Director's Notes: The Choreographers' Company

Paul Lightfoot has rekindled NDT’s core mission: creating groundbreaking contemporary ballet.

Nederlands Dans Theater’s sleek performances don’t show it, but just two years ago, the company was in serious trouble. A review of government arts funding recommended a 50 percent cut.

In search of a solution, the board hired a new artistic director: Paul Lightfoot, who has been with NDT for 28 years as a dancer and choreographer. “Internationally, people were wildly interested in NDT, but we didn’t even bother to ask what Holland understood about us,” he says. “We had to write a new artistic and financial plan to prove who we were.” It worked: The company escaped with only minor budget cuts, and now is thriving again under Lightfoot.

Born in England, Lightfoot trained at The Royal Ballet Upper School. One morning, then-NDT director Jirí Kylián watched class, and offered Lightfoot a contract with NDT2. “I didn’t want to go,” says Lightfoot. “At The Royal we were so blinkered. Some people told me I would have to dance naked.” He gave it a try anyway, and once he walked in the door, his world changed. “I realized it was the place to be if you had creative aspirations.”

Creation has always been at the core of the company: NDT was founded in 1959 by a group of dancers from Dutch National Ballet who wanted to experiment with new choreography. In its early years, headed by Benjamin Harkarvy and Hans van Manen, NDT went through a period Lightfoot describes as “everyone just breaking every rule.” It was among the first companies to herald the then-groundbreaking idea of contemporary ballet, and became known for its inventive brand of dance theater. The ensemble rose to international prominence during Kylián’s 22 years at the helm, starting in 1978. It became an audience darling with its elegant blend of neoclassical and modern aesthetics. Kylián’s work led the way, but the company also kept on nurturing a range of choreographers.

Kylián’s departure as artistic director in 1999 left a void, and three directors came and went in the decade that followed. When Lightfoot finally stepped into the position in 2011, it was a move that reaffirmed the company’s identity as an incubator for new work. Like Kylián, Lightfoot is an in-demand dancemaker, having created over 40 works for NDT with partner Sol León.

“It’s harder to look ahead with all our past now,” Lightfoot says. “At this point, NDT has a responsibility to its traditions. Jirí’s repertoire is symbolic for us, but he was fully aware that NDT shouldn’t be a house about one person.” The company currently boasts four in-house choreographers in addition to Lightfoot and León: Crystal Pite, Alexander Ekman, Johan Inger and Marco Goecke. It holds regular choreography workshops and this season, NDT will perform four world premieres and NDT2 will dance seven.

Lightfoot takes a relaxed approach to directing. “I’m kind of refusing to become the director with my dancers. Perhaps it’s not easy for them to deal with me playing the fool and being the boss, but I like to be on the work floor.” He’s focused on strengthening the group’s family feel. “I want people to ask questions, trust in each other,” he says. Last summer, he hired high-profile American dancer Drew Jacoby. “She often wasn’t accepted into companies because she stands out, but in my books that’s a good thing.”

In 2012, Lightfoot orchestrated NDT’s first international broadcasts through Emerging Pictures’ Ballet in Cinema. The programming, a mix of Kylián classics and edgy premieres, reflects the company’s trademark high production values and quirky style, all darting, fluid limbs. “NDT has a certain way of moving that no one else has,” Lightfoot says. “It is the kind of place that shouldn’t be too sure of itself, that should have a sense of vulnerability, because ultimately, that’s what makes you creative.”

At A Glance

Nederlands Dans Theater

Location: The Hague, Netherlands

Size: 30 dancers in NDT, 20 in NDT2

Starting salary: Company does not release this information

Length of contract: Year-round (and after four years, indefinite)

Performances: 90–100 per season in the Netherlands, 30–40 abroad

Website: ndt.nl

Audition Advice

Only NDT2 holds open auditions. After class and repertoire, dancers perform solos. “A lot of dancers make the solos themselves,” Lightfoot says. “We’re interested in seeing the creative person. We look for human qualities, for someone who’ll go the extra mile, who can embrace anything.” Lightfoot is particularly keen on American dancers, citing their work ethic and “positive ambition.”

Latest Posts


Getty Images

The History of Pointe Shoes: The Landmark Moments That Made Ballet's Signature Shoe What It Is Today

Pointe shoes, with their ability to elevate a dancer both literally and metaphorically to a superhuman realm, are the ultimate symbol of a ballerina's ethereality and hard work. For students, receiving a first pair of pointe shoes is a rite of passage. The shoes carry an almost mystical allure: They're an endless source of lore and ritual, with tips, tricks and stories passed down over generations.

The history of pointe shoes reveals how a delicately darned slipper introduced in the 1820s has transformed into a technical tool that offers dancers the utmost freedom onstage today.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
Getty Images

How Coming Back to Ballet After Years Away Has Saved Me During the Pandemic Shutdown

I was 4 years old when I took my first ballet lesson. My mom had dressed me in a pink leotard with matching tights, skirt and slippers. She drove me on a Saturday morning to a ballet academy in downtown Caguas, the town in Puerto Rico where I grew up. I don't remember much from the first lesson, but I do recall the reverence. My teacher Mónica asked the class if someone wanted to volunteer to lead. She was surprised I—the new girl—was the one to raise my hand.

I made up most of the steps, mimicking the ballerinas I had seen on TV and videos. At one point, Mónica stepped in and asked me to lead the class in a bow. I followed her directions and curtseyed in front of the mirror with one leg behind me and a gentle nod. I looked up to find myself in awe of what I had just done.

This was the same feeling I had when, after years away from dance, I finished my first YouTube ballet class at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep reading SHOW LESS
La'Toya Princess Jackson, Courtesy MoBBallet

Join Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet for Its 2020 Virtual Symposium

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet, founded in 2015 by writer and activist Theresa Ruth Howard to preserve and promote the stories of Black ballet dancers, is offering three weekends of interactive education and conversation this month through its 2020 Virtual Symposium. The conference, titled "Education, Communication, Restoration," encourages participants to engage in candid discussions concerning racial inequality and social justice in ballet. While it is a space that centers on Blackness, all are welcome. Held August 14, 15, 21, 22 and 28, MoBBallet's second annual symposium will allow dancers to receive mentorship and openly speak about their personal experiences in a safe and empowering environment.

The first event, For Us By Us (FUBU) Town Hall, is a free community discussion on August 14 from 3:30–4:30 pm EDT via Zoom, followed by a forum for ballet leadership. The town hall format encourages active engagement (participants can raise their hands and respond in real time), but the registration invoice also contains a form for submitting questions in advance. The following discussions, forums and presentations include topics like company life as a Black dancer, developing personal activism, issues of equity and colorism in ballet companies, and more. Tickets range from free to $12 for each 60- to 80-minute event.

Keep reading SHOW LESS

Editors' Picks