interview Fred Berlips: ‘If you’re dancing, then you’re dancing’

Fred Berlips and Timothy van Poucke, after Timothy's debut as Romeo in Rudi van Dantzigs 'Romeo and Julia', photo: Antoinette Mooy

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After dancing as a principal with Dutch National Ballet for almost twenty years and then teaching at the Dutch National Ballet Academy for twenty-five years, Fred Berlips is putting a stop to his career. “Making another appearance as Cinderella’s father or the master of ceremonies in The Sleeping Beauty? No way!”

Extraordinarily modest and remarkably down-to-earth, Fred Berlips (63) talks about his life, which has been in the service of dance now for nearly sixty years. But there’s one point he breaks down, which is when we talk about Ode aan Fred, the world dance piece choreographed as a tribute to him by his fellow teacher Iva Lešić for the Dutch National Ballet Academy’s recent end-of-year performance. “I knew nothing about it until a couple of weeks before the performance. I’ve been involved in Iva’s choreographic works for years, but because this year she was working with the older students and therefore in the other building, I hardly heard anything about it. Of course, I kept asking how it was going, but she just replied casually with ‘OK’. Shortly before the first stage rehearsal, I heard the news during a run-through attended by all my fellow teachers. They were all in tears, but I kept thinking ‘don’t cry Fred, don’t cry!’”
But now he can’t keep back the tears. Emotionally, he says, “But it’s the children, those kids – and Iva of course – who’ve done that for me. All those children I’ve given classes to since they were nine or ten”.
The fact that it was a world dance piece that was dedicated to him makes it an even bigger present. “As the only boy at my ballet school and later as one of the few boys at the Nel Roos Academy, I was very much pushed in the direction of classical ballet. But now I’m retiring, I sometimes think that if there’d been other boys too, then most probably I’d have wanted to join Folkloristisch Danstheater instead. I’d have loved that”.

Love of dance
His mother often told him the story of, “How we went together – I was five – to see Steffa Wine’s ballet school at Burgemeester Vening Meineszlaan, in Slotermeer, for the first time. We watched girls dancing a tarantella with a tambourine, and without the slightest hesitation I picked up a tambourine from the table and danced along”. It was Renske, an infant class teacher at Prinses Margrietschool, in Bos en Lommer, Amsterdam, who encouraged his mother to ‘send Fred to ballet classes’. “Apparently, I was always dancing for my classmates”.
It was Steffa Wine, he says, who gave him his love of dance. “She was very theatrical and extremely progressive for those days. Besides ballet, we also did a lot of folk dancing – Mexican and Spanish, etc. She placed more emphasis on the dancing side than on the technique. So later on, when I started coordinating the pre-NBA, I insisted that the children should also have classes in world dance and creative dance”.
“Steffa Wine is reputed to have been difficult, outspoken and much too strict, but I was never bothered by that at all. I thought it was fantastic at her school. So fantastic, in fact, that when Maria Koning (the successor to Nel Roos – ed.) came to watch classes once and showed an interest in me, I cried my eyes out. I really didn’t want to leave Steffa”.
However, when he finally agreed to go and watch a class at the Nel Roos Academy, he knew straight away that ‘that was it!’ “At my secondary school in Geuzenveld, there was a girl in my class who also went to ballet classes. I literally gagged her, saying ‘Don’t you ever dare tell anyone that I do ballet’. I didn’t like school. It was just something I did for my parents. I found my freedom after school hours, in the Nel Roos studios”.

Scared to death
In 1976, along with over eight hundred others, he did the annual audition for Dutch National Ballet. “I knew Rudi van Dantzig already, as he’d created a piece I’d danced in at my graduation performance. The audition was overwhelming, with all those people from all over the world. Nowadays, we know through YouTube exactly what’s ‘on sale’ internationally, and you can even watch whole classes at the Vaganova Academy online. But in those days, you had no idea. I knew there was only one way. Even if I did everything wrong, I had to show that this was something I really, really wanted. I don’t know what Rudi was thinking when he watched me working there, but I do think that he saw that at least”.
Fred started out as an élève with Dutch National Ballet, at the same time as dancers like Jeanette Vondersaar, who was a soloist already, Simon de Mowbray, Josiane Geys and the sisters Anne and Cecile Genné. “At the beginning, I danced mainly in productions by the Netherlands Opera (as it was called then). That never bothered me. After all, if you’re dancing, then you’re dancing”.
But gradually, opportunities came along, in works by Van Dantzig, Toer van Schayk, Hans van Manen and Balanchine, and later in the full-length classics as well. “I loved dancing Toer’s Dodeneiland, and Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux was a dream come true”. He says he was ‘scared to death’ at the premiere, but dancing with Caroline Iura, he succeeded in giving a memorable performance of the virtuoso duet.

Merit Award
“When I joined Dutch National Ballet, I never dreamed I’d become a principal. And actually I didn’t really feel the need. Sometimes I said to Rudi, ‘Just let me have fun doing the polonaise and mazurka in The Sleeping Beauty, rather than dancing the role of the prince’”.
Yet he did it all: Romeo in Romeo and Julia, Count Albrecht in Giselle – “the most wonderful productions, because you’re such a part of the whole story. Unlike Beauty, for example, where you come on in the hunt scene, kiss Aurora awake and then go practically straight on into the Grand Pas de Deux”. As if he can still hardly believe it himself, he says that he “even danced the role of Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake”. He laughs, “As the only one in Dutch National Ballet ever to partner two ballerinas: Jane Lord as Odette and Cathy Nussbaumer as Odile.”
Although Fred doesn’t boast of his achievements, others – including regular dance partners like Karin Schnabel, Esther Protzman and Caroline Sayo Iura – praise his exceptional qualities, as a dancer and as a partner. And last month, when he was presented with the Dansersfonds Merit Award – “the crowning point of my career” – the jury wrote, “Berlips stood out right from the beginning for his enthusiasm, energy and natural display of technical ability, and particularly for his total dedication to the action on stage”.

Survival kit
After Van Dantzig handed over his directorship to Wayne Eagling in 1991 and Alexandra Radius left the company in 1992, Fred’s dancing career was nearing its end as well. “The age of controversial Rudi ballets like Onder mijne voeten, Want wij weten niet wat we doen and Buigen of Barsten was over, and so was Rudi’s ideal of presenting real personalities on stage. Wayne brought a lot of changes, which were also to do with the times. It’s understandable, as things can’t stay the same forever”.
As a popular ballet principal, Fred had often been invited over the years to teach at amateur ballet schools in the Netherlands and at courses for dance teachers. “Along with piano Jenny”, as he fondly calls ballet pianist Jenny Reinders, “I went all over the country, from Groningen to Maastricht”.
In 1994, former artistic director Erna Droog asked him to come and teach at the Dutch National Ballet Academy. “I’d already taken the course From dancer to ballet teacher at the Theaterschool, given by Vaganova teachers Peter Silkin and Natalia Apodiakos. They taught me a great deal, which meant that afterwards I absolutely had to go to St Petersburg. I spent five months in the cold studios of the Vaganova Academy, living at the boarding school with the children. I’d taken along a whole survival kit, in order to occasionally escape the heavy Russian diet. But at the end of that period, I knew that – as far as teaching was concerned – that was the way!”

No two kids are the same
At the academy, he started by giving classes in repertoire, pas de deux and variations. “First of all, I taught Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos”. But he soon started giving classes mainly to the youngest pupils at Agamemnonstraat. “It’s always felt very much like ‘my’ school and I wanted to contribute to its growth. I’ve always followed the principle that it doesn’t matter where the children end up, if only I can encourage them to make the best of themselves, or in the case of very pushy parents that I can make sure they do what they really want to do. No two kids are the same. I’ve had highly gifted children in my class, autistic children, children from a difficult home situation, children from all corners of the country – and it’s so wonderful to see that such a class still gels together as a whole. I’m really pleased if I can manage that”.
He thinks it’s great to see how Timothy van Poucke, who’s been in his class since he was ten, is now rapidly making a career for himself with Dutch National Ballet. “A lovely, very intelligent boy – or actually a man now – from an extremely nice and very musical family”. But he’s also proud of the hundreds of children he’s seen come and go. “I’m proud of Jurriën, Vérine and Yulanne at Introdans, of Igone of course, but also of the children who didn’t go on with ballet in the end and are now engaged in a whole range of different studies or professions. You come to love them all as a matter of course. Children come to the NBA with a dream and a passion, and what makes me proudest of all is when I can give those children something – discipline or motivation – that they can use throughout their lives, also outside the ballet world”.

Jansje the housemaid
“I’m a privileged person”, he says. “And I’m extremely grateful to all the fellow teachers I’ve worked with over the past twenty-five years. It’s so nice that under most of the directors, I’ve always been able to speak out openly. Although the Dutch National Ballet Academy is an institute, we still have to find a balance between giving good dance training and doing what’s best for the children. After all, we’re there for the children! Of course we try to get the best out of them, but we’ll never force them. I’m also very happy that Ernst Meisner (artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet Academy since 2018 – ed.) is deliberately offering more opportunities to Dutch talent again. That also means you have to accept that you might not produce dozens of new stars each year. After all, it’s not every year that a new Johan Cruyff is born!”
Fred is looking forward to a new life outside dance. “Everyone asks me, ‘What are you going to do with yourself?’, but there are plenty of things I want to get down to at last. A career in dancing swallows you up completely, so it’s good to put an end to it at some point”. So no, he’s not going to start giving classes again all over the place, and neither is he going to give in to Rachel Beaujean’s repeated invitations to come and dance character roles with Dutch National Ballet. “No way! In the rehearsals with the children over the years, I’ve interpreted every role possible – from Drosselmeijer and Jansje the housemaid in The Nutcracker & the Mouse King to the father in Cinderella, and even Julia throwing a bunch of grapes to her nurse and little brother. That’s it for now. It’s enough”.

text: Astrid van Leeuwen

This interview was previously published in Dans Magazine, in the December issue of 2019, along with the quotes below.

“Fred taught me at the Dutch National Ballet Academy. His wonderful enthusiasm was always an inspiration to us to jump even higher, do more turns and work harder. Fred created an atmosphere in which you dared to ‘fly’! Just as he himself flew over the stage as a dancer; a born dancer with great technique and wonderful coordination and musicality. And a fantastic partner as well! Over the past year, in my new position with the NBA, I’ve got to know Fred as someone who still shows huge love for the talented youngsters. He’s level-headed and hard-working, and has a great sense of humour. If circumstances dictate that a class absolutely has to be cancelled, then Fred says, ‘Never mind. They’ll just become ballerinas one day later instead!’”
Ernst Meisner, artistic director of the Dutch National Ballet Academy

“When I left home for Amsterdam as a little boy of ten, Fred was so much more than just a teacher to me. The discipline he instilled in me is still so useful today, not just in my dancing career but outside it as well. The attention and love Fred gave to his pupils were invaluable to the school. It’s hard to imagine a Dutch National Ballet Academy without him, but I wish him lots of peace and quiet on his retirement”.
Jurriën Schobben, dancer with Introdans

“Fred believed in me right from the start. He’s the most affectionate man, who put his whole heart into training all his students. I always loved the fact that you could talk normally to Fred about the things that were bothering you. He was always there for me, and he still is. We’ll really miss him during the performances in which the Dutch National Ballet Academy students take part, where Fred always stood counting in the wings. And finally, I still remember how we were once sitting in the tram with a lot of Ajax fans and we (NBA students) sang along and Fred got cross, because ballerinas weren’t supposed to do things like that!”
Nancy Burer, dancer with Dutch National Ballet

“Fred has played a large part in Dutch ballet history, especially regarding the role of the man. As a ten-year-old boy, I really looked up to him. You soon found out what it meant to be a principal with Dutch National Ballet, and that’s what he’d been for years! I’m extremely happy to belong to the last generations of dancers he taught. Fred is an incredibly good teacher with a really warm heart. He’s someone who can get on really well with children and who I always felt comfortable with. He leaves behind a wonderful legacy – both as a dancer and as a teacher”.
Timothy van Poucke, dancer with Dutch National Ballet

“Something that’s always inspired me is Fred’s huge love in guiding the NBA children during their performances with Dutch National Ballet all those years. And by that I mean not just on stage, but also alongside. He taught them how to behave in the theatre, how to treat their costumes and the correct attitude to take in the wings. His enthusiasm has made literally hundreds of children fall in love with the theatre”.
Iva Lešić, NBA teacher and choreographer of Ode aan Fred



Fred Berlips in 'Romeo and Julia', photo: Jorge Fatauros

Fred Berlips with NBA-pupil Tim Peters, photo: Antoinette Mooy

Fred Berlipsand Katalene Borsboom in 'Romeo and Julia', photo: Jorge Fatauros

Fred Berlips and Caroline Sayo Iura in Tsjakovski Pas de Deux 1985, photo: Jorge Fatauros

Fred Berlips and Katalene Borsboom in 'Romeo and Julia', photo: Jorge Fatauros