Almost exactly a year ago, Ernst Meisner had agreed to be interviewed for an article to appear here on Ballet Rising to discuss a tour that the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company would take in Indonesia, but in the intervening time between arranging the interview and it actually happening, the world went into lockdown. Unbeknownst to Meisner at that time, the Junior Company’s Indonesia tour would serve as a year-long farewell to in-person international performances for the Dutch National Ballet Junior and main companies.
But if there was a good way to initiate a year-long pause on international exchange, this was it. The Junior Company’s performances in Jakarta were so successful, recalls Meisner, “that on the very last night we had to put a big screen out in the open, outside the theater, because I think there were 500 people that couldn’t get in!”
Only days after returning from Indonesia, the company and the school were closed for the season as the pandemic began to take on international proportions.
A year later, we finally sat down via Zoom with Meisner, artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet Academy and coordinator of the Junior Company at the Dutch National Ballet, to talk about how the relationships built and the energy developed on the tour carried the Junior Company through a difficult year.
The company was invited to Indonesia by Erasmus Huis, a Dutch cultural center in Jakarta, and the company planned a rigorous schedule that included performances and various forms of cultural exchange between the Dutch-based company members, ballet dancers in Indonesia, and traditional Indonesian dancers.
The Dutch National Ballet Junior Company was not only invited to perform in some of Indonesia’s oldest theaters, which were packed beyond capacity on performance days, but the company shared the stage with NAMARINA Youth Dance, an Indonesia youth dance company affiliated with NAMARINA Dance Academy. Both companies also held class together, giving dancers time to interact and build more lasting relationships.
The exchange went beyond ballet, recalls Meisner. “Earlier on the in the week,” he explains, “we had a different way of sharing work when we met other, more traditional dance groups in Jakarta. We had an afternoon really sharing and learning Javanese dance, where our dancers learned what they were doing. Then we switched it around in the second part of the afternoon where I gave a workshop, and we grouped together our dancers and their dancers. It was very special. Through little tasks and creative moments, we really created a dance that afternoon together.”
When asked how the experience carried the company through the unexpected pandemic year, Meisner said that the Junior Company had been working on collaborative hip hop piece and recently took a hip hop class in preparation. “Just this afternoon,” Meisner explains, “we had a guy whose background is hip hop and popping because we’re going to create a new production with a mix of [ballet and hip hop]. This was his very first workshop here. And his explanation of popping and locking techniques in hip hop right away reminded all of us of that workshop we had in Indonesia because the detailed approach, very isolated movements, and isolating body parts, that was also very much the case in the workshop in Jakarta.”
Since returning from the tour, the Junior Company and the Dutch National Ballet Academy have had a somewhat unpredictable schedule of lockdowns and openings, depending on the state of the virus in the Netherlands. The company and the school were shut down for most of the spring before reopening through the fall. In the late fall, they went back into lockdown.
Unlike other companies worldwide, the Junior Company has actually been able to perform a number of times over the past year, albeit for a reduced audience, though current restrictions now prevent all performances. On one of these occasions Meisner choreographed a piece for the Junior Company. Initially, company leadership thought that dancers would need to perform in a social distanced way so Meisner chose to create mini solos for the company members. “Actually,” says Meisner, “it also sort of suited the time that we lived in.”
When in lockdown, the Junior Company has still been able to harness the past year to create enriching artistic experiences. The company continues to take class via videoconferencing. Meisner has also been creating videos of ballet classes that are available for free on YouTube through the Dutch National Ballet channel.
Meisner is hopeful about these digital opportunities. “It’s a beautiful new medium that, if used in the right way,” Meisner adds, “is a bonus to us and a great way to reach out to potential new audiences and to reach out to potential new talent.” In fact, the first ballet class the company created has received over a million views on YouTube. “I’ve had reactions and emails and postcards from people all ages from all over the world, ranging from girls to very young kids to women in the 60s who have never really had the chance to dance but thought that this was such a great way for them to start ballet—and they are loving it.”
Of course, there is another reason for the extensive focus of both the Junior and the main companies on international outreach through the Indonesia tour and now Meisner’s YouTube classes. The members of the Dutch National Ballet, including both the Junior Company and the main company, are international themselves, and, for Meisner, this is particular important for the Junior Company.
With only 12 members in the Junior Company, the dancers share much more than the stage. They share their cultures in all aspects of life, from the studio to the kitchen, and “it also come back to the studio,” adds Meisner.
Indeed, Meisner continues, “If you look at Amsterdam, Amsterdam is a multicultural city, very much so, so it’s important that we start representing that as much as we can, inside and outside.”
The company has begun to focus not only hiring diverse, international company members, but on telling new stories on stage. Meisner says that he and other members of the artistic leadership believe that it is critical that ballet feature stories of all background and that members of all culture have the opportunity to choreograph their own stories. Meisner calls this effort a “very important part of moving ballet forward.” “And again,” he notes, “that is all interconnected, that is, touring to Indonesia, meeting people there, coming back and working with choreographers from everywhere, having a very international company, and diving into different stories.”