The Ned­er­lands Dans The­ater, soon to visit Syd­ney, is back on an even keel af­ter its re­cent tur­moil, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Dance -

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

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