Meeting Ballet Legend Peter Schaufuss

The Danish dancer brings Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet to the Grand Opera House

Irish and UK audiences will be familiar with the names of great acting, writing and directing dynasties like Cusack, Amis and Coppola. Less evident, however, may be that of the Schaufuss family, which has occupied the top echelons of the Danish classical ballet world since the 1950s.

In his day, Peter Schaufuss was a virtuoso soloist and an international ballet superstar. He joined the Royal Danish Ballet School at the tender age of seven and rose through the ranks to become its principal dancer and a guest artiste, much sought after by companies like the Kirov, the Paris Opera and London's Royal Ballet.

A former director of the London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet), Berlin Ballet and the Royal Ballet in Copenhagen, in 1997 he established the Peter Schaufuss Ballet, based not in the capital city but in the town of Holstebro, from where it operates as the country's first independent international touring ballet company.

Belfast ballet fans will have their first encounter with the work of this charismatic figure when the company makes its debut appearance at the Grand Opera House from September 16 – 21. On the programme are two iconic pieces from the classical repertoire, one of which holds special relevance in the heart of the Schaufuss family.

At the start of the week, the curtain will rise on Schaufuss's edgy, controversial take on Swan Lake, the first in the Tchaikovsky Trilogy, with which he opened the company's account 13 years ago. Then it will be the turn of Romeo and Juliet – not the world famous, Bolshoi-inspired version but the creation of the great British dance maker Sir Frederick Ashton, which was premiered in 1955 in Copenhagen by the Royal Danish Ballet.

In it, the roles of Juliet and Mercutio were danced respectively by the Danish ballet stars Mona Vangsaae and Frank Schaufuss. They were Peter's parents. In this revival, Romeo will be danced by his 19-year-old son Luke Schaufuss. And in the London premiere at the Coliseum last summer, Luke's sister Tara was cast in the role of Mercutio's girlfriend.

'This ballet is extremely precious to me and to us as a family,' says Schaufuss senior. 'My parents danced in the very first production. I have danced Romeo many times myself, and now Luke will represent the third generation, which will be great for us all.'

'It's an honour to be asked to do it,' adds Luke. 'As an artist, I enjoy taking on all kinds of different roles with different challenges. But, of course, it is a big thing to follow in the footsteps of my dad and my grandparents.'

Of even greater artistic significance is the fact that on his death in 1988, Ashton bequeathed the work to Schaufuss. 'It is a great honour and a great responsibility to look after it and see that it is done properly for future generations,' he admits. 'The version that will be performed in Belfast is the one that I have revived for my own company and which was done at the Coliseum in July last year.

'I knew Sir Fred from the time that I was a small child. I could not help being influenced by his guiding spirit, because he was a great friend of my parents. When I came to London in 1970 to be the director of the London Festival Ballet our friendship continued and deepened. He was very dear to me.'

Schaufuss describes how Ashton, as chief choreographer at the Royal Ballet, was forbidden from creating his own version of Romeo and Juliet for Covent Garden by its then artistic director, the redoubtable Ninette de Valois (who was born Edris Stannus in Blessington, County Wicklow).

'At the time, the Bolshoi was gifting its production to the company and Dame Ninette de Valois was afraid that a new version would be compared to it. So [Ashton] went to Copenhagen and did it there. The Bolshoi's original 1895 production influenced many subsequent stagings, but this version is very different. Sir Fred had only Shakespeare and Prokoviev's score for inspiration, and his own great genius, of course.

'I have not in any way touched it. I have tried to keep it the way it was. When it was premiered in 1955, the set and scenery were very cumbersome and complicated. They got in the way of the performance. Sir Fred was critical of his own production in that respect. He wished that it could have been somehow tightened. When we restaged it at the Coliseum, it was more streamlined, but beyond that I have continued along the path set by him.'

It has become somewhat fashionable in the ballet world to craft new reworkings of the so-called Tchaikovsky Trilogy – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. Indeed Matthew Bourne's ground-breaking productions have been among the Opera House's most successful imports of recent years. But Schaufuss was the first to take up the gauntlet, identifying the bond that exists between the three.

'They are tied together as the continuous effort of a musical genius,' Schaufuss says. 'They show the development of Tchaikovsky's life both as an artist and a human being.'

It was Schaufuss's bold, sometimes explicit exploration of the composer's tormented personal and sexual life, which got the London critics in quite a lather when Swan Lake was performed in London last year.

The swan hunt became something of a turkey shoot as, one after another, they vied for the most scathing expressions of their dislike for the piece. 'Certificate 15 Swan Lake' read one headline. Unsurprisingly, Schaufuss says he does not read reviews and is entirely philosophical in his response to the criticism.

'Personally, I was not surprised. When you bring something to London which is a little bit different, you pay the price from the critics who are looking from a different angle. Maybe they are traditionalists. There were good reviews too, but the bad ones get all the attention. In this day and age, the media is all so different. There are things that go up on YouTube and the internet and they are there forever. You can't avoid them.

'The worst thing is to have the critics directing your productions. The first performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi was not a success. It had very bad notices, for the dance, the scenery, even the music. There are many other examples that you could find.'

Schaufuss has been labelled 'the wild card of the dance world' and, certainly, the back catalogue of his prolific company contains a large number of surprising new ballets, many of them based on larger-than-life figures from popular culture – Marilyn Monroe, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson and Elvis among them.

There is an adaptation of the 1980s movie Midnight Express, as well as The Who's rock opera Tommy, in which Luke danced the role of the pinball wizard. There is even a trilogy based on the British Royal Family, of which only the first two about Diana and Charles have been produced. So, is the 'wild card' label one that he is happy to live with?

'It's interesting that people say that about me. I don't walk around thinking about it. I do new things, that's for sure. I want to make ballets for today's audiences, not in Copenhagen but outside the capital. Using popular culture is a way of bringing in people who have never been to a live performance before. I want to them to come again and again. I have been very successful in doing that.

He laughs at the way his incomplete Royal trilogy may have been given new life by the recent arrival of the infant Prince George of Cambridge.

'The third piece, which has been tried out as just one act, is about William the king. It in, I have him marrying and having a child. This was a few years ago, before it happened in real life. It's funny to be talking about that now. Maybe I will go back to it and finish it one of these days.

'I particularly enjoyed making the ballet about Diana, as I knew her quite well. She was the patron of English National Ballet under my directorship. She was passionate about dance and was a good amateur dancer herself.'

He also points out that in the performance of the unfinished piece about William, Luke danced the role of the young prince. He agrees that his talented son is somewhat more handsome and crowned with a fuller head of hair than the second in line to the throne, adding '... and Luke is a much better dancer than William!'

Swan Lake runs in the Grand Opera House, Belfast from September 16, 17 and 21, while Romeo and Juliet runs from September 18 – 19.