A quick witted rogue of 70 years
Resourceful and agile
A brief history of Scapino Ballet Rotterdam can’t be done. To start with, the dozens of choreographies by the present artistic leader, Ed Wubbe can’t be grouped under a single heading. Let alone every work created by the artistic directors throughout the company’s seventy-year existence, and those by guest and resident choreographers, including the youngest-ever (Nanine Linning, aged just 23 when appointed in 2001).
And summarising the many challenges that Holland’s oldest touring company survived, such as the turbulent move from Amsterdam to Rotterdam in the early 1990s, is almost unimaginable. But Scapino emerged from the tough times more resourceful than ever. When you sift through the archives of the group, which started life in 1945 as a children’s dance company and, in 1970, began to gradually move away from its young audience, one trait invariably leaps out: the group’s agile, defiant, pioneering vision. Which explains why Scapino was the first dance company to make modern dance performances a permanent fixture at the Lowlands pop festival.
With typical Dutch sobriety, Scapino rolled with the punches and reflected the spirit of the times. Not only because former dancers appeared in popular TV shows, like Penney de Jager in TOPPOP and Jan Kooijman in the ever-popular soap Goede Tijden Slechte Tijden, So You Think You Can Dance and Everybody Dance Now. Group choreographies like Kathleen (1992), Romeo and Juliet (1995), Rosary (2000), Manfyfacts, live in the 3D City (2001) and Songs for Drella (2011) radiate this urban, exciting and playful mood.
In 1945, twelve dancers, out of training because of the war, began working under the impassioned direction of the flamboyant Hans Snoek – whose true ambition was to become a conductor – and artist Nicolaas Wijnberg. In a back room on the Keizersgracht, they believed they could put the smiles back on the faces of wartime children, through dance. Or, as Snoek plainly put it: ‘It was time for Dutch children to laugh again’. She allowed the dancers to raid her colourful wardrobe for their costumes. Verve was more important than technical proficiency. Nonetheless, in 1951, she founded the Scapino dance academy for theatrical dance.
By this point, the company had struck gold in the form of Scapino, a figure clad in a red-white-green-black costume, a roguish narrator who acts as a bridge between the young audience and the dance performance. The company decided to name itself after this larger-than-life business card: Scapino, the mime, the dancing, storytelling character famous from Venetian Commedia dell’Arte. Holland was unique - the first country to have a professional ballet company for children. And in 1954, when a fire threatened to bring an end to their beloved Scapino, thousands of children donated their pocket money to save it. Ten years later, in 1964, the group gave least fifteen performances in America. Their success culminated in an invitation to dance at the White House (despite the stage actually being too small).
Jazz, modern and abstract
In 1970, Snoek’s successor Armando Navarro, together with ballet master Marian Sarstädt, aimed for greater professionalism. Navarro persuaded Dutch colleagues, including Hans van Manen, Charles Czarny, Hans Tuerlings and Nils Christe, to make choreographies for Scapino. Throughout his twenty-year artistic directorate, Navarro transformed Scapino from an educational children’s dance group into a dance company for audiences from eight to eighty. In addition to the pantomimic, classic fairy tales like Coppélia, The Nutcracker and Cinderella he introduced jazz dance, modern dance and abstract dance. Navarro worked with international guest choreographers including Ricardo Nunez, Fernand Daudey, Eric Hampton, Roberto Trinchero, Robert Thomas and Matt Mattox.
In the 1990s, the dual directorship he held with Nils Christe provoked such tension and conflict that Wubbe, appointed resident choreographer only two years before, was invited to step in as director. Initially on an interim basis, which was made definitive in 1992.
Wubbe turned things around. Not only did he build a more stable financial basis by moving the company from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, he also changed the repertoire from classical to contemporary. His edgy group choreography Kathleen, created in the summer in the old Scapino Studios on the Luchtvaartstraat in Amsterdam for 6 girls and 10 boys, was his baptism by fire. In the autumn of 1992 in Rotterdam, Wubbe developed it into an exciting urban statement. With his concrete wall scrawled with obscene graffiti, Kathleen became an icon of urban dynamism; Wubbe put Scapino on the international stage.
Guests and surprises
Wubbe regularly serves up musical surprises such as his collaboration with John Cale of The VelvetUnderground, who composed new music for Nico (1997). He invited guest choreographers to create work – Itzik Galili, Amanda Miller and Krisztina de Châtel as well as the resident choreographers Georg Reischl, Nanine Linning and Felix Landerer. Wubbe introduced Marco Goecke, a talented choreographer scouted in Germany, to Dutch audiences, with great success. Now that Goecke has been lured away to the Nederlands Dans Theater, Wubbe has brought a new talent to Scapino, whom Holland may otherwise have lost: the Israel-born Itamar Sahar Serussi. Meanwhile, Wubbe worked on the opera Les Fêtes Vénitiennes for the L’Opéra Comique in Paris, with the star Canadian director Robert Carsen, set to music by the French baroque composer André Campra. His duet was performed during Marlene Dumas’s highly-praised retrospective – in Switzerland, not Holland. Because the agile, edgy Scapino, which started life as a children’s dance group in an Amsterdam back room seventy years ago, has grown into an exciting, explosive dance company that stops at nothing.
Dance and Theatre journalist for De Volkskrant