Rudi van Dantzig (4 August 1933 – 19 January 2012) was a Dutch choreographer, company director, and writer. He was a pivotal figure in the rise to world renown of Dutch ballet in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Van Dantzig was born in Amsterdam, where his father, Murk van Dantzig, worked in a Fokker aircraft factory. His parents held strongly leftwing views, espousing Marxism, advocating pacifism, and promoting Esperanto. He was six years old when the German army defeated Dutch forces in the Battle of the Netherlands in May 1940 and occupied the country at the beginning of World War II. During the occupation of his homeland, young Rudi was sent to stay in a foster home in Friesland, where conditions were safer than in the city. During liberation of the Netherlands in May 1945, he met Walter Cook, a young soldier in the First Canadian Army, which was largely responsible for the defeat of German forces in Holland. His friendship and love affair with this soldier, who was lost to him when he was suddenly transferred away, provided the basis for his prizewinning novel Voor een Verloren Soldaat (For a Lost Soldier), published in the Netherlands in 1986 and later filmed and translated into English.
Upon returning to school in Amsterdam, van Dantzig proved to be a poor scholar, uninterested in most of his schoolwork. When he wandered into a cinema showing The Red Shoes (1948), the ballet film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, his future path was decided. Inspired by viewing the film multiple times, he began taking ballet lessons at age 16 with Anna Sybranda and then with Sonia Gaskell, a former Ballets Russes dancer who ran a school and a small classical company in the city. There was a shortage of talented male dancers in postwar Europe, so, although he was not highly skilled, Gaskell engaged him in 1954 as a member of her company, Ballet Recital. He was tall, good looking, highly intelligent, and hard working, and he soon showed a gift for choreography. That same year Martha Graham and her company paid their first visit to the Netherlands, and her technique and style had a profound effect on van Dantzig. Realizing new possibilities for drama and expressiveness in dance, he soon traveled to New York to continue his training at her school.
Van Dantzig was among the dancers who founded the Netherlands Dance Theater in 1959, but in 1960 he returned to Gaskell's company, by then named Nederlands Ballet. After this company and the Amsterdam Ballet merged to become Het Nationale Ballet (Dutch National Ballet), van Dantzig filled a number of important positions. He became resident choreographer in 1961, a member of the artistic council in 1965, co-director in 1968, and sole artistic director in 1971. He remained in that post for two decades, until 1991. He had a talent for administration and a keen eye for importing and commissioning ballets that expanded the company's repertory and developed its dancers.
From the 1960s onward, van Dantzig choreographed more than fifty ballets, most of them on contemporary themes and most of them for his home company. Combining both classical and modern dance techniques, his ballets are expressionistic and fraught with symbolism, usually displaying psychological conflicts within a principal character. Basic themes are acceptance of life's imperfections and acceptance of death as the inevitable outcome of life's struggles. The former is central to his best-known work, Monument for a Dead Boy (1965), a portrait of an adolescent destroyed by his unacceptable sexuality. The latter is demonstrated in Four Last Songs (1977), an ensemble piece that is generally considered his best work. In it "he transformed Strauss's mation on death into an understated love poem [in which] four couples are parted in duets by a sympathetic messenger of death."
Van Dantzig's unusual combination of classical ballet and modern dance technique in his choreography attracted the interest of Rudolf Nureyev, famous Russian dancer with the Royal Ballet in London. He asked to be taught the principal role in Monument for a Dead Boy, which he eventually performed to acclaim for audiences in England and the United States, proving himself an accomplished modern dancer as well as a classisist. He and van Dantzig forged a strong friendship, and he subsequently returned to Amsterdam with commissions for two new ballets, Blown in a Gentle Wind (1975) and About a Dark House (1976). Van Dantzig's book Remembering Nureyev: The Trail of a Comet lovingly details their twenty-five years as friends and colleagues.
In 1991, van Dantzig left the Dutch National Ballet to concentrate on writing and mounting works for other companies. As a choreographer, he was in demand internationally as he mounted works for Ballet Rambert, Harkness Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Paris Opera Ballet, among others.
Among the awards and honors that van Dantzig received in his lifetime were the following.
As a homosexual with an active political sensibility, van Dantzig felt acutely the intolerance of his times, and this became a major theme in his ballets and his writings. He shared his life and career with his partner Toer van Schayk (born 1936), a dancer, set and costume designer, and choreographer with the Dutch National Ballet. He died in an Amsterdam hospital from lymphoma and male breast cancer in 2012. He was 78 years old.