— Inside the Guggenheim Museum, the women were rapt, breathless even, as Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet, strolled among them. On this March evening, beneath the magnificent spiral rotunda, their voices swirled with memories as they recalled the native Dane's 15 years as a dancer with the New York City Ballet.
"Did you see his 'Apollo'? It was magical."
"He was the best Poet ever."
"I loved him in 'Sleeping Beauty.'"
"At his last show, everybody in the audience had tears in their eyes."
The women sipped champagne in flutes. Of course they had read the New York Times review, by dance critic Alastair Macaulay, of Hübbe's final performance in 2008.
"We hope the leading men of ballet will be heroes, poets, gods," Macaulay wrote. "Mr. Hübbe is all of these, and he is also both a dreamboat and a hunk."
Hübbe, 43, glided across the rotunda, parting the crowd. He wore tight black jeans and a black-and-white striped shirt. A black sweater, accented with red buttons, framed his trim body. His hair, slicked back on the sides, formed an Elvis pompadour on top.
"New York misses you, Nikolaj," the women called out.
"I miss New York," Hübbe sincerely called back.
Hübbe was in New York to promote the Royal Danish Ballet's U.S. tour, which begins Tuesday in Costa Mesa, its first Southern California stop in 16 years. In six performances at Segerstrom Hall, audiences will see how the magnetic Hübbe, who has been at the helm for three years, has electrified the legendary dance company, and not without controversy, on its 21st century course.
"I've been here 11 years and I've never, ever seen the level of technique higher or the atmosphere as charged," said Amy Watson, a principal dancer in the Royal Danish Ballet, during a phone interview from Copenhagen. "Nikolaj is always searching, and that's what makes him different. He doesn't have that closed-minded, old-school ballet master feeling of 'This is how it was done in 1955, and this is the way it's going to be.' He has made a huge difference."
A few days after the fancy Guggenheim affair, an unshaven Hübbe in jeans, T-shirt and tennis shoes, did his best to explain what makes him different in a dim and cramped hotel room on the Upper East Side. (Clearly the state-funded Royal Danish Ballet doesn't have an extravagant expense account.)
New York dance critic Apollinaire Scherr said what made Hübbe "so alive on stage was a slight air of cruelty about him." It's not that he's cruel, it's that his emotional honesty cuts right through you.
The same is true in conversation. He's audacious without trying to be, his English punctuated by his dry Danish accent.
So why after all these years was the Royal Danish Ballet coming to America? "It's good to get out," Hübbe said.
The company had a "completely new face," he continued, and he was anxious to showcase its dancers in both modern works and the jubilant story ballets by 19th century choreographer and ballet master August Bournonville, patriarch of the Royal Danish Ballet.
But time didn't stand still. "We can't live in Bournonville's looming shadow and always be afraid," Hübbe said. "We have to trust that he is with us and go with our own theatrical perspective, our modern ethics. I like tradition but only because you have to jump from it."
For instance, take Bournonville's "Napoli," which will be featured in one of two programs at Segerstrom Hall. "It has always been sweet and quaint," Hübbe said. "But I wanted to get rid of the sweet and quaint."
While preserving the work's wonderful steps and story of an Italian girl, Teresina, who falls in love with a poor fisherman, Hübbe has moved the 19th century Naples setting to the 1950s and injected "the edge and roughness of Fellini" into the production.
Further, Hübbe has expelled from the cast a Catholic monk, who exhorts the love-struck fisherman to trust in God and he will find Teresina, lost in a storm. Hübbe has a female wayfarer counsel the fisherman to trust in love.
"I'm not religious," Hübbe explained. "If I have a religion, it must be dance. But I'm not a believer in that otherworldly stuff. To me, God is dead." Would he call himself an atheist? "Yes, absolutely."
When the Royal Danish Ballet staged "Napoli" in Copenhagen in 2009, Hübbe said, "people were offended because I took out the religious aspect. Bournonville was such a pious man. But I don't think the world is pious. It's much more interesting and believable that it's not holiness and God's belief that saves Teresina, it is true love."
Watson, who dances the role of Teresina, admitted she was nervous about Hübbe's changes. "I thought the older audience would be, 'Oh, my gosh, what's he doing? He's changing the crown jewels.'"
But the changes epitomized how Hübbe has energized the company, and especially her, Watson said. In past productions of "Napoli," she explained, "I was never allowed to be myself. But Nikolaj gave me so much freedom and confidence. The character had always been this nice, pretty Italian girl. But Nikolaj was like, 'Hello! She's Italian, she should be like Sophia Loren. She should be sexy and intimidating and know what her sexuality does to people.' That was phenomenal to me."
Hübbe, who was raised in Copenhagen and was a teenage sensation in the Royal Danish Ballet, was spurned by his home company when he applied for its artistic directorship in 1999. It was a strange decision to apply, given that his star couldn't have been brighter at the New York City Ballet.
"I think I had a midlife crisis," he said. "I was 31 and I wasn't tired of dancing. But I thought that I had some experience and I wanted to go for the job because the company meant a lot to me. It was where I was from, and I was very ambitious."
Through discussions with the head of the Royal Danish Theatre (who left in 2008), Hübbe was led to believe the job was his. Then one evening he came home and clicked on his answering machine. A message from the theater head said a new artistic director would be announced in a few days. It wasn't Hübbe.
Hübbe glared at the phone and, with a vengeance, flipped the bird at the phone. After uttering two words, the second being "you," to the voice, he swore to himself, "I'm not going back to Denmark. That's over." He wanted nothing to do with the Royal Danish Theatre's "rat's nest of politics," he said.
In a 1999 interview, Hübbe told dance writer Alexandra Tomalonis he didn't get the job because "there's a certain group in the Royal Danish Ballet who finds me extremely intimidating." (Today he said it was "because I was too young.")
The job went to one of Royal Danish Ballet's soloist dancers at the time, Thordal Christensen, now the co-artistic director, with his wife Colleen Neary, of the Los Angeles Ballet. Neary then was named ballet master of the Royal Danish Ballet.
In a recent phone interview, Christensen laughed nervously when asked why he got the job over Hübbe. "We were all friends, and we all wanted to be artistic director," he said. Neary, also on the line, chimed in and said, "Every process of looking for a director is different. It's all timing and whatever is right is right. I don't think we look at it as anything else but that."
Hübbe returned to New York, burnishing his fame as a dancer. But by 2007, he said, "I knew my career was over." And how does a dancer know when his career is over? Hübbe burst into dark laughter.
"When you can't get off the floor!" he said. "When you go for six pirouettes but revolve one tour. When you think you're doing port de bras but you're not sure what it is. Then you go, 'I think it's time to get the heave-ho.'"
In 2007, when the contract was up for the artistic director who had replaced Christensen, the Royal Danish Ballet was ready to give the reins to its outlaw son. Since Hübbe took over in 2008, he has earned mostly critical raves for his innovative productions of Bournonville and Balanchine and new ballets by contemporary Scandinavian choreographers.
Like directors of arts institutions everywhere, Hübbe said, he strove to attract new and young audiences. Had the popular film "Black Swan," as it had done in the U.S., brought new audiences to the ballet in Denmark? "I think it has," Hübbe said slowly, sounding sheepish for the first time in the interview.
Did he have a problem with the film?
"I think it's the worst piece of hideous crap I've ever seen," he said. "I just thought it was scintillatingly awful."
He didn't like the story? The dancing?
"I think it was clichéd. I think it was pseudo. I think it was cheaply done. It was just dumb. Like, was everybody just completely empty inside their heads? Dumb." He paused. "So that's what I thought."
The blend of pop culture and dance that Hübbe was excited about was the recent ballet "Earth" by Finnish choreographer Jorma Uotinen, which includes music by Metallica, which the Royal Danish Ballet will present as part of a mixed program on Tuesday and Wednesday in Costa Mesa.
"Audiences are going to see some incredible men in a very Nordic, ritualistic, punchy dance," he said. "It's almost like — what was that movie called? — 'Braveheart.' Oh, wait, maybe we shouldn't mention Mel Gibson. He's got a bad rap now. Anyway, it's an absolutely beautiful ballet."
Hübbe said it was difficult, three years ago, to leave "big, blissful, modern" New York for "provincial" Copenhagen. But after he retired as a dancer, he realized there was only one place where he wanted to unpack his experience and talent, and that was at the Royal Danish Ballet.
Reminded that he had vowed he would never return to Denmark, he shrugged.
"Well, I guess I proved you really can go home again," he said.