Pupils of the Dutch National Ballet Academy in Swan Lake

‘You always want to be even better than you are’

Rudi van Dantzig thought it was essential that children danced in the peasants’ party in the first act of Swan Lake. So since the premiere in 1988, many young dancers have taken on the role of peasant child – a very demanding role for their age. For the programme book of Swan Lake, we talked to eight pupils of the Dutch National Ballet Academy who are among the latest generation to take part. “Which Dutch National Ballet dancer will be lifting me up on stage? I really don’t mind. So long as he doesn’t drop me.”

The corona pandemic, they say, barely affected their opportunities to perform with Dutch National Ballet. Julia Lemaitre (13), Juliet te Lintelo (12), Keira Wiss (13), Ichiro Yanagi (14), Dirk Hoogenbosch (14), Chris Ligthart (14), Luc Smith (13) and Jacob Wysny (13) all danced in The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The four girls also took part in Raymonda, and Julia and Juliet performed in Giselle as well, when they were still pre-NBA pupils.

Juliet says, “It’s such fun to be on stage and to get the chance to perform for an audience.” Keira says, “What I really like is that you can get into another character and really become immersed in your role.” Ichiro adds, “And you get to wear the most wonderful costumes, with make-up to match. InRaymonda, I was a flower girl and I had the most beautiful pink dress.”

But things do go wrong sometimes, they say, giggling. Juliet tells, In Giselle, the cart I had to be lifted onto, as a peasant child, nearly overturned once.” Julia says, “I was a young lady in the same ballet. I’d been told to stay close behind the dancers in front of me when I came on stage, but I accidentally stepped on the train of one of their dresses, and a dancer hissed, ‘You have to keep more distance’.”


Second home

All the boys have also taken part in at least one other production besides The Nutcracker and the Mouse King: in Frida, Prometheus or  the Coppelia film, or in II barbiere di Siviglia with Dutch National Opera. Jacob says, “We may have missed the odd opportunity because of corona, but we’ve still had plenty to do.” Dirk says, “I really enjoy the rehearsals with the dancers of Dutch National Ballet. It’s so great to watch all those adult dancers at work.” Chris adds, “It’s also very special to see how a performance is put together from up close. First the rehearsals in the studio, and then how everything eventually comes together on stage.” Jacob says, “When I’m in Dutch National Opera & Ballet, I really feel that this is what I want. I feel so at home there.”

The corona pandemic even brought Luc an extra opportunity. “The first time I was going to take part in The Nutcracker and the Mouse King I was cast as one of the children at the party. But the production had to be postponed for a year because of the lockdown, and the second time around I got to dance the role of Frits, Clara’s younger brother. That time as well, the new corona measures meant we couldn’t perform a whole series, but I still got to dance two live performances and one livestream.”



The four boys – for whom, unlike the girls, there were no roles in Raymonda – think it’s wonderful that soon they can ‘appear again at last’ in a whole series of performances for a packed theatre. Luc says, “Soon after the summer holiday, we heard we could take part in Swan Lake.” Jacob says, “But we didn’t know then that all the boys in our class, NBA 4, would be taking part, spread over three casts.” Keira, who is in NBA 3 like the other three girls, says, “First, we were told that the girls from NBA 4 would be taking part, so for us it was a fantastic surprise that we could suddenly do the audition.”

Shortly before the autumn holiday, Judy Maelor Thomas, ballet mistress with Dutch National Ballet, came to Agamemnonstraat in Amsterdam-Zuid, where the pupils of NBA 1 to 4 do their classes, to hold the audition. Julia thought it was “pretty scary”. Juliet remarks, “She also gave plenty of corrections during the audition.” Ichiro adds, “And the worst thing is you can’t always show what you want to show. You always want to be even better than you are.” Chris says matter-of-factly, “Auditions are stressful anyhow.” Jacob says, “If I’m insecure, you see it in my body language. So if I know something’s important, I consciously press the switch and just go for it. Then everything just goes automatically, and I even manage to put feeling into the steps.” Keira comments, “It was a bit irritating that the audition was on Thursday and we didn’t hear the results till Monday. So we spent the whole weekend really wound up.”



Both dancing and acting

Ichiro, who moved to the Netherlands from Japan three years ago, saw Swan Lake once in her homeland, and Julia saw the ballet when she visited her grandma in Russia. Only Juliet and Dirk – who also saw a version once in Italy – have seen a live performance of the Dutch National Ballet’s production, choreographed by Rudi van Dantzig, when they were very young. Dirk says, “What I remember most of all is that the scenery was so beautiful.” And Juliet adds, “Actually, all I remember was that the performance was very long.”

The fact that their role in Van Dantzig’s production is so big – they’re on stage nearly all the time in Act 1 – is something they find ‘really cool and very frightening’ at the same time. Julia says, “In previous productions, it involved mainly running around and acting.” Juliet adds, “But now we’ve got a really big dancing role.” Keira says, “And we have to do steps we haven’t learned yet in our NBA 3 classes.” Luc adds, “So it took quite a long time to learn the choreography. It was only two weeks ago that we learned the last steps.” Julia says, “You have to remember the order of all those steps, and act at the same time.”

The latter is a big challenge, they say. Chris remarks, “Often, you have to react to an adult dancer, but of course during the rehearsals at school, that dancer isn’t there.” Dirk agrees, “So that’s difficult, having nobody to look at while you’re acting.” Luc says, “But luckily Dario (Dario Elia, the teacher rehearsing the ballet with them – ed.) sometimes plays the role of the adult dancer for a moment.”

Dario also talks to them regularly about how Rudi van Dantzig and designer Toer van Schayk visualised certain scenes, such as those in which two of the boys get into a fight at the back of the stage. Chris says, “They’re having a discussion that ends in anger.” Luc adds, “According to Dario, Rudi wanted us to get really angry with each other.” And Jacob explains, “Dario also taught us to look around us really well. And to be flexible. If something doesn’t go according to plan, we have to be able to respond to it.” Luc adds, “He also knows exactly which moments we have to be careful not to get in the way.”


Shoulder lift

What makes it all extra exciting is that Swan Lake is the first production in which the children really dance in couples. Ichiro says, “I found that really difficult at the beginning. I’d never danced with a boy before.” Dirk says, “We (the boys – ed.) are in NBA 4 and the girls are in NBA 3, so we hadn’t had much contact before this.” Julia says, “At the first rehearsals, we were all a bit shy.” And Chris adds, “But now it doesn’t feel so awkward anymore.”

Something a few of them are still concerned about is that in the production all eight of them get lifted by a male dancer from Dutch National Ballet onto his shoulder. Julia says, “It all has to happen very quickly as well.” Juliet adds, “But it mustn’t look rushed or strange.” Chris remarks, “In the rehearsals, we’ve all been lifted once by Dario already. You don’t realise it, but suddenly he’s behind you.” Keira says, “So that you don’t fall, you have to lean forwards a bit, but it still has to look as if you’re sitting upright.” Luc says, “And when you come down, then you shouldn’t lean forwards anymore.” Jacob adds, “Because then you fall forwards and lose control.” Chris says, “And then during the lift, you also have to watch out that you don’t kick the dancer by bringing your legs too far back.”

When asked which male dancer they’d most like to lift them up, the girls look blank. Juliet says, “Our idols are the ballerinas, of course.” Julia says, “What they can do is what we’ll have to be able to do later.” Juliet says, “My big role model is Olga Smirnova.” Julia and Ichiro cry in chorus, “Riho Sakamoto!”, and Keira can’t choose between Maia Makhateli and Floor Eimers.

Jacob’s heroes are Constantine Allen and Jakob Feyferlik, while the other three boys don’t really have a preference. Chris says, “I focus more on the performance as a whole.” Luc says, “In the corps de ballet, I think some are better than others, but the soloists are all fantastic.”

So who would they like to lift them then? Chris would like, “Someone who’s good at it.” Luc adds, “In Nutcracker, there was a dancer who was no good at lifting at all, so I really hope I get someone strong.” Juliet says, “I really don’t mind who, so long as I don’t fall.” And Jacob explains, “Because in that case, it’s mainly you who looks a fool.”

Astrid van Leeuwen