Donald Hutera spent nearly a full day in The Hague meeting artists and administrators of Nederlands Dans Theater, seeing a new triple-bill by NDT2 and sitting in on a class the following day.
Gerald Tibbs, the Executive Artistic Director of Nederlands Dans Theater 2, sits in his office at NDT’s headquarters. There’s an understandable buzz about the building on this mid-March day, given that tonight will be the world premiere of the first-ever Dance Consortium commission of a new work by the long-term choreographic team of Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon.
Tibbs and Lightfoot can claim a shared history. ‘Paul and I danced together,’ the former says. ‘We were roommates on tour. He did his first pieces for NDT2 when I was already in this chair.
Our working relationship has just evolved over the years.’ So, too, as Tibbs notes, has the relationship between Lightfoot and his offstage partner, Leon. ‘The two of them have a lot of energy, and a lot to say about what they’re creating.’ Can he define their style? ‘They’re work is not exactly abstract, but at the same time they don’t narrate a story. Some of their inspiration definitely comes from poems or words.’ Anyone who has seen the brief duet Shutters Shut, a meticulous physicalisation of a Gertrude Stein poem, will recognise the accuracy of his remark. The piece has become a touchstone for the Lightfoot-Leon creative partnership.
In the Consortium commission Sleight of Hand, says Tibbs, ‘They’re not necessarily telling a story where everyone sees the same thing. It has a narrative, but it’s definitely open for individual interpretation. It’s a precise piece, and very designed both choreographically and technically. It’s definitely influenced by dimension and perspective.’ Tibbs estimates that the company will perform it forty or so times before the end of the season, half of that number on tour in the UK.
There are traditionally 16 young dancers in NDT2, none of whom are older than their early twenties.
‘Usually they start coming to us between the ages of 19 to 21,’ says Tibbs, ‘but we still get people who are 17.’ They can stay with NDT2 for up to three years. Contracts used to be renewed annually, but is now initially fixed at two years with an optional third season. The reason for this change is the bureaucracy and paper work required to secure positions for dancers from as far afield as, say, Russia, Israel, China and South Korea. To go through all of the necessary legal hoops to enable a dancer stay a single year seemed counter-productive. ‘The world is changing,’ comments Tibbs. ‘There are so many more of rules and regulations now.’
Tibbs and the NDT staff hold a mass general audition for company recruits early each year but, as he says, ‘The back door is always open for individuals. People email me all the time.
“I’m from America, or Scandinavia, and I’m traveling around Europe. Can you see me?”’
Usually he accommodates such requests. ‘It doesn’t take so much of my time, and you get an impression very quickly. Auditioning is good for any age dancer.’
Once dancers have been taken into the NDT2 fold, a major part of Tibbs’ responsibility is to ‘keep them healthy and happy.’ Does he ever finding himself playing favourites? ‘It’s human. At certain points you’re prouder of the youngest than you are of the eldest. We’re watching people grow up here. They’re all at different stages of development. If someone comes and starts to bloom seven months after they get here, it’s their time. This one needs water or fertilizer now.’
Across the hall, NDT artistic director Anders Hellström puts his stamp on this idea. ‘We’re like a family here,’ he explains. With NDT2, he adds, ‘We’re not father figures but more like older siblings.’ The mentoring, he suggests, is quite thorough and dedicated. ‘Really, I think those young dancers have no idea how much they are in our heads. We’re thinking about them all the time.’