Robert Dekkers | Dance Moves On

Photo of Robert Dekkers with Post:Ballet Dancers by Tricia Cronin

Robert Dekkers teaches ballet via live stream on Facebook. He greets us from his kitchen as though he can see all of us, even though he is not in the room with any of us, and we can only see him. He begins teaching his ballet class by taking the knee, an act that shows his solidarity with #blacklivesmatter. At the same time, his gesture is an outward expression of his generosity toward all of humanity. He is saying we are all in this world together. He knows during this age of the pandemic, we are all stuck in small places, which is not where anyone ought to be.

Being alone in a small space is not the same as being in a studio with other dancers. Dancers are always expanding, extending their bodies, seeking to seize all of the space on the floor. It’s pure joy to stretch just one small notch, metaphorically earning an incremental yard. Instead of wallowing in the confinement of too small a space, Dekkers prompts us to expand our awareness by using all of our senses: what we see, what we hear, what we can detect in scent and taste, and most important of all, to breathe and to know what is in our heart.

The connection among body, mind and spirit is essential for dancers to thrive. Dekkers teaches us how to change what the room feels like because we are there, very present, moving through time and space, reorienting ourselves into the wholeness of being human. No ordinary dance instructor, Robert Dekkers is Artistic Director of the Berkeley Ballet Theater (BBT); he is also founder and Artistic Director of the avant-garde dance company Post:Ballet.

2020 marks Robert’s third anniversary as Artistic Director of BBT. Before assuming the mantle of Artistic Director, he taught in the BBT school for several years. When the position of Artistic Director became available, Dekkers applied. “It’s such a perfect fit for me,” he says. Last year the school of the Berkeley Ballet Theater and the company Post:Ballet merged. BBT is the official school. Post:Ballet is the official company. According to Dekkers, “By having a company, we get to ask questions. Where is ballet going? What kind of work are we doing? One reason why our work doesn’t become dated is because we are not bogged down by the cultural norms and traditions intrinsic to ballet.”

BBT is iconic on the West Coast as a traditional ballet school and provides rigorous classical training. Known for its strong technique, the school encourages dancers to join regional and national companies. Many BBT students also go on to top-tier colleges and universities. The BBT School Youth Division offers the usual levels of advancing technique, where students at the higher levels 7,8,9 can join the Studio Company and become part of BBT's annual programming that includes performance collaborations with groups like the Berkeley Symphony, BAMPFA, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Recent performances have been created by a long litany of talented choreographers, including new works by Dani Rowe, Vanessa Thiessen, Keon Saghari, Laura O’Malley, and BBT’s very own Artistic Director Emerita Sally Streets, and of course, BBT’s Artistic Director Robert Dekkers.

Notwithstanding the rigors of classical ballet training, BBT also prides itself in serving students of all ages, backgrounds and abilities. Ascribing to creating a culture that is both nurturing and inclusive, BBT offers a wide range of dance classes. Pre-pandemic, its Adult Open Division offered over 30 classes a week, ranging from beginning to the advanced/professional level. “Our dance classes have people from the ages of three to their nineties,” Dekkers says.

The underlying philosophy of BBT asserts that everybody can dance. And dance they do. The popular class Rhythm & Motion is described as music + movement + spirit + sweat and sounds like Zumba on steroids. This high energy workout drawing from Latin, hip hop, African, and R&B is open to all. Movement classes for people affected by Parkinson’s disease are offered for free. Dance for PD® emerged from a collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group and the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, a chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation. Dancing from chairs, from the barre or from a standing position becomes an exploration for dancers to use the power of their imagination to see, to hear, to touch, to feel and to learn a new expression of movement. The connection among body, mind and spirit endures—anyone who has a passion for movement becomes part of the BBT community of dancers.

In 2009, when he was just twenty-five, Robert Dekkers came up with the concept for Post:Ballet to experiment with an eclectic range of artists by using dance as a means for creative expression in a way that is unexpected. Initially he spent his time developing a board and getting funding for their first program. Originally Post:Ballet was not intended to be a full-time company, and was instead project-based with one or two big productions each year, along with smaller collaborations. After Post:Ballet’s inaugural performance in 2010, Concert One, which included Milieu, Dekkers’ first collaboration with composer Daniel Berkman, and Happiness of Pursuit, his first with composer Jacob Wolkenhauer, the company was clearly destined to receive acclaim.

Mine is Yours (In the rain, dark and fog)

Named “25 to Watch” by DANCE magazine, Post:Ballet established an early reputation for its collaborations with eclectic artists and using dance to challenge social norms. Often touted as a company that uses dance to push boundaries, the expression to push boundaries sounds wistfully child-like. Call Post:Ballet edgy, groundbreaking or avant-garde; however you define the works created by Robert Dekkers, they are not child’s play. This is dance at its finest inception. It was also in 2010, when Dekkers premiered his first documentary short film, Ours, at the Frameline Festival in San Francisco’s Castro Theater as part of the HIV Story Project’s full-length film Still Around. Post:Ballet was named ‘Best New Dance’ of San Francisco by 7×7 Magazine.

For the last few years Dekkers has worked with Dancer/Choreographer Vanessa Thiessen. “She and I danced at ODC/Dance then at Post:Ballet over the years,” Dekkers says. “Together we worked on a piece for Grand Rapids Ballet. It was a great experience for the both of us. In the last few years, we have continued making works together. She’ll work on choreography and I’ll work on the direction.” In collaboration with Thiessen, Dekkers has created five works.

Lavender Country – The Ballet

Dekkers has choreographed and/or directed over a dozen new works for Post:Ballet, including evening-length productions such Lavender Country. Lavender Country is the first openly queer country music band. Formed by singer and lead guitarist Patrick Haggerty in 1972, the band’s debut album, eponymously named Lavender Country, is the first known gay-themed album in the in history of country music. Patrick Haggerty most recently performed with Lavender Country in Sonoma, California in 2019. Based in Seattle, the band’s members originally included Patrick Haggerty along with keyboardist Michael Carr, singer and fiddler Eve Morris and guitarist Robert Hammerstrom. Dekker notes that Patrick Haggerty is iconic in his own right and, “was talking about trans rights in the 1960s and 70s.” While the world of 1973 wasn’t quite ready for Lavender Country, the band’s debut album was rereleased in 2014, including songs like Gay Bar Blues and Stand on Your Man.

Star Amerasu Incandescent Body Post:Ballet

Music is very important to Dekkers. He says, “The last couple of years, I can count on one hand how many pieces we’ve done with existing music. We almost always commission new scores and work closely with the composers throughout the process.” The singer songwriter instrumentalist Star Amerasu has performed on stage with Post: Ballet. In the past two years, Star Amerasu has released two EPs described in the San Francisco Chronicle as “sometimes-witchy electronic music.” Star’s music takes us on a journey through her personal lens—moving through the world as a black queer trans woman. The collaboration between Star Amerasu and Post:Ballet emerges as Incandescent Body.  The cabaret-style performance captures the redemptive power that can be unleashed in tragedy—even in life’s darkest hours, art ultimately transforms grief that is raw and vulnerable into radiant beauty.

Do Be – teaser

In the early days of Post: Ballet, Dekkers recalls directing and choreographing shows in small venues: art galleries, cafés, and bars. Once he created a work for a friend, a booking agent whose band unexpectedly dropped out of a show at a local bar with a small stage that quickly needed to be filled. Dekkers created an improvisational piece. His only tools were props of paper bags filled with straws, lots of phrase work derived from composer Daniel Berkman, and exceptional dancers, one of whom is Dekkers’ husband Christian Squires. The dancers were required to draw straws. Everyone dressed in black except the dancer who drew the shortest straw. He wore white. Dekkers also danced in the piece. “The bar was completely silent for the thirty minutes we danced,” he says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen. I never felt so present as a dancer.” Although the piece borrowed phrases from Dekkers work When in Doubt, it was never named. Similar to the work of abstract expressionist artist Clyfford Still, art that is unnamed offers no precise guide for viewers to be spoon fed artistic intent. Viewers often feel compelled to discover their own meaning in the work. 

Mine is Yours (excerpts, 2014)

Under Dekkers direction, Post:Ballet shapeshifts with ease from stages in small clubs to the wide open space of large ensembles. Rightfully Ours was presented in February 2020 in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, just before the pandemic moved everyone indoors. Eight new pieces of choreography by Berkeley Ballet Theater (Dekkers and Thiessen as choreographers with guest artists from Post:Ballet Dancers) were set to choral works by eight contemporary composers, including world premiere performances of I Shouldn’t Be Up Here by Angélica Negrón and Belong Not by Aviya Kopelman. The especially noteworthy work, Rightfully Ours, was inspired by the 100th Anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. This fully-staged choral music and dance production featured seventy performers and forty singers from the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Women comprised the majority of composers and choreographers, and all of the performers wore the same costume, just in different shades of gray. Dekkers notes that much more work is left to be done, and the true message behind the production: “To make really powerful lasting change.”

Dekkers has worked as the Director of Choreography for Art Haus, a Playa performance group. Their first production featured a reimagined Rite of Spring that included a full orchestra and over forty dancers and performers. This time the venue was Burning Man 2017. The following year, Art Haus presented his work We, Human set to the American Composer Steve Reich’s Eight Lines. In 2019, during another watershed performance year for Dekkers and Art Haus, a reimagined Firebird was set on the Playa performance group, accompanied by a full orchestra, playing the original score by Stravinsky. It’s no wonder that Critical Dance magazine stated, “Post:Ballet’s choreography and artistic collaborations are risky and challenging, yet they still cling to traditional technique in a very unique and genuine way.”

Filling a club space for forty is no less daunting than reaching an audience of 10,000. “All of the shows look different but there is a thread of connection,” Dekkers says.  Dekkers and Vanessa Thiessen have mastered a collaborative approach to dance that develops cohesion and fluidity among the classically-trained dancers and the diverse artists they choose to be part of their work. The consortium of diverse artists that Post:Ballet collaborates with includes composers, animators, architects, cinematographers, fashion designers, and sculptors—one reason among many why the San Francisco Chronicle heralds the multi-disciplinary collaborations as “inventive, focused, sophisticated, and anything but risk averse.”

Behind the Scenes: Flutter by Robert Dekkers

As much as Post: Ballet’s performances ebb and flow according to the size of the performance space and its audience, Dekkers choreography is further defined by the dancers the works are set on. Originally Robert Dekkers’ Flutter had been staged with a range of dancers, first all-female, then all-male, and finally mixed-gender. The ultimate transformation occurred when the work was set on individual AXIS dancers. AXIS is known for its collaboration of dancers with and without physical disabilities. Under Dekkers’ direction, Flutter focused on the abilities and range of each AXIS dancer as much all of the dancers coming together as a whole company. According to Dekkers, “Flutter is a meditation on the relationship between the individual and the collective. It explores the space between masculinity and femininity, form and freedom, effort and pleasure.”

There is an interesting dichotomy between the classical ballet that lives at BBT and the transformative work happening at Post:Ballet. Now that Post:Ballet is the official dance company for BBT, it is firmly rooted in BBT’s expanding community of dancers—where talented dancers have an opportunity to grow as artists. To be good at anything, an artist must master essential technique—the rules have to be rigorously adhered to before they can be tossed aside or stretched beyond the breaking point to make way for groundbreaking new art. One fuels the other—this is the dynamic tension that must always exist to create exceptional work. As Dekkers says, “If I have an idea for a work that no one else would go out on a limb to do, then that is the one I want to do.” For Robert Dekkers, being the Artistic Director of both BBT and Post:Ballet also makes him his own collaboration, his own work in progress. 

Sixes and Seven (Performed by Robert Dekkers at the UN Plaza in San Francisco.

Music by Philip Glass)

From the beginning, dance has shaped who Robert Dekkers is as a person. He grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia and started taking ballet at the age of five. His mother is a piano teacher and he has an aunt who is a choral singer. He also played the cello when he was growing up. “There has always been music in my family,” he says. It might help explain his affinity for music that has helped to enhance his career as a choreographer. “I’ve always performed with live musicians. Working with live musicians is an important part of my creative community.”

And he has always had a passion for movement. He remembers asking his mother every day, “When would I take ballet?”  He doesn’t even know how he knew about ballet. “I guess I saw it on TV.” There was no single epiphany that told him dance was his destiny. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know dance was part of my life in a very integral way.” As a little kid, he remembers being in the grocery store dancing down the aisles, turning and spinning. “Dance is where I feel most like myself.”

He started training at the School of Atlanta Ballet, where he studied on scholarship from the ages five to fourteen. Then at fourteen, he switched to a smaller school, Gwinnett Ballet Theater.  “The training was really wonderful,” he says. “Artistic Director Lisa Sheppard (Lisa Sheppard Robson) took me under her wing and gave me so much support as a dancer. She saw that I was interested in choreography and let me do a piece. I went on to train in choreography.” By the age of eighteen, he had already created a few pieces. In the senior year of high school, he interned with Lisa Sheppard, taught at the school, wrote grants, attended board meetings, actually learned Robert’s Rules of Order and ran board meetings. The range and depth of the experience became an early training ground to become not only a dancer but also to evolve into becoming a world-class choreographer and a director. 

Before fully transitioning into choreographing and directing, Dekkers danced with Ballet Arizona, ODC/Dance, Company C Contemporary Ballet, and Diablo Ballet. While he was with Diablo Ballet, he was nominated for an Isadora Duncan award for “Outstanding Performance- Individual” in 2013.  ODC/Dance (formerly Oberlin Dance Collective) is what led him to jump on a bus and go to San Francisco. The dance company was about to turn 60 years old—and opened his eyes to a whole new way of approaching choreography.

He has also danced leading roles in works by George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, José Límon, KT Nelson, Val Caniparoli, Lar Lubovitch, Jodie Gates, Trey McIntyre, Dominic Walsh, Septime Webre, and Paul Taylor.  As a dancer one of his favorite roles was playing the surfer in Twyla Tharp’s Surfer at the River Styx. The forty-five minute work, is amazing and complex as much as it is a test in dance stamina. Dekkers describes his experience in this demanding performance as “Really exhilarating!” For a complete list of works, see his bio.

There is no part of Robert Dekkers life that has not been affected by his work. Through dance, he met his husband Christian Squires. They’ve been together for ten years. This summer marks the five-year wedding anniversary of when they were married at Burning Man. Initially Christian Squires danced at the Oregon Ballet Theater where he met Dekkers. Then they dated long distance. Since 2012, Squires has been designing and creating costumes for Post:Ballet, and many other companies including  sjDANCEco, Grand Rapids Ballet, Kansas City Dance Festival, and Diablo Ballet. Even their wedding was a creative collaboration. Squires designed the wardrobe and Dekkers choreographed the ceremony. “Our wedding was a performance,” Dekkers says.

The lines are blurred among Dekkers work with Post:Ballet, BBT, and with all of the other collectives, collaborations and friendships. And while it’s good to have friends outside of dance and to find balance, dance is such a big part of it all that it travels with him everywhere he goes.

He carries the threads with him through his working day—a day in which he does not clock in or out. “My husband is a core collaborator,” he says. “Christian is the creative director for the company and also does a lot of aesthetic work on film shoots. We’re always talking about the scenery or costumes, but we also make time in the relationship to be just us too.”

Working hard is at the core of what makes talented artists exceptional, but it’s also important to recharge. “By being out in nature or reading and listening to music, I have time to renew and don’t burn out.” Born with aortic stenosis, Dekkers has a mechanical aortic valve, which requires him to take blood thinners. Five years ago, he was rushed to the hospital and landed in intensive care. Massive internal bleeding resulted in a blood transfusion. It wasn’t the first time that blood thinners had played havoc. While this harrowing health episode made him encounter his own mortality, he also found that the adult dancers and students of BBT were there for him.

“By having different generations dancing together, there is a greater love and awareness that ends up creating a cultural family.” For Dekkers BBT feels very much like a family. By dancing together, BBT has created a genuine community where there is caring, trust and a shared sense of purpose. Everyone is moving through space and time together and that’s a gift. “I am grateful for class every day,” Dekkers says. “The ability to be together with the community and impart my gratitude is a special thing for me to participate in.”

During this age of pandemic, dancers are forced to forego the studio and stage. Whether dancers are professionals pursuing a career or hobbyists who dance for the sheer joy of the experience, dancers of every incarnation must stay in shape. Across the country dance companies and schools shut their doors and many were slow to come up with online teaching programs, but not BBT. Dekkers responded immediately to the needs of the community by setting up zoom classes and also streaming daily classes from the BBT Facebook page.

Dekkers seamlessly adapted to working with the camera—both technically and learning how to present on camera. “There is a different rhythm to teaching on camera,” he says. “We use words and imagery to create more meaningful teachable moments.” He is quick to acknowledge that different skills are used to translate to online teaching. Teachers who might be exceptional in the studio are not necessarily able to translate well to an online platform. “We’ve had to learn step by step to master this new platform and the new way of teaching that it requires.”

For dancers who find themselves confined to small spaces and often dancing alone, there is an opportunity to redefine dance as an expression and as an art form. For someone with Robert Dekkers talent, film, video and all other digital manifestations might be worthy of further exploration. Some dance purists are dismissive of dance as being anything other than a live performance art, de rigueur. It’s been said that Balanchine, who is the master, the paragon of tradition, was dismissive of ballet performed on the screen. Yet Balanchine lived long before the digital age and is undoubtedly old school and, on this score, lacking in imagination. We are living in strange and uncertain times that will test our limitations and turn our wildest dreams about the possibilities for dance into a brave new reality.

If there is anyone who can make the leap into the new frontier for dance, it’s Robert Dekkers. He’s perfectly positioned to take the helm to elevate great live dance performances to be visually compelling on the screen. He’s already directed a fair number of short films and understands the intricacies of lighting, setting and staging specifically for the camera. It’s been ten years since Dekkers first documentary Ours premiered. For that project he collaborated with the cinematographer Alexander du Prel and the composer Jacob Wolkenhauer. His other short films Tassel and Coming Home (choreography by Robert Dekkers and direction by Marta Dymek) were  commissioned by the San Francisco Dance Film Festival for its 2017 Co-Laboratory program. Other film projects include a triptych from Lavender Country with 360/VR videographer Bruce Hamady, and Mirage, described as an “augmented reality and live performance experience,” that was co-created by Dekkers and director/choreographer Logan Scharadin.

Lyra: Surface Down

Lyra Co-produced by Post:Ballet and The Living Earth Show 'Surface Down'

Dekkers recently directed a short film that is part of the larger dance project Lyra. This multidisciplinary performance blends dance, fashion, live music rich with percussion, and acoustic sound into a single immersive experience. Inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, this timeless story explores our most urgent questions about empathy, transcendence and identity. This bold piece is one more reason why the San Francisco Chronicle described Post:Ballet as “a company that not only lives dangerously- it thrives on it.” Lyra would have made its debut in 2020 if the pandemic had not happened. Now its live stage performance has been pushed off until 2021. Dekkers might produce more film shorts to increase the audience for the work. Visually stunning dance + music + art on the screen is virtually pandemic-proof.

Dekkers is that rare confluence of creative and business talent together in one body, mind and soul. When he was with Diablo Ballet, Artistic Director Lauren Jonas commented, “He’s so intellectual but relatable. He’s human and intelligent and has business savvy — it’s so rare to find that in one artist.” In many ways Dekkers possesses the characteristics and drive of a creative entrepreneur. Admittedly, he is motivated to go against the grain and do things differently. He once stated, “I was dissatisfied with the direction I saw many ballet companies headed toward — very few newly commissioned works and lots of big story ballets that are pleasantly entertaining, but not necessarily relevant to contemporary culture.” Time and time again, Dekkers has proven that his work mirrors our culture in a way that is timely, compelling and most of all, relevant. His work peels away the layers to reveal what is raw and vulnerable about being human–in all of its glorious manifestations.

Back to kitchen ballet, live streaming classes are not only fun but exciting because anything can happen: Facebook shuts, the iPhone crashes, a fierce jeté slams against a frying pan, the music skips to a halt in a warbling retreat, and Dekkers cat Bird ambles across the marley to do an unrehearsed pas de chat. Kitchen ballet is live performance at its best. Dancers imagining a reality greater than the four corners of a small space becomes its own form of collaboration—as it should be. After all, we are all moving through time together, transforming space at a dizzying speed. Deckers says, “It’s such a gift to dance. The connection among body, mind and spirit is essential for dancers to thrive, and when you come right down to it, drawing forth that connection is important for any one of us to thrive.” In the age of the pandemic, no one knows for sure how much longer dancers will be stuck dancing in place, but we can be sure that dance will keep happening.

 

Patricia Vaccarino has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, content, books, essays and articles.

 

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Robert Dekkers teaches ballet via live stream on the Facebook Fan Page for the Berkeley Ballet Theater. Classes are held seven days a week, 10am PST weekdays and 10:30 or 11am on the weekend. Other BBT dance instructors teach as well. Several BBT teachers give online classes: Robert Dekkers, Kaori Ogasawara, Xiao Liu-Moore, Raymond Tilton. Check the schedule to see who is teaching on a given day. https://www.facebook.com/BerkeleyBalletTheater

Zoom classes are also available. It’s important to note that the zoom instruction is pay as you go, but the Facebook streaming classes are free and a way to provide training to dancers who ordinarily would not be able to afford classes, especially during this time of economic shutdown.

Please make a donation today! Contributions support both BBT and Post:Ballet unless the donor specifies that the funds are designated for a particular program. http://www.berkeleyballet.org/donate

BBT’s Board of Directors is comprised of Bay Area community members who are dedicated to supporting the mission of the school and helping BBT promote the value of rigorous dance training in a nurturing environment to students of all ages and backgrounds. If you are interested in learning more about Board involvement, please contact Executive Director Ali Taylor Lange (alitl@berkeleyballet.org).

 

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Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and eight books.


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