Bring in the Dutch

Interview with Eric Blom and Joost van Hilten

text: astrid van leeuwen

Nederlands Dans Theater’s technical department plays an important part in the tremendous successes the company has achieved throughout the past decennia. Its productions can be seen around the world, often simultaneously, so making sure that everything runs smoothly is a never-ending puzzle. According to Eric Blom, technical director, and Joost van Hilten, manager production, “Sometimes, stage sets have already been shipped abroad even if the ballet that they will be used for still has to have its premiere over here.”

Time to panic! It’s Sunday afternoon, two days before this interview. Eric Blom is still in bed when he receives a message on his phone. “One of our technicians forwarded an email from KLM, saying that his flight to Taiwan was cancelled 24 hours before it was scheduled to leave. At times like that, you jump out of bed and, literally, turn on your stopwatch. Did the other technicians receive the same message? Yes! This means that it is time to pull out all the stops! Although apparently there were no other direct flights available to the entire crew, within one hour, we were able to book all nine of them onto different connecting flights.” Blom breathes a sigh of relief. “The first two of them just touched down in Taipei. We will set things up tomorrow, and the first of four performances will be held the following day.” Eric Blom, manager of production and technology, and Joost van Hilten, production coordinator, have a wealth of last-minute stories to tell. Eric (57): “It might sound clichéd or over the top, but we continually experience horror stories.” Joost: “We often go through the proverbial eye of the needle. For instance, during a tour in South Korea last year. We were told that the ship transporting the sea container with all our technical equipment in it was delayed and wouldn’t make it to South Korea on time.”

Joost van Hilten (left) and Eric Blom (right). Photo: Sacha Grootjans

Eric: “I sometimes refer to it as Apollo 13. When you receive such an alert, the clock starts ticking. Before finding a solution, you have to secure the crew, or in this case, the cargo. So, where on the ship is our container located, how fast is the boat traveling, is it possible to still unload the container elsewhere, and if so, how can it be transported by land, what paperwork is required at the border, would it be possible to borrow set pieces from other companies? You have to look at all options within the shortest time frame possible.” Joost: “In the end, the container was unloaded in Hong Kong and then transported by road and by ferry to Korea.” Eric: “To import it, we required another set of entirely new documents with an overview, including photos of all the contents of the container.” Joost laughs, saying, “But we made it. The container arrived at the last minute.”

It might sound clichéd or over the top, but we continually experience horror stories.

Eric Blom

Making it all work
As a production coordinator, Joost van Hilten is responsible for the technical realization of each new NDT production. “From sketches on napkins to the premiere and the first performances in other cities. I’m involved in lighting, sound, set pieces, props, and special effects. With budgets, contracting, timelines, with the required materials and people, with coordinating and linking various technical issues such as, will everything fit into the truck later on? During the time of my predecessor, this did not happen, but nowadays, we work out and sketch many things in-house. After all, we require a lot more know-how of what is needed by a traveling company than an external agency does. Our drawings are kind of semi-finished. External workshops make the final blueprints.” As the technical director, Eric Blom is in charge of all technical issues. “The only aspects I’m not responsible for are the dancers, the office, and the costume workshop,” he says resolutely. “I am in charge of the 25 technicians employed by Nederlands Dans Theater that help us perform around the world. This is an enormous challenge. We travel extensively and have so many ballets on our repertoire each season.”

The NDT truck in Copenhagen.

Even though neither of them ever stood in the spotlight themselves, both of them were bitten by the “theater bug” at an early age. Joost: “Just the thought of participating in school plays or musicals scared me to death. Because I had such an aversion to that, as a rare exception, I was allowed to help out behind the scenes. Right from the start, I loved it, but unfortunately, nobody told me at the time that I could also make a living from it.” Eric suspects that he became interested in theater because he saw the performances of local theater associations in the presbytery he lived in as a child (his father was a verger) from closeby. “These were usually big events with elaborate set pieces for which the associations relied on the local furniture stores.” Several years later, he “got into sound and vision” at a youth club in Gouda. “And later on, in the newly opened Glanszaal of the former yarn spinning factory, where I was primarily in charge of engineering for youth productions.”

Right from the start, I loved it, but unfortunately, nobody told me at the time that I could also make a living from it.

Joost van Hilten

Jack of all trades
However, taking the step to the professional world of theater wasn’t that straightforward. Although he did send an unsolicited application to the set workshop of the Muziektheater (as it was then still known) he decided to take the advice to be educated as a furniture-maker first. After Eric graduated as an engineer, he became an inspector at the Reeuwijk municipal Housing and Building Control Department. However, he couldn’t deny what was in his blood. “The Nederlands Jeugdtheater, which I knew from my time in Gouda, asked me to become their technician. Nobody around me could understand why I would accept their offer and give up a steady job with good pay for such a precarious livelihood. But I heard the theatre calling out to me.” In 1990, when he was a technician at Alexandra Radius’ farewell performance “De ballerina, een tijdsbeeld”, he was already introduced to dance. Soon after, his connection with Nederlands Dans Theater started. From 1990 until 1992, he was a lighting technician of NDT 2 and 3, and from 1995 until 1999, of NDT 1. After this, his career went on a remarkable hiatus. For almost ten years, he was employed at the municipality of Gouda, the last three years of which he was the director of City Marketing. “This was simply due to my personal circumstances. Within one and a half years, I had become the father of three children and couldn’t combine this with all the traveling I was doing at NDT. A month after the twins were born, I went to Brazil for a long tour. As you can imagine, my wife was not very happy about that.” After Joost had finished his education as a furniture maker, he got the opportunity to go on tour as a jack of all trades with the Japanese percussion group Wadaiko Ichiro. After this, he worked in theater in various ways and was also introduced to dance for the first time. “I often worked for the Baasbank en Baggerman agency who had many modern dance productions performed in The Netherlands.” However, at that time, his dream was to work for Dogtroep, a dream that became a reality in 1998. “I started working there as a volunteer, and eventually, they suddenly made me their head technician, even though I was much too young for that. I learned this the hard way.”

Sixty years of Nederlands Dans Theater. ‘An uncountable number of productions and choreographers.’

On a knife-edge
Joost has been working at Nederlands Dans Theater for four years already. “Being able to create things myself is what I love about this job. I like to reinvent the wheel. To connect with designers and creators and to make the impossible possible. All of this at the highest level. I can watch a lackluster theater performance without feeling embarrassed for those involved in it, but I have a hard time doing so at a dance performance. But I am touched deeply when I see dance on a knife-edge, such as that of NDT. I also perform much better under pressure, when I know that there is a lot at stake at every performance.” In 2008, Eric re-joined the NDT-fold, this time in a managerial position as the successor of Tom Bevoort, who had been connected to the company for many years. “By now, the kids had become a bit older, and this is also a desk job.” Joost: “You just went to Japan, Dublin, and Copenhagen just recently though…” Eric says jokingly, “Yes, but that was pure coincidence.” Eric always views music as the starting point of dance. “That often touched me. After the premiere of Ohad Naharin’s The Hole, I immediately bought the music. I also like the “cleanness” of dance, its abstraction. Dance really demands a lot from your own imagination and empathy. I’m fascinated by that, especially if that dance is also performed by dancers of the highest level, such as those here at NDT.”

Technicians in the Zuiderstrandtheater. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Rough edge
How different is working with dancers from working with actors? Joost, who after his time at Dogtroep, among others, also worked for Orkater and Toneelgroep Amsterdam, says, “Dancers are elite athletes. You realize that, unlike actors, they do not always have the time and space to see what is going on around them, how sound operates, how set pieces are made.” Eric: “True, but don’t forget that dancers are still very young when they start their careers. They often travel to the other side of the world when they are fifteen or sixteen and only come into their own over there. During the first few years, they are often still shy and withdrawn, and as technician, you often will only have a good rapport with them by the time they leave.” For Eric and Joost, the sixtieth anniversary of Nederlands Dans Theater symbolizes “an uncountable number of productions and many choreographers who we have seen coming and going.” Eric: “Paul Lightfoot and Sol León’s Step Lightly (1990) was one of the first works that I worked on as a lighting technician. Having been able to experience their development and growth throughout the years has been wonderful. They have found their own unique way of working, in which they make use of everything a theater has to offer. Eric says tauntingly, “This doesn’t mean that at times you don’t want to gag them.” Joost: “But that rough edge is also necessary. People who are always sweet and considerate just aren’t as likely to come up with such exciting creations.”

I also like the ‘cleanness’ of dance, its abstraction.

Eric Blom
'The Hole' by Ohad Naharin. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Plug and play mindset
Joost doesn’t need to think for even a second when asked which production the two of them are the most proud of. “The Hole. This production by Ohad Naharin was performed in a rehearsal area at Batsheva in which a metal grid was welded to the ceiling. That grid plays an indispensable role in the choreography, so Batsheva considered it absolutely inconceivable that this work would be performed anywhere else. The Israelis said that even if they could, it would be extremely expensive. Joost obtained the services of a civil engineer, and in conjunction with Internationaal Theater Amsterdam and Parkstad Limburg in Heerlen, where The Hole was also performed, they managed to find an affordable solution. “It really was wonderful that we could do this, also within that time frame. Of course, I have eventually seen the performance several times and have enjoyed it a lot, but for me, having been able to set up such a complex performance in such a short space of time was the real high point.”

Eric: “I am the proudest on the level of quality our technical team works at. I’m thinking about the kinks they always had to iron out to facilitate everything that a demanding company like NDT requires. This is evident from the compliments that choreographers and theaters give us. Especially abroad, people are amazed by how quickly and with fewer people than is usual internationally we can set things up that are of such high quality as well. Joost: “A common expression abroad is ‘Bring in the Dutch.’ This isn’t just about NDT, but about the entire Dutch entertainment industry. The underlying thought is, if we can’t make something work, just get a bunch of Dutchmen. They’ll be able to get it done without nonsense.” Eric: “In large theater countries like Germany, they are not really used to having productions travel. In the United States, they need an entire team of prop artists just to work on a single prop. Because we constantly travel around the globe, we Dutchmen do have a kind of ‘plug and play mindset.’ This is why Ohad Naharin said, ‘The technicians of NDT were the best choice for making it possible for The Hole to go on tour.’”

Being able to create things myself is what I love about this job.

Joost van Hilten

This interview appeared in the anniversary issue of Dans Magazine, which was specially devoted to the sixtieth anniversary of Nederlands Dans Theater.