Dutch Courage: Choreographer Paul Lightfoot on bringing the fearless Nederlands Dans Theater to NZ

As the acclaimed contemporary dance company prepares for arrival in Auckland, artistic director Paul Lightfoot tells Catherine McGregor what audiences should expect. Plus, tips for the contemporary dance first-timer.

The news that Nederlands Dans Theater is on its way to Auckland has the New Zealand dance community members jeté-ing for joy. They have a message for local audiences: if you see one international dance performance this year, make it NDT.

The creative force behind the 57-year-old company is artistic director Paul Lightfoot and his choreographic partner Sol León. He’s British, she’s Spanish; together they create works that are at once swooningly expressive and technically precise. They’ve worked together for more than 25 years and produced close to 50 original pieces (intriguingly, almost every one of them begins with “S”).

Lightfoot León's 'Stop-Motion'. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Lightfoot León’s ‘Stop-Motion’. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Lightfoot says that he knew he was home the moment he stepped through NDT’s doors back in the mid ’80s. “Once I was inside I never wanted to go out. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s a unique place. It’s got this vibe which is fully focused on the thing I love most, creative expression.”

Lightfoot attributes the company’s “great energy” to many influences, including the guiding hand of legendary artistic director Jiří Kylián, who in the 1980s singlehandedly transformed a good national dance company into a truly great international creative powerhouse. But it also has a lot to do with NDT’s home town, The Hague. The city is both the capital of the Netherlands and, uniquely, the site of some 150 international organisations, and Lightfoot says the company shares that duality.

“[Choreographer] Marco Goecke often says NDT is like a mini United Nations because so many nationalities and cultures come together here, it’s a microcosmos of the world. And equally, the way we work together is open, tolerant and straightforward – somehow a very Dutch approach. There’s no bullshit here.”

“I’m quite convinced that a company like NDT couldn’t exist in many other countries,” he says. “There is relatively little asked of us, artistically. We’re giving real free rein to go in whichever direction we feel is important for us, and that can be such a big spectrum.”

'Safe as Houses'. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

‘Safe as Houses’. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

For its Auckland programme, NDT will be presenting two Lightfoot León works. The first, Safe as Houses (2001), is a study in contrasts inspired by the I Ching, with music by Bach. The other, Stop-Motion (2104), is inspired by, and dedicated to, their daughter Saura. Throughout the piece, high above the dancers, a giant projection of Saura’s face runs in extreme slow motion.

“She was 15 years at the time – that moment of transformation between an older child and a young woman. In a way she acts as a kind of prophet, looking down upon us mere mortals and watching with this sort of all-knowing gaze.”

Created 13 years apart, the two Lightfoot León pieces will bookend the evening at The Civic. Lightfoot says they’re two of the duo’s most important works, and share a common concept. “Both deal with the destruction of habitat, and how the human spirit is the most important thing we have. And wherever we are and whatever we do, that reigns supreme. It’s a very beautiful theme to explore and to bring to New Zealand, with one opening and the other closing the performance.”

In between, we’ll see new works from two of the most exciting creatives working in dance today, NDT associate choreographers Marco Goecke, originally from Germany, and Crystal Pite, who’s Canadian. And when we say “new works”, we meant it: both Goecke’s Woke Up Blind and Pite’s The Statement had their world premieres four months ago in The Hague; the Auckland performances will be their first outside of the Netherlands.

“Immediately after the premiere, I got on the phone with Auckland and changed the programme. We’d had a different idea originally, but when I saw these two works I just knew that I wanted to bring them across the world with us.”

Marco Goecke's 'Woke Up Blind'. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Marco Goecke’s ‘Woke Up Blind’. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Set to the music of Jeff Buckley, Woke Up Blind is a “a rollercoaster of a work,” Lightfoot says. “The power of the physical movement is so incredibly fast and intricate that it’s almost hypnotic.”

“No one makes a work like Marco Goecke, and love it or loathe it you can’t get away from the fact that here is a great artist in front of you.”

Following Goecke’s melancholic, emotionally charged piece is Pite’s witty and intensely physical The Statement, in which four dancers face off in a high-stakes game of Risk. “Crystal is a genius,” Lightfoot says matter of factly. “Right now in the world I think she’s unrivalled in her creativity.”

After all these years, Lightfoot’s love of pure movement – and for the company he leads – remains undimmed. And soon he’ll be sharing that love with New Zealand. “To bring these three choreographic worlds to your country is the best thing we could have done,” he says. “I’m so excited to see these four works put together. They’re going to be a very powerful quartet.”

Tips for the contemporary dance novice

A helpful guide for first-timers heading along to Nederlands Dans Theater

How will I know what’s going on if there’s no dialogue?

Generally referred to as a concept, whether chronological or loose, the contemporary dance ‘story’ is less something you need to ‘get’, rather something you are invited to experience.

Don’t worry whether or not you are getting it. Much like looking at a piece of art in a gallery, everyone will see something different. Whatever you take away is right.

(Helpful hint – buy the programme. The concept and choreographer’s inspiration are often described in detail in the programme, and this can help prepare you for what is to come. On the other hand, many prefer to not read anything and go in cold. The choice is yours.)

Why are they running and squirming all over the stage?

For the contemporary dance novice, the first performance can seem a little strange. You may think the dance is unstructured or random. It’s not – the dancers are trained, experienced, highly-rehearsed and extremely hardworking artists, the choreography intricately and instinctively created by masterful dance maestros and, in the case of NDT, some of the very best in the world.

So, when should I clap?

Contemporary dance productions tend to be made up of three or four individual ‘pieces’, also called works – quite frequently each choreographed by different people.

While at a traditional ballet performance, an audience tends to do a mini-clap after an amazing solo or duet and then goes mad at the end, with contemporary dance, applause tends to be in between each of the works – at the end of each piece – and also at the very end.

Having said that, there is no need to be mute. Please feel free to react, giggle or gasp, if so inclined. It is an experience, after all.

But remember – save your big clapping, stomping, throwing of roses and shouting of “encore!” until the final curtain call (that’s when all the dancers come on stage and bow).

What am I supposed to wear?

The costumes for contemporary dance tend to be minimal – for example, nude, black or white. Often a ‘barely there’ approach is taken so audiences can marvel at the amazing physicality of the performers.

When putting together your outfit, the same goes, really (except the ‘barely there’ bit). Classic black works well. Smart casual is good.

What about the music?

Contemporary dance is not defined by a specific style of music.

In Nederlands Dans Theater’s Auckland season, audiences will hear everything from Jeff Buckley to Bach, from Max Richter to bespoke, original recordings.

Wait! What will I talk to people about during interval or after the show?

You’re in luck. Here are some helpful example questions you can pull out to impress your plus-one over an ice cream and a glass of Sav.

“Did you know in this show Nederlands Dans Theater go through 20kg of flour every night?”

“Did you know that Auckland is the first city outside The Hague to see the two middle pieces? They premiered in February this year to five-star reviews.”

“Did you know the first piece, Safe as Houses, has been described as “the vanishing ballet” because the dancers move around the circular wall?”

“Did you know NDT has a repertoire of over 600 works, and their 45 dancers perform for around 115,000 people annually?”

Nederlands Dans Theater: The Civic, Auckland: Wed 29 June, Thurs 30 June, Friday 1 July and Sat 2 July at 7.30pm; Sat 2 July at 2.30pm

Pre-show Q&A: Thursday 30 June, 6.30 – 7pm (public welcome)

aucklandlive.co.nz/ndt. Tickets are now on sale through Ticketmaster

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