principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, is one of the new superstars of the ballet world – but he has not just let the audience come to him.
The Russian 30-year-old is one of the first ballet dancers to use social media effectively, and he has been using YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to make the point that ballet is not just for the cultural elite.
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“I was one of the first ballet dancers to have a website. I have technological streak – I taught myself HTML when I created my website,” says the dancer, who has 18,000 followers on Twitter and YouTube video views that run into the millions.
It is all part of a mission to popularise an art form that is sometimes thought of as old-fashioned, Simkin says in an interview with the South China Morning Post from the dance company’s New York headquarters. “As artists, we have to work out where our art stands in these times,” he explains.
Simkin will be Hong Kong to dance in Whipped Cream as part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. The ballet is an unusual story ballet by Richard Strauss that was first performed in Vienna, Austria, in 1924. It was adapted and choreographed by the American Ballet Theatre’s legendary artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky last year, and the new production is a colourful fantasia about a boy who enters an Alice In Wonderland-like world in a pastry shop in Vienna.
A whimsical storyline sees the boy elicit the help of Princess Praline (danced by Sarah Lane) to escape from some giant confections. The ballet, known as Schlagobers in German, features surreal costumes and sets based on the work of American artist Mark Ryden, and some of the performers wear giant fibreglass heads.
“Whipped Cream came soon after the first world war and was criticised for being frivolous. It was a big flop when it was created,” says Simkin, noting that the work has been thoroughly reinvented by Ratmansky. “We took it as an inspiration to make a new piece. The music is beautiful, and the plot is easy to comprehend.”
A light and agile dancer, Simkin plays the boy hero. “After communion, he goes to a cake shop for a treat,” he says. “He becomes obsessed with whipped cream, and eats so much of it he has a kind of sugar shock and falls into a coma, where he dreams of sweets.”
Simkin’s performance features leaps and spins that express a youthful virtuosity. “It’s cute, and it’s very enjoyable to dance,” he says. “It feels natural to me, as it’s easy to find the character within myself.”
The ballet’s whimsical nature and the phantasmagoric sets do not compromise the dancing, he adds. “It’s fun, but it’s technically demanding. I have a great costume – I don’t have one of the big heads as I’m dancing. The costumes are very special, as they are by Mark Ryden. The whole thing is quite a trip.”
Simkin joined the American Ballet Theatre in 2008 as a soloist after being spotted performing at the New York State Theatre (now The David H Koch Theatre) by the company’s director Kevin McKenzie. Before that, he was a demi-soloist with the Vienna State Ballet.
Ballet is in his blood, Simkin says. He was born in Novosibirsk, in Russia, to a ballet family. His mother, Olga Aleksandrova, was principal dancer with the Novosibirsk ballet; his father Dmitrij, who trained at the famed Bolshoi, was a soloist.
His mother’s career took the family to Germany when he was two, and they settled in the city of Wiesbaden, near Frankfurt. Simkin says he had a regular schooling, as his parents did not want to pressure him into a career in dance. As a child, he excelled in gymnastics, but also loved to dance.
He has never been to ballet school, he notes. When he was nine, his mother began to train him in ballet for two hours a day outside school hours, a tuition schedule that lasted for 10 years.
“I was trained more like a tennis player, in the sense that I had a private teacher,” Simkin says. “Ballet was a hobby for me for a long time, as I wanted to finish high school. I performed with a company in Germany, but it was in the evening, in my own time.”
At 12, he started to compete in ballet competitions. He won important international prizes, such as the Grand Prix in Vienna’s International Ballet Competition in 2004, which helped him transition into a professional career.
He has always loved being on stage, he says, naming Basilio in Don Quixote and Albrecht in Giselle as two of his favourite classical roles.
“When you’re on stage, you can’t hide – you’re both an artist and an individual at the same time,” he says. “There is a layer of acting to ballet dancing, as you have roles where you have to express happiness and sadness, even if you’re not feeling happy or sad. But there is also a layer that comes from your own self. These combine to transform the work into art.”
He adds that ballet dancing is very technical. “There are many things to think about. You’re doing quite a bit of multitasking – [when dancing] you have to think about the acting, the choreographer’s instructions and the technical demands of the piece as well. You think about the way you’ve done things before and try to do them better, and you try to make it look whole, so it doesn’t look contrived.”
It may all look effortless, but that is really not the case, he explains. “There are some parts of a ballet where the steps get very difficult. You have to focus, as you can’t let the audience see the difficulty. There are a lot of mental processes going on at the same time.”
The music helps a performer a lot, he notes. But orchestras are expensive, so rehearsals are carried out with a solo piano. The dancers might not hear the work with a full orchestra until they are performing it on stage in front of an audience.
“Sometimes the difference is vast,” Simkin says. “Sometimes you don’t ‘get it’ until you are on the stage, as the orchestra sounds so beautiful.”
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He cites Swan Lake as an example. “Act 2, the adagio is so beautiful to listen to, you get goosebumps while performing. You only really understand a piece when you do it live. In rehearsals, you get it into your system, you get better at it, but you hit a plateau. Only once you have performed it do you understand it.”
Simkin is in the process of moving back to Germany to join the Staatsballett Berlin as a principal, though he will be keeping his position with the American Ballet Theatre. The chance to perform more contemporary ballets played a role in the move.
“The decision to return to Germany was very multilayered,” he says. “The Staatsballett believes in performing the widest spectrum that’s possible for ballet, and that ranges from classical ballet to cutting-edge work. But I will be returning to the American Ballet Theatre as my schedule allows.”
Whipped Cream, American Ballet Theatre, Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Mar 22 to 25, 7.30pm; Mar 25, 2.30pm. Tickets: HK$340 to HK$1,080 from Urbtix. Inquiries: 2824 2430