“Modern dance does not only concern pure beauty, it concerns substance and depth. In our group there is a lot of powerful talent, our dancers have faces, they possess the ability to transmit feelings, to make a huge impression.”
“Our dancers have faces”. This defining characteristic of personality was attributed to Nederlands Dans Theater in 1960 by Benjamin Harkarvy – dance teacher, choreographer and, above all, one of the founding fathers of the company. In a short period those faces would establish themselves as one of Europe’s most imaginative and creative dance companies. Their roots, however, can be traced to a modest fisherman’s house in Scheveningen at the turn of 1950. At this particular moment, the trinity of Aart Verstegen, Carel Birnie and Benjamin Harkarvy decided to rebel against the rigid regime of Sonia Gaskell and her Nederlands Ballet – the precursor of the Dutch. Together with sixteen outstanding dancers they built a new company that emphasised innovative forms of expression and the artistic personalities of its dancers.
Without public funding, the group was credited by the Dutch press for its “high-spiritedness and outstanding technical skills” and heralded as “a strong weapon” and “important beginning for the culture of ballet in the Netherlands”. Even though the company predominantly performed on small stages – of schools, pubs, warehouses and peripheral theatres – they received a lot of attention. This occurred mainly as a result of television screenings, commercial assignments for companies such as Transavia and Pastoe, and a publication by Bibeb with photography by Ed van der Elsken and Eddy Posthuma de Boer. At the beginning of the sixties NDT finally received some governmental recognition. After the company had already given its ‘last’ performance, the Dutch government and municipality of The Hague decided to put an end to the continuing battle in the Netherlands regarding the allocation of financial support. Sonia Gaskell’s Nederlands Ballet and Marscha ter Weeme’s Amsterdam Ballet merged into the Dutch National Ballet, while NDT was granted structural funding – which finally ensured its future existence and continued growth.
The name of Hans van Manen quickly became synonymous with these early years. After his introduction to the company in 1960, first as a dancer and later as a choreographer, he aligned himself as artistic director. He would hold this position until 1970, together with Benjamin Harkarvy and, for a short time, Glen Tetley. During these ten years Van Manen created up to three or four ballets each season in which he experimented with conventions and boundaries of genres, space, movement and sound. To name a few – ‘Metaforen’ (1965); ‘Essay in Stilte’ (1965); ‘Squares’ (1969); ‘Situation’ (1970); and, of course, ‘Symphony in Three Movements’ (1963) – the first of his series of Stravinsky ballets. Van Manen declared that he “didn’t pursue a particular style”, but wanted to work with people who remained individuals notwithstanding the uniformity of his movements. His innovative style and clear play with personalities, form and function – or, put differently, his own move towards abstraction – responded to contemporary tendencies of the visual arts, as reflected most clearly by Harald Szeemann’s exhibition ‘When attitude becomes form’ (1969). A concept, or motto, beautifully echoing throughout the oeuvre of Van Manen.
Before leaving this decade, it is worth highlighting some dancers of this period who played a significant role in the early days. The international press described NDT as a versatile group with young dancers of enormous charm. Clive Barnes credited Han Ebbelaar and Alexandra Radius for their “individual, distinctive style”, while proclaiming that Marian Sarstädt and Gérard Lemaître were “perhaps the two most accomplished and mature technicians of the company”. The British dance critic John Percival, furthermore, praised Willy de la Bije and called Jaap Flier “one of the most outstanding male dancers of our day, anywhere in any company”. Throughout these ten years, the Dutch press, moreover, credited dancers such as Marianne Hilarides, Hannie van Leeuwen, Anne Hyde, Martinette Janmaat for their incredible personality and skilful performances. Altogether, significant characteristics of faces that would determine the ballet culture of the Netherlands for the next couple of decades.
 Benjamin Harkarvy in Bibeb, Dans Theater: foto’s van Ed van der Elsken en Eddy Posthuma de Boer (Utrecht: A.W. Bruna & Zoon, 1960), pp. 26-27.
 Clive Barnes, ‘Dance: Netherlands Presents 4 Local Premieres’, New York Times, April 10, 1968.
 For a clear account see Keso Dekker, Hans van Manen + Modern Ballet in Nederland (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 1981), pp. 8-13.
 Coos Versteeg, Nederlands Dans Theater. Een revolutionaire geschiedenis (Amsterdam: Balans, 1987), pp. 49-52.
 ‘Nederlands Dans Theater. A brief history.’ Municipality Archives The Hague, BNR 705 inv. no. 980.
 Over the years part of the Dutch press – mainly followers of Gaskell – continued to provide NDT with negative critiques. Others, however, were convinced of its innovative character.
 L.V., ’Bezieling en prachtige techniek bij Nederlands Danstheater’, Arnhemse krant, November 2, 1959; C. Nicolai, ‘Balans van de Dans,’ De Groene Amsterdammer, November 14, 1959; G.T. ‘Geslaagde eerste opvoering van Dans Theater,’ Volkskrant, September 9, 1959; W. Wagener, ‘Bewonderenswaardig debuut van het Nederlands Dans Theater’, Rotterdams Nieuwsblad, September 9, 1959.
 Bibeb, Dans Theater: foto’s van Ed van der Elsken en Eddy Posthuma de Boer (Utrecht: A.W. Bruna & Zoon, 1960).
 ‘Nederlands Dans Theater krijgt subsidie Den Haag.’ Algemeen Handelsblad, October 10, 1961.
 ‘The repertory of the NDT,’ Municipality Archives The Hague, BNR 705 inv. no. 980; Database NDT Archives.
 ‘Zonnetje brak door voor Nederlands Dans Theater’, Utrechts Dagblad, November 18, 1961.
 References towards the visual arts would continue to ‘haunt’ the pieces of Hans van Manen. Most obviously, through the name of the ‘Mondriaan of Dance.’ See: Joyce Roodnat, ‘Mondriaan, hoe danst die? Nou zo,’ NRC Handelsblad, February 9, 2017; Keso Dekker, Hans van Manen + Modern Ballet in Nederland (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Bert Bakker, 1981), pp. 70-75.
 Yvonne Beumkes ‘De Jaren ’60.’ Bericht aan de NDT Vrienden, nr. 13, 1984.
 Clive Barnes, ‘Life is not all Beer and Tulips’, The New York Times, April 13, 1968.
 Martinette Janmaat would later, during the eighties, teach the early modern techniques of Martha Graham to the young dancers of NDT 2.
For further reading we recommend 'Nederlands Dans Theater | 60'. This book is published on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of NDT and comprises the personal stories of sixty people aligned to the company, next to the abovementioned text.
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