This is our home

Interview with Sol León and Paul Lightfoot

text: annette embrechts

Halfway through the 1980s, both of them arrived at Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), both of them coming from different traditions of dance. Paul Lightfoot (Kingsley, England, 1966) was educated in classical ballet at a famous institution namely the Royal Ballet. In The Hague, he found the creativity and freedom he was craving for. From a young age, Sol León (Cordobá, Spain, 1969) performed Spanish folklore dances for tourists and compensated for what she lacked technically with her sense of expression and creativity.

Joining NDT, they both immediately felt that “this is our home.” 30 years later, they are part of the artistic top of the company in The Hague and look to the past and the future of its sixtieth anniversary. They agree on one thing: although NDT is a large company, it remains a small community. “A loyal core of around ten creative daredevils always stokes its beating heart with its boundless energy.” Looking back, they are astonished. Have they really been part of Nederlands Dans Theater for over thirty years, half of its sixty-year anniversary that will be celebrated with a jubilee program in October? Leon elaborates, “The lifetime of a dance artist goes by at a rapid pace at an energetic company such as this one.”

Feeling the unbridled energy of a loyal group of dancers who give us all of their authenticity and creativity is like a drug.

Sol León

“It is almost terrifying that we have spent more than half our lives in this special place. But it also means that our genes have become intertwined with that of NDT.”

Lightfoot: “It’s incredible when you compare the differences between how chaotic Nederlands Dans Theater was when it started as a small band of revolutionaries hovering around Carel Birnie, Benjamin Harkarvy, and Aart Verstegen, to the well-oiled machine that it is today. During the 1980s, when we joined NDT, we listened intently to the stories from the late 1950s, that time of pioneers. How dancers such as Jaap Flier, Rudi van Dantzig, Willy de la Bije, and Milly Gramberg committed themselves to Harkarvy’s plans without any subsidy, decent salary, or studio. There were no titles or positions; everyone was a soloist. In the world of dance, this was revolutionary. Before long, Hans van Manen, and Glen Tetley introduced avant-garde. There was a radical transformation happening in The Hague, with ups as well as downs. How do young dancers look back at the time we arrived here? They must feel as if that happened a century ago.” But they both still say that although NDT is a large company, it remains a small community.

León: “Feeling the unbridled energy of a loyal group of dancers who give us all of their authenticity and creativity is like a drug.” Lightfoot: “And those who are willing to change and will speak all language of dance. That is true talent. We were like that back then, and the heart of the dance group is like that today.”

Hans van Manen, in the seventies. Photo: Gert Weigelt

Day and night
Both of them followed different paths before they ended up at NDT. Lightfoot: “I was 18 years old and was very motivated to get to know NDT. I came from a major institution, the Royal Ballet, and received my education at its school. Coming from that institutional institution, I ended up in a creative home such as NDT. Thank goodness found I this place. NDT was still based at the Koningstraat, and the group had just received funding to begin building the Lucent Danstheater, back then still called AT&T Danstheater. Back at the Koningstraat, NDT was a chaotic home. There were no rehearsal schedules and rosters. If something needed to be done, they just did it. Nobody even considered not having to work an hour later. Hans Knill, who was responsible for artistic leadership for two years, alongside Jiří Kylián, and was now arranging casts with Roslyn Anderson, was walking around wearing a T-shirt that said: Don’t ask me, everybody has to be there. Nobody followed any rules. You just were there, day or night.”

Lightfoot learned from the generation of choreographers at NDT that would prove to be so crucial to the development of modern dance. Nobody could have foreseen that back then. However, everyone felt the wild drives of their budding artisanships. William Forsythe (1949) had just started form his Ballett Frankfurt. Following a fierce quarrel, Mats Ek (1945) had just left the Cullberg Ballet, his mother’s company. He would return there at a later point in time. After Jiří Kylián (1947) had broken through internationally, he was reinventing himself with the arduous combination of that of being an artistic leader, figurehead, as well as a successful choreographer. In his fury, Hans van Manen (1932) had left for Het National Ballet but later on returned to The Hague. Ohad Naharin (1952) broke through with his company in New York. Lightfoot: “As young dancers, we were barely aware that something major was taking place, but we absorbed all that creative energy voraciously. Bred with the genetics of NDT, a group of extremely dedicated and loyal people came into being.”

You just were there, day or night.

Paul Lightfoot
Behind the scenes with Jiří Kylián on the right, 1982. Photo: Sven Ulsa

Folklore and philosophy
Without knowing what it exactly entailed, León felt that she was a dancer from the age of three. “At school, I could choose between athletic and folkloristic dance. I chose the latter. At an early age, I would already devise moves and structure, not being aware that it was called choreography. I primarily performed for tourists, in the streets, not in theaters. And I wanted to study philosophy. Combining those two didn’t work out, though. I took part in the audition in the National Ballet of Spain because everyone told me that I had a talent for dancing, but I was clueless when it came to classical ballet techniques. They wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt for one year, but it was hard, and my parents were not supportive of my career in dance. In Italy, someone told me, ‘You should go to the Netherlands. Perhaps you lack a technical background, but your creativity is tremendous.’”

“The wife of NDT photographer Jorge Fatauros told me that NDT 2 was looking for a girl. This is how I ended up in The Hague. I didn’t know anything about NDT, but I felt that “this is my home.” I met Hans van Manen, Arlette van Boven, and Jiří Kylián. I never really understood the latter; he was an intellectual.” During the inauguration performance of the AT&T Danstheater in 1987, León was the only one who wasn’t allowed to participate the entire evening, as she didn’t speak any English. However, as she was standing there sadly, Van Manen spotted her and asked, who’s that girl? Due to this, León ended up in the front row during Van Manen’s Wet Desert (1987.) “In that performance, we were running from the rooftop pool straight onto the stage! That was hilarious.” In addition to the choreographers, there were also dancers who ensured that she felt at home and that she didn’t miss Spain too much. “All of us were different, but we were together.” Lightfoot: “In England, I saw examples of ballet that did not suit me. At NDT, I saw men such as Gerald Tibbs, Nacho Duato, and Glen Eddy. I wanted to become a dancer who was just like them.”

Sol León and Paul Lightfoot in 'Two Gold Variations' by Hans van Manen, 1999. Photo: Joris-Jan Bos

NDT genes
The paradox was: despite the chaotic organization, NDT became a well-known company, and as a result of that, demanding. With the perplexing Sinfonietta in 1978, it experienced a surprising international breakthrough, but in the late eighties the group really became known, under the inspiring leadership of Jiří Kylián. Lightfoot: “He did so much, and it was so hard. He carried a resignation letter in his jacket that he luckily never ended up using.” León: “He has a specific kind of melancholy. This made it twice as difficult to make tough choices. He was standing on the summit of the mountain and could see what nobody else could.” Lightfoot: “Together with Carel Birnie, he was here day and night with a plastic bag in his hand, Jiří managed to make the lack of rules into a motto. That was so special. The rule was: don’t step into a morass of rules.” León: “That was when we could really feel the NDT genes. Being the best dancer and copying your role models virtuously and technically is not important. It is about remaining creative and true to yourself. What do you feel as a dancer? What do you give? What are you doing with your material, with your ideas?”

Rehearsal photo with Jiří Kylián. Photo: unknown.

Lightfoot: “Throughout six decennia, NDT has always remained a small community, fed by the unbridled energy of a loyal core of around ten creative daredevils.” They take for granted that a price has to be paid for this, namely the growing distance to their families. “You exchange one bloodline for another. That’s not always easy, especially during family events.” However, at an anniversary such as this one, they do look back at a wealth of overwhelming choreographies and an army of amazing dancers. León: “People say, ‘Amazing!’”

However, this artistic duo, who for many years also were a couple and raised their daughter Saura (21) in this hectic world together, continually emphasize that for this, the most important things are the bottomless creativity, authenticity, and loyalty inside the studio. Lightfoot: “When we create works as a duo, we often give dancers contradictory instructions. It can drive them crazy. However, creative dancers know how to deal with that in a playful way. Take Medhi Walerski or Marne van Opstal for instance. They excel in that. This is why they can grow as creators, Marne together with his sister Imre. They understand that process. Those who can be creative with all guest-choreographers are the best dancers.”

Being the best dancer and copying your role models virtuously and technically is not important. It is about remaining creative and true to yourself.

Sol León

A treasure-hall of rarities
That creative friction will definitely flare up at one of the largest challenges of the anniversary programme: a joint choreography of house choreographers León and Lightfoot with associate choreographers Marco Goecke and Crystal Pite for NDT 1 as well as NDT 2. This work called Kunstkamer (premieres on October 3, 2019) was inspired by Cabinet of Curiosities (1734) by zoologist and collector Albertus Seba, which is why its subtitle is “a company of rarities”. NDT really is a “treasure-hall of rarities”. NDT dancers have to understand all those “rare” languages of dance spoken by in-house and associate choreographers, with classical ballet techniques as its foundation. This contrast will become particularly striking during the anniversary season, in which Medhi Walerski’s playful longing or Gabriela Carrizo’s surreal dance theater requires a totally different expression than the volcanic rhythm of Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar or the Fleming Damien Jalet’s crossover dance. Following an intense collaboration with international hotshot Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the latter will have his NDT debut this season. Frenchman Yoann Bourgeois is also a newcomer who navigates between physics and poetry, dance, and acrobatics. It will be up to the NDT dancers to show if they can make heads or tails from all of that.

Tableau de la troupe, Studio Koningstraat 1965. Photo: Fotobureau Stokvis


During its existence of 60 years sometimes things went wrong at NDT. Stage walls would fall down during performances, dances were left behind at airports, and the wrong music tapes were played. There were floods on stage causing water to get into the equipment, and hardcore flooring was placed on a base of gypsum boards. Very rarely, performances have even been paused. But the motto was and remains: The show must go on.

Lightfoot: “Quite often, Carel Birnie pretended not to listen to complex artistic ideas. At times like that, he’d sit right in front of you, spacing out. However, later on, he would say, ‘Do you believe that you are good enough artistically to carry this out?’, and he would take care of the prerequisites.”
León: “We often had to adjust choreographies at the last minute, for example, due to injuries. Sigue (1993) used to be a trio, but on the morning of the premiere, Glen Eddy had a back-cramp. We then turned it into a duet. At first, we shone a spotlight on the position where the third dancer was supposed to be, but when that turned out to be insufficient, we put a flower there. After all, ‘Sigue’ means ‘continue’.”
León: “We performed Signing Off (2003) after just one day of rehearsal. I had just stopped dancing. The day after we’d had the premiere, someone fell onto his neck and was taken away by ambulance. Paul had to become a substitute. After that, Elke Schepers had to drop out. I had to substitute. We went on stage without having rehearsed anything. But that tenderness was tremendous.”

Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Lightfoot: “During Jiří Kylián’s Soldatenmis (1980), a choreography for twelve men who never leave the stage and often collapse, Michael Sanders spotted a contact lens lying on the ground. He managed to hold it in his mouth. After the performance, he mumbled, ‘Did anyone lose a contact lens?’ Elatedly, James Vincent shouted, ‘It’s mine, it’s mine!”
León: “Once, we were dancing L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, with music by Maurice Ravel, for the first time in Japan. I was dancing the role of a frog. All of those characters, dressed in costumes came on stage, but the Japanese audience did not applaud. It was dead silent when Jiří said, ‘Why on earth did I bring a French opera to Japan?’ and we could barely contain our laughter.”
Lightfoot: “Once, during a performance of Soldatenmis in Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, a member of the audience was making a nuisance, constantly mooing like a cow. In the apex of the theater, Jiří found an old couch that was filled with straw. He put some of it into his trouser pockets. During the applause, that was mixed with mooing sounds, Jiří came on stage, as he always did, and threw the straw at that member of the audience. The entire audience burst out laughing.”
León: “Once in 1998, in Paris, we performed during a strike. There was no staff, no technician, no audience. Nevertheless, we performed in an empty theater. Arlette van Boven said, ‘The show must always go on.’”

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