Dance is a language
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends
I am gratified that, through the award of the Erasmus Prize for the year 2000, the art of dance in the Netherlands receives the recognition which it deserves. Dance from the Netherlands is highly regarded in other countries; I always hear this when I am abroad. Over the past forty years the Netherlands has served as an example within Europe. Where did this quality come from? It is connected with the fact that at a given point in time there was a lot of talent available and the dance groups offered opportunities to this talent – opportunities which were taken. I am thinking here of Sonia Gaskell and of Hans Snoek, the pioneer of the dance theatre for young people, to mention but a few names. The talent was also concentrated. If you think of all that has happened since the beginnings of Nederlands Dans Theater – it is an incredible amount. And the same applies to dance in the Netherlands on a more general level. It is dumbfounding simply to look through the jubilee volumes reviewing what has been done over the last twenty, thirty years.
We did not have any tradition in the field of dance in the Netherlands. Why not? I cannot provide an answer to this question. There are various possible reasons. If you will allow me to come out with my first cliché, perhaps our Calvinistic streak played a part and people found dance too elegant, too revealing of the body, too elitist. In fact I found myself reminded of this Calvinistic streak when I was casually given to understand that I was not of course expected to buy an expensive car with the prize money. I think this is a pity, as I am certain I would have gained a great deal of inspiration in an expensive car. But don’t worry, I came here by tram.
So there was no tradition of dance in the Netherlands. We had to make one. We worked frightfully hard and we acquired a public that went along with us. Everything was new for them too, just as it was for us, which meant that the people who were following us thought everything that we did was exciting. I believe that a situation arose in which makers and public were getting the same kick. After a while a number of critics began to support us. This is how things ultimately got off the ground. Television was terribly important for the popularity of dance. I did the shows for Teddy and Henk Scholten, for example, and while I was still artistic leader of Nederlands Dans Theater and Carel Birnie managing director, every opportunity was taken by us to get ballets on television straight away, even if they were still being shown in the theatre. Everyone advised against this. People would no longer come to the theatre if they had already seen the ballet on television. But it was these very broadcasts which brought a large number of people to the theatre who would otherwise have known nothing about these ballets. The barrier was removed for people who would otherwise have stayed at home. And a survey which was once carried out among viewers showed that it was working-class women who rated dance on television most highly.
Foreign tours were also very important for our companies. Again I must mention Nederlands Dans Theater, that still continues to perform all over the world, making a great name for dance from the Netherlands. In the initial period very many foreign dance groups also came to the Netherlands. The New York City Ballet under Balanchine, the American Ballet Theatre, the French, the English and the Russians, top Spanish companies – really everyone came here. All the big names have been to the Netherlands. They all came, everyone we asked, and we asked them in the early days – John Butler, Glenn Tetley and Merce Cunningham, also William Forsythe, Maurice Béjart and Martha Graham – and I have surely forgotten to mention many others. They all worked here. And we all saw that work, and of course we were inspired by it.
My great source of inspiration was Balanchine. Why was this? Why is it, in a particular piece of music, that a tear wells up into your eye every time when just that one violin comes in? If I knew the answer, ladies and gentlemen, then I would clearly know how success works. I would write it up in a book and within a couple of weeks I would be a millionaire. What I want to say is that I can’t explain exactly. The emotion induced by great art is a mystery and will always remain so. The most we can do is to indicate the mystery and even then we can only do so by means of clichés. It is of course related to the feelings which are expressed. But it is also related to the manner in which such feelings are expressed, in other words to the technique which not only commands admiration but also stirs the emotions. If you have a lot of technique, you have a lot of time. Those who have mastered technique, for whom technique comes as a matter of course, so to speak, have enough time left to show something else besides what they are doing at that moment. The more technique there is, the more time there is, the more space for refinement and expression. Things only become interesting if technique is included free, as it were. This applies equally to the creative artist and to the performing artist – to the choreographer and to the dancer. Through his fabulous technique, Balanchine had the time and space to allow himself to do things which were apparently totally extraneous but which he nonetheless was able to integrate in such a way that something was created which nobody had ever seen before. In order to indicate why Balanchine was my great inspiration, I should like to mention in particular the astonishment which his work caused me time and time again.
And now that we are talking about technique anyway, dancers are dancing better than ever before. We would have been thunderstruck forty, no, even twenty years ago, if we had seen the way in which dancers are dancing nowadays at the Dutch National Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater, and also in the smaller groups. And there are more choreographers then ever. There are nowadays, so to speak, almost as many choreographers as there are galleries representing painters. A lot has happened over the past decades. I can do no other than say that the art of dance has become emancipated. If one speaks of emancipation, that means of course that there must also have been a question of discrimination. That was indeed the case. There was certainly discrimination in the early days. People had a low opinion of dance. It was something for young girls, pansies and a few elderly folk. Thanks to the efforts of countless people, dance has become a fully-fledged art form in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, the award of the Erasmus Prize is gratifying to me because dance still needs recognition. If you consider the interest in dance on the part of the wider public and also compare, for example, the space which newspapers and magazines allot to dance as opposed to other art forms, it is clear that, despite all we have achieved, emancipation is by no means yet complete. In some respects the art of dance is still a poor relation in the Netherlands. I can understand this to a certain extent, although dance is in my DNA programme, so to speak. Someone like me of course does not know any better. As a child I always danced for myself in secret when no one else was at home, during the Sunday afternoon concerts. I danced during the applause as well – and fortunately this always lasted quite a long time, for, as you know, in the Concertgebouw the conductors and soloists always have to go all the way up the steps and all the way down them again. I am quite prepared, however, to recognize that dance is less accessible than, for example, photography. In order to improve your knowledge of photography all you have to do is to go every now and then into a bookshop and browse around. If you don’t like a book of photographs you put it back on the shelf again, still having learned something from it. If you buy a book with photographs in it, you can keep looking at it as many times as you want. For dance you have to go to the theatre. That costs you at least an evening and the price of the ticket. It takes many a visit to the theatre before you begin to find your way somewhat in the vast and very varied choice available and before you begin to have a vague idea of what you are looking at and what you like.
It is not easy to write about the art of dance. ‘How do you describe the scent of a daffodil?’ asked Ine Rietstap not all that long ago, in order to give us some idea of the difficulties which confront her as a dance critic. Interpretation is always so difficult. It is much easier for the stage and even for music. Music has a breathtaking tradition and is taught in many different ways in all its facets, whereas we can hardly imagine the concept of a professor of choreography. What should we do? Starting with how we can put our own house in order: I believe the first thing should be to work on permanence in the repertoire. The idea that everything that is performed should be new is already somewhat less prevalent and that’s a good thing. As I said, in the early days everything we did was necessarily new and it is perfectly right that we thought that to be wonderful. But there came a point when the demand that everything should be new assumed a life of its own. New, new, new became the fashion. When everything that is performed has to be new – in other words: when there are runs of five or six, perhaps fourteen performances which then disappear from the scene in order to make way for something new, never to reappear, you are simply creating disposable art. How much can one take in the way of new? The main grievance, however, is that in this way no permanent repertoire is formed. Ten master pianists are all allowed to play the same piece and interpret it in their own way. Is that not extraordinarily interesting? Just imagine that you heard music only once. Where would that leave music? Surely nowhere? If you have heard a piece of music ten times, you sing along with it. It is interesting to look at a ballet that you have already seen several times. After a time you know what is coming and then it actually comes. It’s on the lines of singing along with something you know. The end result of new, new, new is art for the elite. Only a few people are interested in it. These people have always been at the performances. The rest hardly get a chance to see anything, which means that they have no idea what they are looking at. How does a choreographer know what to do if he has no idea what others have done before him? What is there for him to lean on, what is there for him to react against? How can the public judge a performance, or even understand it, if there is no material for comparison, if there is no norm for evaluating the performance? It is like being tremendously impressed that someone can run the hundred metres in thirteen seconds without knowing that the record is nine point eight seconds. Without a repertoire there is no tradition. And without tradition there is no connection with what has gone before. Tradition is not something of the past. Tradition is what we do in the present with the past. The future is discovering what was good in the past and building on it. This also presents a task for the media. And for the government, but I will come to that in a minute.
As far as the newspapers are concerned, the old adage that everything should be new is clearly still going strong. If there is a revival of a ballet and it is in a premiere programme, it is not mentioned in the reviews. But nobody does that for music, nobody does that for an exhibition, there is absolutely no such thing in the rest of the arts? We’ve already had it, so we don’t need it again. Do we ignore master pianists because we have already heard Beethoven’s sonatas or Chopin’s nocturnes? As with concerts, when there are revivals of ballets this means other performers, new interpretations, a different experience, and all this should be brought to the notice of the public. Television can also play a part. I have already mentioned the importance of television for the popularity of dance. The Dutch public broadcaster NPS is fortunately taking the lead – indeed it is its job to do so. This change of attitude should be carried over to the other broadcasting organizations. It would also be a good thing if, in addition to dance which is specially adapted for television, time were also made available for recorded showings of actual performances. In a simple format, with three cameras, the way they do it on the American Channel 13. What they say here is that this is what we were doing twenty-five years ago, as if there has not been a breathtaking amount of things happening in dance over the past twenty-five years. Sometimes television should be there to serve dance rather than the other way round. There’s no reason why it can’t sometimes be located in a garage, or on a mountain, or in a tower, but here too if people are never shown what all this comes from they haven’t the slightest notion what they are looking at. Although strictly speaking you can only capture ballets by performing them, now that we are talking about recorded performances anyway, it is also extremely important to build up archives. Much is already being recorded on video, of course, and that is how it should be. What is a videotape today is a reference work tomorrow. And that reference work will in turn function as a musical score. And I am thinking here not only of future choreographers and ballet masters, who can completely study pieces through tape. Now you have only the choreographer and the ballet master and nothing in between. Yes, you have people who study the works. They are close to the choreographer and know just what the choreographer wants or, in the case of an heir administering an inheritance, what the choreographer wanted. But perhaps, as I can imagine, in the future a sort of choreographic conductor will arise, in other words people who are not choreographers but who know all about the art of dance and have the qualities of a director. They see on tape a piece performed thirty years ago and would rather like to present it again. They should then be able to do so in their own fashion, in the same way as every conductor has his own ideas on Beethoven’s Fifth. This would seem to me to be an interesting development which could also contribute to the permanence of the repertoire, in this way providing an opportunity for those ballets which would otherwise collect dust in the archives to be performed again.
Everything costs money, of course. How do we get it? The situation in America is that all groups that I work for employ one or two people who are concerned only with sponsoring. Perhaps you say: But that has got nothing to do with dance? Oh no? In this day and age it has an awful lot to do with dance. Sponsoring is a new fact of life. You may object to it, but we are saddled with it. In the Netherlands we have very few people employed full-time for the purpose of attracting sponsors. So something has to be done about this. And now that we are talking about money, is there anything the government can do? The answer to this question is: Yes, unquestionably and without qualification. Governments always give too little to the arts, however much is given, but in the Netherlands the amount really is too little. Fortunately parliament thinks so too. If there is anything which indisputably proves the position of dance as a poor relation, it is the amount which the government is prepared to give for dance. We are talking of a total budget for the arts of roughly seven hundred and ninety million guilders, and of this figure forty million is purely for dance. Forty out of seven hundred and ninety – I will tell you quite candidly: that amount is a thorn in my foot. And now you, the government, are going to cut back on even that amount. This is really too crazy for words. It sometimes happens that after a certain time things are not quite as good as they were. You see that too with visual artists. You no longer hear of them and twenty years later their canvasses are suddenly worth two million again. Unheard of for years. To a certain extent reviled, to a certain extent forgotten. Then people come along at a later stage who are extremely interested in their work; before you know it the regard for them shoots up again. The visual arts can certainly afford to be patient in this way. I do not understand why dance in the Netherlands may not allow itself to be similarly patient. If you know all the things that are going on at the moment, there is absolutely no need for any further worry. I have already said that the level of dancing is better than ever and I also said that there are more choreographers than ever. If there is so much talent involved, something will always come of it. Great choreographers will always come forth again in any case, in the same way as great painters and great composers. There can’t possibly be any others after Picasso, Stravinsky and Balanchine? Nonsense. People will always come again who surprise you, who are marvellous. That has always been the case throughout the history of culture and that will continue to be the case as long as the human race exists. You may not know, but the government should also allow for what is not known to it. After all, foresight is the essence of government. That was my second cliché.
There are always swings. The government must ensure continuity and not swing along with what is in and what is out. How should the government consider quality? It should not do so at all. It is for this purpose that the Netherlands has a Council for Culture. It is perfectly all right for the Council to say what it considers to be not very good. But don’t touch the grants. If things are not good enough, then they must improve. Do you achieve this by withholding money? As if it is of no consequence if the Council says that certain things must happen. Reducing the grant is obviously intended as a stimulus to greater achievement, but it is merely counterproductive. And what are we really talking about? If we are talking about public spending, what is five hundred thousand guilders? A trifling amount. I would liken it to the money you can get back on empty bottles. By way of punishment we no longer get our money back. I would say: If you first add an extra forty million and then, if you must, take away about four million, then you have the feeling that you have cut back and we can also live with it. In fact, that is a very Dutch approach.
But to be serious. Ever since I have been dancing, I have always proclaimed everywhere I came, especially abroad, that subsidies are a blessing. I will do it again here: Public funding is a blessing. Without such funding we could never have reached the position we are in today. Now the budget is being cut back. What you yourself have helped to build, you are now eagerly knocking down again. Despite the fact that we hear almost every month that a thousand million guilders have been found here and so many thousand million there. Why should there be a cutback in the arts just when this country is rolling in wealth? Why should the arts not share in the prosperity? Moreover, it is the task of you, the government, to educate. There are two very important things for a nation and these are its own language and its forms of artistic expression. Language and art are highly important. Dance is an important form of artistic expression: dance is a language. At one time schoolchildren had to go to see dance. They had to go to Scapino, for example. In school hours, you had to go and it was paid for. That has gone now. In this way you breed generations of Dutch people who have not grown up with the art of dance. And I am thinking now not only of the people who will later have to fill the theatres but also of the people who will take up positions in the arts sector and in the commercial world where they will be able to decide on financing from sponsorship and subsidies. You are always talking about the general public which has to be reached. Things have now come to the stage where in your opinion the ballet Giselle must simply give way if the general public is not sufficiently enthusiastic. I think that is what they call treatment of the symptoms. That is turning things upside down. How can the public, however wide it may be, appreciate something which it has not grown up with? How would we have known what two plus two is and four plus four if we had never been taught? It is lamentable that you neglect your educating task and that you compound your obvious lack of interest in dance, in the first place by keeping the budget for dance so painfully small and then secondly by reducing even this amount.
I am greatly honoured by the award of the Erasmus Prize, which, moreover, I consider entirely justified both as far as the art of dance in the Netherlands is concerned and as far as I myself am concerned. It is my hope that the award may assist our endeavour to continue and develop all the good things we have achieved over the past decades, so that the children who now perform for themselves in secret, as I once did, will later not only be able to find their niche in the theatre but also fulfill their destiny in a mature, inspiring cultural climate.