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
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.”