Netherlands: Dutch National Ballet

It’s fair to say that Dutch National Ballet is enjoying a golden era: last year The New York Times named DNB one of the world’s top five ballet companies, while artistic director Ted Brandsen picked up this year’s Merit Award at the Dansersfonds. Mark Powell speaks to Brandsen to find out just what it is they’re doing so right.

In short, things appear to be going rather well. Is the culture at DNB as healthy on the inside as it seems from the outside?

We’re in good shape. The company’s doing well and I’m very happy with the appreciation we’ve been getting from audiences and critics. We’re feeling confident and strong and people are proud to be dancing here. We’ve always had a good audience, but it’s very gratifying to see how it’s expanding – especially since we seem to be getting increasing numbers of young people through the door, which isn’t universally the case across the arts landscape just now.

Ted Brandsen in rehearsal © Altin Kaftira
Ted Brandsen in rehearsal © Altin Kaftira

What are you doing differently?

Well, like all organisations, there are multiple things that we do struggle with, and finance is always the worst. But we’re succeeding at the box office, which I think has to do with a number of things: the programmes we’ve presented in the last few years; the quality of the dancers, which has really risen; the amount of international exposure we’ve been getting; and also the slightly different approach we’ve taken to publicising ourselves in the Netherlands. We had an eight-part documentary series made about the company last year, which exposed us to a much wider audience than would usually see us through performances alone, and we’ve experienced a similar effect through staging performances in unusual spaces and outdoor areas.

What made you want to do the documentary series?

I think there’s an air of mystery about ballet, that’s down to the seclusion in and around the world of the dancers as so much of their work is done in isolation. Things coming together in the studio isn’t something audiences typically get to see, but I think it’s very much a trait of our times that people are becoming more curious about pro- cesses and backgrounds. The public wants to connect with the person behind the images they see on stage. Removing barriers seems be a way of rekindling a real enthusiasm for what’s going on. When we have potential sponsors come by, I often take them into the studio. Passion is a horribly overused word, but it is a passionate love affair that these artists have with their profession, and that can be very infectious.

DNB's Cool Brittania © Petrovsky & Ramone
DNB’s Cool Brittania © Petrovsky & Ramone

What other recent trends or innovations in the sector have you been pleased to see?

I think there are some very positive things happening nowadays, particularly the willingness to collaborate in areas that even 10-15 years ago wouldn’t really have been possible. That’s always good for the artform. It’s important for arts institutions to develop strong identities, but at the same time we are living in a very big world where we can share and learn from one another so easily. Plus, from a practical and economical point of view, it’s much more achievable to co-produce, and virtually impossible to do everything on your own. It’s also positive to see so many really interesting young choreographers emerging. For a while it looked as though Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky were the only names out there, but there are so many greatly talented people now getting recognition.

Read: How to reach the next generation

I’m also excited about the apparent return to narrative structures: for a time, just like in music, it seemed that everything had to become more academic and abstract. But today there seems to be a bit of a return to storytelling, and an acceptance of the fact that there’s more than one way to be a dancer and to use the language of classical ballet.

In an arts environment, where the weight of history and heritage meets the need to appeal to new audiences, how important is branding and what approach have you taken?

We’re very deliberate in our attempts to hit a perfect balance between modern and classical in the tone of all our branding. I think now, more than ever, we’re very aware of that need to be forward-looking while remaining true to our heritage. It’s a necessary approach if you’re going to be tuned in to more modern funding models. Here the government has always had a strong history of subsidising and supporting the arts, and we didn’t have so much of a focus on private funding at all. That is now shifting quite rapidly, but luckily we saw it coming 10 years ago, so we have a large circle of benefactors and a number of corporate sponsors that we collaborate with on fundraising events.

Ted Brandsen © Angela Sterling
Ted Brandsen © Angela Sterling

The split between box office, government subsidy, private donors and corporate sponsors is constantly shifting and evolving, and we’re highly conscious of the need to make more money ourselves – it used to be that in many European countries major arts organisations were fully funded by the government and had little incentive to change things or to reach out to the audience. That much has definitely changed in all areas of the arts.

What would you identify as your key aims for the company during your tenure as director, in terms of defining your legacy?

I have incredible respect for the people who came before me in starting and establishing this company, so all I really want to do is add to that the things that I’ve learned. I think ballet has gone through periods in relatively recent times when people have questioned its relevance, or suggested it might be a dying art form (just as they’ve done so many times with the novel, the opera, and most other formats), but look at us now. I think it’s very clear that ballet is absolutely vital and relevant and of today. My main drive and ambition is to share that belief with as many people as possible. If we get more people coming to watch ballet, and more kids learning to dance – any kind of dance, just understanding what it feels like to be able to express yourself with music and your own body – that’s really what I’m striving for.