Choreographer Paul Lightfoot Opens Up About Nederlands Dans Theater

He is a man of many words, but Artistic Director of the Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) Paul Lightfoot is filled with incredible wisdom. Lightfoot kindly started his day with a Skype chat about the philosophies behind NDT, his journey with the company and the show he is bringing to our shores.

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You’ve had a beautiful journey with the NDT starting your career off as a dancer, and working your way up to Artistic Director. What is it about the company that you have connected with so profoundly?

I sort of came across dancing, it wasn’t as if I felt when I was born I wanted to be a dancer. I just knew I was different. When I went to the Royal Ballet School in London, I was blown over by the classical world and how much I wanted to be a part of it. I was quite blinkered in my own vision as to what dance was, but my first contract was eight weeks of work experience with NDT at 18 years of age. I left England and as soon as I opened the door to the studios I realised that something profound was going to happen, that this was where I wanted to be. That sounds cliché but it was absolutely the truth. I realised that I wanted to be a creative artist and there was nowhere better than NDT, and still isn’t in so many ways to nurture that urge.

I never thought about changing companies and I’ve been here three decades now. I think it says so much about the company; it’s a place that’s constantly readdressing itself and asking more of itself, and as human being, I really appreciate that cause the last thing I want to feel is stagnant, particularly in the butterfly-winged existence of a dancer. Everything is sort of more high tempo than a regular career, particularly as a dancer there is a physical and emotional input on yourself and NDT just never gave me any other reason to question that this wasn’t the right place for me. I started choreography from a young age, so there’s always been a creative person in there, maybe this is also the kind of dancer the company requires. We want artists who think bigger than the box and that’s why the company has so many strengths cause every component of the whole is important. NDT demands a lot of you and I was the kind of person who grew in that environment.

When you’re casting new dancers for the company, what are you looking for?

The artists themselves are something more than you’re generally going to expect; I’m not saying they’re better than others but there’s a sort of a broad spectrum of dynamics that is really necessary to have or it won’t work for you at NDT. Of course there are things that you take for granted – that they have a healthy physique and good strong physical technique on the whole – it’s not imperative but I think it’s really, really important. I think once you get past those levels of musicality, I look to the energy of the person, the chemistry of the person, and I think if this is someone who I could see connecting with their colleagues. It’s super intense, you’re basically hands on with each other all day, and having that physical connection between people is highly important; how the energy is flown between one another, and that’s not to say we’re some Nirvana cause we’re not. We’re very straight forward, hard-working people, and if I feel there’s something in there that doesn’t fit that bill, then I’m drawn away from that person. I believe I would choose someone less talented but more open these days than the reverse. Both is great, but it’s really important.

What is it about the Netherland’s artistic culture that allows such beauty to be developed in NDT. In return, you have these diverse cultures within the company. How do they complement each other?

I always sort of look back to the history of the country. If we get back to basics, the Dutch were a pioneering nation, so they built their own land – their roots of tradition are not so deep. Dance had a very thin layer to it. There’s always been a national ballet that began 60-odd years ago, so when something like NDT came along it was great ground for modern dance to flourish. Dutch culture is very much ‘the traveller’; they embrace so many cultures as a nation, they didn’t dominate it. Sharing their knowledge with others I think has reflected and refracted itself back onto the arts. They’re a keen nation to see where they can go first. They don’t have to be constantly ground breaking. Now they have a real pride in their tradition through modern dance and its stemmed through NDT.

It’s been nearly 60 years and we’ve had eclectic times, gone in all different directions and that’s the beauty of the company; it has this ability to transform itself, so all those cultures within are part and parcel of its identity. If it was a national company only allowed to employ Dutch dancers, I think it’d be a quarter of the size it is today. We’re very fortunate we don’t have that responsibility. For many places it’s a beautiful thing because it’s a clear look, but for us it’s on the contrary. It gives us the opportunity to open the swell in whichever direction we feel. And with that constant contrast of artistry, the spectrum is enormous with their own stories and backgrounds; they have this ability to express themselves as an individual but also work together as one. We have a famous choreographer called Matt Zeck who always jokingly referred to NDT as a mini United Nations (UN) because we are about 20-odd nationalities. I hope this joke is taken more seriously as a reflection that if we can do it in arts, why can’t we do it in the world.

What can we expect from the show you’re bringing to Australia?

It’s always complex. We have a huge spectrum of work and we don’t get to come down to Australia often; it’s maybe once every three years if we’re lucky, so we have to think about what we’d like to take, what we’d like to share. We know in Melbourne they really want to see some work from Sol León and myself cause we are now the house choreographers, and in the position of guiding the company on the whole. It’s a triptych of work book-ended by two pieces by Sol and myself. For us, it’s exciting to come out to different shores, and we’re coming to Melbourne which has a really strong dance base. With the Australian Ballet being there it’s kind of like going to visit your cousins in a way, but it’s nice to come back to a big dance city and share our world. There’s always different reactions from audiences, but I think the works we’re bringing this time all hold a lot of weight choreographically and emotionally, and audiences will have a thrill and an artistic experience they’ll never expect.

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The Nederlands Dans Theater triptych will be showing at Melbourne’s Arts Centre from June 22-25. Tickets from https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/dance/nederlands-dans-theater?m=performances