- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2008

NEW YORK

Nikolaj Hubbe, one of the greatest dancers of his generation, has spent the past 15 years making ballet history at the New York City Ballet. Sunday afternoon in New York, the company gave him a royal send-off as he leaves to become artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.

Even among today’s extraordinary crop of great male dancers, Mr. Hubbe stands out for the multiple forces he brings to the stage. He combines riveting dancing with an unparalleled depth of acting; added to that is a raw, feral quality that makes each performance an event.

“If you have an answer to a role even before you’ve learned it, I don’t think you can take the role anywhere,” Mr. Hubbe told me when he joined the NYCB. “The role has to take you somewhere. The stage is when you realize things you don’t find in a studio [or] anywhere. They only exist out there — it’s another world, you know.”

That immediacy is apparent in all his roles. His farewell at the New York State Theatre at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday was not only the last hurrah of a heroic dancer, but also a consummate performance of the greatest male role created in the 20th century: in George Balanchine’s “Apollo.” It is a Mount Everest of a role, and it is astounding to think that the great choreographer created it 80 years ago, when he was just 24.

The best came first: “Apollo” opened the program. It can be and has been performed as an elegant coming-of-age story of a golden boy. Mr. Hubbe’s Apollo was wild and headstrong but deeply aware of his gathering powers. Each gesture adds to his sense of the god he is to become. As the leader of the muses, he grasps his three cohorts’ hands and, in a famous sequence, drives them in a chariot race.

An artistic director once said, “Every male dancer in the world would kill to dance Apollo.” Among many great performances of this iconic role I have seen — including Jacques d’Amboise, Rudolf Nureyev, Peter Martins, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Boal — Mr. Hubbe’s stands out for the way he creates a sense of fresh discovery, leading us on a long and noble journey that becomes a spiritual quest at the end. It was a performance to cherish.

Although “Apollo” was the program’s highlight, Mr. Hubbe’s multiple talents were underscored in other ways. He also has been a teacher at the company’s School of American Ballet, and two of his pupils gave a brilliant account of “The Flower Festival in Genzano” by August Bournonville, the 19th-century choreographer whose work forms the foundation of the Danish company Mr. Hubbe soon will be heading.

“Zakouski” was a nod to the first ballet created for the dancer when he arrived at NYCB, by the company’s director, Peter Martins. In addition, a section of Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite” showed Mr. Hubbe as a tough New York City gang member also able to belt out Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics.

To wrap it up, the company danced Mr. Balanchine’s “Western Symphony,” and the Danish-born Mr. Hubbe seemed to take delight in being a rambunctious cowboy, adding for the occasion a few slightly tongue-in-cheek touches like smooching with his partner.

Then it was over, and soon the stage was filled with his fellow artists. One by one, the leading ballerinas walked on, some in tears, presenting him with large bouquets of flowers. Confetti rained down as the rapturous audience cheered and cheered. At the end, obviously moved, he stood alone, hands pressed to his heart, acknowledging the cheers of an audience enriched by his great artistry.

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