Connecting everyone everywhere through dance

Text: Gusta Winnubst
Photography: Sacha Grootjans & Katja Effting

Interview Willemijn Maas

The new Amare theatre in The Hague is the home base of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). Here the virtuoso dancers of NDT 1 and NDT 2 present their premieres and performances before they go on tour at home and abroad. Behind the scenes, is the day-to-day work of NDT, consisting of the dance studios, the Costume department, the technical crew, paramedical staff, Talent Development & Education, Marketing, Communication & Development, HR and Finance. So, with 130 employees, NDT is also simply a company that needs to be managed well. Executive Director Willemijn Maas has been doing that with dedication for more than three years.

Willemijn Maas

As an independent company with high artistic ambitions, Corona complicated matters severely for NDT. “In the beginning, my biggest concern was the well-being of the dancers. How do we keep them in shape and how do we keep them motivated? Later, this concern was extended to the other personnel who were constantly sitting at home. Even today, it is a challenge to get our budget right and that would not have been possible without the help of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OC&W). In 2020, things were not too bad, and we weren’t in need of any corona support. Because of the lockdown in March of that year, the performances and tours stopped immediately, ceasing income but also reduced many costs we were making. Almost immediately, we started offering online content and later also paid live streams. 2021 was a tough year, though. The situation was different each time: theaters closed and then opened again but with very little audience. Each time we presented our programmes a different way. When the theaters reopened in 2022 after the lockdown, ticket sales were sometimes disappointing while we had to deal with cost increases and high inflation, a trend that still continues. We hope that this season the theaters will fill up again and the signs seem positive so far. The support we received from our audiences in the early days of corona has also been heartwarming. Many people did not want a refund for canceled performances. In fact, they started donating extra money, for example when they bought a ticket for the live streams. For that we are very grateful; it has helped us tremendously.”

Connecting everywhere

Besides struggles, corona also provided room for innovation and an opportunity for NDT to reach a new audience. NDT was one of the first companies to offer online registrations and live streams. “Initially, we did that for free. From September 2020, we started doing paid live streams. As a result, we made every production that we had initially planned. This was risky, but also incredibly fun, because everyone in the company was involved and we managed to break even with the extra costs for the live streams. It gave us a huge boost both in creativity and optimism to engage and further expand our audience. Choreographers adapted their choreographies specifically to it. The marketing department was very engaged with strengthening the connection with (new) audiences. For live streams, dancers would sometimes perform in front of an empty auditorium, and then about 20 of us like technical crew and other staff, would be clapping loudly. Those live streams were an instant success; we reached viewers in more than 90 countries. It was great to reach so many new audiences. It was also special for our dancers with a lot of family and friends abroad, who were able to attend a premiere this way for the first time. We received the award for ‘Best Live stream’ from the leading German magazine Tanz two years in a row.”

Even now that the theaters are open again, live streams continue to be offered in additional to real life programming. “Through live streams, we reach audiences that we would otherwise not reach. In the long run, when travel becomes much more expensive, transportation costs become too high for some countries, or out of consideration for sustainability we are forced to travel less, live streams offer an alternative. We see live streams as an art form that we can further develop into a new digital theater and business model. We are further developing this idea of a digital theater with other companies, such as ITA, Dutch National Opera & Ballet and the Holland Festival, as a joint digital platform to share our content (inter)nationally. OC&W has established a platform with several private and initial funds to exchange knowledge, but also to allocate funds, the so-called Digital Counter. This counter opened in September 2022. The ideas are in full development. For example, offering film screenings of a theater or dance performance in a cinema, as we have done with our film Mist by Damien Jalet. This creates a shared experience in and for countries to which we cannot or rarely travel. The corona period has allowed us to experience that we are resilient and agile as a company. I find that very valuable.”

My motivations are curiosity and community involvement and love for art, youth and education. At NDT that all comes together.

Connecting everyone

A year after Willemijn Maas, the new Artistic Director Emily Molnar took office. Together they renewed NDT’s mission and vision for the longer term. “From our vision Connecting everyone everywhere through dance, we want to make NDT more open. We want to be accessible and approachable, showing not only the perfect picture but include the back stories that tell what it takes to get to this point. Alongside the six annual programmes that we present in theaters, we develop ideas about how to reach as many (young) people as possible in all kinds of places outside the theater space

“By developing additional networks, you could say we have come out of our ivory tower. First and foremost, we want people of all ages to experience dance and the impact that this artform can make. However, we also want to make a social impact with our performances as well as with our extensive Talent Development & Education programme. This includes the impact on our audience, on professional young dancers from all over the world, our NDT dancers, amateur dancers and children’s education.  We actively try to reach young people in neighborhoods throughout The Hague, and in ASCs. We collaborate with the dance school of the Royal Conservatoire in Amare and during our NDT Summer Intensive we bring in talented young dancers from all over the world that are supported through funds, thereby ensuring it is financially feasible for everyone. Collaboration with other disciplines is also very rewarding. We do that in many ways within productions, by organizing workshops for the dancers and with our NDT Lab. Here, research and experimentation are the central focus. For example, we search for new dance languages in collaboration with other art disciplines and with scientists. Another special project is Switch. Once a year the dancers provide a full evening program in which they literally do everything themselves: the choreography, the performance, and the marketing. They are given a budget and have to manage the finances themselves. That is quite a challenge, but it also gives them new insights. The proceeds from that evening go to a charity chosen by the dancers.”

“We believe it is important for everyone to feel safe and seen at NDT. That’s why diversity and inclusion has been added as an important value. In our hiring policy for dancers, diversity is relatively easy to achieve, for other positions it is more difficult, also because, generally speaking, it’s been hard to find staff. We are really catching up and are recognizing our own blind spots. We created a set of Golden Rules together with a group of employees, to ensure were formulated from the bottom-up. With the appointment of Prince Credell, who until recently danced with NDT 1, we now also have a policy officer specifically assigned to diversity and inclusion, which is very valuable.”

Everyone needs to feel safe and seen at NDT, which is why diversity and inclusion has been added as an important value.

Professionalisering en partnerships

Willemijn has gained a wealth of experience with other companies. “I have almost always worked in the public sector, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, the AVRO and now NDT. I have also held many different supervisory roles in both the public and private sector. My motivations are curiosity and social commitment and a love for art, young people and education. At NDT all of that comes together. In some of my previous positions I entered sectors where I was not the specialist, but I saw that as an advantage and a challenge for myself. It means you really have to think very carefully about what your added value is. Curiosity and commitment, and genuine interest in a new world are a prerequisite. I like that. No matter how different companies are, in the end there are always similarities. When I started here, it was a well-oiled machine focused primarily on making successful performances, and the company is rightly proud of that. In the new philosophy we work from a common goal and involve the entire organization; no departments as islands but working from a shared vision and mission. This also requires better cooperation from the management team and all departments, including, for example, HR and finance. Each function is equally as important to the process.”

“We have many plans with our beautiful company, and we are looking for new funds and partnerships to align with in order to turn our plans into reality. There are already many funds that support our educational programs and digitization. We also find it important to work with partners who support our vision and mission and embrace innovation and research in our programming. Fortunately, those already exist, but we hope to add more. The involvement of private donors is wonderful and very valuable. However, there are still more opportunities to grasp. As NDT, we are very well known in the (inter)national dance world and to a specialized audience, but not yet so much to the general public. In terms of publicity, we can really do more. We have always been very focused on ticket sales and getting people to the theater, but there are more stories to tell with which we can increase our impact and awareness. There is a world to be won there. That means a shift in thinking within the organization that we’re putting a lot of time and energy into.”

Staying relevant

“Emily and I have been very committed to giving a new direction to the company by creating a new culture, developing a new vision, professionalizing and turning the whole organization into one team. That is starting to work now, and I really like that. A lot of change has been initiated with a lot of effect. Joint and individual responsibility is important. It gives everyone the sense that they have the ability to contribute to achieving our mission. The biggest challenge for NDT is how to remain relevant and, of course, financially healthy. This is difficult at a time with more uncertainties than ever before. I call it sailing in the fog. We have an excellent reputation, but we must constantly challenge ourselves to stay relevant. We owe that to the industry and to ourselves. I am very committed to that.”

Willemijn Maas‘s parents considered art and culture an important part of her upbringing. Born and raised in Middelburg, Willemijn played flute in the youth orchestra. “Middelburg has a thriving music scene but there weren’t many other forms of culture back then. When I went to study in Amsterdam when I was eighteen, I entered an oasis. I visited museums, went to the cinema and the theater. I soaked it all in. With a group of girlfriends, I saw all the performances by Nederlands Dans Theater and Dutch National Ballet. At the time we could attend these performances for only a few guilders as students. I have always followed NDT. In waves, because busy jobs and three children take up a lot of time.” Willemijn’s love for the arts continues to guide her, including in her role as Executive Director of NDT.

Willemijn Maas