In conversation with Jean Emile

Recentering Narratives

History tends to overlook a wide variety of important figures and stories that never make the canon, nor are stored in our collective memory. With the Recentering Narratives Project, Prince Credell, Policy advisor for Diversity & Inclusion at Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) is making strides to shed light on these blind spots within the historical context of the company and aims to complement and recover the (NDT) archive with the many multi-racial and multifaceted talents and artists that have graced the (NDT) stage over the decades. This project does not seek to highlight NDT’s past of celebrating differences, but rather wishes to recognize artists of color who have helped carve out the artistic creativity and identity associated with the company and the dance community at large. Through the Recentering Narratives Project the inclusion and acknowledgment of the contributions of these artists will be named and exposed. Not in the least because many of these former NDT dancers continue to contribute vastly to the art form today!

Coverphoto: Andante (1991) by Hans van Manen. Photo: Hans Gerritsen.

Jean Emile in 'Raptus' (1988) by Nacho Duato. Photo: Hans Gerritsen

Jean Emile

This October, we honor dancer, teacher, artist, and ballet master Jean Emile. Jean’s career spans over five decades as he experienced various transitions as an artist. After attending the NYC High School of Performing Arts, he joined NDT 2 in 1985 under the direction of Arlette van Boven before joining NDT 1 under Jiří Kylián. Jean created many original roles with choreographers in the house, such as Ohad Naharin, William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Mats Ek, and Jiří Kylián. Subsequently, he danced with Nacho Duato’s Compañía Nacional de Danza in 1996. Soon after, his professional career led him back to America, where he worked as a coach and scout for Cirque du Soleil, and the cultural creation company Dragone. He has also served as a ballet master for Oakland Ballet and Ballets Jazz Montreal and created works for Ballet Hispanico and Ailey II. Jean Emile continues to work inside and outside the dance studio as a vessel for artistic mentoring, exchange, and social impact in his community.

What was your life like before joining NDT and living abroad? What inspired you to become a dancer?

“I relocated to New York City when I was five, but I was born in Haiti. I always had a sense for movement and theatrics, especially after we moved to America.

When I was very young, I would imitate characters I saw on television from the show I Love Lucy. After seeing her dance the jitterbug, I once imitated Lucy, overdid it, and broke my ankle! The idea that I had to heal brought me to dance because I welcomed the challenge.

During adolescence, I also became very close with my math teacher, who was an art aficionado, Nube Russo. She taught me all she knew about art and inspired me by exposing me to Broadway shows. As a result, I eventually wanted to be an actor, singer, and dancer. She was the guardian angel who financially supported me to begin dance training, which later prepared me to audition for the NYC High School of Performing Arts. After I entered high school, I met another teacher, Penny Frank, who became like my mother for the rest of my life.”

'Sarabande' (1990) - Jiří Kylián. Photo: Hans Gerritsen.

“During high school, Penny Frank, Denise Jefferson, and Walter Raines led me through training and formal education. In short, I trained at the Ailey School, Dr. Glory’s Theater after-school program, and the School of American Ballet (among others). I became immersed in an array of dance forms and arts during those years. It was an intense training period that included ballet, modern dance techniques, Dunham technique, Kabuki dance, acting, voice training and philosophy. At the end of the day, I was thrilled to focus on dance at several schools, and this is also why I believe the dynamics of theater dance, music, and performance art exist within my professional experiences after NDT. This dynamic was there from my early days and stayed afterward.”

Did you know you wanted to dance with NDT during your adolescence? How did you find yourself in the company so soon after high school? 

“Many of the teachers I mentioned encountered Jiří Kylián and Arlette van Boven during their travels abroad to teach or participate in choreographic workshops. Eventually, Jiří came to see me in men’s class at the Ailey school, told me what to work on, and invited me to pass through the Netherlands for an audition. It was really the highlight of my summer because I was also selected to represent the Ailey School at the International Dans Forum in Cologne; therefore, I could divert some days of my trip to visit the company in The Hague to show Jiří the solo I created for a competition earlier that year. Afterward, it all happened so fast that I moved directly to the Netherlands soon after the International Dans Forum finished.”

Jean as a dancer with NDT 2 in 1987-1989. Photo: Ben Vollebregt

“When I arrived back in the Netherlands, Arlette van Boven was the director of the junior company (NDT 2) and like a mother to all of us who entered the company. I remember feeling scared about race when I moved to Europe. Still, I didn’t have the worst time in the Netherlands because everything was so new and novel initially. In general, I didn’t experience physical violence. Still, sadly, I was often asked for identification on the streets of the Netherlands and other EU countries during international tours. I don’t know how it is for dancers of color nowadays, but systemic racism can run deep into many cultures. Nevertheless, the environment at the theater felt like a haven for me to disappear into my art and creativity without focusing on those negative personal experiences.”

How did your life change after you left NDT, and what were your artistic journeys like afterward? 

“Teaching and coaching became the focus after I left NDT. Of course, the company was always known for being a super creative house because of the high-level dancers and makers. The dancers were always encouraged to experiment with creating their own works, teaching, or producing shows. My love for teaching also stemmed from a desire to have children or, said differently, the desire to share with the next generation. When I left NDT, I moved to Rome briefly to organize my life.”

“On a personal note, my life also changed toward the end of my time at NDT because I was diagnosed with HIV. I decided not to share my medical status openly with colleagues, friends, and family, but many years later, I started to open up about it with people close to me.

Eventually, I found my way back to America for parts of the year to work in Las Vegas. At that stage, I was a coach and casting agent for Cirque du Soleil and Dragone which lasted for about 13 years. During this period, I learned much about relating to various performers simultaneously while directing and curating for multiple spaces.

I never really saw myself as a great choreographer, but that never stopped me from creating, and I have always had something to say – choreographing, directing, and writing have always been a safe space and mediums where I could speak, if that makes sense. It goes without saying that I feel fortunate to have had those experiences that pushed my creative limits.”

'A tear in Time' (1989) - Alida Chase. Photo: Hans Gerritsen

What are your thoughts on the dance world today, and what advice would you give to the younger generation, if any?

“Recently, I was teaching a musical theater class in Barcelona to young adults where I adapted my own version of Hamilton for the students. I worked with two non-binary dancers, which was challenging and exciting because the young dancers refused to lift and engage with other dancers due to their gender identity. On the one hand, I am happy that the dance world continues to morph and ask fundamental questions, as well as include the perspectives of dancers more explicitly today. On the other hand, I would add that dancers and actors perform, and through this experience, they have the opportunity to see or experience themselves in a different light. So, it’s only sometimes about making barriers around what we believe an individual can or cannot perform. I highlighted to the young students that self-identity is not centered around refusal, but on the contrary, it is centered around acceptance, collaboration and co-existence. We cannot move forward into the future with our walls up while searching for acceptance.”

'Steptext' (1986) - William Forsythe. Photo: Hans Gerritsen

“On a more general note, dancers often work with a mirror, but this has also changed dramatically with various dance trainings and creative processes. The mirror is both a benefit and a burden because it can create a warped idea in dancers that the work is never finished, despite being a useful tool. My advice to dancers is to experiment with learning to accept themselves, embrace and love what they see staring back. I wish I had done more of that in the past, though I have mostly cherished memories of studio time and performing.”

Photo: Nina Wurtzel

Interview by Prince Credell

Prince Credell

Policy Advisor Diversity and Inclusion / Talent development & Education

This interview was conducted by Prince Credell, former NDT 1 dancer and currently Policy Advisor Diversity & Inclusion at NDT.