Posted on January 29, 2019
January is that month where all the clichés come out. After all the exuberance – and excesses – of Christmas, it feels good to refocus, take stock of what’s been and aim to fill the endeavours of the coming year with happy pragmatism. Sometimes I get irritated at the pressure to work on oneself, to set New Year’s resolutions, to eat well on top of all of the cerebral introspection, and to fulfil all of your #fitnessgoals. So this year I’m not setting any resolutions. Instead, I’m letting the people and places around me inspire and provoke. Unfamiliar surroundings always place your thoughts in a new perspective and in a career like ballet, where so much of your daily life is based on routine, it’s liberating to have a new backcloth to your life, no matter if it’s for the briefest of moments. So, for two days at December’s close, I travelled to Amsterdam and, whilst satisfying that streak of wanderlust I think a lot of dancers have, I also had the pleasure of stumbling upon a fantastic open studio in the heart of the city.
Finding a place to take a good ballet class in an unfamiliar location is harder than you might think. Whenever I’m on a break from my regular work, one of my first concerns is where to go to find a nurturing but robust ballet class that will keep me ticking over until the regular dancing season resumes. In London or New York, it’s somewhat easier because most dancers know about Pineapple Studios, Danceworks, or the New York institution Steps on Broadway. In other places it can be trickier. Sometimes you might be able to use your web of contacts to snatch class with a city’s resident ballet company, but, short of taking class with Dutch National Ballet, a friend who works for the Amsterdam-based company suggested I check out classes run at the Henny Jurriëns Foundation (HJS), named after Henny Jurriëns, one of The Netherland’s best-loved dancers.
Jurriëns was noted for his generous nature during a career where he performed with Norwegian National Ballet, became a principal with the Dutch National Ballet and was appointed director of Royal Winnipeg Ballet in 1988. He died in 1989. Established as a non-profit organisation in 1996, HJS has become one of the most important post-academic open dance training centres in Europe. I was ashamed to say I’d never heard about the institution before. The foundation is directed by Gary Feingold, who I had the pleasure of meeting serendipitously after my class. I enjoyed hearing from him how the canals that make Amsterdam such a distinctive place meant that the Foundation has used former churches to offer their classes. Populated by buildings floating on water that retain much of Amsterdam’s 17th century spirit, any spaces large enough to be used as a dance studio have supportive columns that divide up the plot. Fortunately, the city’s churches seemed not to be defined by this feature. The current space is HJS’ third church since 1996. Located in the De Baarsjes neighbourhood, HJS operates out of the Chassé Dance Studios in a large former Roman Catholic church that was turned into a hotel and cultural hub by developer Lenny Balkissoon. I think the honourable intention to fuse business and culture demonstrates the ethos of this European city.
In the conversation I had with Feingold in the studio’s coffee shop, he spoke about how important it is to have a good studio for professionals to go to outside of an existing company. A fantastic open studio is an important component to any city’s dance ecology. Amsterdam is home to one of the world’s foremost ballet companies, but many independent practitioners and smaller enterprises also help to make up a vibrant dance scene. The studio’s offering of professional-level classes has a two-fold benefit in that a dancer can maintain their technique, but can also be exposed to new people who might open up avenues not necessarily accessible to them within the cut and thrust of daily life in a company. In addition to the classes, I was intrigued by the studio’s laboratory provisions. These are sessions held regularly with choreographers on “specific themes” so that makers can “research with dancers in an open atmosphere”. It’s the kind of pertinent and vital exploratory work our industry needs. In a large company, time, space and resources can be finite so there isn’t the safety net to take creative risks. This need is being interrogated in the US by initiatives such as the Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University. In the summer of 2018, I had the good fortune to meet leading figures from the Center, and hear about their aims to push and interrogate what ballet is right now – they left me buzzing.
At only €10 for class, with no membership fee or pre-registration required, HJS has an attractive positive over other open studios. This simplicity and refinement of approach feels remarkable cool and gloriously Dutch. It went a long way in making me feel at ease in the class I took taught by Klaas Backx, a former dancer with Royal Ballet of Flanders, the Angelin Preljocaj Company and Scapino Ballet Rotterdam. With a wonderful pianist, Backx helped me remember with joy how European training is characterised by clarity of line. It might have been the vibe from the European setting, but what remains from the well-structured class is the way my mind started to think about the work of choreographers like Hans Van Manen or William Forsythe and the flavour of their movement, so different from George Balanchine’s razor-sharp economy. I can’t articulate it any better than to say it’s a “central-European” feeling – how do you define the difference between world cities? Despite the gradual homogenising of repertoires across the world, you can still feel divergence in the DNA of ballet classes from place to place. It’s wonderful that dancers can enjoy all of these outlooks. I wrote in a New Year blog two years ago how dancers can be “victims of comparison” throughout their careers, but now I’m seeing how to use contrast and comparison to deepen my work rather than undermine it. Taking a single class in Amsterdam empowered me and fed my curiosity.
Pictured: Classes taking place at the Henny Jurriëns Foundation in Amsterdam. Photographs by Jelle Ljntema. The picture of the front of the Henny Jurriëns Foundation building is by Bob Karman.