Samuel Wuersten: “I think dance is one of the strongest and most distinguishing art forms the Netherlands has to offer.”

Looking back, many steps in the formidable career of Samuel Wuersten, artistic director of Holland Dance Festival, can be attributed to chance. It was chance that brought him to The Netherlands, chance that led him to enroll at Codarts, and chance that he ended up at Holland Dance.

Wuersten came to the Netherlands from Switzerland in 1985, he tells me over coffee at Korzo Theater, the headquarters for both dance production house Korzo and Holland Dance Festival, in The Hague. ‘I went to Rotterdam to visit a friend who was studying at Codarts to become a dance teacher. I knew nothing about the country, except that there were supposed to be windmills, let alone what kind of dance opportunities were on offer. The only thing I did know was that there weren’t any dance opportunities in Switzerland.’ While tagging along during one of his friend’s dance classes, he was spotted by then director Ciska van Dijk. ‘Male dancers were an exotic species back then, I think no more than three specimens were attending Codarts at the time. When Ciska van Dijk saw me, she immediately came over and asked: “How would you feel about joining us as a student?” I thought: “Why not?”’

His appointment as artistic director for Holland Dance Festival happened in a similar way. ‘I attended the 1993 edition purely as a visitor – I had danced in its previous edition, in 1991, in a choreography by Ton Simons. While I was there I got into a conversation with artistic director Marc Jonkers. He had been heading the festival since its inception 1987, but was about to move to Berlin. Marc ended up offering me his job.’ Wuersten didn’t need much time to come to a decision. ‘I’m always open to new adventures. I don’t really stop and think: “Could I? Should I?” I usually just say “Yes”.’

Now Wuersten has started his 25th year as head of the festival, which is held every other year (alternating with CaDance Festival). This 17th edition will be his 12th as artistic director, but every edition feels like a first. ‘That’s the nature of these kinds of festivals. Every moment, every year, is unique. It is only the current moment that counts, not the fifteen or sixteen that went before.’

Whereas CaDance Festival is mostly oriented on homegrown contemporary dance, Holland Dance Festival offers international dance for broad audiences. ‘That was the starting point from the very beginning. We want to offer a window to the dance world, giving Dutch audiences an opportunity to see dance performances that haven’t been been shown in the Netherlands before. Around 90 percent of our shows are Dutch premieres. What I really love about watching dance from all over the world, is that, even though dance shares a common physicality, it is far from uniform. Dance is always influenced by its surroundings, by its culture, by its history. With some countries, dance is embedded in their cultural DNA. Think of the Maori in New Zealand, or the dance culture in Brazil. There, dancing is part of everyday life. In the Netherlands, as in most of Europe, it is less so.’ Which doesn’t mean Dutch dance isn’t of a high standard. On the contrary, says Wuersten. ‘I think dance is one of the strongest and most distinguishing art forms the Netherlands has to offer. But we have to be careful not to become complacent, sitting back and thinking: “Here in the Netherlands we already have a beautiful and renowned dance company called Nederlands Dans Theater. Why look further?”

Dance and, just as importantly, the dancer take centre stage at the festival. Wuersten famously managed to lure the renowned French dancer Sylvie Guillem to his first ever edition. Dancer Tim Persent, the Netherlands’ own national treasure, was invited to put together his own personal program in 2012. ‘In the end, I’m still a dancer at heart. Anything else I do and have done, teaching, choreographing, programming, has all resulted from being a dancer. In the Netherlands, dance tends to be all about the choreographer. Jiří Kylián! Hans van Manen! They are our gods. The dancers are just “the dancers”. They are an afterthought.’ Which isn’t the case everywhere, Wuersten emphasizes. ‘When I was younger and working as a dancer in New York, the New York Times would often post a review. Even if they had only fifteen lines, they would mention every dancer by name, just as a matter of respect. My very first edition of Holland Dance Festival, called “A Dancer’s Tale”, was composed around the point of view of the dancer. People reacted as if I was mad.’ Now, slowly, things are beginning to shift. ‘The idea of a choreographer as sole leader directing the troupe has become more and more outdated. Look at the pieces by William Forsythe; his dancers are always credited as co-creators.’

This 17th edition sees performances from many distinctive dance companies, from as many distinct cultures – from South Korea (Jeon Misook Dance Company) to Israel (Batsheva Dance Company), and from Switzerland (Prototype Status & Jasmine Morand) to San Francisco (AXIS Dance Company). There is one common denominator: it is all high-quality dance. ‘It is a physical language everyone can understand, but not everyone can speak. It is the kind of dance where you can really appreciate the skill, the virtuosity, the command of movement of the body. I’m a bit wary of the kinds of dance where I feel like my grandmother could do it, if she made a little effort.’

But this doesn’t mean Holland Dance Festival is all about ‘pretty dancers dancing pretty’ – a common critique. ‘It’s a sentiment that keeps following me around. I won’t deny I love beautiful dance and beautiful dancers, but beauty has so many different flavours. I love the NDT and their dancers, but I also love the AXIS dancers, an inclusive dance company that will be coming to the festival this edition, or Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch. They’re all beautiful in their own way. It is all in the eye of the beholder.’

Similarly, Wuersten isn’t really bothered when people who see the festival as ‘Samuel Wuersten’s Dance Favourites’. ‘Of course the shows are my favourites! As the artistic director the festival is my responsibility. I would never serve up a show I didn’t like just because it would look good. Thankfully, I have many favourites.’

Accessibility is key. ‘It is something I always keep in mind when programming: “How will a performance play here, at the festival?” A piece may work wonders in its country of origin, but fall flat anywhere else. “Accessible” is often seen as kind of a dirty word in combination with the arts, but I think we would be foolish not to take it seriously. There are so many people who only go to dance occasionally, or who would love to, but just don’t know where to start. Another phrase I hear quite often is: “Oh, it is so mainstream!” I wish dance were mainstream! That way I wouldn’t have to work so hard promoting it.’

Fact is, says Wuersten, in the Netherlands we may have high quality dance, but not the audience or the appreciation it deserves. ‘Not by a long shot. The annual number of visits to dance shows averages  between 600,000 and 800,000. On a population of seventeen million people, I think there is still a lot of room for improvement. I would love it if people said “let’s go see a dance performance tonight” just as easily as they say “let’s go grab a movie.” There is such great dance on offer, but we don’t have the audiences to back it up.’

Wuersten thinks he knows part of the reason why audiences have such a hard time finding their way to a dance venue. ‘I think we, the dance field, were really slow to jump on the PR wagon. For a long time, “marketing” and “publicity” were seen as dirty words, just as “accessibility”. But look at the meteoric rise over the years of musicals (according to a report by the VSCD, musical saw a rise of fifteen percent in visitor numbers in 2019, ed.). They invested heavily, and are now reaping the profits.’

Wuersten knows the importance of Holland Dance Festival as a brand, and accordingly, has started branching out. Last September the festival, together with Luxor Theater and with help of Stichting Droom en Daad, brought the Alvin Ailey Dance Festival to Rotterdam for four exclusive performances. ‘That way we could kill two birds with one stone. While logistically it just wasn’t possible to get Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to play the Holland Dance Festival, we still got to bring the renowned company to the Netherlands. By branching out we also built credit. With theatres, but also with audiences. This way Holland Dance becomes a stamp of approval: Holland Dance Presents. It would be great if we could expand this into something even bigger. Maybe we could have international tours in our off-years, or have international companies travel around the country in the aftermath of the festival.’

For this 17th edition the festival is already expanding its reach beyond its headquarters in the Hague. There are also shows at Theater de Veste in Delft (Talent on the Move 2020, Companie Hervé Koubi), at Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (Batsheva Dance Company) and there is a first collaboration with Theaters Tilburg with work by Prototype Status & Jasmine Morand and Alterballetto. The return of the latter, Italian-based company to Holland Dance Festival is one for which Wuersten is personally excited. ‘I’m really looking forward to their performance of Bliss by Johan Inger. It is such a wonderful piece that isn’t necessarily about anything except about the joy of dancing.’

You may be surprised to hear it, but being artistic director of Holland Dance Festival isn’t even his only job. From early on, Wuersten has combined these responsibilities with those as director of dance education at Codarts in Rotterdam – besides holding positions as advisor, board member and jury member for organisations like the Kylián Foundation, Prix de Lausanne, Benois de la Danse and Concours de Paris, to name but a few. ‘I always shamelessly used my international connections as an artistic director for Codarts, because I fervently believe in the importance of giving young students access to the best minds and bodies contemporary dance has to offer.’ Wuersten just stopped at Codarts after working there for twenty years, but he is still active in a similar position at the dance academy in Zurich, Switzerland.

A lot has changed since he left Switzerland in 1985. Where once the country offered no real opportunities for a dancer to move forward, now dance education has bloomed. ‘There are two bachelor studies for contemporary dance – one in Lausanne, one in Zurich – two ballet institutes and one school for urban dance. Sometimes you wonder: “Where will they go? Aren’t there too many academies for too few jobs?” This is a dilemma I struggled with when I just started as a director at Codarts. Instead of taking on this hopeless task, I decided to completely focus on the quality of education, making Codarts the best contemporary dance school it can be. Just as I am now doing in Zurich. Switzerland does have a special place in my heart, even though I consider myself a cosmopolitan – I started studying and working abroad when I was 15. Still, at this time in my life – I am now 58 – it feels really good to contribute to the education of future generations in my homeland.

Photo: Joris-Jan Bos

Holland Dance Festival. From 22 January – 8 February. Holland Dance Festival