Dynamics at NDT

Text: Gusta Winnubst
Photography: Sacha Grootjans

Before the curtain rises for a premiere, Joost van Hilten’s Production & Technical Planning department has already been involved with the performance for about two years. He is responsible for the development of (new) productions from the first drafts all the way to the premiere. Once the performance starts running, Eric Blom takes over with his team of the Technical department.  

Joost van Hilten

Joost van Hilten

Through his former neighbor, a former opera singer, Joost van Hilten came into contact with the set department of Dutch National Opera. There, a world opened up for him. On their advice, he trained as a craftsman carpenter, but did not immediately end up in the theater. It was only later that he was introduced to theater technology. A tour with the Japanese percussionists Wadaiko Ichiro was his first real tour. “I enjoyed it immediately. Working very hard together with a large group of musicians, director, technicians, dressers, production etc., eating together, the excitement of a soldout theatre and then loading the truck late into the night. The next day, at another theater, everything started all over again. These dynamics and arcs of tension suit me well.” He alternately worked as a freelance and contracted technician, lighting technician, set designer, technical producer for Tejater Teneeter, ogtroep, Vis a Vis, Jetse Batelaan, Orkater, d’ Electrique and for a long time as Stage Manager for Toneelgroep Amsterdam. His ambition and need to move even more into the producing side of the business brought him to NDT.  

Realizing a choreographer's dream

Turning a choreographer’s artistic dream into a practical, financially and logistically feasible reality. That, in a nutshell, is Joost van Hilten’s job at NDT as Manager of Production & Technical Planning. “About two seasons in advance, we discuss the choreographers who might be asked for a programme, together with Artistic director Emily Molnar. We define the frameworks, then I work out the broad outlines of the production and stick a budget on it. Afterwards, it disappears back into the proverbial fridge as far as our department is concerned. About 9 months before the premiere, the team receives a technical rider from me, including all deadlines, technical frameworks and conditions; how much light they can use, how much scenery will fit on stage and so on. This is important, because often, a new work is part of a triple bill in the same programme.” Once the initial sketches and ideas are in place, the real work begins together with the choreographer’s artistic team, including their lighting designer and set designer. We ask questions such as: “How many dancers are in it, what is the stage setting, lighting design, video and the music: does something have to be composed, is it live or existing music? We have a sound studio at NDT where we can edit music with our own people. What does the costume designer have in mind? Does this affect the set or props and vice versa? We check every concept design for a new program for feasibility with our various departments. Collaboration is very important. We create the performance together. Company Management, for example, sets the budget, but also arranges logistics and planning for the choreographer’s artistic team. We don’t do everything in-house; for set construction we work with external studios. Once you consider that we simultaneously work on the productions that will premiere in a few months or weeks, you realize…. there’s never a dull moment!”  

Lidewij Eggels

Constantly adjusting

With multiple works in one programme, Joost and his team balance the technique and construction of the evening. ”The work La Ruta by Gabriela Carrizo, for example, needs so much construction time, that it is always programmed as the opening work of the evening. It’s a matter of trial and error to see whether the lighting for the three works can be hung in the theater at the same time. Last, but certainly not least, we need to see if all the materials fit in the truck for a tour! We are constantly figuring things out, in many different areas. This also means we do a lot of expectation management. Some choreographers think: ‘the sky is the limit at NDT’. In a subtle way, we have to guard the technical and budgetary limits but not stand in the way of creativity. We think along in the spirit of the design as much as possible, and it’s a real thrill if you can achieve the maximum within the budget, although with the sharply rising prices of materials and transportation, this is becoming increasingly difficult. It is important that we speak the same language and understand a lot about the design profession. You also have to be creative, which is a quality that not all engineers possess. In that respect, I am extremely happy with our great team of professionals.”  

Gerben de Snoo

Making the impossible happen

Joost excitedly talks about working with, various choreographers. “Sometimes, we get a sketch on a napkin, other times an extensive PDF with 3D drawings, or everything in between. This alone makes my work so interesting. Marco Goecke, for example, gives us a lot of freedom and enjoys working with us. He once indicated that he wants to do something with a starry sky and the image of a raging winter sea. We researched those possibilities and made Marco a proposal.” NDT’s associate choreographer Crystal Pite recently won the Zwaan for most impressive performance, for her most recent NDT work, Figures in Extinction [1.0], at the Dutch Dance Days in Maastricht in September. This work is a great example of what the translation of a creative idea can entail: “Crystal and I barely have to speak a single word. She has a clear vision and high ambition for every production. She challenges everyone in the process which I find very inspiring. Technically speaking, her works tend to look relatively simple. Her sets are rarely very big but often entail a lot of technical ingenuity. In this particular work, the stage setting is an aperture with black cloths that run from large to small. Crystal wanted very special elements, like a life-size skeleton of a cheetah animated by multiple dancers. How does one build that? We worked closely with a puppet maker in Utrecht and found a scale model of a cheetah skeleton online. We first 3D printed that in miniature, and further developed it to the larger size. Crystal then got in touch with Toby Sedgwick (Director of Movement of the theater production company War Horse) to perfect the skeleton’s movements: to get a little more flexibility in his spine, to make the legs move a little more, and where to put a handle on it so the dancer can hold it better. We looked for ways to make it really come alive. To find answers to those questions is quite a journey, and that’s just one element in the performance! Crystal also wanted video elements. So, we looked for a special LED screen and Ennya Larmit, creative content creator at NDT, created great video content for it. It was a huge job to get all these components together, and an even bigger challenge to keep that within our financial limits. That’s creativity, too. I always say: outline your dream, then we’ll see how we can make it happen. We are masters at finding smart solutions.”  

Dennis van Geest

“Besides Production, we are also in charge of Technical Planning: with two companies going on tour and fringe programming by the Talent Development & Education department, our technical planning must operate as tightly as Swiss clockwork. We distribute our available materials such as lighting, flooring, video equipment, etc. amongst all programmes. This is a huge logistical puzzle with hundreds of transport movements by land and sea. This doesn’t even include the scheduling for our technicians. That is why a close collaboration with Eric Blom’s department of the Technical department is essential.”   

What does Joost like best about his job? “Every time a choreographer comes to us with a crazy question, like for example about that cheetah skeleton, or about certain materials or special effects, you have to delve into all kinds of material in a very short time. Using your years of technical experience tends to help. I am now exploring a request from a choreographer who wants an extra smooth floor. So, we experiment with all kinds of means to find the right smoothness. We start from scratch with every production, we do a lot of research, and we work together with the whole NDT network and with external parties.  

You notice that throughout the entire company, in all departments, there exists a healthy tension towards a premiere. As the Production department, we tend to be ready a few days prior to a premiere. If we are still stressed on the day of the premiere, something is really wrong. From that point on, Eric Blom’s Technical department takes over the program, to take care of the performances in both Amare and on tour in the Netherlands and abroad, and we get to focus again on all those other (new) productions in the making.”    

Tech Fact: NDT brings hundreds of lamps to light the dancers and sets – 1kW, 2kW, 5kW, 110V 220V, LED or Halogen, lighting computers, dimmers etc.     

From sketch to 3D 

Joost also supervises the production of decors with external set builders, including Einstein Design in The Hague. “New sets are outsourced. We meticulously work out the designs with the technicians involved, to incorporate all kinds of tricks. We travel with new sets to test if it fits well in our truck and if it can easily and quickly be assembled and disassembled. Of course, we do everything we can to ensure that the sketch design is the same as the actual set on stage.”  

I am extremely happy with our great team of professionals.

Eric Blom

Eric Blom has worked through various technical positions at NDT 1, NDT 2 and the former NDT 3, including as a lighting technician, all the way to his current role. With the exception of one brief hiatus, he’s been working for the company for over 30 years. He has worked with great names in dance, such as Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen, William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, Sol León & Paul Lightfoot, Marco Goecke, Crystal Pite and Alexander Ekman. A champion of knowledge and experience, a walking encyclopedia where productions and technique are concerned. He is full of anecdotes about tours and “Apollo 13” situations where “disasters” had to be avoided. Few people know as many theaters at home and abroad from the inside out as he does. Blom attended several state visits by the Dutch Royal family, that on occasion present NDT as their gift to the country in question on such visits. His preferences? “The unparalleled grandeur of Opera Garnier in Paris, the fine theaters of New York, Brazil, St Petersburg and the Open Air Theater in Athens but my favorite is really Theater Reggio Emilia in Italy. It is very primitive in terms of technical possibilities, but a like a box of chocolates with a beautiful atmosphere.”  

Eric Blom

No theater in the world is the same. The scenery or lighting plan always must be adjusted by us. Sometimes the floor is flat, other times sloping, rising as much as 4%, especially in the older opera houses.

Barry van Oosten, Dennis van Geest, Lidewij Eggels. Foto: Petra van der Doorn

Dancing along

Each season, NDT 1 and NDT 2 produce six major programmes at Amare, followed by a tour through the Netherlands and abroad.  Usually, each programme contains three works by one or more choreographers. Aside from this, special programmes are also performed both at home and abroad.  Eric Blom, Manager of the Technical department says: “For our team, this comes down to thirty to forty different programmes a year. If you consider that each work is a performance in and of itself, with its own lighting plan, set, music and sometimes even a distinctly coloured floor, there is so much involved. With NDT 1, we travel with ten technicians and with NDT 2 with four technicians.”   

“Theaters are empty boxes. They can show a cabaret performance one day and a dance performance the next. Wherever we go, we bring our own materials for our performances. We use very little of the actual theater itself, usually just the pull wall, the vertical moving pipes on stage to hang things in. All other materials are taken from our storage in Nieuw-Vennep and transported in our own trucks or overseas in containers. An important part is sound and video. Sound recordings, specially edited or composed for us by Max Richter or Philip Glass, for example. Did you know that we even have our own sound studio at NDT? Twice a year there is a production with The Dutch Ballet Orchestra and sometimes we have live music on stage.” 

Lidewij Eggels. Foto: Petra van der Doorn

Technology can stop working anytime, something can fail. If anything goes wrong, a light goes out, for example, or somebody did something wrong, you can feel so bad to the point it can make you sick.

Every production is a complicated puzzle and always exciting. “Technology can stop working anytime, something can fail. If anything goes wrong, a light goes out, for example, or somebody did something wrong, you can feel so bad to the point it can make you sick. In practice, you can check everything a hundred times, but you’ll never be able to fully prevent something from happening. At 8 p.m. the curtain must go up. Did a lamp break? Fix it! The show must go on, that’s the challenge of the job. You have to be very stress-resistant, flexible and solution-oriented to do this job. A lot of it is technology based, but it is still people work. The cuemaster is an important player within our department. He knows the work by heart and gives instructions so that the light follows the dancer’s movements exactly or that the music fades out a little longer. The swishing movements of the light are all programmed; when it comes to timing, the cuemaster is the director.”  

NDT has a database of floor plans of many theaters around the world, in order to know what is technically possible on site. At ITA in Amsterdam, for example, a permit is required to unload our truck. It is quite difficult to get to the theater in the heart of the Amsterdam and unload everything on the second floor via a truck elevator. Eric Blom experienced many exciting transports to foreign countries that threatened to go seriously wrong but were saved last minute. “I call them Apollo 13 moments. It’s part of it, it’s exciting. Especially those kinds of huge challenges are great. I received a video from a colleague last summer, after a performance in Stuttgart where the audience gave six minutes of applause. Do you know how long that is? That is exceptional. The bar is set very high at NDT. We are an exceptional company. Soon we will be back on stage in New York in front of an excited audience. Even though we are behind the scenes: that is also a great compliment to us.”    



Joël Wolf
Tjitte Meijer
Dave Staring

Production | Engineering