Dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater Give Back
In order for creativity to grow it needs three vital elements….space, opportunity and freedom. When we, the dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater, began our Workshop (as it was called back in 1987), we felt that we could provide ourselves with those three basic ingredients. Our new theater provided the space, the direction, the opportunity, and WE gave ourselves the freedom to do whatever we wanted to.
As the evenings grew year after year, it became apparent what a fundamental tool this was to enable young choreographic talents to grow… Johan Inger, Philip Taylor, Lionel Hoche, Martin Muller, Jorma Elo, Sol and myself were but a few whose choreographic career began on the Lucent stage during the workshops…
Freedom to express through dance was the nucleus to the crazy atom of what was to be renamed “Switch.” Audience’s curiosity was fired annually and ideas expanded and spread into charity, marketing, catering, sponsorship and even merchandising, giving the dancers opportunities to learn and explore different areas of the performing arts field. For me as a young choreographer, I treasure “Switch” and now gaze in awe at the myriad of talents and potential of the amazing artists of NDT. It takes commitment and passion to prepare and execute “Switch.” I’m proud of what it has done for so many over all these years.
Did you need another reason to admire Nederlands Dans Theater—something beyond the characteristic sleekness and power that has built their reputation and hiked their YouTube views for decades? How about the fact that they are giving back on a yearly basis–putting a ballet slipper on a brand-new student’s foot for class, offering crucial medicine to a Myanmar patient with no options? Simply put, “Switch” is an evening conceived, choreographed and produced fully by the NDT performers. When dancers who are used to taking direction burst through their comfort zone and first come to the front of the stage to direct and design, you inevitably end up with something unique. But the cherry on top of showcased artistic growth is this: all profits from Switch go entirely to a community need the dancers hunt down themselves. NDT looks for something they relate to, something that rings loudly of value. When they’ve targeted an organization, they look for ways to get involved beyond financial contribution. They volunteer their hours, they show up to teach free workshops, they raise awareness.
Last year, Switch benefitted Medical Action Myanmar, founded by Dr. Frank Smithuis. Since 2009, the Dutch medical aid organization has treated many poor patients with tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/Aids. Because so little international aid is funneled to the people of Myanmar, MAM also focuses on preventative programs and food assistance. The profits of Switch ’14 went directly into funding for treatments. This year Switch benefits Soul Arts Productions in Mexico, an organization founded by ballet dancer Isaac Hernández (Het Nationale Ballet) and his brother Esteban (San Francisco Ballet). The family’s collective success in the professional dance world is a heartwarming story of close-to-home dedication. The two now very successful ballet dancers were taught by their father, Hector Hernández, whose dance career includes Ballet Folklorica, Houston Ballet and Harkness House for Ballet Arts, under the mentorship of David Howard. Dedicated to social work through dance, Mr. Hernández founded the first two ballet schools in Mexico and provides free ballet education which offers children structure, discipline and a sense of community. Switch ’15 will help provide shoes and classes for Relevé AC, Hernández’s organization.
I spoke with NDT dancer and Switch team leader Myrthe Van Opstal about the ways the Switch program directly assists programs like MAM and Relevé AC. As an ambassador of the company’s commitment, Myrthe visited Medical Action Myanmar herself to see the funds NDT raised in action. Here’s what she had to say:
Myrthe Van Opstal: Last year’s edition was the first time that Switch collaborated differently with community projects. Besides giving financial support, we wanted to be involved in the (social) work of the collaborating organization. It was a new idea for all of us. All the dancers have been thinking, talking, and asking questions about it so that we could create a way that it was most ideal to us and the outside world. Cause if you want sponsors to support your project, you have to be able to explain exactly why you’re doing what. It’s almost like creating a charity yourself, but without the formal paper stuff.
Through a selection procedure two dancers were chosen to visit the organization. I was one of them, but unfortunately my co-traveler got injured so she wasn’t able to come with me. I visited Myanmar last December to pay a visit to one of the clinics of the health care organization Medical Action Myanmar. I also gave dance workshops to children in an orphanage.I posted many pictures and video’s on Facebook so that the dancers at home were able to see what I was doing, and the reactions were amazing. People got emotional, touched, curious and most of all excited, cause it worked! We all had worked in our own way to make things happen. We donated €35.000, we managed to travel there and to inspire people on the other side of the world with the art-form we love so much.
So, in a way all of us got affected, inspired and motivated. And that’s why we’re looking forward to doing it again with a new organization. We’re trying to send two dancers to Mexico this season, so that they can teach workshops to the children in one of the free ballet schools that Relevé AC founded. We hope to inspire them, and to teach them a different way of moving. We all started once as little dancers, and by following our dreams we were able to come so far.
During the process of Switch each year, in what ways do you see that the dancers are motivated or inspired by the specific community project you have chosen to fund?
Myrthe Van Opstal: Every year the dancers are very excited to be part of Switch. For choreographers, it’s a great opportunity to choreograph and showcase their work within a professional setting. For dancers that are involved in organizing the event, it’s a great way to discover the responsibilities that come along with organizing a dance performance. It’s also very interesting to see that artists/creators outside the company are involved in some way. Either through graphic/visual design, music, set-design or costume design. It all happens voluntary, outside working hours. And it can bring along a little bit of stress…
At this moment the choreographers and the Switch team are working incredibly hard. Our goal is to fill the auditorium with audience, so that we raise as much money as possible. All this will be donated directly to the charity.
What would you say is the most challenging production element that NDT dancers learn about during “Switch” that dancers do not typically encounter or have to deal with?
Myrthe Van Opstal: I think when NDT dancers are involved in Switch they suddenly realize what it means to choreograph or to produce an evening like that. Choreographers have to think of concepts, dancers, idea’s, music, costumes, choreography and much more, with a certain time pressure. It goes along with many doubts, letting go and determination to do what you want to do rather then trying to become the next Jiri Kylian. So in that way I think the challenge is to be satisfied and happy with what you create.
In the case of organizing Switch, it’s more practical. Of course we work a lot with deadlines, where communication and planning is very important. The challenge lies within keeping good communication towards everybody that is involved, to communicating to the audience that we want to attract to the performance. What is that you want to show? How do you want to do that?
All this we usually never encounter when we work in the company. We focus on what happens in the studio and on stage. That’s why it is very interesting to experience these things, because it might trigger interests in you. The philosophy of Switch is that it is a good way for us to discover ways of working so it might help us later in life during our transition into a new career.
What are some highlights of this year’s performance?
Myrthe Van Opstal: This year 13 choreographers will show their work during the performance. During the night several things will be shown: we’re introducing a “backstage live feed”, we’ll sell merchandise, we’ll have guest artists at the after-party and we’ll be showing a documentary made by Hansje Quartel. Hansje traveled together with cameraman Jelle Odé and me to Yangon, so that she could make documentary about my experiences. This movie will be shown during the night of Switch and it will show the audience what dance can mean to people.