THE RIGHT MOVES
The Nederlands Dans Theater, soon to visit Sydney, is back on an even keel after its recent turmoil, writes Sharon Verghis
PAUL Lightfoot, artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater, sounds as if a particularly big frog has taken up occupancy in his throat. ‘‘ I’ve got a cold,’’ croaks the British-born former dancer, 46, hoarsely over the phone from The Hague, home to the powerhouse dance company he leads and its striking ‘‘ sacred space’’, the 1000-seat Rem Koolhaas-designed Lucent Danstheater.
Fatigue as well as flu has leached his voice of resonance, and it’s little wonder. The company, regarded as one of the world’s best contemporary dance ensembles, has just returned from its first tour of New York in 10 years (to mixed reviews), debuted a new creation at home, and is gearing up for the long haul to Sydney for the first time in 12 years.
Formed in 1959 by a breakaway group of 18 dancers from the Dutch National Ballet and first put on the global map by Czech master Jiri Kylian in the 1970s, NDT, as it’s popularly known, performs about 160 shows a year at home and across the world.
This season alone an astonishing 11 works have been produced, compared with the average dance company’s ‘‘ two or three creations a season, if they’re lucky’’, a weary but proud Lightfoot says.
As resident choreographer since 2002, the slim, tall former dancer jokes he’s found making work for this company — known as a prolific creative incubator for some of the dance scene’s most innovative work — to be a ‘‘ very good weight-loss plan’’. But it’s politics, not just big workloads, that has proved particularly demanding of late.
Since taking over artistic directorship of NDT in late 2011, the wiry, aptly named Lightfoot has been living through some interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes. He’s the fourth artistic director since Kylian formally ended his 34-year-old association with the company as first artistic director and then resident choreographer in 2009. The visionary Prague-born dance maker’s departure sparked a period of instability for the company, manifest in its revolving door of directors: two years ago it faced its biggest crisis following the Dutch government’s threat to halve its funding due to the severe economic crisis.
Into this maelstrom stepped Lightfoot, a company veteran charged with steadying the ship and finding a new identity for a company struggling to reboot its stellar brand in the post-Kylian era. He survived the budget cuts (the government backed down after a public uproar) and plotted a new course. Then last month came another bombshell when Kylian made public his controversial decision to pull all his works — more than 100 — from NDT for three years from July next year, leaving what even Lightfoot admits is ‘‘ a tremendously important’’ hole in its repertoire.
It caused waves in the dance world but Kylian, angered by what he sees as ‘‘ untrue’’ speculation about his move, stresses this will help rather than hurt the company by forcing it to innovate. In these difficult economic times, ‘‘ an internationally respected company of the stature of NDT cannot afford to recycle old repertoire’’, he says.
Some dancers are reportedly upset, but Lightfoot, who contrary to reports has known about this for a year, says he understands what seems like a peculiarly stern and heavy-handed tactic to enforce change. ‘‘ In his paternal-like manner Jiri Kylian is merely executing his right to a portion of tough love. It seemed strange to me at first, of course, as if a bird pushes its own egg out of the nest, but I understand it now . . . he is not punishing us, he is challenging us.’’
It’s business as usual, then, for the company, which will kick off its exclusive Sydney season at the Sydney Opera House with a bill that includes two Kylian works. Rarely seen outside their homeland, 1990’s Sweet Dreams and Sarabande are the ‘‘ dark horses’’ of Kylian’s famous Black and White sextet of ballets.
Sweet Dreams is a moody, complex exploration of the subconscious dubbed ‘‘ the masterpiece of the apples’’ (the fruit features ‘‘ as a traditional symbol of temptation and guilt, degrading the act of love to a sinful event’’, Kylian has said). Performed to Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra and inspired by the writing of Franz Kafka, the work perfectly captures the strange, sweet illogicality of dreams, Lightfoot says.
Sarabande, a spiky, explosive piece for six male dancers featuring distorted electronic ‘‘ music’’ made by the dancers themselves, is Kylian’s testosterone-fuelled counterpart to 1989’s Falling Angels for the company’s female dancers.
Also on the bill are two pieces by Lightfoot in collaboration with his former romantic partner and NDT resident choreographer Sol Leon: Sh-Boom! — a playful, comical piece set to jaunty post-war tunes — and the dreamily romantic Shoot the Moon, a highlight of his and Leon’s 45-work NDT choreographic career.
Born in Kingsley, Cheshire, in 1966, Lightfoot was reared on a dairy farm by his grandmother, a staunch Methodist ‘‘ tambourine slapper’’ from whom he inherited his love of music. He started ballet at age 11 and at 15 was accepted into the Royal Ballet School (he’s reportedly one of three boys on whom the lead character in dance blockbuster Billy Elliot was based).
Then, the NDT came to visit in his graduate year and he was spotted by Kylian, who offered him an eight-week contract. Lightfoot confesses he knew little of the company but had an epiphany of sorts when he went over and saw a poster for one of Kylian’s early works, 1978’s Symphony of Psalms. He recognised it as a work he’d first seen at age 12 on television and been incredibly moved by, ‘‘ and when I saw it all these years later, it was a very emotional moment. I suddenly realised that perhaps what I thought I wanted wasn’t really what I needed.’’
NDT would certainly prove to be a homecoming of sorts for the young Briton, who entered the 30-strong main ensemble in 1987 after only two years in the 16-member youth wing, NDT2 (until scuppered by finances and, according to Kylian, ‘‘ lack of fantasy’’ and poor management, there was also NDT3, for dancers ‘‘ age 40 to death’’).
For a young boy raised in the strict, hierarchical world of classical ballet, NDT was a revelation with its flat, organic structure (‘‘it’s a company of soloists’’), democratic culture and multicultural composition, with a former Australian Ballet principal, Danielle Rowe, numbering among the Swedes, Americans, Taiwanese and other nationalities in its ranks. He attributes the company’s unique atmosphere to the fact it functions as a tightknit production house for the best in dance, lighting, stage and costume design. The dancers’ strong classical technique also allows for radical experimentation with form. Rowe, 30, hails the demanding but collegial culture and says, ‘‘ To be a talented dancer is not enough to land a place here: an open mind, honesty and willingness to embrace new ideas and challenges are just as important.’’
Lightfoot says he’s the first working choreographer to embrace the role of artistic director at NDT since Kylian, and although he took on the dual roles with great reluctance (‘‘Jiri said doing both was a disaster and burned him out’’), he feels the company has a vital need for a leader who wears both hats.
He adds, however, that he’s deeply relieved to have the emotional as well as professional support of Leon, with whom he has a daughter: he doesn’t like being a lone wolf on the creative front. He started making works for the company with the Cordoba-born Leon early in his career, and says sheepishly that his first company work in 1989, The Bard of Avon, was a ‘‘ right stinker’’.
He pays homage to the restrained, infinitely patient Kylian (‘‘I’ve seen him angry exactly three times in 28 years’’) and his influential musicality, pas de deux work and aesthetics, as well as to the temperamental former resident choreographer Hans van Manen for his development in a very tough NDT creative climate.
‘‘ I was 21, 22 when I started and it was just like . . . arghh. They’re not easy here,’’ he says. ‘‘ You’re like a little bird and they throw you out of the nest and say flap your wings. It was a trial by fire.’’
You suspect this long, tough apprenticeship has given him the requisite steel to steer the company into new waters. He’s keenly aware, though, of the challenges.
Kylian first catapulted NDT into the international spotlight in 1978 with his work Sinfonietta for the Charleston Festival and has since stamped his legend all over it with classics such as Petite Mort, Six Dances, Bella Figura and Forgotten Land.
Lightfoot concedes there are daunting difficulties when it comes to making his mark in a company so profoundly shaped by one man, but is game to try.
Kylian’s removal of his repertoire is the right decision, he says, and will spur the company to new creative heights. It’s a company built by many masters, he stresses, pointing to its rich history of works by the likes of Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, Bill Forsythe and Glen Tetley.
Also, ‘‘ Anders Hellstrom, the next real artistic director after Jiri Kylian, had already begun developing new choreographic voices such as Crystal Pite and Alexander Ekman, who are now two of the four associate choreographers at NDT along with Johan Inger and Marco Goecke. The hole it leaves therefore is tremendously important, but not a vast black one.’’
He adds he will build on Kylian’s rich tradition — ‘‘ I’m not a demolisher’’ — while pursuing new avenues such as singing, text and even traditional African dances to incorporate into NDT’s future work.
‘‘ I suppose the most important impact to consider is that of change,’’ he says. ‘‘ Change can raise questions and even bring unrest, but it also opens new doors and is a fundamental factor to growth.
‘‘ I would never want to see Nederlands Dans Theater become a stagnant pond, but continue to be a flowing river.’’
Nederlands Dans Theater’s Stefan Zeromski and Lesley Telford in Shoot the Moon and, above, Paul Lightfoot