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On stage with The Royal Danish Ballet, Jonathan Chmelensky is so captivating that it’s hard to imagine him as an average man in Copenhagen. “Average” may be off the mark, but the principal dancer transforms into an altogether more relatable character when the curtain goes down. Here, we ask the French-born, Cuban-trained dancer about life on stage and off.

It’s Sunday evening. Are you coming from rehearsal?
During the season, I pretty much live at the theatre where we practice and perform but Sunday is usually our day off. It’s the only time I can just hang around my neighborhood.

Which neighborhood is that?
I live in Nørrebro, a relaxed area of Copenhagen. It feels like a village at times, with incredible food. A sushi restaurant called Selfish is my go-to place the day before a big performance. It’s very minimalistic and seats about five people, which is very Copenhagen.

Are you a fan of Scandinavian food?
I adapted quickly to the food here, and I especially like smørrebrød—a traditional open-face sandwich. It’s dark bread topped with things like marinated fish or eggs.

When did you know you were going to be a dancer?
I come from a long line of dancers, so I was raised in it. I wasn’t forced to go into ballet—well, maybe I was forced. I didn’t enjoy it. I was about 10 years old and the only boy in the class. I couldn’t understand why all my friends were doing something else. And then one day I got to perform. I didn’t fall, so the feedback was great! At that moment, I was hooked.

Does your mom now say, “I told you so”?
My mom was actually resentful that I enjoyed it. She had done ballet but not professionally, and she knows how hard it is to make a living from it. At the time, I thought it was cruel. In retrospect, she was being a responsible mother—especially because I wasn’t particularly talented in the beginning. But she never stopped me from dancing.

How do you get into character?
It’s rare that you’re 100 percent coached in a role, so you have to find your own way to immerse yourself in a character. The performance is purely physical; there are no lines to speak. You have some rules and etiquette for how to mime or project, but the rest is up to you. For example, the prince in Swan Lake is an unhappy man who has everything he wants but is lonely, and he goes into the woods to find love. From the second the curtain goes up, I think about what brought him to this point. I try to tap into emotions I can relate to—loneliness, disconnection from happiness around you—and reproduce those feelings with my body language.

Where would you be if you hadn’t pursued dancing?
It’s hard to say because I’ve seen myself as a ballet dancer since I was a kid. I did think being a skateboarder like Tony Hawk was super cool.

Do you still skate?
As a kid, I fell badly enough that I couldn’t dance for a week. My teacher cracked down and said, “If you want to be a professional dancer, this cannot happen. Your career will be over.” It’s not exactly an extreme-sports-friendly job. Now I ride my bike to the studio, but I’m aware that my body is my work tool. It’s the same way you wouldn’t download random Internet content if your job depended on your computer.

What might we be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a beer geek! I recently started working at a bar…

I’ve been a ballet dancer all my life. I thought it would be healthy to try something else. I got into craft beer through friends, and was pulled all of a sudden into this world that was much more relaxed than what I’m used to. It shined a light on who I am and what I might do if one day I stop being successful. It’s given me the confidence to know that I’ll be okay.

This story originally appeared on Skandiastyle.com

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