The She and He Who Create as We

Paul Lightfoot and Sol León are Nederlands Dans Theater choreographers who create together. Their work, in rehearsal in The Hague, is coming to New York this week.
Credit...Herman Wouters for The New York Times

Tights and point shoes, bunions and tape, a prince and his princess: in dance, certain things always go together. But another kind of pairing, the choreographic duo, hasn’t always been so successful. Sol León and Paul Lightfoot of Nederlands Dans Theater are an exception.

“I think everyone assumes when you work as a choreographer, it’s just you,” Ms. León said recently by phone from her home at The Hague, where the company is based. “To work as a duo, everyone thinks, ‘Well, that can’t really work.’ ” Ms. León and Mr. Lightfoot were already frequent dance partners and romantically involved when they started creating pieces together in the late 1980s. “Normally choreography becomes a monologue — one person’s point of view, taking inspiration from another artist, maybe, but actually just one has the voice,” she said. “But in our case it’s not like this.”

Some 25 years and 40 pieces later, through the breakup of their romantic relationship and through Mr. Lightfoot’s 2011 appointment as the Dans Theater artistic director, they have continued to create together. This week, for the first time in nearly a decade, they’ll bring the company to New York for a program at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, presented by the Joyce Theater.

Their journey has not been without challenges; Mr. Lightfoot, also on the phone, laughed as he recalled the first piece he and Ms. León made together: “The Bard of Avon” in 1989, at the behest of the company’s revered artistic director and choreographer Jiri Kylian. “The first ballet was terrible, an absolute stinker,” he said.

Nonetheless both Mr. Kylian and Hans van Manen, then a resident choreographer, encouraged the pair to create more. At first Ms. León said it was too much pressure, and she chose to leave her name off their collaborative works. But eventually, “in the studio, the dancers would say, ‘Who is the one?’ ” she recalled. “And we’d say: ‘Well, it’s actually two. It’s like papa and mama.’ ”

Early on the pair worked to develop a choreographic language that would distinguish them from the many other choreographers then at Dans Theater, including William Forsythe, Ohad Naharin and, above all, Mr. Kylian. “We were surrounded by amazing choreographers, and it’s a wonderful thing to feel, but it’s also important to be sure you’re not left in the shadow of other people’s styles,” Mr. Lightfoot said.

Mr. Lightfoot and Ms. León came to Dans Theater from very different backgrounds. He grew up in England and trained at the Royal Ballet; she was raised in southern Spain and only began serious professional training at 18. They have found common ground in a style rooted in rigorous ballet technique, elegantly neo-classical in look but punctuated by strong, often rapid-fire gestural movement. Their dances vary widely in mood, from playful to darkly dramatic, but they are often highlighted — perhaps not accidentally — by an intricate onstage partnership.

They often start work in separate studios. “We usually begin with too many ideas and then slowly refine ourselves, or each other,” Mr. Lightfoot said.

Ms. León added: “Sometimes with all the ideas Paul has, it will get to the point where I say, ‘Yeah, but what?’ I push toward the message. I want to see the reason of why we are doing things.”

At some point in the process, Mr. Lightfoot said, they each realize they need the other’s input to move forward.

Rehearsing with them can be “a very intense experience,” said Lawrence Rhodes, the artistic director of Juilliard’s dance division, who worked with Ms. León and Mr. Lightfoot at Dans Theater in the ’90s. “Doing that work and being with them, one on one, for an hour, it’s a lot. It’s pretty draining.” Mr. Lightfoot and Ms. León will teach class and work with students at Juilliard during their time in New York.

Arlette van Boven, a Dans Theater veteran who has known Mr. Lightfoot and Ms. León since they joined the company, said the two “complement each other, like two sides of a coin.” Mr. Lightfoot “has enormous energy and enthusiasm,” she said, while Ms. León “has a fantastic eye and instinct. She says two words, and it makes sense.”

That dynamic allowed Mr. Lightfoot and Ms. León to work through the most difficult time in their creative partnership: the breakup of their romance. “How you work together is reflected in how you dance together and how you live and love together,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “Like any relationship, it began very naïve, very spontaneous, very romantic ——”

“In the beginning,” Ms. Leon interjected, to a burst of giggles from Mr. Lightfoot.

“In the beginning,” he agreed. “But as you grow, all kinds of things happen.”

After the breakup came the real task: “How do we deal with this?” Ms. León said. “In reality we had to be in the studio together. We had to keep going,”

They still “live together, kind of,” Mr. Lightfoot said, in “a big, old Dutch house” in The Hague with their daughter, Saura. “Our creativity was always part of our relationship, right from the beginning,” he said. “That thread is always going to unite us.”

The programs at the Koch Theater will feature three of their works. The gala’s playful and innocent “Sh-boom,” from 1994, reflects their early years together. “Sehnsucht” (2009) and “Schmetterling” (2010) explore parental loss. “Sehnsucht” in particular juxtaposes their interest in stage-spanning, quicksilver ensemble choreography with intensely intimate moments, notably a duet in a rotating box that seems to hover above the stage. It is a study in contrasts, much like the pair who created it.

“Sometimes it can be very explosive, sparks can always fly, but in a very positive way,” Mr. Lightfoot said. “I wouldn’t be half the person I am if I didn’t have this connection with Sol.”

Ms. León, with characteristic precision, put it this way: “The story of life, of human beings, is of two people. It’s like dancing together, you know? A pas de deux.”