Lauren BC’s interview with P:B Artistic Director Robert Dekkers
What was your first encounter with dancing like?
When I was five, I was invited to audition for the role of the Changeling Boy in Atlanta Ballet’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream – and I got it! As a kid, it felt like the highlight of my life- I was on the news, my name was in the paper, and I got to be around all of these amazing dancers and people. At that point I’d taken only a few ballet classes, but this experience totally hooked me.
What has your journey been like since then?
As the years passed and technique classes became a larger part of “ballet” than actual performances, I started losing interest. I like structure and form, but I felt that it was a lot of facing the barre and drawing circles on the floor. I also started getting teased at school for being a dancer, and didn’t have a lot of friends at the Atlanta Ballet School either, so at that point, I began asking my mom if I could quit taking ballet. She kept insisting that I stick with it one more year, one more year, but finally at the end of eighth grade, I told her I just wasn’t going to do it anymore.
Soon after that, a friend invited me to a summer program performance at Gwinnett Ballet Theater, a small school near my house. The school’s director, Lisa Robson, welcomed me with open arms, and she and the other dancers became my family, helping me find myself and reignite the love for dance that had been there all along but had gotten squished down.
It was tough senior year of high school – while all the other students were finding out which colleges they’d been accepted to, I was still waiting to hear back about a dance company job. My teachers were surprised I didn’t apply to any schools, and I definitely freaked out, like, “What if I’m not actually going to be a dancer?” Then one day, I got a call from the director of Ballet Arizona, who invited me to join the company in the fall. I ended up dancing with Ballet Arizona for six seasons before moving to San Francisco in 2008.
Is it typical for dancers to go straight into professional careers instead of attending college first?
In other arts like music or visual art, it’s common to get your Bachelor’s and even Master’s, but in dance, the traditional perspective is that by the time you’ve done all that schooling, your career is almost over. Especially in ballet, it’s understood that you need to begin dancing professionally right out of high school, but I’m seeing more and more dancers go to college first, or integrate college into their lives as professional dancers, which is really awesome. While I was dancing in Arizona, I actually went to school online to get an Associate of Business Degree, which has proven to be really useful now with Post.
Was there a moment you realized that dance was going to be a significant and important part of your life?
It was more the people who showed me they believed in me and helped to nurture my passion than a single “aha” moment. I’ve always been really grateful to my mom for keeping me in ballet – she could see I loved it deep down. And I’m thankful to my mentor Lisa Robson, who made me believe that I could do anything I set my heart on.
How did you conceive the idea for Post:Ballet? How did you decide you were going to start your company? How did you choose the name?
Big decision! I don’t know what I was thinking haha.
Right before I hatched the idea, I was working with Nova Ballet in Arizona, where I also became the resident choreographer. The company was set to fold after its last show in 2009, as the economy was crashing down, and several of the dancers called asking me if I was going to return and try to bring it back to life.
At that point I didn’t want to go back to Arizona – I’m too weird for most audiences there anyway. I really loved how big and eclectic the dance scene was in San Francisco: we have lots of great classical, contemporary, and even neo-classical ballet companies. Yet I also felt there was a niche in the dance scene that no one was presenting- collaborative, crafted, modern choreography with exceptional ballet dancers.
I structured Post’s performance season on the model we’d developed at Nova Ballet, which focused on a summer production that allowed us to hire highly professional dancers who were laid off from their yearlong contracts with bigger companies. At the time of our first season in 2010, no one was producing dance in the summer here in SF, but now there are a lot of companies who have summer seasons, which is awesome!
As far as the name goes, I probably brainstormed more than 100 different options. I was closely connected to the creation of Nova Ballet – “New dance!” – and I wanted my own company to have a similar mission statement integrated into the name. It happened one night when I was just hanging out and giggling with a friend. We said, “What’s after modern? Post-modern. What’s after ballet? Post-ballet!” It just popped out! After our first season, I decided to throw a Post:Party, and next thing you know “Post” became a signature of our process. It was just a fun little moment, a simple idea that’s set the standard for what we’re doing. Sometimes I’ll look at something I’m creating and think it’s just not “Post” enough, that it’s not up to our standard, and challenge myself to dig deeper. If we’re going to say that we’re Post, we have to bring it!
Tell us about your shows.
What we’re doing with ‘Do Be’ is really exciting – it’s the direction I want to see Post:Ballet go. This performance is the culmination of a lot of ideas I’ve been working on as a director and producer. It’s not going to be just a dance concert, but an interactive experience that begins the moment the audience walks in. There will be installations in the theater, lobby, and bathrooms, all in connection with the theme of the program.
I want people to come to our shows and interact. From the beginning I’ve wanted to create a space for people to talk about the pieces, politics, what they’re going to eat for dinner – anything! I hate watching people file into a theater, observe, stand up, and then leave without any discourse about the dialogue. It’s all part of the experience and something we need as a community, a way for the audience to connect both to the performers and with each other.
Do you have a favorite past performance that you think really defines Post:Ballet?
I still think my favorite Post:Ballet performance is one that happened on a random Monday night in 2013 at The Elbo Room, a bar on Valencia. An opener had cancelled a couple of days before the show, so the manager, my friend, asked if Post:Ballet would like to open. Yes, we would!
I had a new piece in the works, so the dancers had a shared vocabulary from that work’s creative process. I was interested in exploring improv, so I contacted my composer and friend Daniel Berkman, who’s a great live performer and improviser. I asked him to create an electronic soundscape, improvise within that for 30 minutes, and take my cue only for the end.
That dance was centered around a Walker, a performer dressed in white who would walk across the stage very slowly for 30 minutes. Everyone else wore black and responded to cues they pulled from two bags filled with improv tasks I’d set on either side of the stage. Cues like, “use the base phrase to move to the Walker, then pull them back five steps,” or “mirror another dancer’s movement,” or my favorite- “do your solo phrase like you’re in a shower that slowly turns from hot to cold.”
There were 50-70 people at the bar. No one was expecting a dance performance, but the audience sat in complete silence for 30 minutes. It was the most “real” performance I’d ever seen Post:Ballet give- everyone was so nervous but the dancers stayed connected and in the moment. For me, it was an experience that reaffirmed my desire to dig deeper and find different ways of creating rather than sticking to what I know. It stuck out to me, like, “Yes- this is what Post:Ballet is about.”
You must have such amazing trust in your dancers and knowledge of their abilities. How do you choose them?
I look for dancers who are soft on the outside, strong on the inside. I love working with people who are really malleable and able to take feedback and interact with other dancers in a loving and considerate way. Being open to trying something different while knowing who you are on a deeper level is very important to me. The creative process needs vulnerability.
Ballet is my training, so I have a very strong connection to its length of line and facility of the body. There’s something about that aesthetic that I’m very drawn to, so there’s a basis of ballet that I need my dancers to have in order to create the work I want to see.
Also, my work is very pattern heavy, so there’s a lot of memorization. There is some particularly difficult coordination – I may ask for your shoulder to roll one way, let your hands go in one direction and your knees in another – all at the same time. Then retrograde that while traveling it across the stage- oh ya, and the music’s in a seven. Go! I look for people with computer brains- we move fast and I need quick minds.
You must be extremely busy. What does a crazy day look like for you?
Oh, you mean my normal schedule? Haha. I’m not an early morning person, I’ll say that right now. A typical day usually begins with me getting up at 8 AM and leaving the house at 9 AM. I teach one or two classes the morning, have rehearsals during the day, then try to squeeze in a couple meetings. I also teach in the afternoon a few days a week, and occasionally I still make it to the gym! Then dinner, followed by another meeting at night. Artistic people like meeting at night and business people like meeting during the day, so I plan for that. We usually have a brainstorming or creative development session at 8 or 9 PM, then I sit down at the “Post:Ballet office” (aka my kitchen) and do all the admin stuff, including my choreography homework. I usually go to bed around 2 or 3 AM. What makes it wonderful is that it doesn’t ever feel monotonous. It changes every day. The hurdles are always unique. Honestly, it feels like I’m just playing, and the day it doesn’t, I’ll probably pass it on to somebody else.
Do you ever take days off or have a lazy day?
Well, I’m working on it. Christian (Squires, Robert’s husband and P:B Aesthetic Advisor) is really good. He pulls me away and takes me out on a bike ride or a walk. I’d probably call myself a workaholic. I get anxious if I’m not working. I’m trying to take Saturdays for myself and have that as a day to just be. I’m realizing that the company can only thrive if I’m well.
Where’s your favorite place to hang out in the city?
I have to say I love Ice Cream Bar. It’s right by my house, they have pretty amazing ice cream, and it’s styled like a 50s diner. I love to have scoop of banana and chocolate each – that is just heaven for me.
What’s your favorite movie?
So many! I’d have to say my favorite movie is The Triplets of Belleville. I love how much is communicated by the figures’ movement and through the music. It’s basically dance- it just happens to be illustrated instead of performed live. Animated film is probably my favorite genre, although I love documentaries too.
What is something almost nobody knows about you?
I feel like everyone knows almost everything about me! Well, my favorite snack in the world, which relates to my favorite ice cream flavor, is peanut butter banana with raisins. I’ve probably eaten two bananas with peanut butter almost every single day of my life. It’s a staple of my existence!
What advice would you give to a young dancer who wants to make their passion their career?
Make sure you love it more than anything in the world, because it’s a tough profession. You work every day of your life toward something where the career is short and the pay is low- but there’s nothing like it. It’s so rewarding to express yourself through movement for a living! Once you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this is what you want to do, follow your heart and do what makes you happy. Don’t think you have to follow the footsteps of anyone else. Explore different ways of moving, make your own dances – you may become a choreographer, a performer, or a teacher. There are infinite places the love of dance can take you. I started Post:Ballet at the height of my performing career, when I was 25. I kept dancing, I just shifted my focus into choreography because it was what made me feel whole. I think for all of us, the goal in life is finding what makes us happy and doing more of that.
*Photos of Robert Dekkers by Richard Calmes