Paul Lightfoot on How He's Seen Contemporary Dance and Classical Technique Meld at Nederlands Dans Theater

March 3, 2020

Nederlands Dans Theater is known for its boundary-pushing contemporary repertoire and world-class artists—yet behind the dancers’ extraordinary contemporary virtuosity lies classically based technique. When artistic director Paul Lightfoot was first offered a spot in NDT’s second company in 1985, he was fresh out of London’s Royal Ballet School. “I knew the classical world was not the place where I could be the most creative with my career,” says Lightfoot, even though he wasn’t very familiar with NDT at the time. But he knew he wanted to choreograph someday. “I thought, there is just so much going on here that I have no knowledge about, but I want to understand it.”

Lightfoot has since been a vital presence at the company, first as a dancer under longtime director Jiří Kylián, then as NDT’s house choreographer alongside his creative partner Sol León. He took on the additional role of artistic director in 2011, adding new and innovative works to the repertoire. Recently, Lightfoot announced his plan to step down as director in the fall of 2020 in order to devote his full attention on choreographing with León for NDT. (Current Ballet BC artistic director Emily Molnar will take the helm.)

This week, the company heads to New York City Center with three U.S. premieres: The Missing Door by Gabriela Carrizo; Walk the Demon by Marco Goecke; and Shut Eye by Lightfoot/León. We caught up with Lightfoot just before the company left their home base in The Hague to talk about NDT’s evolution, its important influence on the classical world, and his advice for ballet students interested in pursuing contemporary dance.

Paul Lightfoot wears a white button-down shirt and smiles directly towards the camera in a black and white portrait shot.
Paul Lightfoot

Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy NDT.

You have been with NDT for 35 years as a dancer, a choreographer, and as its artistic director. How have you seen the company evolve?

When I arrived at NDT 2, the second company had really just begun, so we became part of the first “home-bred” generation of NDT dancers. At that stage, the company was under the direction of maestro Jiří Kylián, who made such important steps for the identity of NDT. And my generation was really the fruit of that loom, because up to that point he had been working with colleagues of a similar age who were quite experienced. Our generation started blending with the older generation of big, important company figures, which started a shift towards a new direction. Then, in 1987, we moved into our own theater in The Hague, built specifically for dance and for us. That had a profound impact on the company because it gave us a huge amount of freedom to create.

That was a long time ago, but I feel the company’s ethics really got instilled during that period. Because NDT has always been about change; it’s not a company that works well if it rests on its laurels. It was quite challenging when Jiří stepped away, because he had been the longest serving director and the company had really developed themselves around him. But people don’t recognize that he wasn’t the only component of NDT. He learned very early on that that the more he surrounded himself with other voices—Hans van Manen, Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin—the more he could see dance in different ways and also develop his dancers. That’s something I’ve tried to emulate as director, to have a spectrum of voices.

Could you describe your creative process with your choreographic partner, Sol León?

It’s challenging to talk about in an interview when it’s just with one of us, because you’re only getting half the perspective. But I’ll say this: I’ve never created alone, and while it could be fun, I’ve always thought that there’s so much more you can say in a dialogue than a monologue. It’s like seeing what the alloy will become when you mix two metals together—that’s where the magic can happen. It’s very vulnerable and you have to take great care with the work and with each other.

A group of 10 dancers stand in a pyramid shape with their hands clasped tightly and their lower jaws thrust out. They wear flesh tops and taupe and black pants.

Artists of NDT in Marco Goecke’s Walk the Demon.

Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy NDT.

How has NDT, and the artists its produced, influenced the classical world?

I think it’s been hugely influential. For example, back in 1991, we created Petite Mort. Apart from the fact that it was a huge success, it also blended really well into the classical genre. And now you see that it’s a staple of ballet companies. You now see works by Kylián, Forsythe, Mats Ek, even Ohad Naharin at certain ballet companies—and these are not classical choreographers! A lot of them have and use classical technique, but they’ve strayed from the path with those tools. And what’s really the heart of why NDT can do all those works is that we still have a strict connection to classical technique. I don’t say ballet dancers, I say people who understand technique, who have it in their pocket when they need it, or who can destroy it if they choose.

In the old days, you’d have a modern company and a classical company, and it made me so tired in interviews, when they would be put in separate drawers. But I think there is potential in classical dancers to explore. Look at Sylvie Guillem—she was a prima ballerina of the most classical sense. But she wanted to broaden her range, and so she hunted for contemporary choreographers to work with in order to strengthen her maturity. She really set the standard for other ballerinas to think bigger. You won’t be a great classical dancer if you haven’t also tested other waters.

A shirtless male dancer shifts a woman in black tights and embellished black leotard across his back, holding on to both her ankles.
Artists from NDT in Lightfoot Léon’s Shut Eye.

Rahi Rezvani, Courtey NDT.

What is your advice to young ballet dancers who may be interested in heading into a more contemporary direction?

I was 100 percent classically trained at the Royal Ballet School, and I didn’t think at all about contemporary dance, nor was I being educated on that level. But I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to understand classical technique, and dancers shouldn’t assume it will hold them back from becoming a contemporary dancer. On the contrary—it can be a tool. But I think you have to be brave and expose yourself to new ideas. NDT has this great summer intensive and we’ve taken people in who’ve hardly touched contemporary work, but somehow you can see something in them. I also think it’s important for dancers to experience their own body and create movement, whether that’s in their living room or in the creative process. That doesn’t mean you have to become a choreographer. But explore your own creativity and don’t judge yourself, and challenge the world around you. You have to find yourself and build a sense of belief rather than rely on others.