Fifty years ago, Nederlands Dans Theater forged a middle path between classical ballet and modern dance, creating a “modern ballet” style and approach that spread across Europe.
Nederlands Dans Theater is among the world’s most successful companies. Founded in 1959 in The Hague by a group of dancers from the recently formed Netherlands Ballet (now Dutch National Ballet), and led by the artistic director Benjamin Harkarvy and manager Carel Birnie, its aim was to create new works that melded classical ballet with American modern dance. Through the 60s they presented pieces by American choreographers (particularly Glen Tetley), but most of their works were by the resident choreographer Hans van Manen, who became co-director with Harkarvy in 1961.
When Harkarvy left in 1969, van Manen took joint directorship with Tetley, but left in 1971, after which the company drifted for several years. But in 1975, the young Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián took over, first jointly with Hans Knill, but from 1978 as sole director; and the company surged forward. Kylián’s own work dominated the repertory, but he also encouraged choreography from company dancers and staged pieces by many guest choreographers. In 1988, van Manen returned to NDT as its resident choreographer.
NDT II, a second company for young dancers aged 17 to 22, was founded in 1978, and became almost as successful as NDT I. A third company, NDT III, for dancers aged “between 40 and death” was founded in 1991, but disbanded in 2006 for financial reasons.
Kylián retired as director (though not as choreographer) in 1999. He was succeeded by Marian Sarstädt (until 2004), and Anders Hellström (until 2009). The current director is the former company dancer Jim Vincent. Paul Lightfoot and Sol León are currently the resident choreographers, with Johan Inger and Crystal Pite as associates; many guest choreographers have also made works for the company, including William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor.
NDT has been enormously influential, not only as a pioneering company that established a particular style of modern ballet in Europe, but as a seedbed for new directors and choreographers: many NDT members have gone on to found or direct companies around the world, including Nacho Duato (Compañía Nacional de Danza, Spain) and Ohad Naharin (Batsheva Dance Company, Israel).
Watching Nederlands Dans Theater
NDT stays true to its founding vision of merging modern dance with classical ballet. Ballet technique is the basis of both the dancers’ training and the choreography, but it is alloyed with other ingredients – the curves and falls of modern dance, everyday gestures, folk steps. Van Manen’s work is plotless, but nevertheless it’s highly charged with emotional, social or sexual symbolism.
Kylián’s earlier work, such as the 1978 Sinfonietta, often emphasised sweep and scale, with massed formations, and folk-inflected steps (he was especially inspired by Australian aborginal dances, as seen in 1983’s Stamping Ground). Later he focused more on angular movements, inventive partnering and more cerebral choreography. Latterly his works have had striking set designs, with rarefied choreography that, depending on your viewpoint, could be profound or vacuous. British critics tend to say it’s the latter, but European ones – and audiences around the world – find it compelling. Everyone, though, agrees that the NDT dancers are close to perfection.
The current artistic director is Jim Vincent, with Jet de Ranitz as managing director. Gerald Tibbs has been artistic director of NDT II since 1990.
As a choreographer, Kylián is known for his inventive partner-work, but as a dance partner he was, by his own admission, “a disaster”.
In their own words
“I think our task as choreographers is to search the extremities of our souls … I think that the search for what we are and what we want to say should be as expansive as possible.” – Jiří Kylián, in conversation with Benjamin Harkarvy, Dance magazine, 1994
“There will be people that like my pieces and are touched by them, and there will be people that don’t see anything in them. I don’t mind if people don’t understand my work because, actually, I don’t understand it myself and I never did.” – Kylián, in conversation with David Benaym, movment magazine, 2006
“I like to work with dancers who are risky and not afraid to make mistakes. I don’t care about mistakes. Sometimes dancers can make genius mistakes.” – Hans van Manen, interview with Han Sang-hee, Korea Times, 2008
In other words
“And as in most NDT programmes there comes a point, as in a Versace promotion, when the sheer extravagance of the styling overwhelms the possibility of meaning … It’s not profound, but then neither is eating caviar in a sunken marble bath. Just consume and enjoy.” – Luke Jennings, Observer, 2006
“The substance, however, isn’t there – or rather, it is provided primarily by the quality of NDT’s dancers, who, as always, are astonishing. Their elegance, conviction and strength make this company worth seeing, whatever the standard of the choreography.” – Judith Mackrell, Guardian, 2008
“Jiří Kylián has, for 20 years, enjoyed unbridled esteem all over Europe. But when his company, the Nederlands Dans Theater, came to the Edinburgh Festival last year, it was mauled by most of our dance press. Audiences, meanwhile, loved it, as did non-dance critics, who voted it a special award.” – Nadine Meisner, Independent, 1997
“Just as its neighbour Belgium has been hugely influential for modern dance, so has Holland been, for modern ballet.”
You’ve compared, you’ve contrasted, you’ve contextualised. Bravo!
“Why the good Dutch do not rise up against it, as they did against the Spaniards, I cannot fathom.”
You are parroting Clement Crisp, the grandest of all British dance critics, who (generally) loathes NDT. Take a look at the rest of his review, or try this one.
Rambert Dance Company was deliberately modelled on NDT when it changed from ballet to a modern dance company in 1966.
Batsheva Dance Company (headed by NDT alumnus Ohad Naharin).
Compañía Nacional de España (headed by the NDT alumnus Nacho Duato, until July).
Scapino Ballet Rotterdam (headed by NDT alumnus Ed Wubbe).
Now watch this
Jirí Kylián’s Sinfonietta (1978)
Stamping GroundKylián’s (1983)
Hans van Manen’s Visions Fugitives (1990)
Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 (1999), performed by NDT II
There are plenty more videos on NDT’s YouTube channel.
Where to see them next
See the Nederlands Dans Theater website for performance dates.