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Nederlands Dans Theater is one of the leading contemporary dance companies in the world. With Paul Lightfoot and Sol León groundbreaking choreography, the company has reinvented itself alongside a repertoire by some of the most innovative choreographers of today. ICONS spoke with Paul and Sol about their creative process and their upcoming debut at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in April of this year.
ICONS: You both began your careers as dancers with Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT). When was the moment that you made the leap from being dancers to becoming choreographers?
Sol León: Choreography was always clear and present for both of us. While working with many beautiful choreographers at NDT, we learned more through our bodies and developed as dancers. Then we started to create more ideas about physical vocabulary and movement -- so it all went together. We were already choreographing throughout our dance careers. It’s like a cycle that all connects.
Paul Lightfoot: I think for many people the bridge from dancer to choreographer is something very different than our own journey. For others, it is more of a conscious decision to take their career in a different direction, whereas we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to keep exploring both. I was 21 and had just barely begun my career as a dancer when I made my first official creation for NDT 2. I then spent around 20 years with the two careers going at the same time.
Jiří Kylián and Hans van Manen were the House Choreographers at NDT at that time and they were very driven to move us forward. They wanted us to slowly become part of the DNA of the company. I think that had we not been within the NDT organization we would not have had the opportunities we did and also been able to focus on our dancing.
SL: It’s like a seed planted in your childhood. I mean you already know you are a choreographer but haven’t recognized it as a title yet. Then, you find yourself in a place like NDT, where creativity is the main theme and it just happens automatically -- the seed grows.
ICONS: How did your creative partnership evolve?
SL: I had been choreographing back home for years, but hadn’t given it much serious thought. When I arrived at NDT and met Paul, he was creating a workshop piece. I gave him ideas and advice and our dynamic worked great. The first official piece we created together for the company was called “Step Lightly” in 1991.
PL: With the kind of collaborative relationship we had, and the fact we were in a personal relationship too -- well, you might say, we were as thick as thieves. We were extremely young, and perhaps very naive. We were just going for it. The choreographies we made while dancing were very important -- it was a very different way for us to express ourselves and explore our ideas creatively.
SL: At that time, it was unusual to be a duo. A team of two choreographers? No. It was usually one. It was Hans (van Manen), Jiří (Kylián) or Ohad (Naharin).
PL: Nowadays it is more common to have a partner or create as a team, but in those days it was more of a one-man job.
ICONS: What are some of the biggest challenges of working together?
SL: I loved choreographing, but in the beginning my English was not very good and I was intimidated by the title of “choreographer.” I preferred to be in the back because I felt I could concentrate better and speak with more confidence. When we began to develop differently as human beings it became more complicated. For example, the dancers might ask why Sol is saying one thing and Paul another. So, there were confusing moments.
Then we had a child, and as parents our roles changed, as did our way of choreographing. Usually with young couples, one has the voice. When you grow and develop, it changes from one voice to two. So the question becomes, “How do you create the same space for two people to step?” That is complicated and that is what you see through all of our work.
PL: I think the duality has always been something that is very attractive in our work. I believe nothing is ever 50/50 in life, but once people understood that we were more or less working as equal partners, there was a natural interest in our creative process. To be creative and collaborative at the same time is challenging, but I think there is a beauty in coming together.
ICONS: How do your ideas then come together and transform into a singular creation?
SL: I strongly believe that two people are two different dimensions. When you have two different dimensions you can create a third dimension. Only when you create the third dimension can you actually compare where you are coming from. I believe the essence of creativity is that it cannot be controlled. When you work with another person you cannot really control what they are doing or what they are influenced by. So your combined responses and beliefs create that third dimension.
PL: In a creative process you have to share. It’s not a lone profession. You can’t shut yourself in a room for five years and make a ballet -- it just doesn’t work like that. I like to share -- I need that. I suppose that is why I became a choreographer, because it’s kinetic and connected.
ICONS: Once you are in the studio, how does your movement materialize?
Simultaneously: We are very different.
SL: I believe in communication and the dynamic it can produce. For me, dynamic is the key. I look at where we are now and that guides what is going to come out.
We have been creating for such a long time now, that we’ve passed the period of questioning our style. The style was important for many years but now it is fixed. The style is very strong, and it is important that dancers understand the type of language. Once you have the style, you can add dynamic and then quality. Quality is what creates a good perfume or wine. With quality, the sense becomes clear and you have the capacity to see what you need to say in that moment.
But to clarify, it’s not that wherever we are we say, “Let’s see what happens.” No. There is a vocabulary and a very specific way to work with the dancers and then a very specific ambition about the quality. Then you can create a painting. That painting can be different every time.
PL: I’m very much a content maker -- I need to be connected to it. In my earlier days, I would go to the studio alone with my video camera. I’d finish a sequence and even if it wasn’t good, I would record it. Back then I needed to have a product in my hand. Now, it’s different. When I’m in a room with people I go very much with their personality and try to create something with them in the moment. It’s not really improvisation; we take our time with movement, but it can also develop quickly. Of course there are structures within our creativity, but I don’t think that’s what we put our consciousness into. We focus on where we are now, what’s happening and how that influences things. The only thing I hope is that every process isn’t the same -- for me it’s very important that there is a difference.
ICONS: What is different about each new piece you create and what always remains the same? What is at the core of your work?
SL: What remains is the truth. What changes is the maturity. Today there are fewer emotions and fewer dreams. There are perhaps more nightmares and more fears -- it’s maybe more like poetry to reach more people.
PL: That’s where I disagree....(Laughing). I think one of the constants in our work is emotion. Nothing we have made is cold -- I can promise you that. What has been touching for people in our work is that they feel something. Even the darkest elements and emotions of this world have an artistic sensibility to them. I suppose I’m more of a romantic in that sense, I think the emotionality is the main theme. I don’t think there is less emotion in our work now. I think that has always been at the core.
SL: Yes, but I think one’s emotions change through the years. That is what I mean when I say someone matures. I mean they are not having tantrums anymore. Maybe the tantrum is kept inside and the way it is expressed becomes poetry. People don’t have the same tantrums they did 10 years ago -- the tantrums have different meanings now.
What interests me most are the core emotions that everybody more or less has and that we can really share. Without barriers of culture or gender, the emotions that we are not taught -- that everyone understands, without saying anything. That is why I say the truth. With dance we don’t talk, so it’s beautiful if you see people relate to that.
ICONS: How do you see your work and choreography in general developing within the coming decade?
PL: From an early age, I’ve been employed by a company whose core principle is about being innovative. NDT is more than a dance company; it’s also a creative home for many people on many different levels. I think the company, for good times or bad times, is always on an innovative track and I think it should stay like that. I feel NDT should be a beacon, because I think many people look towards the company and the artistic environment as a source of light.
On a personal level, it’s interesting to think about what kind of work I would like to be making in five years, but only as a hypothesis, not as a strategy or a storytelling embellishment. No, I believe our work is where it should be right now and that is very present.
SL: Everything works together. The dancers, choreographers, lights, tempo, scenery, and costumes -- they fit together as one. That is what I hope will continue forever.
ICONS: Outside of the studio, what are the most challenging aspects of being a choreographer?
SL: One important factor is the public. We are fortunate to travel and cross many borders. The public everywhere is amazing and we always have an enthusiastic full house. But depending on the environment and the cultural trends, the critics are very different. For me, that is bad. How can it be possible when 3,000 people are reacting strongly to and enjoying an artistic presentation, that one critic can crash down a company by writing really negative things? Even if they don’t like it, don’t appreciate, or it’s not their taste -- who are they to talk about art like that?
PL: There is a lot of noise in the cultural world. We find ourselves in a society that is trying to find value and purpose in culture. As artists, we have to constantly prove ourselves and give evidence to show how art has grown. One thing I’d like to approach in the coming years is to quiet down that noise. I would like to see that there is trust, be able to stay on the creative side and follow our inner guidance.
ICONS: In April you will be performing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Are your expectations for this tour to the USA different from other tours?
PL: I think that going to the Kennedy Center is a fantastic invitation. It’s a very capable house and one of the few houses in America that receives financial support from the country and great patronage. I could imagine that the Kennedy Center audience isn’t normally seeing the kind of work that we are going to bring. That doesn’t bother me. On the contrary, I think you must always bring the audience things they are not expecting for any experience to be artistic. Conformity is not going to bring the world any further.
We are not in a rebellious phase as a company right now. Although I do think many of the works we are performing are related to where we are now because choreographers feel their environment. Our (Sol’s and my) works are gathering universal emotions but at the same time tuning in to a daily court. For example, our work Singulière Odyssée is not a political piece, but there are undertones -- themes of migrancy and questions related to home. How people’s lives cross and who is the boss of our environments. There are things that I think people will relate to.
Crystal Pite’s work, The Statement, is narrative based on a text written by a Canadian playwright together with Crystal (Pite). It has very strong and clear messages about responsibility from political and corporate leaders within society. It is kind of a modern day Green Table in many ways -- a very powerful, physical narrative.
SL: For me, the work we are bringing is a poetic way to speak about this moment in life, and this moment of maturity in all senses. Poetry can describe 100 years of history in three words. It can distill the feeling of going from extreme sadness to happiness in three words. I think aesthetic is extremely important for the dance world; the presentation of dance and movement needs to have a visual statement, and that is something that NDT is very strong in.
ICONS: How do you feel your work might appeal to or challenge American audiences?
PL: I think the world is always a crazy place, but there are certain moments when you feel much more that something is not right. I feel right now many people are bonding with culture again. I think it’s because there is something about culture and art that people believe in. They recognize it. Unconsciously they begin to sense that we cannot entirely trust what we see and what we hear and what goes on around us. Whereas art manages to carry some chorus that we know is true. Maybe it sounds a bit arrogant but there is something about the works that we bring that people can believe in. I think there will be people in Washington who will be quite taken in a way that they didn’t expect to go.
ICONS: As artistic director, how do you combine the legacy of past master works that helped define NDT’s heritage with continuing to develop new and cutting edge works?
PL: Our biggest responsibility is to carry that legacy through to new generations of artists. We spend a lot of energy working with millennials to help them understand what was ingrained in us by our masters. We learned discipline, technique, and awareness from Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen, William Forsythe, Mats Ek, and others. I think it’s really important that everything they gave us is still present, if not directly, then by passing on their energy, thoughts, motivations, anger and passions.
SL: But the question of doing ballets from the past or not? It’s not about that. NDT is not focused on becoming a repertory company. The masters built upon each other -- that is the key.
PL: NDT could be very rich by presenting its golden album of top selling hits from the past 50 years, but it doesn’t and it can’t. Unfortunately, that’s called life. It has to move on and it does. I was talking to Jiří (Kylián) about it and we were saying it’s a bit like a ship. It doesn’t matter who’s holding the wheel -- the ship keeps going. NDT is going. Our goal is to keep it going the right way. It’s venerable as an artistic institution, but you have to stick to your guns and guts and what you know to be true. Maybe it’s wrong, but you will not get anywhere until you follow what you feel is right. I feel that now during our time on this watch, I want to make sure that remains the number one priority.
INTERVIEW ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS:
More about Sol León and Paul Lightfoot:
Sol León (Córdoba, Spain) and Paul Lightfoot (Kingsley, England) started creating together 25 years ago. Since then the duo has created more than 50 pieces for Nederlands Dans Theater. In 2002 they were appointed house choreographers for the company exclusively. Together they have won prestigious awards, such as the Benois de la Danse and the Herald Archangel.
Sol León joined NDT 2 after graduating from the National Ballet Academy of Madrid in 1987. Two years later she joined NDT 1 and danced masterpieces of Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen, Mats Ek and Ohad Naharin. She continued to dance up until 2003, when she decided to fully devote herself to choreography. León became artistic advisor for NDT in 2012.
Paul Lightfoot studied at the Royal Ballet School in London. He joined NDT 2 and moved to NDT 1 two years later, where he danced until 2008. During his dancing career, Lightfoot started choreographing, and together with Sol León, he created many pieces for NDT. Lightfoot became Artistic Director of NDT in 2011.
Photography by Rahi Rezvani, all rights reserved ©
Courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater, 2017-2018
Interviewer: Jessica Teague, ICONS Affiliate Journalist in Europe
Contributing Editor: Camilla Acquista
International Consortium for Advancement in Choreography - Dance ICONS, Inc., All Rights Reserved, March 2018, ©