Nils Christe: the dancers’ dance maker

The dancer Greta Dato faces her partner, stringing lines of movement into an ongoing flood of speech. Her body is both charged with energy and languid with the weight of liquid movement. As she moves, repeating the same phrase sitting, kneeling, and standing, with a building immediacy, no observer can deny that she is communicating something powerful.

A woman’s voice speaks over the music. I have been told that the language is Indonesian, but my Western ear is filled with unfamiliar yet beautiful and weighty sounds, as mystifying as Greta’s dance.

So, what are these women saying? Well, there’s the short answer and the long answer. Short answer: Greta is dancing the piece SYNC by the Dutch choreographer Nils Christe, to music by Ludovico Einaudi. Long answer: Like many choreographers, Nils Christe has a lot to say, and uses dance to express it best. But unlike many choreographers, Nils and his partner Annegien Sneep give each dance to the dancers during a creation process, making each staging a collaboration. Their ability to draw unique qualities out of each individual is what made me want to talk with them. How is it even possible? So I sat with them one afternoon in late March at the Cottbus Staatstheater, just before the premiere of Im Fluss der Zeit, to try to make sense of it. (Full disclosure: the dancer in me overpowers the journalist–for this interview, I use first names.)

Nils didn’t need any prompting. The moment he sat down, he started talking:

Nils: I can’t stop the Philip Glass music running through my head. We were up late last night listening to it.

Lucy: Glass music definitely has that effect. Were you listening for a particular project?

Nils: We go to Dusseldorf next week to do a new piece using Glass music. I knew this would happen. That’s why I didn’t let myself listen until now.

Lucy: How do you choose the music for a new piece?

Nils: I usually just pick something that I like. Or, sometimes the company has a suggestion based on where the piece fits in a program.

Lucy: So you’re pretty flexible about it.

Nils: Well, the music has to inspire me, but I’m always open to trying something new. Actually, SYNC is a perfect example. We were making a new piece for the Washington Ballet in 1996, and I had planned to use Glass music then. But right before rehearsals started, we found out that the rights were too expensive. The director played a CD by  Ludovico Einaudi at a dinner party, and I said “I think that will work!” We started rehearsals for SYNC the next day.

Lucy: And twenty-five years later, you finally get to use Glass.

The women of SYNC“, Staatstheater Cottbus, photo by Marlies Kross

Annegien joined us at the table. Even though Nils is recognized as the choreographer, I knew from working with the two of them in the studio that she’s the person responsible for teaching the movements to the dancers, and the stickler for details.

Here are some of my notes from a rehearsal of SYNC, to give an idea of Annegien’s job:

Opening: never look out to the audience, pop the jump, let the arms gradually fall, I lead the marches (wrap back), elbow in on counts 4 and 8 (3 count movement), turn to stand up on 4, arms down later to set line, offstage at new music, leave earlier

Solo: skim in first–not fifth, slicing turn ends side, final plie to land, strong position in enface front kick, shoulders and head in Spanish, look out for Denise, Look at Emily when entering, Nico when possible.

Lucy: Did you dance together before making dances?

Annegien: Yes. We met in the early 70’s. Nils was already a dancer in NDT (Netherlands Dans Theater) and I came to audition.

Nils: I told (the director) “You have to hire her!”

Annegien: I was part of the first group of apprentices that year, the precursor to NDT2. Now everything is so international, but back them, we were all Dutch, two girls and two boys.

Nils: It was really the golden age at NDT, the seven years before 1974 (the year Jiri Kylian came) and the seven years after. We had six house choreographers: Hans van Manen, Glen Tetley, Benjamin Harkarvy, John Butler, Jaap Flier, Charles Sarney.

Lucy: Is that when you started choreographing?

Nils: I was surrounded by so much creativity all the time, and I had to try it out myself. By 1980 I had a lot of offers from companies to make pieces, so I took a year leave from NDT. When I came back a year later, it was clear to me that I’d already moved on.

Lucy: And Annegien, when did you start assisting?

Annegien: Well, I studied Benesh Movement Notation in London. Back then Jiri didn’t have an assistant, so I worked alongside him for awhile, setting and rehearsing his works.

Lucy: And how did you decide to work with Nils?

Annegien: Honestly, I missed him when he was gone, which was most of the time. We found this solution pretty early on.

Nils: And once I saw how much better she was at cleaning things up than I was, I couldn’t work without her anymore.

Lucy: Your working relationship is so fluid. Do you ever run into conflict when working together?

Annegien: Well, we have different jobs. Nils pours out. He gets an idea and runs with it. I reproduce. His process is organic, and mine is analytical. One couldn’t function without the other.

Lucy: What was the creation process like for you in the beginning?

Nils: Paris Opera Ballet was probably my big break, so to speak, and a big learning experience. Nureyev invited me to choreograph in 1983. We did Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements in 1984, and  Before Nightfall in 1985, an incredible piece to Martinu music. It was tricky to do a new piece there, the company structure is so strong.

Lucy: Did it keep you from having creative free-reign?

Annegien: back then, you couldn’t cast a dancer out of rank. So a principal role had to be performed by an etoile dancer.

Nils: We had this incredible dancer understudying the role, a corps member, and I really had to fight to get her into the cast. That was Isabelle Guerin.

Lucy: Well you have a good eye. (Guerin later became an etoile dancer in Paris.)

Nils: I do my best to be receptive to what the energy is like in the studio. It would be a waste of time to just bark my own ideas at the dancers all the time. It’s much more fun when it’s a collaboration. Its the difference between trying to show myself in the choreography, or using the dancer’s quailities. The movement always looks a million times better when the dancer identifies with it in some way.

Annegien: And today, we rely on that collaboration. We always like to go through the re-creation process. We prefer to come, work with an old piece first, adapting it to the new dancers and getting to know them, before doing a whole new piece.

Lucy: Are there any new parts to the version of SYNC you did for Cottbus?

Annegien: Greta’s solo is completely new (running and sliding on pointe, covering her mouth and rolling like a serpent on her belly). We’ve adapted the group sections numerous times depending on the number of dancers we have.

Nils: We always have to take the stage’s width into account–that determines the size of the tress (the metal structure that spans the width of the stage) and how many dancers can fit across.

Lucy: So as soon as we premiere SYNC in Cottbus, you’re off to the next project. You must always be working

Annegien: Well, we used to work even more. We’ve done more than eighty ballets. Now we’re retired. We do about four or five creations a year, plus staging old pieces.

I told them that it would be difficult to see them leave. Nils and Annegien had been so supportive and encouraging, working to bring the best out of each of us. By the premier, we believed in our own abilities enough to take the risk needed to make SYNC speak for itself.

Annegien: It’s hard for us to leave, too. We build relationships with the dancers, and it’s always difficult to go. It’s also hard for us to walk away from the piece. It’s inevitable that the quality will change. It will develop in other ways, but some of the precision will go. It just can’t be the same without us staying on top of it.

Nils: That’s why I don’t plan on assigning someone to set my work when we’re gone. It just wouldn’t be the same, so what’s the point of doing it at all? The companies will have new things to perform. They won’t need my work anymore.

Annegien: We work with dancers now because we enjoy it. It’s not about leaving a legacy behind, it’s about the conversation in the studio.

So there’s the answer. SYNC is not the choreographer’s statement, not the musician’s, and not the dancer’s. Instead, it is a manifestation of the three combined, the syncronization of ideas, personalities, and physical energy onstage.

As I prepare for our last performance of SYNC on October 30th, it’s interesting to re-visit the material in this interview. Even though we haven’t seen Nils and Annegien since the premiere, their influence still lingers over our work in the studio, and in our interpretations onstage. I’ve observed each dancer develop an individual dialogue, a unique approach to communicating the movements to the audience. By now we have an intimate attachment to the work, and a more resourceful way of articulating those sentiments into a physical expression. I may still be thinking about pulling my arm in on counts 4 and 8, but there is more of an ownership to how I move my arm. Nils and Annegian established the platform and set the track, and the rest up to us.

The men of SYNC, Staatstheater Cottbus, photo by  Marlies Kross

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