A dance maker in his own spring

A dance maker in his own spring

The Dutch Choreographer Joost Vrouenraets talks about breaking out on his own and his inspiration for his Rite of Spring.

HEERLEN, NETHERLANDS – As dancers with Ballet Béjart de Lausanne, Joost Vrouenraets and Maïté Guérin had illustrious performance careers ahead of them.  A place in the company meant the opportunity to work with one of ballet’s choreographic geniuses, Maurice Béjart.  His work has been sought by institutions such as the Paris Opera Ballet and legendary artists like Maya Plisetskaya and Suzanne Farrell.

And yet, in 2005 Vrouenraets and Guerin both left the Swiss company in search of more.   With an artistic urge to create their own work, the pair relocated to Heerlen, in the south of the Netherlands (Vrouenraets’ home), to form Gotra Ballet.

Today Vrouenraets, a Dutch choreographer, is enjoying international success.

Outside of Gotra Ballet, he created Ex Orbis for the Béjart Ballet Lausanne and Schwarze Heimat for Das Theater Osnabrück in Germany. He’s won the Prijs van de Nederlandse Dansdagen in 2008 for most promising new choreographer as well as Inspiratie Prijs van Het Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds Limburg in 2012.

In less than a decade, Gotra Ballet has performed Vrouenraets’ works in France, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands, not only in theaters but also venues atypical for dance, such as cathedrals and stone factories.  Within the Netherlands, Gotra has expanded to run an annual pre-professional summer academy called Step Forward, as well as Care to Dance, an outreach program to benefit those diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease (both led by Guérin).  As an artistic director and choreographer, Vrouenraets continually pushes the boundaries of contemporary dance in building a connection with society.

Last spring, Dallas, Texas audiences saw Vrouenraets’ creative productivity.   Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Dance Ensemble commissioned him to choreograph his own ballet honoring the 100th anniversary of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, which caused a riot when it premiered in Paris in 1913.  Many companies around the world commissioned living choreographers to create their own versions commemorating the centennial. Vrouenraets’ work debuted at SMU’s Bob Hope Theater and at Dallas’s Winspear Opera House last spring to praise and acclaim. He will eventually re-stage his Rite of Spring at other U.S. and European universities.

In his version, his multi-layered exploration of the word spring and the turbulent impassioned score create a striking dystopia, where ambitious youth and their manipulative nature dominate.

The choreographer Joost Vrouenraets. Photo courtesy of Joost Vrouenraets.

The choreographer Joost Vrouenraets. Photo courtesy of Joost Vrouenraets.

Vrouenraets recently spoke with World Arts Today in his Netherlands studio about his artistic vision of Gotra Ballet and his unique contemporary take on the Rite of Spring.

Where does the name “Gotra” come from?

JV: It’s Sanskrit.  Gotra can be a group of people that are bound together, not by blood, but they see it as a certain family. These people come together in this “gotra” for the same reason, for the same vision. And the aim of the group is to find enlightenment or development. “Gotra” is also potential, so it’s not just a group of people with the same direction but it’s also something inside every individual, like the essence of development.  It’s like a seed.

How do you begin to create movement?

JV: I don’t work from a style. I work from a principle and idea, things around the music, architecture, cinematography . . . they somehow determine the style. It doesn’t mean that every piece is a different style, but I don’t want the style to dictate. You can say that the works [are] highly physical… with a lot of shifts [of weight], which already gives it a direction of style. And I like to work with dancers who I can push to a certain physical danger.  That means that the dancers have to be aware of their body, and they also have to be open to let go of safety and verticality. I love also to have the “wow” [factor] but not exactly “wow” in what you see at the circus but circus of emotions.

How would you characterize your works?

JV: It’s rough, but also detailed.  There’s a level of abstraction but also a lot of narrative; I almost call this genuine fiction. Real people of flesh and blood, [but] at the same time, I play with what we don’t have in real life. Like how we sit [normally] in a chair… is great, but what more can we do than just sit in a chair like this? So I play poetically and theatrically with the body.

How did working with Béjart influence you as a choreographer or a dancer?

JV: I think he gave me the trust and the courage to not limit yourself, and if you believe or desire something deeply, even if it’s really big, you explore it and you go for it. And this was also what Maurice did.  At that time and even now, not a lot of artists do that… If you really want to make your own visual language, your own body language, [to go] towards these kinds of themes and fascinations, do it.  It opened up my eyes a lot when I was in his world.

What did you learn from dancing Béjart’s Rite of Spring?

JV: The first thing I danced onstage with Maurice was [his] Rite of Spring.  The first time that I heard the music [and] danced to it, I really fell in love with [it]. It’s more than music.  I heard it, and I went into a certain universe… I see myself in this music. It’s explosive. There’s narrative in it. It’s so avant-garde, but there’s also tradition- a lot of primitivism. It’s a bridge between what has not come yet and what has been done already.

I remember the first time I rehearsed it in a studio with Maurice. There’s this moment called “le Portrait de Famille” [Family Portrait], and we had done a lot of [choreography already].  At that moment, you can drop your energy a little, and I fainted…. I was embarrassed because Maurice was there.  But he was there, and that’s why I pushed it, and [why] I fainted. But then he said, ‘That’s great, Joost. I loved it.’ And I understood something from it. I understood that you go for it, and you don’t put boundaries with this music…. So every time I danced this piece, there’s no economizing, you’re in it or you’re out of it, like a rollercoaster. You go in it and you surrender. The rails are the music and you trust in it.

What was your reaction when SMU commissioned you?

JV: In the beginning [of my dance career], I had this dream of creating a Rite of Spring. Ever since I met the Rite of Spring, I thought it would be great to make [my] own.  I wrote a plan and gave it to my board of directors [at Gotra Ballet] and they were very enthusiastic. But I’m a big dreamer, and I don’t compromise myself in dreaming big, with an orchestra and more than 20 dancers in mind [for my version]. And no way I could get money to support [it].  So, I said, “Okay, I’ll leave [the idea] there, and it will grow in time.” Very soon after, I got a phone call from SMU. And they said, ‘Joost, we want you to make a Rite of Spring.’ My first reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s great, the universe is talking with me.’  

What was the first step in the process of choreographing Rite of Spring?

JV: I started the process of divergent thinking. I started to ask myself what is “spring,” for me, not necessarily flowers that pop up.  Freshness and youth came up. Spring is giving birth, giving chances for new things to come up. Somehow, I also saw a sociopolitical connection there. I think it has always been like this, that certain authorities give chances to people that are under [them], prodigies, minorities… And there is this game I see where it’s almost manipulative. Authorities would see, ‘Ok, I want this kind of outcome from people’ so [they] manipulate them. And it became a little bit the core of my work.

How did you visually build this manipulative society for the stage?

JV: I wanted to work with props, not just a bare stage. Manipulation and spring [combining], those two things, I thought about greenhouses. Greenhouses are a perfect metaphor for our abilities to manipulate. Inside a greenhouse, we grow tomatoes, we grow everything we like. We are creating, being God almost. We make the sunlight. We make the rain. So, I asked the set designer to created five greenhouses onstage. They are a symbol for many things, houses, presents, a home… people thought about the holocaust even –– again divergent thinking.

Did choreographing on students influence this concept?

JV: Yes, my idea of spring, manipulation, youth and being in the spring of your life, the best people who would be able to translate this is young people, students.  They have yet to come out into this world. They have not come out from the ground, like little flowers.  And they are really eager to come out.  The students are literally in the spring of their life.  It was perfect.

So, I started to base my situation on the dancers, 21 dancers, with 13 women and 7 guys. All together they form a group of 21 virgins, fresh, pure and young.  People [who] are in the spring of their lives. I wanted to show the beauty and the sadness of this. And this Rite of Spring [world], they are very ambitious. They have everything they want but they want to have more. Their ambition is to create a superhuman, to have the best human being.  So, they create this puppet, which needs to have a soul.  The puppet chooses one of those twenty-one to mate with, and this is the chosen maiden.  But in my Rite of Spring, she is not sacrificed, she is overcoming. She is destroying the puppet and showing the community that this is not good what we’re doing here.   So, she’s glorifying an inner strength, the strength of being an outcast. 


(Top photo: Joost Vrouenraet’s Rite of Spring for SMU Dance Ensemble. Photo courtesy of SMU.)

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