Introducing Ernst Meisner and René Vlemmix: ‘We’re really good at treading water’

Since September, the National Ballet Academy has had a new management team. Ernst Meisner, himself an ex-pupil of the academy, has taken on the artistic responsibilities of the National Ballet Academy, alongside his position as artistic coordinator of Dutch National Ballet’s Junior Company. René Vlemmix, who has previously worked with Springdance and Nederlands Dans Theater, has been appointed managing director. In the following interview, they introduce themselves and talk about their plans and ideas.

‘A speed dating session’, is how Ernst Meisner and René Vlemmix laughingly describe their first meeting, last September, in the office of Ted Brandsen, artistic director of Dutch National Ballet. René: ‘I went to meet Ted and Ernst with Jan Zoet (director of the Academy of Theatre and Dance – ed.). I didn’t know Ernst, but after half an hour, it was settled for me. It felt right and that’s what’s most important. You have to feel that click with one another’. Ernst: ‘In that half hour, René had introduced himself. And I thought, well then I’ll do the same. One week later, there we were together in the office at the NBA!’ René: ‘So rather than first coming up with a vision or something together, we just stepped in knowing that we both had the academy’s very best interests at heart’. Ernst, laughing: ‘So yes, we jumped in at the deep end. But we’re really good at treading water’.

Calm and enjoyment
Their appointment followed a period of great commotion and uncertainty, in which the National Ballet Academy actually functioned without a director for a few months, after the departure of Jean-Yves Esquerre. As the artistic coordinator of the Junior Company, Ernst was quite close to all the goings on, but he says: ‘Now it’s time to look to the future. René and I are ushering in a new phase, with new plans’. René: ‘In the period before we arrived, the support team and the teachers had to take on a lot of extra responsibilities. Ernst and I want to focus on restoring calm and ensuring that everyone in the team is doing what they were employed to do and what they’re good at’. Ernst: ‘And what they enjoy doing! They achieved fantastic things together in those months, but it’s good that everyone can now get their breath back and return to concentrating on their own tasks’.
But what’s it like for Ernst himself? Hasn’t he bitten off more than he can chew in his dual role of artistic coordinator of the Junior Company and artistic director of the National Ballet Academy? Ernst: ‘The Junior Company has been around for over five years now. The organisation is ‘established’ and things are going well. More staff have joined: ballet mistress Caroline Iura now has a permanent position with the Junior Company, and Marijn Rademaker is giving classes and rehearsing ballets. All of that gives me more scope. But even more importantly, I think the combination of the two jobs is totally logical. By bringing the NBA and Junior Company even closer together, as it were, the continuous learning line from school, to junior company to main company can only go from strength to strength’.

The new directors have clear ambitions. Ernst: ‘Every 8, 9 and 10-year-old in the Netherlands who loves dancing needs to know that the National Ballet Academy exists and that it is affiliated to Dutch National Ballet’. So according to Ernst, scouting for new Dutch talent must be tackled much more broadly than has been the case in recent years. ‘The basic requirement for young children is that they have physical talent, which is something that’s not only found at ballet schools. So we need to broaden our horizons, by scouting in gymnasiums, for example, or at the annual Jump Day at Dutch National Ballet and during Dutch National Opera & Ballet’s education and participation projects. And I’d like to introduce a boys’ course again, not just with lessons in ballet, but also in acrobatics, power training and breakdancing, etc’. And the new artistic director also thinks it’s essential to have more diversity. ‘I want to work towards a situation where you can say that the National Ballet Academy reflects the community in the Netherlands and in Amsterdam. And I think it’s really important not just to be a school where we train the best dancers, but also one where our students become all-round, pleasant people who are aware of the dance profession within the broader social context’.

Links to society
René: ‘We’re now looking into the NBA’s relationships with current partners and other parties in society, and at how we could make improvements. For example, we recently had a visit from a big group of teachers from the Gerrit van de Veen College (secondary school in Amsterdam that works with the NBA – ed.), and we’re discussing how we can link up schooling and dance training even better’.
Ernst: ‘The NBA’s quality is exceptionally high, mostly due to a really good team of teachers who know what’s needed to train children to become top-level professional dancers. But of course there’s always room for improvement. Especially now we live in very different times to ten or twenty years ago. Ballet training has to be in sync with that and keep pace with certain changes in society’.
At the same time, the collaboration with Dutch National Ballet will have to be further intensified. René: ‘Actually, that will happen automatically with the arrival of Ernst. And that’s good, because we want to optimise that collaboration’. Ernst: ‘It helps, of course, that I really know what the Junior Company and Dutch National Ballet are looking for, so we at NBA can meet those needs better. As an international company, Dutch National Ballet has its own distinctive identity, so it’s important for our students to master the repertoire and styles that form that identity’.

Healthy approach
Does that mean we’ll also be seeing works choreographed by Ernst himself in the NBA’s repertoire before long? Ernst laughs: ‘I’m not here to promote my own work. Although I don’t want to rule anything out for the future, I’ve got plenty of other things to think about right now in this new job’.
René: ‘Ernst and I have a clear division of tasks. And that’s necessary in view of all the current plans and ideas. Although I won’t be directly involved in the content of dance matters, I will be asking questions, in order to ensure we stay on track and to encourage Ernst and the teaching team to occasionally see things from another perspective’.
Although the two men have initially been appointed for one year, they definitely intend to stay on. René: ‘At the moment, we’re obviously developing a long-term vision, but of course there’ll be points in the coming months where our performance will be critically evaluated. That’s a healthy approach!’ Ernst: ‘We have to take a serious look at how it suits everyone, especially as we’ve made such an abrupt start as a new duo. But right from the start I’ve said: I’m not someone who shuts the door behind me again after just one year’.

Text: Astrid van Leeuwen