Choreographer and dancer Rudi van Dantzig died at his home in Amsterdam on Thursday at the age of 78. He had been suffering from cancer for some time.
Van Dantzig is regarded as one of modern ballet’s most innovative choreographers. With fellow choreographer Hans van Manen and set designer Toer van Schayk, van Dantzig revolutionised Dutch ballet and made it an international byword for creativity.
Sense of social justice
Van Dantzig, who had a strong sense of social justice that shone through in his work, was born in 1933 to a communist Amsterdam family. Ballet was never going to be his future until he saw The red shoes, the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film about a young ballerina. It turned his world around.
‘I had found a new language. I didn’t know what came over me. I had never seen anything like it. The possibility of being a dancer was the furthest thing from my mind. I started when I was 16 and I truly believe it saved me’, he said.
In the early fifties, Van Dantzig managed to attract the attention of the formidable Sonia Gaskell, the founder of the National Ballet company, although it wasn’t his dancing that impressed her. She told him he was ‘not very talented but since we need boys you can come’.
In 1955 he made his first choreography for the company and, as its sole artistic director from 1971 to 1991, went on to make another 50 which have been performed around the world.
Dantzig’s most famous ballets include Monument voor een gestorven jongen (Monument to a dead boy), Vier letzte Lieder, Ginastra and Onder mijne voeten (Beneath my feet). Van Dantzig was awarded the Prix de la Critique and the Life Achievement Award from the Association Benois de la Danse. He was also decorated by the queen for his work.
Van Dantzig was also a writer. His homosexuality was the theme of his debut novel Voor een verloren soldaat (To a lost soldier) which earned him several prizes. In Nurejev, het spoor van een komeet (Nurejev, the trail of a comet) he reminisces about his cooperation with Rudolf Nurejev who came to him to ask if he could be in Monument to a dead boy.
Tributes to Rudi van Dantzig have been pouring in. Hans van Manen, his colleague and friend for over 60 years, said ‘Rudi was an amiable person with a social conscience. He was always standing up for minorities. The National Ballet would not be what it is if it hadn’t been for him.’
‘Rudi’s way of telling a story through dance about something he found important in society is a style that I am sorry to say has become less popular’, says dancer and actor Jan Kooijman. ‘I had the privilege of meeting him in Paris and he was very open, very keen to stimulate young Dutch talent. And he was great fun to be with.’
Former ballet dancers Han Ebbelaar and his wife Alexandra Radius used to work with Van Dantzig and remember his sense of aesthetics. ‘His work radiated style and colour. It looked fantastic. That was his strongest side. He was a lovely man, very emotional. In the early days he would be extremely nervous about his work. He would try a new choreography out by himself in a very small space and then come to us with a sketch and some paces and we would go on from there.’