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It's standard Dutch fare: creating and seeing dance anew

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / January 11, 2004

THE HAGUE -- Legendary Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova died in this city in 1931, in an elegant mansion that had by then been converted into the Hotel des Indes. The first time I stayed at the hotel, I asked to be billeted in her quarters, but the receptionist politely explained that they had been converted into the Pavlova Conference Suite. I offered to sleep on the boardroom table. The receptionist was having none of it. I at least got to sleep in the room directly above the suite, convincing myself that the right vibes were making their way through her ceiling to my floor, although I couldn't swear that my arabesque had improved overnight.

One does not think of The Hague as a dance capital. The city is best known as the home of the World Court (the judicial arm of the United Nations) where international villains are tried, and the Mauritshuis Museum, with its peerless Vermeers, including the most beautiful painting the enigmatic 17th-century artist ever made, "View of Delft."

Cultural tourism brings loads of American visitors to foreign museums, which are dependably open five to seven days a week, like their US counterparts. But with the exception of New York, you can't travel to just any US city and rely on being able to attend a good professional dance performance almost any night of the year.

In the Netherlands, you can. Heavy subsidies to Dutch dance companies mean they get to perform a lot, so there are even theaters dedicated to dance. And, because the country is so compact and the public transportation so efficient, if you're staying in The Hague or Amsterdam and there's a performance you want to see in another Dutch city, it's likely to be easily accessible by train. And it's likely to cost less than attending a dance performance in America. I didn't pay more than $20 for any of the five dance performances I recently sawhere.

I found out about the performances back home, on the Internet, which makes it easy to create a dance tour that is city- or country-specific, or one that tracks a particular company. Tourist boards, theaters, festivals, and opera houses all have websites, and so do most dance troupes, even the small ones that still perform in church basements.

Still, says Samuel Wuerstein, the director of the Holland Dance Festival in The Hague, audiences, at least those from the United States, haven't quite caught up with this reality. "Unless they're passing through here anyway," he says, "they wouldn't be likely to come to our performances. The core of our audience is from this region. Then it's from the rest of the Netherlands, then from Europe."

"We want to promote The Hague as a dancing city," Wuerstein says. "The government was reluctant at first, but now they agree." The Dutch government, local and national, covers a third of the $1.5 million cost of the festival. Foundations and other private sources make up the rest. The festival is a biennial event presenting companies from around the world; in the years when it doesn't take place, including 2004, there is an all-Dutch dance series instead.

Some countries are so eager to send their dance companies abroad that they pay at least part of the cost. Australia and New Zealand are among those enlightened nations that want the rest of the world to experience their culture, so they send it on tour, which is how I got to see Black Grace, a young New Zealand company visiting Europe for the first time during the festival. The troupe -- originally all male but now including a trio of female guests -- combines traditional Maori dance and song with a particularly athletic version of Western modern dance that has them slipping and sliding across the stage, often clapping or slapping themselves to provide their own accompaniment. The dancers also speak, offering engaging monologues as they change costume onstage or warm up.

The festival features home-grown dance as well, including, this time, a group called De Dutch Don't Dance Division performing the premiere of "Orlando." Choreographed by company founder Thom Stuart, "Orlando" was inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel by that title about a young 16th-century gentleman who becomes immortal and, a few centuries on, becomes a woman. You keep track of the eras through the successive appearances of three British queens: Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II (unmistakable with her handbag). Stuart's astonishing dance pageant took place in St. Jacobskerk, a majestic Gothic structure that was built before Orlando was born.

During the festival, NDT II, the younger branch of Nederlands Dans Theater -- celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala at the Lucent Danstheater. The 1,000-seat Lucent, the 380-seat Spui in the same complex, and the nearby 180-seat Korzo are part of how The Hague can be such a center for dance: Smaller theaters are easier to fill night after night. Holland has grand opera houses, too, including the Muziektheater in Amsterdam, where I saw the Dutch National Ballet in a superb "Swan Lake" choreographed by Rudi van Dantzig, who, at 70, is the leading figure in Dutch dance, which matured as he did. Had I not caught the production in Amsterdam, I could have seen it in The Hague, Rotterdam, or Eindhoven: Dutch companies do a lot of touring in their own country. After its premiere, "Orlando," too, traveled all over the country.

I lucked out on my last night at the Hotel des Indes. A large corporate function, too big for the Pavlova Suite, took over the entire dining room, so the suite was where hotel residents were eating that evening. The room has a black marble fireplace and inlaid floors. Without the conference table, it's a charming place, lit that night with dozens of flickering candles. I sat at a little round table, ordered some champagne, and raised a glass to the portrait on the wall of the great ballerina.

It's not a great painting. But it is recognizably the dancer who was a symbol of her art. Pavlova pushed the boundaries of dance touring in her day. She traveled -- slowly, in the days before jet planes -- by ocean liner and train, performing not only throughout Europe, but also in North and South America and the Far East, turning thousands of adoring audience members into balletomanes.

Her arrival in The Hague in the winter of '31 was supposed to be the start of a European tour. It never happened: She died of pneumonia on Jan. 23, weeks before her 50th birthday, in the sort of setting the peripatetic ballerina was accustomed to: a glamorous hotel room.

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