It’s strange to hear someone describe themselves as old when they’re just a smidge over 30, but Marijn Rademaker does so, matter-of-factly and without a hint of irony in his voice. It’s true, in a manner of speaking. While no one would seriously consider a person to be old at 33 years of age, ballet, like every other highly athletic occupation, is progressively unkinder on one’s body as the years go by.
Not that anyone would think Marijn’s age is any limit on his ability. Het Nationale unveiled him as their newest principal at the beginning of the year, after he turned down a lifetime contract from Stuttgart Ballet. And Marijn has achieved more than most people twice that age could ever aspire to: a principal dancer for nearly a decade, he’s danced with some of the best – and is himself considered one of the best, having performed with some of the top companies on the most renowned stages in the world. He hasn’t contemplated the possibility of slowing down either, fully expecting himself to still be slipping on his ballet shoes and gracing the world’s stages for many more years to come. It’s safe to say that people would be happy to watch him dance for as long as he wants to – he is, after all, only 33 years young.
C&V SESSIONS WITH MARIJN RADEMAKER
What did you have for breakfast?
Some granola and yoghurt. And coffee of course. Normally if I’m performing I eat a bit more, but I didn’t feel like it today.
You just joined the Dutch National Ballet as a principal this season after guesting with them for a number of years – has it been a hero’s welcome for you?
Yeah, there was a lot of media attention, because there aren’t many Dutch male principals. The last one was like, 10 years ago. And of course my parents and brothers were happy I came back. And the company – I hope they’re happy! We have a good time and the director is very happy because it’s of course good to have a Dutch principal in the company. And I’m very happy!
How was it like adjusting back to life in the Netherlands?
It was tough actually. I’ve danced in Stuttgart for 15 years and you build up a life there, you build up friends. The company felt like family, I became so familiar with the repertory there. I became a bit German, almost! So of course, coming back home, I have to adjust back to Holland – which I love: coming back here, now I see why I am the way I am, I understand a little bit more.
Work-wise, has it been easier to fit in because you used to guest here?
Being here as a guest, I could see how the company works and feel the vibe a lot. It’s different when I’m here full-time, but that put Dutch National as number 1 on the list for me.
Of course in a new company, it takes more than a year to adjust. You have to find out the dynamics of a new company, how rehearsals work, how the schedule works. It’s not easy, but it’s a lot of fun!
You are regarded as one of Netherland’s best dancers. And of course Stuttgart Ballet is a top-class company –
Yeah, they are – I almost said we are! I was part of Stuttgart Ballet for so long – they formed me. I started there after my school. It was basically my education.
But I’m sure many Dutch fans also wanted to see you dancing back in your home country. So why did you make the decision to return to Netherlands and join Het Nationale – why now?
The first time someone expressed interest was after school when I auditioned. Then no one said anything for 10 years. Even when I was a principal at Stuttgart no one cared about trying to get me back or even asked me to dance here, which was fine. But I saw Ted [Brandsen, Het Nationale Ballet’s director] once at a gala in Shanghai and we talked about guesting, stuff like that. I started to guest here a few times and that’s how more interest came.
In Stuttgart when you’ve been there for 15 years, they make you sign a waiver that 4 years after the 15 years you have to leave. That’s in their contract. I signed that paper which made me start to think about time. Because I was 32 at that point, and if I stayed there for 4 more years, which would be 2018. [Stuttgart Ballet’s Artistic Director] Reid Anderson would leave by then. I wanted to dance for longer than 36. Reid offered me a life contract, which was great. I felt very honoured because not many dancers get that.
But still, I made the choice to leave, because in 2018, Reid leaves. And we didn’t know who was going to be the new artistic director – although now we know it’s going to be Tamas Detrich.
But back then we didn’t know and I didn’t want to take the risk of being there with a life contract, too old to leave and a director who didn’t want to work with me, or whom I didn’t want to work with… and I would be stuck in the post room making coffee or something.
Credit: Stuttgart Ballet
Surely that would never happen to you!
Well you never know. Some directors have certain feelings about other dancers – you never know, and I wanted to be sure. I didn’t want to take the risk.
And I also wanted some fresh air. I’d been there 15 years, I’d danced all the rep, just did my first Onegin show… it’s a shame I didn’t dance Onegin more, but maybe it will come in Amsterdam. But I needed something fresh.
Your promotion to principal at Stuttgart Ballet is a pretty epic story – Reid Anderson was so impressed with your debut performance in Lady of the Camellias with Sue-Jin Kang that he promoted you right then and there. Do you remember much about the events surrounding that?
Yeah, it’s been 6 or 7 years. I remember the general rehearsal a lot also, because John Neumeier could only be there for the general rehearsal, so I wanted to give it my all – which I do normally anyway when I’m on stage. And then when I saw Reid, I was like, ‘Reid, I don’t know. I’m so tired and this was just a general and I’m empty and I have to do it again.’
And he said something to me I will never forget: ‘tomorrow you will see. You feel like this now but tomorrow is a new day and you will just tell the story from the second number 1.’
And it was like that. It was new day and it was a whole new feeling.
I danced the premiere which I was very happy about. I would have been happy with only that because I was a demi-soloist at that point. Then Reid came on stage with a mic… and the mic didn’t work. So I had no idea what he was saying!
My partner, Sue-jin, she was already crying next to me. I was like, ‘what’s going on?’
And then Reid came to me and whispered it in my ear. And I was like, ‘oh my God, what just happened?’
The performance was already overwhelming – to do that at that point of my career – and then this sudden promotion, not to soloist but to principal in front of an audience. It was just… I don’t know, crazy!
It’s not something that happens with most promotions!
No it’s not! And my parents were there, and my uncle and aunt. It was a beautiful summer day, and afterwards we had a party on the balcony at the theater. It’s a night I will never forget.
How did you feel about the performance?
I was happy it was done and I felt good about it. We worked on it for 3 months, which was a long time, but there was a lot of hard partnering in it and I didn’t have so much experience. Sue-Jin helped me a lot with that. I was just happy that I danced it according to John’s standards, because he was very happy with it.
I had a great connection with Sue-Jin, and the company was behind me on it. That also made it very special.
Marijn with Sue-Jin Kang, Lady of the Camellias
Credit: Stuttgart Ballet
To audience members ballet can be so incredible and beautiful to watch, but for the dancers it’s a totally different experience – you guys are sweating buckets on stage, you have to remember the steps and the blocking and keep time with the music, you’re lifting this woman who you maybe only had 2 days to rehearse with by her sweaty armpits and maybe now you have to kiss her in front of thousands of people – how do you find that emotional connection with your partner under those circumstances?
I just go for it. One time, Iana Salenko and I were getting ready for a gala performance of Le Corsaire. During a promenade, I looked into her eyes, and she was like, ‘oh My God! I’ve never had a partner look at me during a promenade.’ Normally we look a little bit down to her chest so we know where her center is.
I’m always trying to make contact, whether it’s for a few days. I’m always trying to force my partner to get out of themselves. I think that’s important.
I don’t have any problems creating a connection. Of course with some people it’s more difficult, because with some people you just don’t have a connection.
People are so different. With some people, you meet them and from the first minute you know – it just flows. And with some people you really have to pull. And with some people – after a show you think, ‘ah, that was hard. That was rough. That was hard – just hard work with the connection.’
How much more autonomy do you have after being a principal dancer for a good number these years – are you able to push for roles you feel strongly about?
I was raised in Stuttgart where you don’t push for roles. You just do what you get. And I think to a certain point that’s very good, because you can learn from every little thing – I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true.
John Neumeier does that in his company. He makes the principals do smaller roles. I saw Death in Venice with Lloyd Riggins – he had the main part, but there were other principals doing smaller parts and it creates such a collective feeling of the whole company there. If the principals do smaller roles it has an effect down the group, so the corps de ballet are also very attentive to what they do, and that creates a very strong something on stage.
I only asked once to do something onstage. That was Ali Baba in Sleeping Beauty. I wanted to try to show that I could also do something else because Ali Baba was the slave, with tricks and big jumps and stuff, whereas I’m always considered the prince-y type. And he allowed it, which made me happy because I knew inside that I could do that stuff too. After that he changed his point of view about me.
But normally I don’t ask for things. I don’t like doing that.
Dancers are so aware of what their body can or cannot do. How much do you accept your limitations or do you believe you can push through everything?
Sue-Jin once told me, ‘you have no idea what your limitations are. You have no idea what your body can do.’
And it’s true, because when I was cast for Basilio in Don Quixote – this was the version from Maximiliano Guerra, and he said to all of us, ‘you have to do the choreography I want’. Which is double revoltades to arabesques, pirouettes with the leg going down in the front then to the back, assemblé like this. It was all very specific. And I was like, ‘oh my God, can I change some of that stuff?’
I was a little bit older – I was 30 – and I’m not a trick person, I’m just not. Some people are, but I’m not. But then I was like, okay, let’s go for it, why not? You are a sporty person, you have good coordination so you can try.
So I tried. And I really fell on the floor – I don’t know – like 50 times in front of the company because I was trying after class to do these revoltades. But in the show, they worked.
And I was so happy because I really had to work hard to do those, and you can see that if you work hard, there might be no limits. I do believe you can push yourself very very far if you want to.
I think it took me up to the show – 2 months – to get it. And still even sometimes I was like, maybe I should change my spot here or there.
Some people they can already do them in school. They try twice and it’s done.
But those people aren’t principal dancers, so you have one up on them.
Are there roles you feel are not as suitable for you?
I would basically try anything. What I don’t like dancing is a ballet where the choreography just uses you as material.
There are very talented choreographers, or I would call them more directors – where they put a piece on stage and it’s beautiful with all the sets and formations and the storyline, but they use the dancers as…kind of like robots.
And it’s still art, because it’s beautiful and it has a meaning. But if it’s just movement on count with no feeling or dynamic and you only have to be together…I hate that. It’s stressful!
How do you connect to those pieces that you can’t relate to?
I don’t know… I just try and get it over with. Of course in certain moments in the shows you have fun, but some shows… I remember a piece where I just did not have fun. I just closed my eyes, I did it, I went through it and that’s it. That’s horrible. But it doesn’t happen very often.
Marijn with Edward Watson, Men in Motion.
Credit: Stuttgart Ballet
Do bad rehearsals before a performance bother you or are you fine when you get on stage?
We always have bad rehearsals. What I used to do onstage before the show was to practice the difficult steps. Once, Marcia Haydée was sitting at the side of the stage watching me try those difficult steps. They weren’t working. I was like, ‘what’s going on?”
She was like, ‘come here. What are you doing?’
‘I’m trying the steps.’
She said, ‘why? You had rehearsals for weeks for this performance. Why would you just try these just before you go on stage? You have a whole different feeling, you are nervous, you don’t have the music with you, you are not in the story or the mood. It’s different when you go on stage, and you have to trust the rehearsal period you have done and trust your work.’
And then I was like, ‘yeah, actually!’ Why do we do this to ourselves? Try these difficult pirouettes just before the show and when they don’t work we’re like, ‘oh my Gooood this is gonna be a mess.’ And then of course it is gonna be a mess!
So I don’t do that anymore. I just warm up and do the show. I think it’s good advice, no?
I think so too! It’s interesting – you rehearse for months and months for those few public performances, and then it’s over. Maybe you perform that piece again next year, but it’s really months of rehearsal for a few shows.
That’s a lot of pressure.
I don’t know how other dancers deal with it but I personally don’t see it as pressure. Because the rehearsal process is also part of everything, it’s always part of the show.
Anytime I rehearse Onegin pas de deux, I have a performance – or at least part of it. It creates a whole – it’s not just the show that’s important, the whole journey is. It’s not really pressure.
Do you still get stage fright?
Yeah I do. I always do. Even if it’s for smaller things or things I’ve done a million times, I still get nervous. But when I get on stage it’s gone. It’s normal, it’s good.
It keeps you on your toes.
Alongside ballet, you also used to play football and tennis when you were younger. How did ballet win out over your other interests?
I think it was because of music. I loved music as a kid. Once I came into the kitchen, and there was some classical music on in the living room and I cried. It made me cry. I think this connection of music and movement as sport made ballet come into my life.
The choice was really between soccer and ballet. We had to decide if I would decide if I would go to a school away from my home, and that would mean no soccer. And because I was so serious, I think I felt ballet was important. Soccer was amateur, just for fun, you know – once a week. The tennis went away; I was more of a soccer guy.
What position did you to play?
Defence. I was the last man. I would never play defender now. I would play on the side or center in the attack.
And score all the goals.
I don’t have time to play now. I wish I did. But I watched some games in Stuttgart, and of course when the Dutch National team are playing.
So were you happy with the Dutch team’s third place finish at the World Cup last year?
I was disappointed. It was horrible! And I don’t even think we will make it to the European Championships this year.
Well looking back now it was a good choice for you to pick ballet instead!
Yes, I think so too!
When you joined Stuttgart in the corps did you ever think about becoming a principal dancer one day?
It was not in my mind at all, actually. I came to Stuttgart and I saw all these amazing boys – because there were none in my school – and I thought, ‘I really have to get my shit together and start working like that.’
That was my first priority – working and getting better. And I was overwhelmed, being in a different country, living alone, you know. And then later when I started to get more comfortable and get some small roles, I thought that I would like to do more of that, because I liked certain roles.
But I never really thought to have this status of a principal dancer. It was more about dancing more beautiful things.
Now that you’ve accomplished so much, what keeps you motivated?
That’s a difficult question! Just the work I guess, just the dancing.
I’m injured right now and it’s quite a difficult time because I really love dancing, just actual dancing. So I think that’s what keeps me going. But I can’t right now, I have to take time off and I really miss it. So just the love of dancing – maybe it’s cheesy but it’s true!
What’s on your bucket list as a dancer?
I would love to dance Apollo, Le Jeune Homme et la Mort from Roland Petit, and Song of the Wayfarer. I was supposed to dance that last piece but I got injured so I never got to do it. But I love that piece. And Bayadère.
And I would love to guest with Mariinsky theater, because I love the Russian style of dancing and that’s the Mecca of ballet. I love their style a lot so that would be a huge honour.
But I’ve danced a lot of things and I’m really happy with what I’ve done.
Credit: Stuttgart Ballet
Which have been your favourite stages to dance on?
Opéra Garnier was really special. Except for the rake!
The Bolshoi, and Amsterdam during my first show here back. It was Sleeping Beauty and that was really special.
Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo because there have been a really amazing amount of performances there for such a long time. Being there with the World Ballet Festival was so special. The Japanese fans are amazing. They had to put barriers at stage door.
What have you been most proud of in your career?
I’ve been very proud of Iago in Othello by Neumeier. It was my first time in a evil role. No one expected me to succeed; they couldn’t imagine me in that role. John did, and I love that role. I’m really proud of it because I worked really hard of it. It’s a really complex moment.
I’m proud of things that are not really close to me. Like Basilio or Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. Those are more macho roles and I’m not really a macho guy. So I have to find a way – even find a way to walk in Taming of the Shrew.
That was really hard for me, but I got a lot of help from Georgette Tsinguirides. She is the ballet master and choreologist in Stuttgart and she’s almost 90. She was there before Cranko and worked with Cranko and Marcia and Ricki. She wrote down all these ballets and she knows exactly what they’re supposed to be. It’s amazing – she can do any of roles in the Cranko ballets, character-wise. The way she walks, the way she looks – you knows exactly what she needs from you. She helped me with that.
I’m proud of these things because they’re not close to my character so I had to work a lot on them. And they turned out well, I have to say.
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