“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
A combination of classical
and modern techniques
With a low budget and high morale, the group abandoned the traditional structures and hierarchies of ballet. Directed artistically by Harkarvy, all dancers received a diverse training combining both classical and modern techniques. Within Harkarvy’s vision each dancer should be equally as proficient on point as barefoot, and be comfortable both as part of the ensemble or as a soloist. Put differently, the line between principal and ensemble dancer was not sharply drawn anymore. He envisaged, furthermore, a varied repertoire of renowned and upcoming choreographers whose works continued to enhance the technical expertise of the dancers. These ideals were reflected in his teaching and his ballets, and became deeply entrenched in the heritage of the company. Wary of the reaction of a biased Dutch press, primarily because of the formation of this new group and their provocative ideas, NDT gave its first performance in Ostend (Belgium) on the 5th of September 1959. Besides works of Harkarvy, his pas de deux from ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Four Times Six’ (1959), the evening also showed works from Dutch choreographers Rudi van Dantzig ‘Giovinezza’ (1959) and Hans van Manen ‘De Maan in de Trapeze’ (1959) and ‘Feestgericht’ (1957).
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.
An innovative idiom
During the early sixties NDT moved confidently towards a more modern character. While dancers of the company still received classical training, by Hanny Bouman, as well as a foundation in American Modern Dance, by Charles Czarny, the repertoire started to comprise more works of choreographers known for their innovative idiom. Glen Tetley, for example, who seamlessly combined ballet and modern dance in pieces such as ‘Pierrot Lunaire’ (1962) and the ‘Anatomische Les’ (1964). John Butler, morphing theatre, music and dance into one in ‘Carmina Burana’ (1962). Or Anna Sokolow, who added socially engaged pieces as ‘Rooms’ (1955), ‘Opus 58’ (1958) and ‘Dreams’ (1961) to the repertoire.
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.
Both the international and artistic orientation of the company gradually crystalized during these foundation years. Not only did the company attract more international choreographers, such as Ivo Cramér, William Dollar and Maurice Béjart, it also travelled internationally each season. The company’s first tour to Israel in 1960 marked the beginning of a series of international successes, of which its appearance at the 1966 Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto Italy; its first performance at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London in 1967; its New York debut in 1968 at the City Center; and its subsequent participation in the cultural programme of the XIX Olympiad at the Teatro Bellas Artes in Mexico, were notable highlights.
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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