Mister Harkarvy

60 years of NDT

text: francine van der wiel

Benjamin Harkarvy played a crucial part in the founding of Nederlands Dans Theater as well as in its first successes. Who was he, and why was he so important?

“I find those circumstances to be of such a nature, that I believe that a new step in the development of the history of dance in The Netherlands can be made.” Benjamin Harkarvy most certainly did not make an understatement when he spoke with a reporter of De Telegraaf newspaper in 1959. But he was right, the brand new Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) that he had founded with dancer Aart Verstegen and business magician Carel Birnier, would unleash a real revolution in the world of dance, with its fresh, experimental fusion of ballet and modern dance in the years that followed. And he, a heavy set, classically educated American, would prove himself to be of immeasurable value. Still, younger generations don’t know much about him than just his name. “Harkarvy, wasn’t he that fat guy at NDT?” However, ask those who have worked with him about him, and they will sing his praises excitedly. An amazing pedagogue, passionate, a man with an immense knowledge of his field and a clear-cut vision. Someone who wasn’t held back by the constraining traditions of dance would chart an artistic course during the first ten years of NDT in an artistic dual leadership with Hans van Manen and supported by Carel Birnie commercially, that would be copied throughout the world.

To his dismay, when he started ballet classes at thirteen, it was already obvious that a successful career on stage would not be on the cards for him.

Natural born pedagogue
This is nothing most didn’t know already. But what made Harkarvy such a special person, and who was he? He didn’t talk a lot about this background and family with his Dutch pupils and colleagues. We know that he was born on December 16, 1930, in New York, a child of a relatively well-off (his father was a dentist) Jewish family with Russian roots. He also likely had a familiar bodyweight issue, as it is said that his aunts were even heavier than he was. He was always either very chubby or slender for a brief period of time (due to a rigorous weight-loss diet.) Relatively slender, that is. To his dismay, when he started ballet classes at thirteen, it was already obvious that a successful career on stage would not be on the cards for him. During one season, he performed at the Brooklyn Lyrical Opera, after which a few brief associations followed. He was educated by teachers with diverse backgrounds. For instance, the American George Chaffee was educated in the Russian style, just as Edward Caton was, while Margaret Craske was a Cecchetti-specialist (from the Italian school.) Harkarvy studied at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, was taught by the British choreographer Antony Tudor and the notoriously demanding “Madame Anderson”, a.k.a. Yelizaveta Anderson-Ivantzova, a Russian immigrant. The latter also recognized when he was young, that he was a natural pedagogue, and she already let him teach at a young age. Her influence would also reach as far as dancers in The Netherlands through Harkarvy. They were expected to present themselves flawlessly in the classes. Leg-warmers were forbidden, and the women were expected to wear make-up. Even though some were on friendly terms with him outside the studio, during classes, everyone addressed him as “Mister Harkarvy” or “sir”.

Benjamin Harkarvy, 1959. Photo: Ed van der Elsken / Nederlands Fotomuseum

The wide selection of dance techniques from his education probably explains the content of his classes that incorporated various styles and in which he placed emphasis on pure placement and alignment, and which were danceable as well as spatial. He also used modern techniques in his classes. He demonstrated everything in dance himself (to which ex-NDT members always add, “with his massive body and enormous feet”) accompanying himself while singing and exclaiming poetic utterances such as, “This is the most beautiful step of the vocabulary,” or “Enjoy your attitude.” He also adapted his instructions to everyone’s own capabilities and physicality into suggestions such as, “Try it this way, perhaps if you moved your hip…” This was a real revelation to the dancers of the Nederlands Ballet of the notorious Sonia Gaskell. To the dancers, who had suffered through Gaskell’s unceasing emphasis on, for instance, high legs without giving any further explanation, and her merciless pushing and shoving of any imperfect ballet physiques (which, at that time, were much more common than they are today), Harkarvy was a breath of fresh air.

Fresh states of mind
In New York, Harkarvy had made a name for himself as an instructor, and he was loved by dancers educated in classical as well as in modern styles. Members of, for example, the New York City Ballet would visit his studio, which actually was to Balanchine’s chagrin. In 1958, he was the answer to the prayers of the dancers of the Nederlands Ballet. They were gasping for a ballet master, someone who would bring a highly needed order to Gaskell’s chaotic style of leadership. Although she was the artistic leader as well as ballet master of the brand-new company, she often stayed in Paris to “recharge”. When she did that, the dances were left in limbo and were left to their own devices. At the recommendation of the American Ballet Theatre, Gaskell invited Harkarvy to come to The Netherlands in 1958. He was surprised and overjoyed that there were as many as four subsidized companies (the Nederlands Ballet, the Scapino Ballet, the Ballet der Lage Landen, and the Ballet van de Nederlandse Opera,) all with dancers whose open and fresh states of mind reminded him of their counterparts in Amerika, where the tradition of dance was quite young as well. The reporter of De Telegraaf wrote that “Harkarvy considered this natural sincerity to be of the highest significance for dance as serious art,” to which he added, most snobbishly, “I am not in the least interested in art for the masses.”

He did ‘everything’. In addition to shaping its artistic direction, which included many meetings in shoddy dressing rooms, he formulated the repertoire, helped at rehearsals, and taught.

'Four Times Six' by Benjamin Harkarvy. Photo: Hans van den Busken

Subservient and solid
Harkarvy was adored by the Nederlands Ballet, but Gaskell perceived this to be a threat to her. Her arbitrary orders from Paris and, when she was there, her temperamental personality were to the detriment of the atmosphere within the company. When she fired Carel Birnie, the head of finance, the situation escalated. Another possible factor is that Gaskell also wanted to give opportunities to a younger generation of dancers, by which, in turn, a number of older soloists felt threatened.
However it may be (the statements of those on the side of Gaskell and those on the side of Harkavy diverge along with the rifts that came into being at that time,) we know what happened next. Verstegen, Birnie, Harkarvy, and a number of rebellious dancers quit the Nederlands Ballet and founded Nederlands Dans Theater. Harkavy became its first director, and Birnie was put in charge of business.
During that first period of time, they had to work immensely hard. The parents of very young dancers sometimes came to the studio in The Hague late at night to reclaim their brood from Harkarvy. He did “everything”. In addition to shaping its artistic direction, which included many meetings in shoddy dressing rooms, he formulated the repertoire, helped at rehearsals, and taught. He realised that his range of functions was too wide, and already in 1960, a young choreographer called Hans van Manen was asked to become the artistic director while Harkarvy would be the ballet master-choreographer-advisor and, later on, co-director (again.)

Until Harkarvy’s resignation in 1969, these two artistic skippers worked well together, as far as Van Manen can remember, without any major conflicts, taking turns, and supporting each other. Van Manen, who himself is also a great rehearsal instructor, appreciated Harkarvy’s knowledgeable analyses of dance, and Harkarvy was more than happy when Van Manen was successful. His own part of the repertoire was mainly subservient. He provided a more traditional, neoclassical counterweight to the experiments of the in-house choreographers of that time (in addition to Van Manen, among others, Verstegen, Jaap Flier, and René Vincent, created new works.) Grand Pas Espagnol, Le Diable a quatre, Sol y Sombra, Four Times Six. These were solid works, even though they were not very stimulating artistically. Through those ballets and his classes, Harkavy did ensure that the young company had a technically solid foundation that was based on classical education.

Once, good American writers would take refuge in Paris. It now appears that many good American choreographers have taken refuge in The Hague.

New York Times, 1965

Rave reviews
His American network was also of tremendous value to the group of rebels at NDT. Harkarvy invited modern choreographers, such as Anna Sokolov, Glen Tetley (who later on would become the director of NDT for a short period of time), and John Butler to The Hague. The company booked its first successes with their works as well as those of, primarily, Hans van Manen. Following a few years and a near-closure (Harkarvy had even signed a contract elsewhere,) the government granted them a substantial subsidy that meant that the company, with Harkarvy as its director, could continue to exist. The dance critics in the Netherlands, largely followers of Gaskell, slowly ended up changing their minds. With some exceptions, foreign press critics also lauded them, giving then rave reviews. When the company debuted in New York in 1965, Clive Barnes, an influential New York Times critic, wrote that in a short amount of time, NDT had emerged as one of the most creative and imagination-stirring companies in Europe. Barnes wrote, “Once, good American writers would take refuge in Paris. It now appears that many good American choreographers have taken refuge in The Hague.”
The rest is history. In 1969, Harkarvy left NDT, as according to him, the company had developed itself sufficiently to be able to stand on its own two feet. A year later, when Van Manen also left, he attested that Harkavy’s resignation was because of a power struggle between the commercial and artistic directions. Only after Jiří Kylián arrived on the scene in 1975, did tranquillity return. Back in the United States, Harkarvy had a series of brief tenures at companies and schools, and also held workshops and summer schools. As a freelance instructor and ballet master who was very much in demand internationally, he also taught regularly in the Netherlands. It wasn’t until 1992, when he became the director of the Juilliard School of Art in New York’s dance apartment that his talents had the chance to fully shine once again. That famous theater academy had fallen by the wayside in the 1980s and the pure-blooded pedagogue Harkarvy brought the school back to the top. On March 30, 2002, while Harkarvy was teaching in the dance studio, his biotope, he collapsed while teaching due to a cardiac arrest. He died in the hospital at the age of 71. Extensive obituaries were published in major American papers and dance magazines in his memory, and the Juilliard School held a memorial evening. It naturally featured a performance by NDT, which Kylián had led into a new heyday that was rooted in the foundation laid by Harkarvy.

NDT founders Aart Verstegen (left) and Carel Birnie and Benjamin Harkarvy (right), around 1960

This article was made possible with the support of Robert Battle, Han Ebbelaar, Martinette Janmaat, Hans van Manen, Alexandra Radius, Marian Sarstädt, and Reuven Voremberg.

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