Six decades of NDT

NDT is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary this season 2019/2020. This is the ultimate moment for the company to reflect on its humble beginnings, rich past and impressive present and future. On this page we present a selection from our (digital) archive on Google Arts & Culture. Want to see more? Visit the online archive!

First decade: 'An enduring legacy'

In 1959 a group of dancers left the Nederlands Ballet let by Sonia Gaskell to establish Nederlands Dans Theater. The first tableau consisted of seventeen dancers: Jaap Flier, Willy de la Bije, Aart Verstegen, Rudi van Dantzig, Alexandra Radius, Milly Gramberg, Martinette Janmaat, Hans van der Togt, Rene Vincent, Hannie van Leeuwen, Marianne Westerdijk, Olga Dzialiner, Annemarie Verhoeven, Pepita Goedemans, Martin Scheepers, Marianne Hilarides en Charles Czarny.

The group was led by the nonconformist Carel Birnie as general director, and under the artistic direction of American choreographer and balletmaster Benjamin Harkarvy. Without subsidies, and a lot of financial social hardships, the group grew into an innovative dance company with its very own signature. This signature was rooted in the principles of classical ballet in conjunction with the ideology and language of modern dance, inspired by Martha Graham and passed down by Harkarvy.

In this fragment, we see this idiom reflected in Hans van Manen’s 1959 ballet De Maan in de Trapeze (The Moon in the Trapeze) performed by Jaap Flier en Marianne Hilarides. Its language is exemplary of NDT’s particular and unique approach to dance that shapes the company’s movement vocabulary to this day.

Watch fragment

Photo Ger van Leeuwen: Alexandra Radius in 'Maan in de trapeze' (1959)

Second decade: ‘not the kind of work to be explained’

In 1973, the 26-year-old choreographer Jiří Kylián was brought to the Netherlands on the invitation of Jaap Flier and Hans Knill. Together with his partner, the intriguing dancer Sabine Kupferberg, he would become a pillar of Nederlands Dans Theater and, as known to many, leave an indelible impression on the company. Together with Knill, he was appointed artistic director in 1975, a position he would hold on his own by 1978 and would keep until 1999. Kylián’s directorship is characterized by the precision and lyricism of his ballets, a repertoire revealing a wide variety of creativity by known and upcoming choreographers, the move to Lucent Danstheater – to name but a few.

The seventies, however, had their own peculiarities. From difficulties within the company to the creation of early masterpieces: Verklärte Nacht (1975); Symphony in D (1976); Symphony of Psalms (1978); and Sinfonietta (1978) – Kylián’s definitive breakthrough during the Spoleto Festival in Charleston of 1978 (U.S.A). Symphony of Psalms was introduced by Rudolf Nureyev in his BBC series ‘Invitation to dance’ (1980) as the ballet he liked most within the series. “It is not the kind of work to be explained.” In other words, you have to see it, claims Nureyev. With this excerpt, we share Nureyev’s advice and let you enjoy this ballet.

Watch fragment

Photo Jorge Fatauros: 'Psalmensymfonie'(1978)

Third decade: ‘23 rows with 1001 seats’

On September 9, 1987, Lucent Dans Theater opened its doors in The Hague. A building that grew into a home and safe haven for many generations of dancers, choreographers and staff members of Nederlands Dans Theater. Moreover, a building that cannot be imagined without the spirit and personal efforts of Carel Birnie – one of the company’s founding fathers, also nicknamed “the Tsar of dance.” Birnie believed that a company could only develop itself when it was provided with the right facilities: its own theatre.

After a period of occupying several abandoned buildings in city followed by the old primary school at Koningsstraat 118a – he finally fulfilled this dream. Together with Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) Birnie ensured the realization of the first dance theatre in the world.

Lucent Dans Theater comprised a large stage achieving a perfect balance between optimal acoustics and the best possible sightlines: 23 rows with 1001 seats; three large studios; a fitness area which would include a swimming pool and sauna; and offices to house the staff. Even though this theatre could be regarded as a great accomplishment, the crowning glory of Birnie’s stewardship, he would continue to built and expand the theatre – just like he was used to at the Koningsstraat – with or without building permits. On this photo we see Lucent Dans Theater and the company in 1992.

Fourth decade: ‘Beyond boundaries of time and age’

This decade is characterized by endeavours reaching beyond conventional boundaries of time and age: the establishment of “alternative” groups. In 1978 a second company, called “De Springplank,” (The Springboard) was created: a group focusing on young and talented dancers. Originally, this group was established to close the gap between Dutch dance academies and professional companies. Under the supervision of Arlette van Boven the group changed its name twice – from NDT-Junior (1981) into NDT 2 (1987). Moreover, it gradually grew into an independent company with its own repertoire, structure, vision and international stature. This process crystalized under the direction of Gerald Tibbs, who was the artistic leader of NDT 2 from 1990 until 2018, who was assisted by Nancy Euverink during the last two years. Furthermore, in 1991 a third company, NDT 3 was brought into being. This group consisted of older dancers who, due to their age, were no longer given the opportunity to perform on stage. According to Jiří Kylián, NDT 3 had to be regarded as a joint effort of “dancers, not indulging in what has passed, but exploring the richness of experiences accumulated over the years of their professional and private lives.” Worldwide, this effort received critical acclaim. In this excerpt we offer you Merryland by the Australian choreographer Meryl Tankard, which was regarded be the Dutch press as one of the best performances of this unique troupe. *

* Isabella Lanz, “NDT III altijd doorleefd vertolkt,” NRC Handelsblad, 20 mei 2006.

Watch fragment

Merryland (photo Joris-Jan Bos)

Fifth decade: 'pillars of NDT's golden anniversary'

In this decade we want to highlight a part of the artistic family – as they can be regarded the ancestors or pillars of NDT’s golden anniversary. During this period, under the artistic directorship of Anders Hellström, various defining choreographers performed their work. Jiří Kylián took the audience along a visual journey in Vanishing Twin (2008), while other choreographers returned to the company to create new pieces or perform some of their existing works. Hans van Manen created the timeless and innocent Simple Things (2002); William Forsythe brought his groundbreaking Enemy in the Figure (1989); Mats Ek presented his complicated FLUKE (2002); Ohad Naharin made a collage of some of his older works SPIT (2008); and associate choreographers Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke were firstly introduced.

Without a doubt, artists from within the company had made a significant contribution as well: as dancers and ballet masters, but also rehearsal directors and assistants to choreographers. The excerpt from Shoot the Moon (2006) attest to this genealogy like no other. Sol León and Paul Lightfoot had proven to be outstanding dancers, who were emerging as renowned choreographers. Shoot the Moon not only reveals the poetic qualities characterizing this choreographic duo, but also the phenomenal body language of dancers as Parvaneh Scharafali, Lesley Telford, Stefan Żeromski, Medhi Walerski en Fernando Hernando Magadan: dancers who embody the company’s heritage and continue to pass down its legacy.

Watch fragment

"Shoot the Moon' (photo: Joris-jan Bos)

Sixth decade: 'questioning the boundaries of the stage'

During its existence, Nederlands Dans Theater has given countless performances around the world, on famous but also lesser known stages. From provincial “theaters” as the local pub of Lutjebroek to internationally renowned stages as the New York City Center. From the early beginnings, the company has addressed questions with regards to the (physical and ideological) boundaries of those stages. Not only by visualizing those questions in ballets, as Hans van Manen’s Squares (1969), but also by exploring other ways of experiencing a stage performance by shifting and transforming the boundaries between audience and dance. This quest can be found in the various television recordings. In 1960, the company started with recording ballets for a television audience in a series of the VPRO, a Dutch public broadcaster, and still continues to bring its repertoire to the living rooms of many ballet lovers. Sixty years later, however, this is happening in collaboration with the French broadcaster MEZZO. Futhermore, the past ten years revealed several stage-transcending initiatives. This time this didn’t include local pub performances, but site-specific performances such as León & Lightfoot’s Spiritwalking (2014) in the historic Markhallen in Amsterdam or Ohad Naharin’s re-staging of The Hole (2013) in 2018 – revealing a certain break with the traditional gap between the auditorium and the stage.

Watch photos

'The Hole' (photo: Rahi Rezvani)