DISCOVER Magazine #7

The Chemistry of contemporary Dance

Published in category: People

Inspired. Our first impression of Paul Lightfoot, creative director and choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), is unmistakeable – this man lives to dance. He has been with the renowned modern ballet company for 28 years and is still full of praise for this “dance family”. With Spanish choreographer Sol León at his side, Lightfoot has created such celebrated ballets as Sehnsucht, Shoot the Moon and SH-BOOM. Time to interview both about their ambitions, their creativity and their ties with Damen.

“It has been a crazy time, we’re always busy around here.” Paul Lightfoot is clearly feeling restless. Sitting still and carrying on a quiet conversation are exceptions rather than the rule for this British dance prodigy. His soul mate León joins us and begins stretching her legs.

It’s Monday morning at the Lucent Dance Theatre in The Hague, NDT’s headquarters. Rehearsals are in full swing and there is a packed schedule to follow: a sponsorship event, a premiere and a series of performances in Oslo. The dance company has been affected by the reforms in the Dutch arts and culture sector, but it is soldiering on.

The past year was a hectic one – a lot of uncertainty about funding, but also a series of splendid premieres. How do you look back upon 2012?
PL: “I think we’ve had a very big positive push forward. A lot has changed in the past year. I became the creative director of NDT, and Robert van Leer became our new managing director. We had a lot of challenges, right immediately – but things are going in the right direction. That’s mainly because there’s a general feeling of solidarity; we are increasingly working as a family, focusing on one direction. It’s been difficult to combine my work as a choreographer with my position as creative director – I am still looking for the right balance. The honeymoon is over, so to speak, and reality has reared its head. I am fortunate to be working with someone like Sol; I couldn’t have done this work all on my own.”


NDT has been one of the most important figureheads of Dutch art abroad for years. What makes it so unique?
SL: “Without a doubt it’s the openness of our company, at all kinds of levels. NDT is a place where dancers have the opportunity to try out many different styles. We are very strong in style – and that’s what makes NDT special for me too. Our dancers have mastered different languages, literally and figuratively, and are open to new things. Each one has his or her unique qualities, but we are all open-minded when it comes to changing techniques and style. NDT is also a very internationally oriented dance company. That’s an aspect that requires each one of us to be able to deal with other cultures and to have an open mind towards the differences that this entails. Everyone in the company is different, but together we are a unified, close-knit group.”


Music, bodily movements and theatrical aspects − a dance production has many facets. How do you two create a ballet?
SL: “Our lives and our surroundings are so intense that we’re constantly busy gathering ‘material’ and inspiration for our creations without even being aware of it. But we don’t make straightforward plans; we don’t sit down to ‘invent’ a ballet. Paul and I have been working together for many years and we have a very special relationship. We don’t need to say a single word and yet we always think along the same lines. That’s the magic of creativity.”
PL: “Until the moment arrives that we start a conversation somewhere – it could be at home, or in a bar, or on the bus. Then there’s no stopping us and an exciting dialogue ensues that can lead to a ballet. It’s really a question of digging up the right ideas at the right time.”

It has been a crazy time, we’re always busy around here

SL: “I am a staunch advocate of the concept of evolution in the arts. Life is short, so we have to keep moving forward and renewing ourselves in each production. Every new ballet has a different starting point. It’s never the same – one time it might be a space, another time a piece of music or poetry. Creating is like cooking and creativity is like chemistry; we experiment a lot with our ingredients and that’s how we come up with new dishes.”


Damen Shipyards has been involved with NDT for years. Can you reflect on this relationship?
PL: “In relationships it’s the years that count, like Virginia Woolf said. That’s what makes our ties with Kommer and Josien so strong. I don’t want to fall into clichés, but there are huge similarities in the way Kommer runs his company and the way things happen here at NDT. He keeps people very much on a down-to-earth level and he has a vision to bring it forward like a family. That’s the feeling I get whenever I attend Damen events or talk to Damen employees – often they’re people who have been working together for many years. My hope for NDT is to do the same, more and more.”
SL: “Once again, it’s a question of chemistry; it’s a warm relationship of genuine love, trust and respect. It feels like family.”

SH-BOOM, Shooting the Moon and Sehnsucht are just a few pieces in your impressive repertoire. What has been your most memorable creation for NDT?
SL: “Every single production, to be honest. I really live for the moment and I put my soul in each ballet we create. We’ve also had a couple of bad ballets, I won’t deny that, but as you look back to them we’ve had a lot of love for them.”
PL: “I too have trouble choosing. I’ve had two lives here really; there are the ballets that you make and the ballets that you dance in. They’re not comparable, you get such different pleasures in such different ways. What’s most memorable is the actual path to a production and the responses you get after a performance. People are sometimes in tears, not because they’re sad but out of relief. The international nature of NDT has also given me many fond memories; we get to go to many other countries and share what we do in many different places. For example, it was an unforgettable experience to perform Shoot the Moon in Hong Kong.”


What are your ambitions for the upcoming years?
SL: “Big ones! But above all, to follow a natural course in the creative sense – to go forward with the group in the same direction. It’s not about success or making money. It’s about dreaming and about being free as an artist.”
PL: “For me, one of the nicest things that could happen − don’t laugh − is that we could make a mistake and that we could also be really good about it. That kind of ability, to be able to take a risk that sometimes doesn’t work, is very important to have as an organisation. It’s this honesty, this non-superficiality about what we do that attaches people to NDT.”

Nederlands Dans Theater

Internationally renowned, unique, and a breeding ground for talented young dancers and choreographers: NDT is unquestionably one of the most prestigious modern dance companies in the world. Founded in The Hague in 1959, it first rose to fame under the leadership of Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen and other renowned choreographers. The two groups, NDT 1 and NDT 2, give more than 150 performances each year for thousands of people.


Lightfoot, León & NDT

Although Paul Lightfoot (born in Kingsley, UK, in 1966) has only been at the helm of NDT for 18 months, he has a long and multifaceted history with the dance company. He began his career at NDT in 1985 and quickly made his mark as a remarkable dancer. Within two years he moved from NDT 2 (the group for up-and-coming dancers) to the virtuoso NDT 1, where he also began to develop his choreographic skills. Lightfoot worked his way up to resident choreographer, a position he has held together with Solange Léon (born in Córdoba, Spain), in addition to master choreographer Jiří Kylián. Together they have created more than 40 productions and have received numerous awards. Their work is unique for its control, mystery and precision – but also for its healthy sense of humour and fantasy.


Damen & NDT

It began with admiration, developed into a flourishing partnership and ultimately resulted in a lead sponsorship. Josien Damen’s enthusiasm for modern dance was infectious and Kommer Damen quickly joined her in this – in fact, he was a member of NDT’s board for 12 years. Damen Shipyards Group has been closely involved in NDT for more than two decades and has eagerly shared its passion with others, leading to a series of unique events for Damen clients and business associates in the Netherlands and abroad. As a member of the Nederlands Dans Theater Society, Damen will follow up with other events in 2013.

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