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Paul Lightfoot: A Choreographer of Today


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 July 2003After meeting British-born dancer, Paul Lightfoot some six or seven years ago, I have followed his choreographic career with a great deal of interest. Now resident choreographer of Netherlands Dans Theater, he brought his spectacular work, Speak for Yourself to Paris as part of the Dutch company's programme at the Palais Garnier. I spoke to him after the French première.

"I create works with my wife, Sol Léon", Lightfoot, told me. "We combine forces and it's very beautiful because you get a double vision on things, and the masculine and feminine energies are constantly crossing. We don't know where the boundary ends or a new one begins. We intertwine as in all relationships."

Speak for Yourself, is a chemistry experiment", he continued. "It's about what happens when fire and water meet, and the collision of the two elements worked particularly well here. We wanted it to rain in the ballet from the beginning, although at first we didn't know if the idea was feasible; I didn't even tell the technicians, and early rehearsals were simply danced on a wet stage. Usually, I know exactly how my ballets will turn out", he commented, "but this time we never knew what was coming next and had endless trouble. We've been making constant changes since it was created three years ago, but I think that here in Paris, problems of staging have finally been solved.

The work opened on chaos, with a haze of smoke billowing from a dancer's head at the back of the stage as he performed technically complicated, twisting steps, turning more and more. Others arrived, nine in all, to perform solos and duets full of anguish, and then water, gently raining down from the top of the stage calmed things down, bringing order. As the dancers moved across the floor almost in slow motion, glittering arcs of droplets fell to the ground from their raised limbs.

Acclaimed by the public here, the work, Lightfoot told me, was slated by the British critics, who, it must be added, also look down their noses at Nacho Duato and Jiri Kylian, the Czech choreographer whom the rest of the world seems to consider the best alive.

"They are so stupid in England", Lightfoot, himself an extremely likeable young man, commented. "It's an island and it will always be an island. I get systematically trashed in reviews. And it's such a shame because the audiences are wonderful and so hungry to see new work. At first it used to irritate me as it was such a big thing to take a creation back home, but now ", he shrugged, "I almost look forward to seeing what they come out with, it gives me a good laugh. I knew they'd have a field day with this rain ballet, and sure enough, there were the headlines.... "It's a washout", "a dull and drippy work", "ten minutes of singing in the rain gone wrong"! But the dancers are so beautiful, they almost guarantee the success of each performance by the quality of their interpretation alone."

Paul Lightfoot, and yes, it is his real name, was born and brought up in a small town on the outskirts of Chester in the North of England. Ballet dancing for a boy, he told me, was somewhat frowned upon there, but he was fortunate in that his mother, a school-teacher, encouraged him in his passion provided he attended the local grammar school and passed his 'O' levels.

"It all began with country dancing which I loved", he said, "and then I joined a small theatre group. The only problem was that when I got to grammar school, I could never do sports because I had to do my homework then as I spent every evening at ballet school".

At fifteen, when Lightfoot was offered a place at the Royal Ballet School in London, he didn't hesitate. "For three years I worked harder than I'd ever done as I had so much to catch up on ", he said, "but ironically, my career really took off the day I decided to have a good lie-in. And luckily for me I did. Instead of going to my usual early morning lesson, I got up late and took what I discovered to be an audition class at eleven o'clock. Jiri Kylian* was there, and the rest is history."

"Mind you, "he added, " when he offered me eight weeks with the Netherlands Dans Theater, I had no intention of staying longer. After all, I was Royal Ballet, and we all know that's the best there is...don't we. Abroad was almost a dirty word for some of the teachers. What blinkered snobs we were!

"Even though I had had some wonderful teachers, including Murray Kilgour, I quickly realised there was no one quite like Jiri Kylian. I had an utterly amazing experience. I danced a lot with Nacho Duato, who was one of his protégés, and then I met my wife. Of course I didn't go back."

The boy who began making ballets as a child was encouraged to create by Kylian, whom he happily acknowledges as a source of inspiration; but not the only one. Besides Kylian's works and those of Hans van Manen, a founder member, the repertoire there included pieces by American modern dance choreographers John Butler, Anna Sokolow and Glen Tetley, while Kylian constantly invited people like Christopher Bruce, William Forsythe, Mats Ek, Ohad Naharin, and Maurice Béjart.

"There was always something going on there", Lightfoot said. "Things were happening all the time, and then I realised creating works was fundamental to my own artistic growth and I needed to interpret my own creations as well as those by other people. I worked alongside countless choreographers. There were so many ballets, and it was exciting to always dance new works. I didn't even care whether it was good or bad. Creation was part of our daily life, while at the Royal...."

Thirty-six-year-old Lightfoot, who has recently retired as a dancer with the company, although he continues to interpret his own works, is about to take some time away, travelling with his family to stage works in Stuttgart, Oslo and Monte Carlo. Would he ever take over Kylian's position as artistic adviser in The Hague should the Czech-born Kylian leave?

"It's Jiri Kylian's company in spirit ", he said. "He's a star, a genius. He's a born choreographer who will leave a lasting mark. There is no way I could take over his company, although one day it would be very nice to run a small troupe of my own.

* Prague-born Jiri Kylian, who ran Netherlands Dans Theater for twenty-five years, trained at the Royal Ballet School before leaving for Stuttgart, where, like John Neumeier and William Forsythe, he was encouraged to choreograph by the great John Cranko. Uwe Scholtz in Leipzig also shares the same heritage. In turn, he too cultivates the talents of others, both as dancers and choreographers.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times. Ms. Boccadoro is also the dance editor of

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