Maggie Foyer talks to Dutch National Ballet’s Associate Artistic Director
The Dutch National Ballet, known colloquially as ‘Het’, is one of Europe’s major classical companies, boasting 75 dancers and a diverse rep of classical and cutting edge contemporary works. It is also a company bursting with enterprise and creativity; witness the Positioning Ballet conference which brought talent from across the globe to discuss the future of the art form, or Hans van Manen’s 75th birthday in 2007 that turned into a three-week gala involving 25 of his ballets performed by eight international companies.
Ted Brandsen has been artistic director since 2003 and all this time he has had Rachel Beaujean by his side. Her 40 years of dedicated service to the company was celebrated at the Gala which opened the 2017/18 season. She is now officially Associate Artistic Director and on that evening, she was honoured with the award of Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau. I caught up with her after the event to talk about her lifelong involvement with ballet and the company.
For Rachel Beaujean it was love at first sight, ‘I went to a ballet class and I loved it from the start.’ As a child she presented two different aspects; at school she appeared rather dreamy and very much in her own world while for her ballet teacher, ‘she had it all’. On her ballet teacher’s advice, she continued her studies at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. She remembers a moment in her early dance training, ‘I was in front of the mirror, stretching. I was very little – still at my amateur school and the music was playing. I remember thinking, “I just want to be here all the time”’
She joined the Dutch National Ballet in 1977, missing the audition as she had an injury but ‘Rudi (Rudi van Dantzig, the Director) loved tall girls so I joined the company’. Never quite fitting the stereotype of the ballerina in physique or in temperament, she was not a dancer to ignore and she enjoyed an extraordinary career but also, in her words, ‘a rocky ride’.
Her story of working with Hans van Manen in 5 Tangos, is well documented. It was her first year in the company and to be picked for a new creation was quite something. ‘There was this step that I couldn’t do as he was creating it. He was hammering on for five minutes, then ten minutes, then I felt ‘Oh my God’, I was in the middle of the studio, everybody was sitting down, including the principals, waiting for me. After ten minutes you don’t even know how to walk. I thought, “I need to cry. No! I am not going to cry”, but after the rehearsal I cried my eyes out and I don’t cry pretty. Then I passed Hans in the corridor and he just said, “you didn’t mind that, darling?” And I replied (with my swollen eyes), “No, of course not”, and that was the start of our long lasting work relationship because he could trust me to go very far in searching. I think a choreographer is very vulnerable when creating and when you go into that process you need the trust of the people you are working with. I think instinctively he liked me and hoped I would be somebody he could push and now, I am still working with him. As a student you are very lucky if you have a teacher who is hammering and want things. It means they are interested.’
Five years later, van Manen wrote Sarcasmen, a duet for Rachel and Clint Farha: it is a sassy piece of seduction conducted in a series of bruising bouts and it made her name. ‘Clint and I had a relationship a little bit like that in the ballet, so everything went very quickly and naturally, and it was a lot of fun.’
These were golden years in the Company. With three active choreographers, van Dantzig and Toer van Schayk in addition to van Manen, to be in a creation was the norm. ‘Now you realise it was actually very exceptional as dancers in some companies have never been in a creation. Hans would say, “In this ballet, I don’t have the lead role for you, but I want you in the corps because I need you in the studio.” It was being part of that whole creation that was important.’
Rachel danced for 20 years with the company, performing in the classics and on a wide range of modern choreographies, but she was best known for her interpretation of the works of van Manen. In 1997 she was pregnant with her second son and decided to stop dancing. ‘I felt the dancer/ choreographer relationship was over. Then Hans wrote Three Pieces for Het and dedicated it to me. It was fantastic, typically Hans, and it came just at the right moment.’
She became a ballet mistress, and in 2003 was appointed head of the artistic staff. The Dutch National have, for many years, been assiduous in identifying the repetiteurs for each work. Rachel noted how important the artistic staff are in maintaining the quality of the productions, a quality that was so evident in the recent season of The Sleeping Beauty. ‘Of course, the attention is on the choreographer, but I think it is also good to mention the team who actually put the people on stage, who coach them and make sure they grow as artists. And the corps – I think one of the most beautiful things in ballet is the corps. You’re doing it together and all feeling the same thing. This is magic, and it gives an enormous feeling of power. There is a lot of psychology in teaching a corps; not bullying them to be in line so they look like perfect soldiers, but living and breathing together. Then they get wings and it is the most beautiful thing there is.’
Rachel has mounted several very successful productions, notable Les Sylphides and Giselle. Les Sylphides holds a special place for her. John Taras, who learnt the ballet from Fokine himself, taught her the Mazurka when she was only 18. ‘I knew I didn’t fit the classical image of a ballerina and I was trying to fit into something I thought it should be, but he said, “No, Fokine made it to break away from all that. It was a modern ballet in its time and Fokine was inspired by Isadora Duncan. Those jumps and twirls are meant to free yourself”. That was a revelation. This is the strength of classical ballet: it’s not the picture, it’s the movement that comes from within. Years later, I saw film fragments of the Ballet Russes, Sylphides. It was very informal, the girls who were not dancing were waiting in the background, chatting and changing poses. It was so mobile, they did the steps and there was no holiness about it. I think that is when people can relate to things. We are all a little bit raw on the inside and that is what you want to see.’
Although Beaujean is something of an icon of Dutch contemporary dance she has a passion for the Romantic ballet. Working in partnership with Ricardo Bustamente, she produced a heartbreakingly beautiful Giselle in 2009. ‘I want to preserve those beautiful passages. We must not lose something that is so unique, and it is a lot in the hands of the people who pass it on to the next generation.’ She believes that a quality production of the classics will always have relevance to modern audiences and proved this when the company was visiting Beijing. Beaujean discovered that a Dutch Trade Mission was also there, led by the very popular Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhart van der Laan. She promptly invited him to join her at the opening performance. Van der Laan admitted he had never seen ballet before but by the curtain down he was moved to tears. ‘That is my ultimate goal. To show the beauty of the ballet, especially the white act, the abstract ones where you can fill in for yourself and you can feel.’
The team of Brandsen and Beaujean have something of a mission to keep quality ballet alive in the modern world. ‘Ted is a very good speaker and, as an international figure, he does a lot for dance on his travels. I try to do the same when I travel to other companies to set the works of Hans van Manen. Even in his works you need classically trained dancers to pull it off. You need line and arabesque, technical skills and good pointe work to be able to keep that repertoire alive. So, it is important.’ They are also reaching out to A-list Dutch celebrities, inviting them to the Gala which opens each season. For many of them this is an introduction to ballet and judging by the comments, quite an eyeopener: ‘we didn’t even know this existed, this is amazing’.
So, what’s next? Beaujean intends to tackle Raymonda, that brilliantly flawed masterpiece of classical ballet. With skill and dedication on her side, she may just be the one who returns the ballet to its former glory.