Just enjoy moving

Interview with Martinette Janmaat and Toon Lobach

text: mirjam van der linden
phOTOs: Sacha grootjans

Martinette Janmaat and Toon Lobach, from the oldest and youngest generations of NDT dancers, meet as a part of the sixtieth anniversary of Nederlands Dans Theater.

It’s a hot afternoon towards the end of June. Although they are becoming overshadowed by the OCC, the Onderwijs en Cultuurcomplex, which is being built, at the Spui in The Hague, the rear part of the Lucent Danstheater that houses the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) is still standing. Martinette ‘Pietje’ Janmaat (80), one of the first NDT dancers, who was the artistic leader of the Moderne Theaterdans course in Amsterdam, feels that it is a substantial loss. “As the first theater in the world especially built for dance, Rem Koolhaas’ Lucent Danstheater was unique.”

Toon Lobach (21), the young dancer with whom she sits around the table together a moment later, just happened to have had a tour through the massive project. “Cool.” In 2017, he was offered a contract at NDT 2, the “stepping stone group” of the company. His age difference with Martinette is 60 years, just as like anniversary that NDT celebrates this year. NDT was founded by dancers, a group of rebels from the Nederlands Ballet of Sonia Gaskel, who became Het Nationale Ballet’s first artistic leader in 1961. Dance in the Netherlands was in its infancy. Much has changed when we compare 1959 to 2019. Much, but not everything.

You met each other for the first time today. Toon, what catches your eye in this black and white photograph from 1960 of Martinette in Anna Sokolow’s Rooms? And Martinette, what are your impressions seeing Toon dance in this video of a ballet by Johan Inger?
Toon: “Did you dance on a wooden floor?!”
Martinette: “Yes, there were splinters in my bum. During the first two years, NDT wasn’t yet subsidized, so we rehearsed wherever we could do so in The Hague. Starting out, we’d practice secretly in the evening because Gaskell still had us under contract. Under Sokolow, we’d work in a vacant church in the Bazarlaan. Using some old set pieces of the Haagsche Comedie and a stove, we’d manage to warm the place up a bit. Sokolow was very profound, very expressive. She would shout, “I want to see your neck, not your face!” Looking at you, Toon, I see a physique with many possibilities, that of a mature dancer, primed, down to earth, not too lightweight.”

Toon Lobach and Fay van Baar in 'Signing Off' (2003) by Sol León en Paul Lightfoot, 2018. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Toon: “Wow, nobody has ever praised me like that. This solo was also well-suited to me. Of course, the movements are emotional and give you much leeway to interpret them yourself. I like that very much. This is why I chose to become a dancer. When I saw a performance in 2013 together with my mother, I was into a member of a gymnastics club as well as of a musical school. It was Paul Lightfoot and Sol León’s School of Thought. Having freedom of movement because your body can do anything, I wanted to have that as well. However, I did not want to attend the Nationale Balletacademie. Ballet, bah. I don’t think it was really my thing either. When I was at grammar school, I attended the 5 o’clock Class in Amsterdam. There they teach you contemporary techniques and styles. I also studied at the Nationale Balletacademie (NBA) for a year to improve my technique, as I definitely needed that at NDT.”
Martinette: “I get what Toon is saying. Just enjoy moving; that was what motivated me as well. During WW2, my sister worked at a dentist’s office in Rotterdam, where the ballet pedagogue Netty van der Valk was a patient. She asked her, “Would it be alright if my dynamic little sister joined your classes?” which is how I got started when I was ten. It was a school for amateurs that was serious about technique. After that, I had an audition at Gaskell; back then, there weren’t any academies. After that, I was asked to join NDT. I’m not much of a rebel, but I do have a pioneering spirit.”

Just enjoy moving; that was what motivated me as well.

Martinette Janmaat
Martinette Janmaat (right, on the front) in 'Rooms' by Anna Sokolow (on the left), 1960. Foto: Hans van den Busken

Both of you, how was your debut at NDT?
Martinette: “We always had a classical pas de deux in our programs (our audiences knew our star dancers Marianne Hilarides and Jaap Flier because of those) as well as modern works. The opening program featured Hans van Manen’s Feestgericht, among others. Back then, Hans was still living in Paris. It was a great piece for young girls like me: loose-fitting ballet shoes and a sensual undertone. From time to time, I’ve watched it again on film, and I now find that we used to dance rather over-the-top. Dancers these days dance in a cooler way, more neutral.”

Toon: “But also as a man, I definitely recognize Hans’ sexy vibe. That’s what he is all about. I made my debut at NDT 2 with Sol León & Paul Lightfoot’s SH-BOOM! It was already March, and I hadn’t had much to do all season. I either do everything here of nothing at all. It was six o’clock in the evening when I found out that two dancers were injured and that I had to appear on stage. A solo dance and a pas de deux. But I had never even touched that girl. We could only practice ten minutes or so. I was given the opportunity to dance that piece many times after that.”
Martinette: “That means you did a good job.”

Why was NDT founded?
Martinette: “As a dancer, you had to arrive early in the morning and wait the entire day to see if you would receive a part at Gaskell’s company. There was no schedule. This really vexed people. Also, many dancers were fed up with only dancing repertoire pieces. We wanted to develop our own creativity. Create new, different pieces. In 1954, Martha Graham (the founder of modern dance. Editor.) performed in the Netherlands, and that had transformed us all. She also brought us that earthliness that I also find in Toon.”

Toon: “It’s funny that you mention it, but I never worked with any Graham techniques. At my school, I was taught classes based on Limon and Cunningham as well as a lot of urban dance, such as hip-hop. Urban dance is also very down to earth. That earthliness is perhaps a genetic trait found in a lot of the NDT repertoire.”
Martinette: “And don’t forget Glen Tetley’s influence. An American, just like Graham. Through him, I really discovered what it is to “inhabit your own skin”. Classical dance feels like a corset, and with modern dance, every movement starts within the core of your body, after which it flows outward into your limbs.”
Toon: “Our ballet class isn’t strictly classical as well. Extremely perfect positions are not our objective. You are allowed to have a degree of leeway to introduce a sense of motion into your positions. For example, to use your back more.”
Martinette: “Benjamin Harkarvy (ballet master and co-founder of NDT. Editor.) already introduced that panache into our ballet classes. The primary difference is that you all are more virtuoso from a technical perspective. Due to the many academies that are now available in the Netherlands as well as international competition, the dance techniques have really developed themselves during the span of sixty years. But I sometimes find it also lacking. Sure, your leg would get right up beside your ear effortlessly, but how did it end up there?”

Knowing what a well-oiled machine NDT is these days with tours worldwide and all the luxuries, hearing all of this is quite remarkable.

Toon Lobach

Working with Gaskell wasn’t easy, but neither was NDT at the beginning
Martinette: “Two years went by before we finally had a place of our own in the Boterwaag. We went on tour extensively to make money, especially within the Netherlands. Our first international performance was in Israel. We did all of that with only sixteen dancers and hardly any understudies. I still remember the first time a physiotherapist visited us very well. I’d never even heard about physiotherapy. He was poking my body, and I was thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’ I made 163 guilders and 12,5 cents a month before taxes. That’s probably around 600 euros today, so really a trifling amount. I used to wear tights that I’d knitted myself and homemade ballet outfits. We used to make a mishmash of mince, onions, garlic, and leeks. The latter only cost 25 cents a kilo. And we had a lot of yogurt. We cleaned the rehearsal areas ourselves. After performances, we went home riding our bicycles, as we didn’t want to saddle the company with taxi costs. My room was so cold that I slept wearing a bonnet.”
Toon: “Knowing what a well-oiled machine NDT is these days, hearing all of this is quite remarkable. And we dare to complain! Because our swimming pool is broken, the sauna has been taken away, and there are no open spaces inside the building to get some fresh air. NDT dancers are paid on the basis of the collective labor agreement. In my first season, I made 2,360 euros. As a 19-year old, I didn’t even know what to do with all that money. And we have in-house physiotherapy as well as Pilates and weight training.  Training your physique like that is good, but when should you do so? You’re always rehearsing. Especially NDT 2 is school-like, with not a lot of freedom.”

NDT as an innovative, close-knit family, this is the romantic impression we have about those early days. How accurate is that impression, and what of it remains to this day?
Toon: “I would like to say that we’re like family, but I hesitate to do so. These days, dancers go from job to job. Even within a desirable company such as NDT, turnover is high. Just when you grow close to someone, they leave already. As for me, I would love to switch to NDT 1, but Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva in Tel Aviv would be awesome as well.”
Martinette: “Calling it a family would be a bit much, but we definitely were close-knit. And because we’re dancers, we’d stick our noses into everything, and often waltzed into Carel Birnie’s office (commercial director and co-founder of NDT. Editor.) At the time Hans van Manen was about to join NDT, he wanted to have the dancer Gérard Lemaître, his Parisian friend, join us as well. We did have a meeting about that. However, we did not have a lot of input into the creative process. Improvisation was emerging, but in the end, it was the choreographer who told you which dance moves to make.”
Toon: “Although there still are old-school choreographers, I do believe that we now have more of an influence. There’s certainly some tension there. While NDT brought us modern, contemporary ballet, at some the time, it is a rather “classically” led company with rigorous rules and hierarchies.”
Martinette: “I wish and hope that the company, as it celebrates its anniversary, will have some open-mindedness. During our time there, there was just a coming and going of artists, such as composers like Louis Andriessen and Otto Ketting. The new building will also be home to other art institutes. Perhaps such casualness and inspiration, sparked by chance encounters, will flourish once again. And Toon, don’t walk away too soon. You also learn through experience.”

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