Silja Schandorff: Danish Prima Ballerina
Royal Danish Ballet
by Gunild Pak Symes
Published March 2009
In her retiring year at age forty, Silja Schandorff, principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, looks back on a brilliant career spanning 24 years. This year, Schandorff was awarded the prestigious “Teaterpokalen” [Theater Cup] from the Association of Danish Theater Journalists for her lead role in the ballet “Giselle”. The award is said to be the closest thing to an Oscar that a dancer in Denmark could win. Gunild Pak Symes speaks with Schandorff about her life in ballet, the high points and the defining moments.
What are your fondest memories or most defining moments?
Definitely “Manon” was something I really enjoyed very much. It is one of the few times where you go on stage, and you don’t really think about that you are actually performing, and it doesn’t happen very often – but those few performances where actually everything comes together, and you don’t know why. You just go in there, and you just forget time and life, everything is just about… well, it is very hard to explain.
And then [secondly] when you are working on something that is really difficult in the studio, and you can feel that it’s possible – something that you didn’t think you could do, and it was out of your reach. It could be something technical or something emotional. Oh, now, I can actually understand it, and I can actually transfer it to my body. Maybe I have understood it earlier, but I couldn’t transfer it down to my body. But now, it is actually possible.
What inspired you to become a ballet dancer?
Sorella Englund. I saw Sorella in the Arabian dance in Flemming Flint’s “Nutcracker” when I was a little mouse and one of these little kids who comes out of the Babushka Doll – we have that in our “Nutcracker”, and we have all these little babushkas that come out. She was doing the Arabian, and I saw her, and I have no clue who was doing the Sugar Plum Fairy. I was just captured by Sorella, and I just thought, if I can do that, if I can ever – well nobody can ever be like her – but if I can do the Arabian dance, if I can capture something of what she is doing, that would be enough for me.
How do you prepare for a role such as “Manon”?
“Manon” I had seen on a video tape, when I was an apprentice, and I just fell in love with those pas de deuxs. I thought then that it was so out of my imagination that I would ever be able to do that. It was fantastic! I had an idea what it was, so when it was announced that we were going to do “Manon” here, I thought, “This is a dream role!” I had no idea if I would ever get to do it. It was probably one of those – well, “La Sylphide” is one of those roles that when you see your name on the board, you think, “Wow” – but this was like, I couldn’t believe it! I was so happy. And then you just start learning the steps, working on the parts.
I did not read the book the first time, because I felt I had faith enough in the people around me – that they would give me enough so I that could do the role like I wanted to do. The second time around, I decided to read the book before. It didn’t change that much. It did change a few things.
Oh, like, little details…just her personality. I always change things anyway, when I come back to it. I never go back and just do it like I did before.
So, it’s fresh?
Yes, I always need to come back with fresh eyes and alter things – also, because you change, yourself. So, you are a different person. You have experienced different things in your life. So, I want to bring that to the stage.
And do you feel that each performance is different?
Each performance can be slightly different. Of course, I have a frame[work], and of course, I have things that I have planned. This is the way I should do it. But then I also like to be spontaneous – of course, not too ridiculous – but to be spontaneous enough so that I can change things here and now. That day might feel slightly different, or I have people around me that react slightly differently. I think that is important. It is important to me. Otherwise, I just feel like I am just some mechanical [thing] or a computer, and I do not believe it should be like that.
How do you translate things such as details of personality to hands, arms and legs? What does it involve? Is it intuitive, or do you actually deliberately use face or eyes?
No, it’s actually intuitive. But when I was younger, I looked around a lot. I tried to find people who had some sort of resemblance to what I was going for, what I wanted to get into my own body. Growing older, you have a lot more experience of things. So, I do take a lot of my own experience with me and try to put myself in different situations where I have reacted certain ways or use things from my own life that I know have given some sort of reaction that I can use in these parts, in that character some how.
Do you have other people you turn to in order to give you feedback?
Do you find that helpful or difficult?
No, very helpful, because sometimes you think that something is very clear and nobody actually gets it… [laughs]
[Laughing] Yes, it feels different than it looks…
It feels wonderful! And nobody has any idea what you are doing [laughing]. And sometimes you feel like you are not doing anything, but it really comes out. So, I need people that I can trust to tell me if it works or not.
Will you have a farewell performance?
Is it “Don Quixote”, or…?
No, it’s “Giselle”.
When you do “Giselle”, is it now something familiar, or is it still a challenge?
It’s still a challenge. I always find it is challenging to go on the stage. Always.
Do you still get nervous?
Oh, like crazy!
Really? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
Sometimes it is a good thing. I need the adrenaline. I need this… it’s part of the game for me, it is, but sometimes it takes over – it gets too much, and I get an out-of-body experience, and that’s awful. It usually goes away during – you know, more or less – during the performance. It’s funny because you would think by experience, it would be less, but it is almost worse [laughs].
Also you know more, and you know what you like and what you don’t like. When you watch performances, you have a certain standard you want to be at, and I’ve always been pretty hard on myself.
I also feel that I have a responsibility to the people that have come to watch, and it’s just not okay to do mediocre. You have to give them everything. It’s expensive, and they expect to have a good performance. So, I think a lot of it is I don’t want to let anybody down.
For a long time, I never told anyone that I knew when I was dancing, because I didn’t like to have watching anybody [in the audience] that I knew. I am very strange that way. It’s like I don’t have a whole bunch of people that I know… only my father.
It’s very psychological. How do you overcome that? Do you ever overcome that?
Yes, I don’t know, but somehow I am always more nervous before I go on stage than when I am actually out there. The minute I go on stage, I have to deal with the situation, and I have to at least try to do my best and give them the best I can at that moment. But right before, it’s like… [shakes head]
What advice would you give young dancers who aspire to a height that you have reached?
I always try to tell them not to make expectations that are actually ridiculously high. That, you know, why would you suddenly be able to go on stage and do that if you can’t even do that in the studio? That’s ridiculous. And then to try to really “clean” themselves before [a performance] and only think what is important, not to have all these things in your mind going on… you know, worry, worry, worry… all of that, cut it out and just only think about the really important things that you have to think about to know what will make it work for you. If you start going panic because something goes wrong… well, if something goes wrong, it already happened. You can’t change it. Leave it behind you, and get on with the next thing.
If you weren’t a dancer, what would you have been?
Yes [laughing]. Actually, that was one thing that I really, really wanted to do when I was young. Not possible at the same time. But, that was something that always interested me very much – there has always been an interest in the body.
Do you think you will go into something body-related, body therapies or medicine now?
No, I fell in love with the art now. I actually watch a lot of theater. Lately, it’s been a lot of plays, but I also like to watch operas and concerts and exhibitions. There was this fantastic COBRA [art exhibition of paintings from avant garde artists in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam between 1949 and 1951], before an auction, over here. There were so many COBRA paintings, you wouldn’t believe it. It was like heaven.
Who are your favorite choreographers?
Oh, there are many. It is also what mood I am in [laughs]. No, but I can’t even… the list would be too long, I think…
Are you particular to classical or modern?
Well, I like neo-classical very much. Of course, I love Balanchine, but I also, I mean I have been, fortunately enough, lucky to work with choreographers who have created for me.
What is that like?
Oh, it’s great, it’s fantastic. To be in a process like that is fabulous.
How is it different from doing a set ballet?
Well, it depends on the choreographer. Some choreographers, they have already made up their minds. They know what they want before they go into the studio, and some work really with you and use your body, and so it’s very different.
What will you do once you retire?
I haven’t really made my plans yet.
It’s nice to revel in what you have done and where you have come…
And now you are going out at the top of your game. What would you like to say to your audience, after the wonderful career in dance that you have had?
Well, in the last performances of “Giselle”, I felt such warmth from the audience, and it was, I mean, it just went right into my heart, and so it was such a fantastic feeling.