Dutch National Ballet Back in Class

Dutch National Ballet has just started to welcome its dancers back in the studio for carefully managed, socially distanced classes. This is been made possible by thanks to the determination of its artistic director to overcome the difficulties posed by the Covid-19 pandemic regulations. 

TED BRANDSEN explains how this has been make possible by likening the needs of professional dancers to Olympic athletes.

First of all, we closed down earlier than the UK did and last Friday was nine weeks since we closed the building and let everyone go home. During that time, we only did class online through Zoom, etc. We began quite early on to see if we could start again, how that would have to go. The only news we had from the government – the Ministry of Culture and Education - was that sectors of society needed to make their own protocols, but they had to be approved. What took us a very long time was to find out who needed to approve that and how. So, in the end, we actually got advice from the Netherlands Olympic Committee and the National Sports Federation because they have their professional clubs and there is so much money involved in that, they had already set up a route on how to do that – including a panel of experts who are also advising the government directly. And this panel of experts was the one who was going to look at all the protocols for all the sports professional athletes and professional sports unions. We teamed up with Nederlands Dans Theater and we consulted also with the other dance companies, Introdans and Scapino, in Holland and ended up making a very extensive protocol based on the guidelines of the National Health Institute, the Netherlands Olympic Committee and the National Sports Federation, our own company doctors and the legal advice they give to all of the companies that they work with and basically common sense. We devised a whole way of how we could do it, ensuring that everyone would be safe and everything would be in order.  So we immediately thought that we have to have class in small groups. The professional athletes could go back to training from 28th April, and so we said if professional athletes can go back to train then dancers of our level can be considered equal or similar in their needs to train. So we checked with the Ministry and they agreed with that we were like athletes, and so that’s how we followed the structure of the protocol.

What we’ve done is to set up a route in the theatre  - at the moment there are only a few people working in the theatre, and everyone that comes in has to have permission either from me, the director of the opera or the general director – so it’s a very limited population. The dancers are the first big group to go back to work. We have one class that starts at 9:30 in the morning. They come in staggered and go to an individual dressing room and change, and then take their outdoor clothes in plastic bags to the studio. We have four studios where class is done simultaneously. Only in one studio is there actually a teacher and pianist, and a cameraman. He films that class, the teacher, and streams it to the three other studios. That same class is also available for those dancers who are still at home or abroad, because some of our dancers have gone home and are not in Holland at the moment. So they can do class as well. The dancers have a one-way route through the building to the four studios, and after they have finished class they have to disinfect the bit of barre they have been using. The studio is divided up into several spaces. The professional athletes have to maintain a distance of a minimum of two metres between them when they are training. We have said that we would make this a minimum of four metres to be extra safe, and so we give everyone a minimum space of four by four – 16 square metres – and then we actually double that so we have 30 to 32 metres per person in each studio for when we start to do centre. That’s why we have no more than six people at the moment in the studio – in the largest studios. In the smaller studios it is even fewer people. So, in those four studios at 9:30, we have class for about 20 people altogether, and when they’ve finished they have to put on their outside gear in the hallway – they can’t go to the showers or to the dressing rooms – and they have to leave by the indicated route and they are not allowed to meet up with anyone else. So they have a one-way route through the building. After they leave, the studios are cleaned again, and 15 minutes later the next groups come in bit by bit. When they actually come into the building, we take their temperature and anyone with a fever has to wait or go home. The four new groups actually do the same class that was taught in the morning – so we only have one teacher at the moment. Altogether there are four classes – at 9:30, 12:15, two something and four something – and so we actually have 16 classes a day and we can accommodate everyone. We are looking into a system

where we can have fewer classes with perhaps eight rather than just six people in a studio, so that more classes can be taught live with more interaction between teacher and dancer. That’s the next possible step, but we can only do that if dancers feel secure enough. For some of them, it was really a very big step to come to the theatre and to meet other people. Some dancers have been locked at home for nine weeks and only ordered food online, had it delivered to their doorstep and then waited for a day for it to be decontaminated or something. They hadn’t been outside or seen anyone, so for them it was a big moment. We’ve just seen that everyone is so happy to be back in the studio – they really need the space to be able to move. Once they’ve been here, they feel confident that every measure has been taken to guarantee their safety and to guarantee that there’s no risk of any infection – because that’s the main thing that we are doing.

We’ve been in contact with directors all over the world. We actually have a whole email chain with about a hundred directors and it’s amazing how different countries react differently, and how different the possibilities are. I was just really happy to see the other day – I was in contact with Septime Webre in Hong Kong and they are back in business. They started full-on physical contact rehearsals two weeks ago and he’s creating a whole new production which they expect to open in August. The theatre’s has been booked and everyone’s life is returning to normal; restaurants and bars are open. That gives us hope!

Here, the prime minister had a press conference two weeks ago in which he announced that from 1st June theatres can re-open but with a maximum of 30 people – that means a total of 30 people in the auditorium and on stage and backstage. So that really doesn’t do too much for us. But then from the 1st July, theatres can hold up to one hundred people and the expectation is that from 1st September that number will go up. Until the 1st September, there are no contact sports allowed, so no football, no football league, but from the 1st September contact sports will be allowed again and also, as an added interest, all sex workers will be allowed to get back to work. So when I heard that I thought, well, if they can do it we can certainly do it – get back to dancing and rehearsing. We are therefore planning our first performances in September. We assume that it’s going to be for a limited audience and, because we open in mid-September, we won’t be able to do a regular programme with just two weeks’ rehearsal. So we’ve actually moved our holidays, our summer break, to start earlier, from mid-June – because everything else was cancelled anyway – and then at the end of July we start slowly to come back to work, to normal class, next to rehearsals and the first programme will be an adapted programme, with respected social distancing, which will be comprised of some existing pieces, some duets that can be danced with people who happen to live together – because we have that in the company – and we will also create new works to give a response to this whole time, this era of being apart – but still together. And that’s going to be the theme of the first programme for September. Then we are looking also at a modestly scaled programme in October and slowly extend the possibilities, because at this point we have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C, actually, for how things will go. We are expecting that we can start back with real rehearsals from the 1st September, we also hope that by that time we can have more of an audience in. If we still have to maintain social distancing we’ve figured that, in our theatre, which has 1600 seats, we could maybe sell not even 300. So there’s no point in putting on a big show if we have to maintain social distancing in the orchestra pit and wherever – that’s all going to be too complicated. So we are looking at smaller scale but still important works and hopefully we’ll be able to reconnect with our audience and get our dancers on stage, because that’s the most important thing. We have responsibility – towards our audience, towards the public at large - because we’re a subsided company. We can’t just sit back and do nothing and wait for it all to be over. And we’re dancers, we’re artists, we’re supposed to be creative. Dancers are very resilient and they’re very literally flexible in their minds and in their bodies. We have to come up with something, we can’t afford for a whole generation of dancers to go for such a long period without dancing.