All roads lead to the Hague

The chatter in the Green Room is such a lively mix of tongues it invites a quick reality check – am I at some UN conference? or is this really behind the scenes at Nederlands Dans Theater’s home base in The Hague?


Mary Brennan

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The global reach of NDT1

The Hague it is, where – according to NDT1’s artistic director Anders Hellström – there are at least a score of different nationalities represented among the dancers. “Sometimes I do count the countries,” he says, smiling. “It tells me – because usually it adds up to twenty, twenty-two – that NDT is a company that dancers really do want to be part of. When we audition for our junior company, NDT2, there are hundreds of applicants coming from all parts of the world. Young people who have, as their ultimate goal, the chance to join the main company here. Even though they know there is no guarantee of that, of course. It is not an automatic process. Even so, they see this as a special place – a special company – and they will leave family, friends, to become part of it all.”

His own accents lend a particular emphasis to his words: Anders Hellström is Swedish and though his own career as a dancer took him to Germany – first to Hamburg Ballet, and then to Ballett Frankfurt – he had subsequently gone home, as it were, when (from 1999 – 2002) he took over the artistic directorship of Gothenburg Ballet. He could have signed up for another three year stint – indeed he could probably have been there still, given that he had successfully re-generated the Gothenburg company, transforming it from a traditional classical company into a contemporary group with a potent repertoire that included works by William Forsythe, Jiří Kylián, Nacho Duato and Jacopo Godani. But he followed a different path. He came to The Hague.

Now, after four years at the helm of NDT1, Hellström will admit that he still has a hankering for Swedish winter-time – for the snow, the biting crispness of the air, the Northern light that brings such a stark beauty to the landscape. But, when he talks about NDT1 – about its past, present and future – everything about his voice, his body language, his facial expressions tell one and the same truth. Like all the other talented travellers who have come to this company, Hellström has been claimed by the force that is Nederlands Dans Theater – and the bonds almost surprise him with their strength, it seems.

“Is it really four years, now?” he says, pausing to count it back. “Hmmm – already it’s longer than I spent at Gothenburg and you know, I haven’t been aware of it like that. I would have said shorter, that I’ve been here for a much shorter time. And I don’t know how to explain that… Too busy to count the days? Yes, of course. The work here is so intense you don’t have time to notice how time is passing. Or maybe it’s that I’m having a really good time? That’s probably it.” And he begins to talk about what it means to come in, every day, to an environment where creativity is like an ancillary electric current that everyone plugs into. “This atmosphere is very special, and part of what makes the company what it is – unique, I would say, and still so very exciting whether it’s to watch or to be a part of. You know NDT is almost fifty years in existence, now. It started out being a rebellious group (in 1959) and you could say that as it developed – and especially after Jiří (Kylián) became the driving force in the 1970’s – it came to be seen as an established leader in the contemporary dance world. That brings with it an unsuspected risk. Because over the years so many fine pieces were created here – pieces that were danced all over the world, pieces that were popular with audiences, pieces that festivals and producers would ask for especially. And I saw, when I first came here, that we could easily go around, touring and touring, with these pieces from the past. We could easily do that for a very, very long time – but to do that would make NDT1 a museum. That is not the kind of risk that is useful or creative. So though we are proud of our past, and would never want to diminish it, it is important that we find new ways to be, truly, Nederlands Dans Theater. To keep alive that reality of being a place where creativity at every level – every level – is our daily way. And that way, we continue to attract the artists, the dancers, the choreographers, who keep our work still at the forefront. And believe me, the group who are here now – they are very fine, very fine indeed.”

As he leans back in his chair, I am – as I suspect he is – overtaken by that sense of heritage and how the truest legacy of that ground-breaking past is to keep pushing forward. A snatch of a long ago conversation with Kylián himself suddenly comes to mind. Recollecting his childhood in Prague, he described how he would often look at a little island in the middle of the Vltava River and imagine it as a wonderful palace of the arts, a place where creative talents could come together. “I left Prague – but I think, perhaps, that island is now here.” And he gestured towards the people – the dancers, technicians, teachers and choreographers – who were milling about NDT’s headquarters.

The work here is so intense you don’t have time to notice how time is passing.

Among them at the time was a young Paul Lightfoot, one half of Lightfoot-León, the ‘house’ choreographic team whose work features alongside Kylián’s in this UK touring selection. English by birth and by training – classically taught at the Royal Ballet school – Lightfoot’s entry into NDT2 would prove life-changing for him in several ways. He too has since recalled how the opportunities afforded him by the company’s choreographic workshops tapped into creative resources that might otherwise have stayed dormant. And while his student peer group in the UK followed what might well have been his path – a career with the Royal Ballet that tended to become a job, not a vocation – Lightfoot was encouraged and challenged to think outside that boxed-in choice. A Spanish dancer, Sol León, was also coming into her own at NDT2 – her partnership with Lightfoot (they are also a couple off-stage) has emerged as one of the most significant and sought-after choreographic power-houses worldwide.

And today? A new generation of dancers and choreographers are carrying forward the values and visions that are the hallmark of Nederlands Dans Theater. Last year, Dublin-born Sarah Reynolds toured the UK as a member of NDT2 – this year she’s on-stage with NDT1 and fired up with a real sense of how special, and enviable, her situation is. Mehdi Walerski, who’s originally from France, paid his dues with NDT2 and is now in his fifth season with NDT1 – not just dancing, but choreographing. Different nationalities, different mother tongues but all united when in the studio or on-stage. Because there, only one language prevails – there, body and mind have to speak in dance. Sit back, watch – and you’ll understand why this company merits the superlatives that followed in its footsteps for decades.