Partnering: the sensation of togetherness

Roger Van der Poel's class

text: jolanda keurentjes
phOTOs: Sacha grootjans

During NDT Summer Intensive, the first taste of choreography isn’t an easy one to swallow. The women hook one of their arms around the necks of their partners and are required to lightly and smoothly glide before them. Roger Van der Poel, instructor: “Guys, not grabbing the girl is the challenge.”

“The closer she remains to your body, the easier it will be, and the better it will look!” Van der Poel emphasizes. He attentively spends time with each of the ten couples and, to show them what he means, takes the place of one of the two dancers.

It is hot in the middle of summer but is cool in the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) studios at the Spui in Den Haag. This is the ninth time that the NDT Summer Intensive, a two-week-long course that offers talented, young dancers the opportunity to train under the guidance of NDT’s own dancers and the artistic team, is held here. The NDT Summer Intensive is one of the few summer courses in the world that are attached to a top-level dance company.
This is a positive experience for both groups. The students get to know the company’s repertoire and working method. The course also offers the company’s dancers the possibility to gain experience as, and to profile themselves, as rehearsal directors, instructors, and choreographers. The repertoire of in-house choreographer Paul Lightfoot and Sol León plays a significant role in the selection of the works. The course is concluded with a presentation performance in front of an audience. This evening consists of open repertoire classes for all groups that are followed by on-stage presentations of new creations. This allows the audience to gain an impression of the work process of the two course weeks.

Roger Van der Poel togeter with Ema Yuasa during the NDT Summer Intensive 2019.

Ever since the Summer Intensive has been established, Roger Van der Poel has been participating in it. He teaches ballet courses and helps dancers study repertoire. Van der Poel studied at the Escola de Dança do Conservatório Nacional in Lisbon and, before starting to work at NDT 2 in 2006, danced at, among others, Ballet Gulbenkian in Portugal and Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland. At this time, he received the Aanmoedigingsprijs Dansersfonds ’79 and de Zwaan for the most impressive achievement in dance for this part in Hans van Manen’s Simple Things. Throughout the years, he developed his gift for teaching, and particularly devoted himself to “partnering”. This takes up a lot of his time during the company’s summer and winter breaks, and is especially much in demand abroad.

I can see the quests that their bodies are on.

Roger Van der Poel

Before long, the temperature inside the studio rises considerably. During two and a half hours, the twenty dancers spend time working intensively and full of energy on a duet from Postscript, a choreographic work made in 2005 for NDT 2 by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. Since the start of their collaboration in 1989, these partners have created over fifty choreographic works, many of which are performed worldwide. These choreographic works can be seen in theaters during the coming season in the NDT 2 programme Standalone. The work consists of three parts; a dance for three and two duets.

Van der Poel tells us. “In 2007, I was dancing in one of the duets. Ema Yuasa, my partner during the lesson, danced in the other. I am interpreting the duet we are currently studying as a developmental maturation phase of a girl who is encountering someone else. It is a beautiful, poetic work. I feel that it contains typical “Sol-Paul characteristics”. It contains many motions, and it is extremely virtuoso.” Laughing, he says, “It really is hardcore on a technical level. Sometimes, the students get overloaded by information.” Thankfully, the two-week time period of the course is long enough to master the choreography and to bring some extra sheen to the performance. Van der Poel likes to bring some “magic” to it. He emanates this optimism during the lesson. He offers a lot of positive feedback, divides his attention between everyone, and is always willing to explain the movements in a different way or to demonstrate them himself. Doing so, he sometimes illustrates the movements with motions, and sometimes with sounds and the sound of his breathing: “haaaa” or “shk shk.” He demonstrates to the students how, by using gravity and momentum, they can make things easier for themselves, as well as how the partners need to play off each other. From time to time, he verifies something in the video recording of Postscript, after which he offers even better instructions. “I teach them the choreography slowly, bit by bit. I tell them to wait until they understand the mechanism and only fully give it their all once they have mastered that.”

'Postscript' by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, 2020. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

The students are eager to learn and work hard. They immediately get to work using the instructions that the teacher has given them. It is clear that some of them need to get used to each other. Others already appear to be attuned to each other in a very organic way, even already displaying glimpses of the magic of the choreography during this second lesson. The candidates were selected by an artistic team based on their video auditions. Lessons are given in three age groups. This is group B, 19 to 21 years old. The couples have been put together based on their heights, so it is a given fact that the partners must get to know each other. “Teaching couples is demanding,” says Van der Poel. “As a teacher, I must pay attention to two people who perform different movements at the same time. When instructing individuals, you can immediately see what needs to be corrected. When teaching couples, the chemistry between the partners also plays a part.” During a regular lesson, the focus is often on dance moves. He indicates that in the case of partnering, it is mainly about the sensation of “togetherness”. “I am teaching you how to follow your partner, how to sense your partner. Being aware of the moment is important. You have to be alert and present.”

I feel that everyone ought to have equal opportunities.

Roger Van der Poel
NDT Summer Intensive 2019

Van der Poel is very humble about his teaching qualities. “I’ve been told that I have a knack for explaining things.” He would like to have the students understand him well, and hopes they will be able to put the content of the lesson into practice. “This is why I give them various options. Try this, do it like that. I consider that encouraging people is important. This has been a core value during my thirteen years of experiences at NDT, where everyone is always very helpful.” He is interested in the dancers, but also in people, and he likes to foster a sense of comradeship in his classes. “I feel that everyone ought to have equal opportunities, which is why I look for optimal ways to reach everyone, from those who think that they can already do all of it, to those who are still insecure. I can see the quests that their bodies are on. Seeing new, motivated people is a marvelous experience every single time.” What is the most beautiful comment he’s ever heard? “I never thought that I loved ballet. You made me discover something new in it!” The class finishes with a small but profound ritual in which the partners embrace each other. Roger Van der Poel profoundly and gladly demonstrates how tight this should feel.

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