Lessons Learned Pulling Double Duty: In Conversation with Robert Dekkers

By Heather Desaulniers

December 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Robert Dekkers with Post:Ballet / photo by Natalia Perez

Running a dance organization is hard enough. Now picture running two. And then imagine that the pair occupy very different spaces in the dance ecosystem – one traditional and one more experimental and avant-garde.

Robert Dekkers knows a thing or two about this scenario. He is currently the Artistic Director of two entities that seem pretty dissimilar: Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater. Dekkers founded Post:Ballet in 2009, and for almost ten years now, the dance company has bravely defied categorization. Its repertory is deeply collaborative, uniting artists from a variety of disciplines. Its choreographic vocabulary is bold, cutting edge and wildly unpredictable. And Post:Ballet has captured fans with its commitment to upending boundaries and challenging assumptions about dance, about society, about relationships and about gender. Starting in 2017, Dekkers also took the reins at Berkeley Ballet Theater (BBT), a renowned ballet institution that, for close to four decades, has been a West Coast paragon of classical instruction. Since it opened in 1981, its studios have welcomed students of all ages and all levels, including many on the cusp of a professional career. Alumni have gone on to dance in a variety of companies including New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and Twyla Tharp Dance.

Over the last two years, Dekkers has learned much from pulling double leadership duty with Post:Ballet and BBT. Perhaps the most telling lesson is that they are not as divergent as they might appear. In fact, their commonalities far outweigh their differences. The pair is rooted in ballet technique and eager about ballet’s future. They are dedicated to artistic rigor without sacrificing a caring and supportive atmosphere. Their curiosity about how dance can be an impactful force in society is contagious. Dekkers admits he is surprised as anyone that helming both hasn’t been more dichotomous. “I thought it was going to feel like two very different environments, but it doesn’t,” he shares, “because at their core, Post:Ballet and BBT are looking at how art can create a space for people to come together.”

Leading a company and directing a school had long been goals for Dekkers, though he didn’t necessarily expect that he’d be fulfilling them simultaneously. Post:Ballet came into his life first. Its origin story can be traced back to the mid-2000s, when Dekkers was Choreographer-in-Residence at Nova Ballet in Phoenix. “Nova had a collective feel; it was a group of artists coming together to forge creative projects,” describes Dekkers, “when the company folded in 2009, a year after I’d moved to San Francisco, I was really interested in creating a similar space here in the Bay Area.” He did just that with Post:Ballet. After a highly successful first concert in July of 2010, Post:Ballet’s mixed repertory bills became a must-see on the Bay Area’s summer dance calendar – nights of eclectic, multi-discipline performance with abstract pieces and narrative investigations alike. As the group grew and evolved, Dekkers and the Post artists not only continued developing shorter, individual works but also began exploring evening-length compositional structures, where an overarching idea or concept informs an entire performance. This eventually led to the debut of Do:Be in August of 2016, a co-production with innovative sound duo The Living Earth Show (Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson) and Lavender Country, a collaboration with musician Patrick Haggerty, which premiered in November 2017 and will be returning to Z Space in April 2019 as part of Post’s tenth anniversary season.

BBT came on the scene a little later. It was about five years back that Dekkers joined BBT’s faculty, at first, just teaching once per week. Eventually he took on more classes and in 2017 the Artistic Directorship presented itself. “Teaching has been a part of my life for over fifteen years, and I love the impact that you can have as a teacher on a student, but the impact you can have as a director is even farther reaching,” he explains. Dekkers’ transition into this new role was anything but gradual. Not only had BBT had some AD turnover prior to him accepting the position, but they were also moving from their longtime residence at the historic Julia Morgan Center for the Arts to a new home in the up and coming Gilman District in West Berkeley. “Honestly, Fall 2017 was a bit of madness,” recounts Dekkers, “sometimes challenging situations can bring people down and tear folks apart, but the BBT community really came together because they saw that the new space was all about moving ballet forward, and that my vision and approach to dance was in line with their ethos as an organization.”

Propelling ballet forward is definitely a place where Post:Ballet and BBT converge – the two are all in, invested and excited for ballet’s next chapter. And that means tackling the genre’s complexities head on and asking tough questions, “both Post and BBT believe in confronting ballet’s elitist/stratifying mold, in questioning gender roles, uniformity and structure so that the form can reach and include as many people as possible.” Dekkers is thrilled to be facilitating these kinds of conversations in each setting, though seeing them play out at the school has been particularly poignant. “These students are so mindful, they feel empowered to speak up and contribute – the dialogue with them is meaningful, positive and it’s going to affect change,” he relays, “inclusivity is a big part of why I took the position at BBT – to build on their mission that every body can dance.”

Robert Dekkers with Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Youth Company / photo by Natalia Perez

Shared goals and shared leadership has also allowed for creative crossover and interdependent support between the two institutions. BBT’s students and faculty have had the unique opportunity to engage with several Post:Ballet collaborators across a variety of disciplines. Enrique Quintero’s paintings (created during Post’s performances of Dekkers’ 2011 work, Colouring) grace the walls at BBT’s new space; musician and composer Daniel Berkman accompanies class in Youth and Adult Divisions; photographer Natalia Perez is transforming the visual landscape from behind the camera; and four Post movement artists have made premiere work on BBT’s Youth Company, including Post’s current Choreographer-in-Residence Vanessa Thiessen. Plans for the next collaboration are already underway. Post:Ballet is presently in the early stages of a new venture with The Living Earth Show and iconic Bay Area composer Samuel Adams. Dancers from the BBT Youth Company will be invited to be part of that work, which is set to premiere in 2020.

BBT is equally influencing Post:Ballet, providing new avenues for outreach and partnership. Advanced students from BBT have been participating in Post’s summer intensives with an eye on deepening their technique and artistic voice. On the infrastructure front, the BBT studios have become a consistent host for Post’s rehearsals. And there is much interest and enthusiasm for Post’s choreographic projects. “Many of the BBT dancers and families have attended Post:Ballet performances, supporting the company’s work and helping us increase our reach into the community,” details Dekkers, “we’ve also had the chance to present several open rehearsals there [at BBT], giving the Post:Ballet team a chance to get feedback during the development of new work and giving BBT the chance to connect with the creative process.”

Certainly an exciting time for Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater – new chapters, new milestones and new collaborations! As keen as he is about the future of both, Dekkers is quick to point out that championing two organizations can take its toll if you aren’t careful. After performing at Burning Man this past summer, Dekkers experienced a critical health crisis. While he has been blessed with a speedy and full recovery, it was a wake up call that some patterns needed to be rebuilt, “I love working, but also really need to carve out space to power down – a 10:00am-2:00am schedule every day isn’t feasible for anyone – and I’ve spent the last decade consistently not sleeping enough.” To that end, these past few months have been a season of self-reflection; a renewed search for balance in all aspects of Dekkers’ life. He is learning to let go, lean on people, delegate and identify what projects are workable and which ones might not be, “passion/excitement is a strength but it’s also a weakness that can easily get the best of you; I’m learning that if your goal is to touch lives and make an impact on the community, you can’t put ‘you’ on the backburner – if you don’t care for yourself, you can’t care for others.”

This article appeared in the December 2018 edition of In Dance.

Heather Desaulniers is a freelance dance writer based in Oakland. She is the Editorial Associate and SF/Bay Area columnist for CriticalDance, the dance curator for SF Arts Monthly, and contributes to several other dance-focused publications, including formerly to DanceTabs.