Ted Brandsen
Erwin Olaf

‘Experiencing a live performance is still the best thing of all’

Director Ted Brandsen talks about Dutch National Ballet’s sixtieth anniversary season.

Switching from a ‘corona season’ to a festive one, Dutch National Ballet is raring to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the biggest dance company of the Netherlands in grand style. In line with the policy of his predecessors, director Ted Brandsen is looking forwards as well as back. “We’re reflecting on the choreographers and productions that have made us great, but definitely looking to the future as well. Especially now, after a time of many restrictions, we’re bursting with ideas.”

“We’re emerging from a situation of treading water.” That’s how Ted Brandsen (62) describes the recent corona period, during which the Dutch National Ballet dancers had to continually keep their bodies in peak condition, while performance possibilities remained very limited. Brandsen and the whole company are, therefore, eager to pull out all the stops again. “We want to expand, take on new challenges and create new opportunities for involving many more people in what we do.”

This certainly applies to the coming special season, in which Dutch National Ballet is celebrating its foundation sixty years ago. “We really want to mark this occasion, particularly after the past corona period. The Netherlands can look back with great pride and gratitude on the achievements of the company over those sixty years and the extensive choreographic heritage it has built up. The fact that a country that barely had a dance tradition before the war, let alone a ballet tradition, can now boast of a group that is counted among the ten most notable and creative ballet companies in the world, is something to be reflected on and to be widely celebrated.”

‘All the productions we’re presenting this season are homegrown’

Adventure and experiment

As far as the performances are concerned, that celebration will still take place broadly in accordance with the artistic principles set out by Dutch National Ballet’s first artistic director, the remarkable Sonia Gaskell. Brandsen says, “Unfortunately, I never met her, but she was a visionary who fully understood that a big international company must not only look back, but also to the future. So alongside the standard repertoire of nineteenth-century classics and highlights of the recent dance heritage, she always created plenty of scope for adventure and experiment. She commissioned young Dutch choreographers and she had an eye for significant talent from abroad.”

For Brandsen, this ‘three-cornerstone policy’ still forms the basis for all his artistic decisions. Iconic classical ballets are alternated with the company’s own fulllength productions that tell new stories or give new interpretations of traditional themes. And besides prominent works from the existing contemporary ballet repertoire, Dutch National Ballet also presents many brand-new creations, based on the belief that they, as Brandsen says, “are the lifeblood of any ballet company.”

Especially for this anniversary season, he has made a remarkable decision. “All the productions we’re presenting this season are home-grown; i.e. they’ve been made especially for the company by choreographers who are Dutch or working in the Netherlands. In line with recent events in the world, I think it’s important that we re-evaluate the ‘local’ element. That we’re proud of who and what we have in-house, and that, when entering into new partnerships, we also stay close to home and invite new Dutch makers to work with our company.”

Ted brandsen
Photo: Altin Kaftira

Signature choreographers

Brandsen is certainly very proud of the long collaboration with Hans van Manen and Toer van Schayk, who, along with Rudi van Dantzig (1933-2012), put Dutch National Ballet firmly on the international map in the seventies and eighties. The coming season will, therefore, pay tribute to the two choreographers in programmes dedicated to them, to celebrate their birthdays – Van Manen’s ninetieth and Van Schayk’s eighty-fifth. Brandsen says, “Hans and Toer have defined our company to a large extent: Toer since its foundation in 1961 and Hans from the seventies, since when his international impact has just kept on growing.

In our opening programme TOER, we’re presenting Toer’s masterpiece 7th Symphony in combination with a world premiere, for which he was inspired by Vondel’s Lucifer. In May 2022, we’re going on tour with a Hans van Manen programme, and one month later we’re organising an extensive Hans van Manen Festival. Several Dutch companies are taking part in the festival, as well as some prestigious foreign companies, like the Russian Mariinsky Ballet and the Wiener Staatsballett.”

 

Large-scale new ballet classic

The TOER programme is followed by two full-length hit productions from recent years: Brandsen’s own Mata Hari, about one of the most iconic women in Dutch history, and the ‘December ballet’ par excellence: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Brandsen says, “Nutcracker is the most festive production in our repertoire, so of course it has to be part of our anniversary season.”

Something Brandsen is really looking forward to is the fact that in the coming season he can once again present a new ballet classic that has never been seen before in the Netherlands: Raymonda. “It’s the last full-length masterpiece created by Marius Petipa, the greatest choreographer of nineteenth-century Russian ballet. But we’re presenting the ballet in a completely new version, by associate artistic director Rachel Beaujean. While retaining Raymonda’s enchanting ‘showcase of classical ballet technique’, we’re removing elements that are no longer appropriate today. In this regard, we have a reputation to live up to, as ever since Rudi van Dantzig’s Romeo and Juliet from 1967, we’ve been presenting our own new versions of the famous classics, which have gained international acclaim for their approach and designs, and in which we do justice to both past and present.”

Ted Brandsen
Foto: Angela Sterling

Mythical spider

Brandsen is also very much looking forward to How Anansi freed the Stories of the World, a new, multidisciplinary family performance, for which Dutch National Ballet is collaborating with Dutch National Opera. “In the coming years, we want to present several jointly created productions, and for the first in the series we deliberately opted for a story that would also appeal to children and adults from another cultural background. The story comes from folk legends from West Africa, Suriname and the Caribbean, and tells of the adventures of the mythical spider Anansi, whose magical powers enable him to be always one step ahead of his adversaries.”

In Anansi, new names are making their debut with Dutch National Opera & Ballet, including choreographer Shailesh Bahoran. Brandsen says, “I have great admiration for Shailesh. I’ve been following him ever since he participated in our project Swan Lake Bijlmermeer: first with ISH, where he choreographed his first hiphop pieces, right up to his more recent productions that express his own very distinctive voice.”

 

World premieres

In the spring of 2022, Dutch National Ballet is staging a whole series of world premieres. “We’re starting with Made in Amsterdam, which includes a new creation by David Dawson, who started his career as a choreographer with us and is now an international star. There are also new works by three promising young makers, all with their own unique style: Juanjo Arqués and our new Young Creative Associates Wubkje Kuindersma and Sedrig Verwoert.” In this anniversary season, the third new Young Creative Associate, Milena Sidorova, is creating a work for Shooting Stars, the new touring programme of Dutch National Ballet’s Junior Company. Brandsen says, “This programme includes several world premieres as well, including a new work by Peter Leung, who has created some striking multidisciplinary productions in recent years, and a new piece by Marta Reig Torres. Following her career as a dancer with Dutch National Ballet, Marta has made a name for herself mainly in the modern dance scene, and she’s now returning to our company as a choreographer.”

‘People can’t wait to come and applaud our dancers again during a live performance’

Upswing

The fact that Dutch National Ballet is now regarded as one of the top ten leading international ballet companies is no reason, according to Brandsen, for him and his team to rest on their laurels. “It never stops! If only for the fact that ballet still has the image of being elite and prissy. So we’ll have to keep on proving that this image is completely outdated, and keep on making new people enthusiastic about our art form. Fortunately, dance is clearly in an upswing at the moment. That’s reflected in all the positive responses we’ve had from the Dutch and international audiences we’ve reached with our livestreams.” The enormous success of the streams means that Dutch National Ballet will be continuing its online selection in the coming season, but then alongside the live performances. “Last June, we found out how wonderful it is to perform for an audience again. Experiencing a live performance is still the best thing of all – for the dancers, who are energised by a full house, but also for the audience itself. And this is exactly what we’re hearing on all sides: people can’t wait to come and applaud our dancers again during a live performance.”

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen