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About the Change

Wayne Eagling on
Ballet into the 21st Century

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Wayne Eagling, Artistic Director, Dutch National Ballet in conversation with Brendan McCarthy

Ask an artistic director what he most wishes to hear discussed at Dance East’s Rural Retreat and there is a remarkable uniformity about the answer – globalisation. Like his colleagues in other companies, Wayne Eagling, the artistic director of Dutch National Ballet (DNB or, in Dutch, HNB, Het Nationale Ballet), wrestles with the issue of his company’s distinctiveness. “We all do the same repertory. We all do Onegin. Apart from a few homegrown choreographers, the repertory of ABT is the same as that of the Royal Ballet. We have Makarova’s Bayadere at ABT and Makarova’s Bayadere at Helsinki. Is it a good thing to see Manon everywhere in the world, or is it better for directors to keep a degree of exclusivity for their own companies?”

Dutch National Ballet, based in Amsterdam, was founded in 1961. Eagling, the third director in its history (he succeeded Rudi Van Dantzig) has been in charge for almost thirteen years. Next June he will make way for a successor, Ted Bransen. With seventy-eight dancers, DNB is the only classical ensemble in the Netherlands and it has a considerable international reputation.

“Is it a good thing to see Manon everywhere in the world, or is it better for directors to keep a degree of exclusivity for their own companies?”
Wayne Eagling


DNB has a distinctive style and signature, which rests primarily on its “heritage works”, the older pieces by Hans Van Manen, Toer Van Schayk and Rudi Van Dantzig. As well as performing the 19th century classics is perhaps the primary European interpreter of Balanchine. Its local audience will rarely see other major classical companies perform works such as Onegin. Eagling’s decision to programme it for DNB is, he says, inevitable, as there are few choreographers today creating full-length works “that are any good”.

Distinctive Programming

DNB’s near neighbour is Jiri Kylian’s NDT, based in The Hague, just forty minutes away. Eagling has considered asking Kylian to create work for DNB, “but it’s a bit too close”. Mats Ek is excluded for similar reasons: he frequently works with NDT. Exclusivity matters to Eagling. He has not programmed Nureyev’s Don Quixote, preferring to await a version that was DNB’s own. He also declined Nureyev’s Nutcracker, and decided instead to choreograph an in-house version in tandem with Toer Van Schayk. “Nutcracker and Mouse King”, is set in Amsterdam on Sinterklaas Day, December 5th and the company has just celebrated its hundredth performance. There is no tree and no Kingdom of the Sweets. It is less saccharine than the versions most usually seen in Britain and the United States. Eagling has recently sold the production to Finnish Ballet, appropriately adapted to a Finnish village setting, with local characters, and a Santa Claus accompanied in Finnish tradition by a goat.

Developing young choreographers has been at the kernel of Eagling’s stewardship of DNB. In his time as artistic director, he has commissioned forty new works, several of them full-length ballets. It is a good record: in his thirteen years there, three new talents have emerged, Ted Bransen, Eagling’s successor (“I gave him one of his first professional opportunities”), has created five new works for DNB. Krystof Pastor has made seven ballets, one of them a full-length work, while David Dawson has made three pieces. Of this group, only one is Dutch and this creates tensions. Some of Eagling’s critics, nostalgic for the heyday of Van Manen, Van Schayk and Van Dantzig, loudly demand works by Dutch choreographers. The pressures on Eagling have been considerable, notably from the local press. He is unbending: “My concern more is for good choreographers.”

The director/choreographer’s dilemma.

Eagling accepts that being an artistic director has meant compromising his own choreographic ambitions. “It is a difficult job to do both. If you are making a new piece, and there is another new piece on the programme, and the other choreographer is in difficulty and needs more time, you tend to sacrifice your own time. I did anyway – to make things

“Everyone expects a wild success. That’s the problem. Sometimes you have to accept failure. Even Balanchine had some failures.”
Wayne Eagling

more comfortable for the guest choreographer.” The demands of administration are also, he admits, a distraction to his creativity.

Managing the creativity of emerging choreographers has, he agrees, become more difficult. “Everyone expects a wild success. That’s the problem. Sometimes you have to accept failure. Even Balanchine had some failures. If you believe in a choreographer, you give them the opportunity to make mistakes, and should not be swayed by the press saying what a bad director you are. You have to have a certain eye and be able to say: “it didn’t work, but they have potential to go on. It’s a bit like being England football manager. You can’t win being a director.”

Dancer Power

DNB does not live in isolation from the extremely democratic nature of Dutch society. Its dancers demand actively to be consulted. “I don’t mind that”, Eagling says. “It’s the nature of dancers nowadays that they don’t accept the rule of the director who says ‘shut up and get in your place’ – and quite right. There are very few directors around the world who really work like that anymore. Look at Ross Stretton – dancer power! It’s good that dancers have freedom to say what they want. Ultimately someone has to make a decision and it is the nature of things that there will always be someone disappointed and someone happy.” He has also noticed that today’s dancers are more likely to demand individual attention: “Everyone expects to be fed what they need to do. Everybody expects to be taught individually. When’s my rehearsal? Not just the cast rehearsal. People do expect a lot of individual attention.”

Preparing to be an artistic director

Asked what might have prepared him for the role of artistic director, Wayne Eagling replied that, to his mind, one learnt on the job. He doubted that there could be a ‘school for artistic directors’. The role required management awareness, and an understanding of the financial implications of artistic decisions, rather than specific financial competencies. An understanding of dance and of people was crucial. “You don’t really have to have been a great dancer or choreographer. It depends too on the company. If you’re someone like Jiri Kylian, you can get by, by being a good director by the strength of your choreography. To be director of the Royal Ballet, you must have people skills.”

The ability to surround oneself with a team which complemented the director’s own skills was vital; colleagues who would ensure the company’s continued quality and to whom the director could confidently delegate other productions, when he is occupied with a particular work. The director/choreographer was a special case. “Generally choreographers tend to be self-centred and selfish. They can be great when they are doing their own works: when other things impinge,

“I think ballet is only stuck from an elitist critical perspective of a small group of people who have been and seen it and are bored by it”
Wayne Eagling

they need teams around them that make sure ‘Swan Lake’ should be ‘this good’ so that you don’t have to be in the studio telling the corps how to point their feet.”

‘New’ is not equivalent to ‘Good’

Wayne Eagling rejects the proposition that ballet is ‘stuck’. “I think it is only stuck from an elitist critical perspective of a small group of people who have been and seen it and are bored by it. Their idea of something good is ‘new’. ‘New’ is not necessarily ‘good’. Only ‘good’ is good’. Personally I don’t have a problem seeing Swan Lake, even though it is old fashioned. I don’t have a problem looking at the Night Watch of Rembrandt, because it is still good. Ballet is not a stuck art form.” Eagling qualifies this somewhat, saying that there are few choreographers creating interesting new works that would become the classics of the future.

The word ‘ballet’ in mainland Europe has a broader and more inclusive definition than that understood in Britain. “Here it is not tutus and pointe shoes. I prefer to call it ‘dance’ myself. The word ‘ballet’ tends to give the impression of

“I’m not so stuck on the word ‘ballet’. The word ‘dance’ is a much truer reflection of what all major dance companies do nowadays.”
Wayne Eagling

‘Swan Lake’: does that exclude Balanchine or Kurt Jooss, because it is not on pointe or Twyla Tharp or Martha Graham. There’s dance: for me if you are director of a ballet company, it should encompass all forms of dance. It seems a bit archaic. People think of Swan Lake and fairies and tutus and pointe shoes. But it could be Voluntaries by Glen Tetley. How would you categorise that? Ballet? Contemporary dance? I’m not so stuck on the word ‘ballet’. The word ‘dance’ is a much truer reflection of what all major dance companies do nowadays.”

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