“‘You don’t Disneyfy a Rembrandt to prove it is interesting for kids”

Interviewing Roel Voorintholt (1961) never feels like a chore. The ever-courteous artistic director of Introdans is welcoming and generous with his time. Initially we would only have half an hour for our interview before Voorintholt is off to The Hague to see his dancers perform The Battle (on tour until 4 February 2020) at the Zuiderstrandtheater. But he has made a few changes to his schedule, so we can have some more breathing space. ‘I’ll have a salad on the train.’

His life has become so closely intertwined with Introdans that it is impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. His love affair with dance started in 1977 when he saw John Travolta in the movie Saturday Night Fever. ‘Some couples know it was meant to be the first time they meet. For me it felt that way when I first saw Saturday Night Fever. I think I saw the movie on Monday, and attended my first jazz ballet class by Wednesday.’

Young Voorintholt quickly became a stalwart at the Introdans dance studios, even though he hadn’t joined the company at the time. ‘I attended the ArtEZ theatre and dance academy in Arnhem, but during school holidays I’d go and train at the Introdans studio.’ Which wasn’t common practice, Voorintholt admits. ‘The academy closed up shop for two months each summer, but I knew Introdans were doing classes all through summer. So I just picked up the phone and asked them if I could join.’ Within a year Voorintholt caught his big break. ‘One of the dancers in the company was injured. They had to find a replacement and someone said: Why not ask Roel? He’s here all the time anyway. It was a real The Red Shoes moment.’

It was a perfect fit. ‘I knew early on I didn’t have the technical chops for a company like Nederlands Dans Theater or the National Ballet. I’m more of an emotional dancer. And emotion is something Introdans pieces have in spades. I liked that the company is relatively small-scale, you really feel like you are all part of one group. I also liked the democratic objective voiced by Ton Wiggers (who founded Introdans with Hans Focking, ed.), which was to make dance available to people living in the region around Arnhem, people outside the Randstad area.’

In the beginning Voorintholt was mostly involved in shows for young audiences, which weren’t performed in theatres, but in school gyms. ‘We travelled the region by train, or we hitched a ride with Ton. We installed our own equipment, put up the sets ourselves and performed two, three times a day. We always did an aftertalk, and gave the kids a chance to participate. Those were great times. I thoroughly enjoyed them.’

Voorintholt quickly discovered that, besides dancing, he enjoyed doing other, dance-adjacent, things for the company. ‘I started giving classes and lectures and set up the Friends of Introdans foundation.’ In 1989 the opportunity presented itself to expand the dance for young audiences section into a separate division, soon to be called Introdans Ensemble voor de Jeugd. Voorintholt took the lead. ‘We had a little extra money coming in, and we started building from there.’ The four dancers became twelve, and Voorintholt even started making his own choreographies, narrative pieces such as Pipi Longstocking and The Jungle Book. But he soon realized choreography wasn’t quite his spiel. ‘They were cutesy, pastel-coloured stories. To be quite honest: I didn’t really like them. I decided to leave choreography to actual choreographers.’

Then, Voorintholt had an epiphany, a rather unconventional idea at the time: bringing back already existing pieces for his younger audiences. ‘Reviving older pieces was something that was simply not done in the eighties. Everything had to be new, new, new! Choreographers didn’t want to look back. But I thought: this is probably the first ballet these kids will ever see, so instead of giving them something new that has yet to prove its worth, why not give them something we know is high quality?’

The initial response to his ‘controversial’ idea was less than supportive. ‘I was laughed at. “What kid wants to see some old piece by Hans van Manen?”’ Thankfully, Voorintholt persevered. His approach has been, and continues to be, a major contribution to the success of Introdans Ensemble voor de Jeugd. His family-focused programs have proven time and again that for dance to appeal to younger viewers, it doesn’t have to be childish. It doesn’t even have to be made with a specific youthful target audience in mind. ‘You don’t Disneyfy a Rembrandt to prove it is interesting for kids. We have quite a few works by Alwin Nikolaïs in our children’s repertoire. He has never made anything specifically for children, but it’s a match made in heaven. Of course, there are some things you have to account for when creating programs for young audiences, such as running time and attention span. We’ve shortened some pieces, always in consultation with the choreographers.’

When Voorintholt became Introdans’ artistic director in 2005 – the year Ton Wiggers was appointed general director – he extended the idea of presenting revivals to the adult programs. It is now one of the three pillars beneath the company’s policy: old masters, established artists and talented young choreographers.

Over the years Voorintholt has brought back historic pieces like The Green Table by Kurt Jooss (1932), Glen Tetley’s The Anatomy Lesson (1964) and Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen (1982) by Jiří Kylián. One of Introdans’ latest additions is José Limón’s Missa Brevis from 1958 – part of the current program The Battle.

Bringing back older pieces isn’t just a matter of economy; the practice offers a unique insight into dance history. ‘It helps people understand where contemporary dance comes from. Just after The Battle premiered, I had a discussion about Missa Brevis with one of your colleagues, who didn’t like the piece at all. But watching works like Missa Brevis helps people see where subsequent choreographers like Jiří Kylián came from. In a way, a piece like that is a time capsule. You don’t visit Rembrandt’s Nightwatch and say: “Well, it’s a bit old-fashioned, isn’t it?”’ Kylián’s Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen is a good example. ‘The costumes place it firmly in the 1980s, but when you look at the way the story transports you…The emotions are anything but old-fashioned. They still ring true. But you have to be able to give in to them.’

Although revivals are much more common today, they aren’t a matter of course for everyone, especially contemporary choreographers. ‘Fun fact: Introdans was the first company to bring back previous works by choreographers Cayetano Soto, Regina van Berkel and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. With Van Berkel and Larbi Cherkaoui other companies have now followed suit.’

Over the years Voorintholt has managed to attach numerous high-profile choreographers to Introdans, such as Nils Christe, Jiří Kylián, Hans van Manen, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin and even Lucinda Childs. What is his secret? Voorintholt considers the question for a moment. ‘I don’t know, really. Perhaps there’s a certain likeability factor at play. It may well be because I don’t have any ulterior motives. I will never revive a work by another company hoping they will return the favour. I bring back a piece because I love it, because I want people to see it. For The Battle we acquired Qutb by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, which was pretty tricky in terms of ownership, because Sidi made the piece for Sadler’s Wells, not for his own company, Eastman. In the end we made it happen, and The Battle is the richer for it.’

One important condition for all his collaborations is harmony. ‘I don’t work well with people I feel I have to fight all the time. There has to be a positive vibe in the studio. Take Lucinda Childs, she is such a sweetheart. She has become a real friend over the years.’ Next year Introdans will be honouring Childs with a full-length program, called ICOON (icon), something Voorintholt couldn’t have imagined doing ten years ago. ‘I remember when we brought her 1979 piece Dance to Introdans for the first time in 2010. People were livid! I even got letters. Audiences just didn’t know how to relate to her work. That was an instance of when I’ve really had to pave the way. Now I think audiences are ready for a full evening of Lucinda.’

Company founder Ton Wiggers once described Introdans as ‘accessible, non-elitist high-quality dance’. ‘That is how Ton started the company almost fifty years ago, and I think it still holds true. For me, the joy of dancing is key. A piece has to evoke something in the viewer. I think one of the best current examples is The Hunt by Robert Battle, which is the closing act in The Battle. Even if you’ve never seen a dance performance, you simply cannot escape the energy, the skill, the virtuosity of the piece.’

Introdans offers dance for everyone, says Voorintholt. ‘Our slogan is “Introdans moves you” (Introdans beweegt je) for good reason. We intend to include everyone. The whole debate these days about “inclusion”, well, that’s something we’ve been doing for years and years. Adriaan Luteijn (the artistic manager of Introdans Interactie and Voorintholt’s partner) has been inviting people with disabilities to collaborate with Introdans Interactie for twenty years. We’ve crossed that bridge. To us, inclusion is self-evident.’

The 2021/2022 season will be centred around Introdans’ fiftieth anniversary. ‘We want to make our golden jubilee about the highlights. The audience will get a vote as well.’ When Introdans turns fifty, Voorintholt will have been there for 38. He has a lot to be proud of. ‘I’m so thankful to have been part of this company for so many years. Seeing it develop from four dancers in a school gym to six, to twelve, to currently 75 people working here. And knowing I’ve played my part.’

His gratitude is especially touching in light of the calamity that overcame him a little over six years ago. In October 2013, Voorintholt suffered a debilitating brain haemorrhage. Nobody knew if he would be able to walk again, let alone retake the reigns of the company. ‘I live for dance. I just couldn’t imagine never being able to perform my job again.’ Voorintholt is very open about the experience, about the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. Coming back has made him more focused, more rigorous. ‘Memorizing things now takes a conscious effort, so at the end of every day I take the time to decide what stays and what goes. The good and important things I store on my “hard drive”, the bad and unimportant go into the bin.’ His drive and determination are truly awe-inspiring. His first goal after the accident was to give a speech at the 25th anniversary of Introdans Ensemble for the Jeugd, exactly one year after his illness. He gave the speech.

Memories of that speech came flooding back when he received a Special Award during the Dutch Ballet Gala last November. A prize awarded by Dansersfonds ’79, founded by ballet icons Alexandra Radius and Han Ebbelaar. ‘I remember that first speech from 2014 well. I was so emotional, I struggled with my words. But during the Ballet Gala it was like nothing had ever happened: I was there, I was present, I was walking straight and reciting my speech from memory. I looked out into the audience, and thought: Look at me! That memory has gone straight to my hard drive.’

Over the years Voorintholt has received every possible accolade. From an Arnhems Meisje – an award for promoting Arnhem – to a knighthood (Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau), from the Jiří Kylián Ring to a Golden Swan. Voorintholt doesn’t let it get to his head. ‘I’m not in it for the awards, I’m doing this because I love my profession. But I do really appreciate the recognition those awards give to the group. These are turbulent times. We are in the process of writing our next big subsidy application. Receiving an award that says: yes, you are on the right track, gives you confidence.’

Voorintholt shows no signs of slowing down. He doesn’t think there is a single secret ingredient to being a good artistic director. ‘Keso Dekker (renowned costume and décor designer, ed.) once told me: “You have good taste.” That isn’t really something you can learn. You also need a discerning eye. Assembling an evening-length program is like designing a menu. All the elements have to come together. And you have to take chances. You can strive to produce five-star productions every time, but that’s just not realistic. Sometimes you just have to allow for the possibility of failure. Most importantly: don’t swim with the tide. Plot your own course, and stick with it.’

Photo: Eva Broekema