Paul Lightfoot was born in England and trained at the Royal Ballet School before joining Netherlands Dance Theatre 2 in 1985. He joined the main company in 1987, where he met his wife and choreographic partner, Sol Leon. They were both appointed resident choreographers in 2002, and have created some 30 ballets for the company.
What was your first choreographic creation?
I was raised on a farm in the north of England, and had my first stage premiere at the age of 11 in the garden. It was to the music of the war-time musical comedian Spike Jones and his City Slickers, called Cocktails for Two.
Did you always imagine you would be a choreographer?
Ever since I started ballet classes, I began choreographing. I never thought much of it; it felt natural. I’m left-handed, and with quite a bizarre coordination problem – perhaps the choreographing began as a way to vent this peculiarity of mine.
Why did you go to NDT?
It was the greatest stroke of professional good fortune I ever had. My sights, during my time at the Royal Ballet School, were clearly and solidly on joining the Royal Ballet. That was the mentality of the system. I had NO idea what NDT was at all. Little did I know that all those beliefs would be thrown to the wind the day that Jiri Kylian and Ariette van Boven offered me an eight week experience with NDT. The company studios in the Hague were in the old school in the red light district – imagine me wandering in on my first day of work on Jan 5, 1985. But then I opened the door of the building and at the end of the hall was a huge photograph of a ballet I had seen on TV years before, but never known the choreographer. I was a spectacular dance that had engraved itself on my brain. It was Symphony of Psalms, by Jiri. And at that instant I realised the fantastic card I had been dealt. I sometimes wonder what would have become of me if I hadn’t seen that picture on the wall.
You choreograph all your works in partnership with your wife. What was the evolution of Step Lightly ?
It was our first real study to begin to create our own body language. It was our second official piece of NDT.
In your partnership, is one of you responsible for certain things?
No, definitely not. In our own mad-creative environment there are no laws. A dialogue is the best way to describe our working relationship – sometimes shouting, sometimes a whisper. And of course compromise.
Is it a coincidence that all but two of your works have titles beginning with S?
No. I used to love to look for Hitchcock in his movies when I was young. Sol’s relation to our work was only officially let out in 2001. This was partly her choice, and partly a slight lack of acceptance at NDT of our very particular way of creating. “S” was our personal way of dedicating the work to Sol and after that it simply stuck. Making a title for a ballet is daunting enough – so this way there are 25 fewer letters to worry about.
When or where are you most likely to get a choreographic idea?
When I’m in a place or moment when I’m not looking for one.
What inspires you?
I’m afraid the day I work out what inspires me the whole thing may just dry up on me.
Does the music come first?
Not always, but it’s a big deal to me. In NDT I learned that musicality is one of the most important components to being a dancer. I give credit to the city library of the Hague, whose music department has been for the past 20 years my sole source of musical inspiration. I have a secret hope they will offer me a job there when my knees give away!
Do you like the dancers to improvise for you, or do you have the work set in your head first?
Sol and I make a lot of the work on our own bodies.
How would you describe Jiri Kylian’s influence on you?
Jiri has been a great influence on us, though not perhaps in a way you’d expect. He had the foresight and knowledge to leave us alone and give us the space to be us – the best gift for an aspiring choreographer. Another huge influence is Hans van Manen. He taught us a great lesson – never to forget our dancers.
What do you look for in your dancers?
An open mind and a wish to grow.
What do you always take with you to a performance?
I’m quite superstitious – I have a smooth Labradorite stone in my pocket and a little guardian angel pinned to my lapel which my daughter gave me for good luck. I usually go around kissing everything: dancers, bits of décor, lighting cables – all in a specific order.
What is the hardest thing about your job?