Anders Hellström: Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater


Mary Brennan

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What makes an NDT1 dancer?

So what does it take to become one of the thirty or so members of this world-acclaimed group? Anders Hellström, artistic director of NDT1 since 2004, finds words to capture the qualities behind the renowned charisma and fabled technical prowess.

“Although we are a contemporary dance company, I’d say that parts of our rep are strongly based on the classical technique – so a strong grounding in that technique is really important. But there must be more than that, because the spectrum of what we do is very wide and very varied – and each choreographer may well have an individual style in mind, so our dancers really need to be able to take on all kinds of movement qualities. They should know how to improvise. Be able, and ready, to work with choreographers ‘in process’ – when a work is being made, that is. As a matter-of-fact, many of them are choreographers themselves so they know what it means when a choreographer sets a task or asks them to improvise ideas. Such things as musicality and artistry – that goes without saying. But there should also be personality.

“The dancers who are here like to be involved, acknowledged. Not just told what to do like wind-up dolls. They don’t just want to come into a studio and hear ‘these are the steps – now do them.’ And because our dancers are individuals, able to think about steps as well as doing them, and because I know they are fine, fine artists – well, it creates a beautiful palette for any choreographer to work with and a wonderful company for our audiences to enjoy. But it is hard work, of course. That self-discipline has to be there, otherwise you can’t be here!”

Repertoire and Responsibility

Tightrope walker or juggler? What image best suits Anders Hellstrom, artistic director of NDT1 since 2004, as he goes about making the decisions that keep this remarkable company at the forefront of the contemporary dance scene?

You could say he probably combines a bit of both: juggling repertoire to suit the differing needs and tastes of audiences at home and on tour, while walking a tightrope between NDT1’s illustrious back catalogue of works – many of them truly deserving of revival – and the new works by emerging choreographers that will be the life-blood of the company’s future.

But before he discusses that, there is one thing he wants to make clear. “I’m not sure if all our audiences outside of the Netherlands realise that our repertoire is totally different from that of NDT2, our junior company. We share a building, and sometimes the same choreographers will make work for both companies – but that’s as far as it goes. We don’t even do ‘hand-me-downs’ – passing on older pieces from NDT1 to NDT2. Absolutely not. Repertoire is specific to each company and it’s segregated. As indeed it should be.”

It’s only after you’ve seen both companies performing that the reasons for maintaining these degrees of separation become clear. If you think in terms of bespoke tailoring, then the repertoires of NDT1 and NDT2 are built around respective strengths and intrinsic characteristics. Dancers like Medhi Walerski – who not only danced with NDT2 before moving up to NDT1 but who has also choreographed for both companies – will laugh and describe it an ‘age thing.’ The young dancers in NDT2 are, in a way, just beginning to discover their powers, and shape their identity as performers. When (and if) they are accepted into the main company, they bring those years of defining experience with them – “you grow up, like you would in any career,” says Medhi. “Your attitude changes, matures – and you can tackle the challenges in NDT1’s repertoire because of that.”

Past and Present

For Hellstrom, the task of selecting each season’s repertoire involves a variety of external factors. Are the programmes for the home audience? In that case, he can choose to introduce new works from new choreographers or even existing works by established choreographers. “Mostly our repertoire has been made here, on our own company,” he says. “As well as our own exceptional house choreographers – Jiri Kylian, Lightfoot-Leon – we also commission choreographers from outside the company and from abroad, to come here and create pieces with our dancers. And if it works out well, and because I believe in continuity, then I like to invite certain choreographers back – begin a relationship with them that will develop our dancers, bring a new style and perspective into our repertoire. On occasions there have been  pieces – like Trio, by William Forsythe from 1996 – which I would like our Dutch audiences to see, and so I bring it in. But we have one policy always – these pieces do not go with us when we tour abroad. On tour we only show work that was created here, on our own dancers.”

With a company history that spans almost fifty years, there’s surely no shortage of works to choose from. Hellstrom, perhaps thinking of the wish-lists that arrive on his desks from festivals and venues world-wide, nods and… could that be a passing sigh? “We do have, yes, this huge available treasure – works that are timeless, many of them, and well-loved and well-remembered. Repertoire that we should, and do – from time to time – bring back. And people do ask us for it, because they know it. We could so easily perform the old favourites for a very, very long time – touring them year after year.But if we just do that, dance only in our past, we would become this museum. That is not what this company is about. It started by being rebellious in its ideals, and there is – for me, for all of us – a responsibility to keep that spirit going forward. You don’t ignore the past. You find ways to take it with you – and here, that means finding the new names who weren’t here 10 or 15 years ago. Putting them together with a new generation of dancers because this is a place where we create and explore always.”

For the UK tour, however, the names are those of flag-ship house choreographers Kylian and Lightfoot-Leon. With the exception of Kylian’s Wings of Wax (1997), the works are all 21st century pieces that reflect the ‘here and now’ responses of these exceptional dance-makers to what they see and hear around them. Referring to Wings of Wax, Hellstrom says simply”it’s one of Jiri’s really timeless pieces. And you know, it’s wonderful to see another generation of dancers take on this choreography – encounter Jiri’s wonderful musicality, and yet also his unpredictability within that musicality. Personally, I get very bored with choreography where – yes, there is musicality but somehow you can predict what’s going to happen. And you don’t feel any excitement when it does. That’s never the case with Jiri. It’s not the case with Wings of Wax. It sits really well with the rest of our programming, I think”