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About the Change

Paul Lightfoot

and Artistic Adviser
Nederlands Dans Theater

by Ian Palmer

© Nederlands Dans Theater

'Shutters Shut' reviews

'Signing Off' reviews

'Silent Screen' reviews

'Sh-Boom' reviews

Lightfoot (dancer) in reviews

NDT reviews

NDT Website

Ian Palmer reviews

Paul Lightfoot and his partner, the Spanish dancer Sol Leon, have been resident choreographers at Nederlands Dans Theater since 2002 and artistic advisers, along with legendary former Artistic Director, Jiri Kylian, since 2003. Born in Kingsley in Cheshire, Lightfoot trained at the Royal Ballet School when in 1985, upon being late for class, he was spotted by Kylian who invited him to join NDT 2 and later NDT 1, where he began making his mark as a brilliant dancer. In 1988, his third year with NDT, he also revealed an astute talent for choreography during the annual workshop and began regularly creating works for all three companies. From 1991 he has done so in collaboration with Sol Leon, with whom he regularly danced. Their work garners ecstatic headlines throughout Europe, although often courts controversy amongst critics in the UK.

However, NDT and the Lightfoot/Leon partnership have an almost cult following in Edinburgh, where they regularly perform at the International Festival. This year they will be bringing the company, in the final week of the Festival, to showcase an entire evening of works by the Lightfoot/Leon partnership. The works to be performed are Silent Screen, Sh-Boom (which was nominated for an Olivier Award), Shutters Shut and Signing Off. I caught up with Paul Lightfoot on the telephone, just an hour before curtain up, whilst he was on tour with NDT 1 in Japan...

I began by asking him how the tour was going.

Good thanks. Weíre nearly done. Itís our last show and then itís the summer vacation.

And how are you spending the summer?

Well actually Sol and I are going to work with street children in Bangladesh, so weíre going to check it out. Weíre flying to Dakar tomorrow and weíre going to scope the scene a little bit, see how we can create the money for it and then, in December, weíre planning to go there for two or three weeks and do movement therapy with them. We really felt like it was the time to do something like this.


Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot in rehearsal
© Nederlands Dans Theater

What made you want to do that?

Well, I had a sabbatical two years ago and I was in contact with a lady and the project just sprung out of nowhere and seemed to make so much sense. Sometimes we are at such a high level working with our art and our expression that I think it is really important to explore another side that is a bit more real. Itís going to be very interesting, although I think we have been thrown in at the deep end. I have not been in touch with any form of poverty or charity work like this ever, and I think I had this vision that I was going to be like Fraulein Maria in the Sound of Music bike-riding through Salzburg with a guitar but I have a feeling itís not going to be like that! You just donít know whatís going to happen.

No indeed; the hills are not really alive with the sound of music. And then youíre coming on to Edinburgh and presumably that is your first performance?

Yes itís the first performance of the season. For me and Sol it is such a fantastic feeling - Edinburgh is just the cream on the cake. I love it up there. I think itís such a great festival and everything is linking up. Itís Brianís [Brian McMaster, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Festival] last festival and itís also my 40th birthday on the first night.

And itís also a pretty big programme for you in that it is the first time youíve presented an entire evening of your work in the UK.

Yes indeed. I have only ever done it a couple of times before, but not in the UK Ė once in Holland with NDT 2 and that was fantastic. Itís funny, when you put some of your work together to make a full evening, which actually I have never been used to, itís very educational. Itís important how you make the programme - looking at the works - how they differ, whatís good and not good about combining them and it makes you look in general at your own creativity. There is also that selfish side where you look on it as an experiment, but I am really pleased with the combination. I think it will be a monster of an evening, but I donít think itís too long, I think weíre just on the edge. Keep the interval short and the wine flowing!

Sounds good to me! Itís an evening that is framed by Philip Glass isnít it, in that you begin and end with works set to his music?

Yes it is. We only started working with his music in 2003 but since then we havenít touched anybody else. Itís not by choice. I suppose itís just that once you get involved in one composerís compositions you just have to keep exploring. Before the last piece I did think, ďOh, letís not use Philip, letís look aroundĒ and I did, but I had a concept and the music was just there and it looked like it was just waiting to be put together.

What is it about the Glass music?

He is such a creative composer and he does get the brunt of things sometimes. I think people think he is just on one level, but actually there are so many levels and so much freedom within his music and he is always working in collaboration. I wouldnít class him a symphonic composer, he always like to be attached to theatre or dance or film. He is interested in all the expressive arts and his music combines with it. For us it is always a total journey. And if you can stand in a studio for six weeks with the same piece of music and never get bored then that is just great and I buy it. I have never had a dull moment with his music and there is so much good natural dance rhythm in it. He is descriptive yet not too specific so therefore I would say it is a very NDT thing. It is as if we can be narrative without being too explicit and that is also what his music is doing so it gives us direction and it also gives us freedom.


Sol Leon in rehearsal for Shoot the Moon
© Nederlands Dans Theater

And are you planning to collaborate directly?

Yes we are. Weíre in the process of getting it organized now, so thatís coming in the future, which I am totally thrilled about. Next year is his seventieth birthday and we have our first full length coming up. But to be honest I want to explore more with him so I am not looking at writing a commission together. I think that is a little far fetched. I like the idea of having the contact and building it up and I think it would nice to make something long-term rather than just flash-in-the-pan.

This full length piece, do you see this as a narrative driven piece? Itís not something I think you have really explored before.

Oh I have no idea. I am not a profound intellectual choreographer, I just go with the gut feeling and Sol and I both work the same way in that respect. We have found in the last three pieces that there is a definite narrative appearing and I have not been afraid of it and frankly I have enjoyed it a lot. Particularly the last piece we made, which you wonít unfortunately be seeing in Edinburgh, called Shoot the Moon. We havenít taken a story directly but this really has something specific. People really read it and yet itís free enough still to be non-narrative. But it is a definite story and I am really enjoying creating characters. So I would like to think that we are on a track toward something more narrative again, but I would not say that it would be in the sense that people would expect a narrative ballet to be. But it does interest me. In fact, before I started dancing I thought I was going to be an actor. I love the theatre so much. At the moment, creating concepts on stage, I find myself leaning towards more theatrical aspects, (as theatre and not just theatricality) and the stage is turning into a play-set more than a dance-set.

Is that because of the nature of the collaboration between yourself and Sol Leon?

I think it is something about our choreography and people do say that it is like watching a dialogue. We always get that question ďhow do you create together, how does that work, blah, blah, blahÖ?Ē and the simple answer is that it is like watching a monologue or a dialogue. A monologue is an artistís impression of something they want to express, but with us itís different. You have two ideas and somehow they intertwine and there is a conversation. There is a mother and a father, darkness and light, Ying and Yang, whatever you want to call it.

I recall Subject to Change which you presented at Sadlerís Wells a couple of years back and you chose Schubertís Death and the Maiden quartet, which is in itself the dialogue between the young maiden and death and although it wasnít specifically narrative driven I did see the conversational elements .

That piece, over all, was the beginning of something more narrative. We were dealing with something else. We had a very dear friend who was exceedingly sick and she had had a brain haemorrhage at the time we were creating the piece. So we were in the hospital with her every day and then going back to the studio so the piece is actually about her confronting the possibility of death. So it did have a narrative and what seemed to come through was that we really werenít afraid to put our emotions into the piece. So it was very raw and was a little bit brutal for us, though I donít think as much for the viewer. The viewer got some emotions but for us it was much too descriptive. It was a little bit too therapeutic. That is what we hooked onto and it is a dangerous thing because somehow all our pieces recently are dealing with things that our in our hearts and inside ourselves and expressing it on stage can get personally quite raw. I find it is quite a risky business because you are dealing with something quite painful inside you.


Paul Lightfoot
© Nederlands Dans Theater

You are not bringing this to Edinburgh?

No we are bringing Shutters Shut, which is the crazy poem with Gertrude Stein. In a way Shutters is a study, itís an exercise. We are attaching it to Signing Off which will be the last piece of the evening by Philip Glass, which is also the first of his compositions we used. That also was a very raw time because we were pulling away from NDT. That was our final piece and we left the following week, actually signing off. We took our sabbatical and it was very open ended as to what was going to happen in the following twelve months with regard to our future with the company. So it really was a transitional time.

But you are back again with NDT?

Oh gosh yes. In actual fact, I wonít say that piece, because it wasnít that piece, but that period set a lot of things in motion deep in the company. We had a lot of things happening - Hans van Manen pulled himself out as House Choreographer, Sol and I did too, and the direction was definitely going through changes. We were all dealing with the changes of Jiri [Kylian] stepping down as Director and it was a very big transition for NDT, almost a re-assessment of itself, but a really good one. And as soon as the wheels were in motion it felt like a good direction.

You are obviously bandied around as the heirs of Kylian, do you feel that as a great weight upon your shoulders?

To be honest I would rather shed it. I have had it for years. I was always called the ďCrown PrinceĒ in Holland and it was always quite annoying because we are so completely different and I definitely donít have a feeling to be a Director. Thatís part of the reason why I like to collaborate with Sol so much because I donít feel like being a lone creative personality. I donít think I am the mould for a Director. People often take it for granted that you are a choreographer so you are going to be a Director, or you are a Director so you must be a choreographer. I donít agree with that theory. Being a Director is a real gift and hopefully being a choreographer too but I think the two donít necessarily intertwine. Jiri is still a very big creative source within the company and I think we are too now, and I love to share that role with him. We are very similar, he was my professional Papa for fifteen years, and I love that we are growing apart from each other Ė we have our own tracks, but at the same time we have our ties. He is a genius and it is great to have him around and itís great to be very different and itís great to disagree. I think artistically the company has found a lot of solidarity again, particularly with the dancers. I think the group has really re-united. The choreographers did take the limelight at NDT for quite a while but the ultimate truth is that it was the group that made the company special. We have got to the point again where the group has really bonded together and itís such a professional troupe now and they are versatile. Iím not just saying that because itís the company I work for, I really do think it is a fantastic group of dancers.

And weíre seeing them all in Edinburgh arenít we?

Most of them. Unfortunately itís a bit male loaded. We havenít got enough women, but definitely the women you see you will not forget.


Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot in rehearsal for Shoot the Moon
© Nederlands Dans Theater

And are you both still dancing?

Yes and no. We are not dancing for NDT anymore but we have done a few galas and I appreciate it because for my own part I really miss dancing. I was doing quite well for two years and then I realized I did really miss it. I think I am quite in shape. We are very physical choreographers so we are working hard in the studios. Actually I am healthier now than I was when I was dancing.

Are we going to see more of you in the UK? Sadly we donít get to see much of your work over here.

On the whole we are pretty exclusive to NDT and it is purely because we are massively over-loaded with work. We have three companies, two creations per year and all our works to look after. It is very difficult to get out. I havenít actually had any proposals from anybody in the UK at the moment. I had some talks with Rambert a while back but nothing specific. Itís always difficult to catch us because we are also planning quite far ahead. But I do see it as a very important thing to do. We always thought ďhow cool, weíre very exclusiveĒ. Most choreographers if they start having a certain success start to spread their work out quite regularly, but it was something we just didnít have the time for, so we never did. It was good for us and for NDT. A lot of companies start to homogenize their looks and I think for NDT, whether you like it or you donít, our work was something specific. Now it would be good to move out more often, so maybe something will come up.

Well I do hope we get to see more of you both in Edinburgh and the rest of the UK.

I do know there is a UK tour planned for NDT1. NDT 2 comes regularly and they are good supporters of our work, but there are so many works for NDT1 which we have not brought to the UK. The UK is getting better with its theatres, which have always been a problem for us, because we are a quite difficult technically, so there are a lot of cities now which have capable theatres. I think within the next two years there is a big UK tour, so keep your fingers crossed.

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