Junior Ballet Antwerp’s Artistic Director Alain Honorez on the beautiful fusion of classic and contemporary.
When Artistic Director Alain Honorez founded the pre-professional training program Junior Ballet Antwerp in 2019, it marked an important moment in the development of classical dance in Antwerp. The former principal dancer of the Royal Ballet of Flanders and his co-founding partner, Irma Swijnen, created a first for Belgium. A two-year program allowing some of the most talented dancers from Belgium and beyond, to gain the necessary experience to join a professional ensemble. At that point, these kinds of initiatives could be found around the globe for more than a decade, but not yet in Belgium. Together with his life partner, choreographer Altea Nuñez, Alain supervises 20 young dancers between the ages of 17 and 21, honing their talents, both technically and artistically – in a program of intensive choreographic workshops, technical training, and practical performance experience.
The Artistic Director approaches his new career the same way he approached his life as a dancer: with a perfectionism on every level. Alain uses out-of-the-box thinking to combine innovation of the discipline with a deep appreciation for the classical tradition – which explains the match between Junior Ballet Antwerp and Atelier Munro. For one of the 2022 performances, choreographed by Nicolo Fonte, the company’s young dancers are completely dressed in made-to-measure suits, made from an extraordinarily flexible fabric, showing the quality of the clothing while creating a distinctly modern aesthetic for classical dance.
We took a moment to speak with Alain the day we saw our suits in action for the first time – shooting a video to celebrate our collaboration. A beautiful passage from the choreography ALONE / TOGETHER, performed on the roof terrace of the Museum aan de Stroom with the city of Antwerp as the backdrop in the last moments before the sun set.
Today we are celebrating the collaboration between Junior Ballet Antwerp and Atelier Munro overlooking your hometown of Antwerp. You have been the founder and Artistic Director since 2019, but where did your life in dancing originally begin?
I discovered dance through my grandparents at the age of seven. It was their observation that I had a sense of rhythm and both of them were very culturally-minded, which is why they introduced it. I started doing it as a hobby and eventually I ended up in the preliminary training of the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp. I completed that school in 1996. I got a contract with the Royal Ballet of Flanders right after graduating. And then everything evolved very quickly. Almost every two years I managed to progress to a higher level: soloist, first soloist and in 2003 the principal dancer – the highest ranked dancer of the company. I danced my complete career at Royal Ballet of Flanders – 16 years under contract and then a few more years as a freelancer. I especially enjoyed that last phase as I was finally able to let go of some of my all-determining perfectionism and be more mindful and aware of what I was doing.
That last phase started when I was about 33 years old, when I felt I had reached my peak and decided I only wanted to dance what I actually liked. Instead of having to do everything that is imposed when you are part of a company. That wasn’t an easy choice, but I felt I had to take that step. At that point, I had also been teaching for a while alongside dancing. Freelancing also gave me the opportunity to do a number of international productions. I also finally found the time to study photography, something I had wanted to do for many years.
In 2017, a position became available as a teacher at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp. I accepted, despite having my doubts. At that point I did not see myself as an ideal teacher, but at the same time I thought it would be an important step to develop myself in a different part of the dancing world, which seemed to fit this new stage of my life.
And that choice ultimately resulted in Junior Ballet Antwerp?
Indeed. When I was young, Antwerp offered the Royal Ballet School for education and the Royal Ballet of Flanders as a professional ballet company. When I graduated myself, there was a direct exchange between those two worlds: a full-time contract could be offered at the end of the school term. Today, because of the ever-evolving dance scene, graduates generally need more time to fully develop before entering the arena of the professional world. That insight inspired me to start something to facilitate the phase in between and to give young talented dancers the opportunity to gain the experience that is required today to make that step to a professional company. My wife Altea, a choreographer with Junior Ballet Antwerp, and myself can count on the input and support from all kinds of people we have worked with during our active careers or who are close to our hearts and creative vision. Those people have played an enormous role from the very beginning of Junior Ballet Antwerp in 2019. They have helped us to develop everything and stand where we are today.
You are now working with the second generation of young dancers. How do you look back on the very first group?
We started in 2019 with 18 dancers, who have completed a two-year trajectory with us. With about a year and a half taking place during the pandemic. That was very complicated. Yet, even somewhat to our surprise, 85% of that group has found work with a company. The process during the pandemic was very different to what we were used to – we had to work with a lot of video. We even invited some directors from companies here in Antwerp – to be able to show what we worked on with the youngsters. In the end, it resulted in an outcome that we are very proud of. Some of the remaining dancers decided to stay with us for a third year. They were joined by a group of new recruits we selected from about 400 entries from all over the globe.
It’s so great to see all those young people from completely different backgrounds working together. At this point we have nine nationalities in the group. The interaction between the more experienced third year artists and the new ones is also a special and exciting development to observe.
What is the biggest difference between now and the time when you were a young dancer starting your professional career?
It has definitely gotten harder to become a professional dancer and I’m convinced it will only get harder. This is mainly due to the shrinking financial possibilities of companies, having fewer and fewer people on their payroll. As a result, companies take no risk in the selection of their dancers, in principle they only select people with sufficient experience. That was much less the case 25 years ago. At that time companies would still hire a few talented graduates every year as they had the facilities and the time to nurture them.
In addition, there is the factor that dance as an art form has been evolving tremendously. Dancers have to be more versatile than ever. In terms of style, technique, and disciplines. The companies are very broad in the scope of their performances. The dividing line between traditional classic and modern has blurred. As a classical dancer you also have to be very strong in contemporary dance. We try to reflect this specifically in the program of Junior Ballet Antwerp – but without letting go of the classical foundation.
This classical foundation characterized you as dancers and now as teachers?
Correct, I also think it is very important that we can maintain this in the city of Antwerp. Belgium has developed strongly in modern and contemporary dance, but we must not lose our classical foundation either. I often compare it to going to the museum. If you see all the classics by Ruebens and Rembrandt, these works still remain extremely important. Contemporary art has the power of urgency and it reflects the current zeitgeist, but in my eyes, it cannot exist without the classics that came before it. The classical basis of dance has been perfected by many generations for over a century – that is precisely why, in my view, there is still an audience for it. It is timeless. Dance is constantly evolving, and of course we are also involved in that, but the classics will always have a place in the contemporary context. And it is very important for us to continue that tradition.
We will always set the bar very high in this regard. I have always been of the principle: you do something right, or you don’t do it at all.
Tell us more about how you intend to play a part in the evolution of dance without losing touch with classical foundations.
It is my job, with my knowledge and experience that I have amassed over the past 30 years, to think ahead and move along with today’s society. It is important that the public is still able to understand the dance we perform. That’s not to say it can’t be less perfect in execution, but it’s all about the perspective you offer to the audience. Classical ballet is sometimes given a dusty image, but I think it’s entirely a matter of how it is performed. If we strictly keep doing it as it was done a hundred years ago, it loses its relevance – we must prevent that.
In our active dance career, Altea and I, have had the opportunity to work with many innovators in the field. Including people like William Forsythe, who already made furore in the 80s with his extraordinary works for the Paris Opera. In his work he implemented classical ballet techniques in an “off balance” way. The American choreographer George Balanchine had already introduced this, but Forsythe took the experience of these new dance techniques to a completely new level by also innovating with sound and staging. More recently, the British choreographer David Dawson has become an exceptional innovator in the dance world, but in his work one can observe the same pattern in which innovation and tradition coincide. These kinds of innovation in dance inspire us enormously in terms of our approach within Junior Ballet Antwerp. And the crucial element in all of these innovators is that their work cannot be implemented without a perfected basic classical technique.
When we started Junior Ballet Antwerp, we asked David Dawson to patronize our company and to our great joy he has accepted. He is also one of the leading choreographers whose work we are performing this season. So, in that way we actively position ourselves as Junior Ballet Antwerp next to like-minded people in contemporary international ballet and try to be part of the movement that approaches classical dance with a contemporary perspective.
One of the ways it manifests itself is in the costumes – the reason why we are together.
Exactly, it fits within our approach to not to limit ourselves and only use traditional tutus and leggings. We always search for the strongest possible image for a particular dance. How made-to-measure suits turned into costumes for one of our earlier performances is a bit of a coincidence. I suppose it is based on my general love of aesthetics. We initially did this with your partner ICONS Collections in Ostend, when I saw a special match in the ‘casual’ silhouette of a suit and one of our earlier performances, which was our first encounter with made-to-measure suits by Atelier Munro. In my eyes it resulted in an even exchange between the world of dance and tailoring, because using these made-to-measure suits for a dance performance portrayed the incredible stretch of the fabrics and how the tailoring was completely in service of the dancers’ mobility. It really showed the unique quality of those suits. I thought that was a wonderful thing.
And now this convergence between made-to-measure clothing and your creative vision for Junior Ballet Antwerp has resulted in a new piece named ALONE / TOGETHER by choreographer Nicolo Fonte. We captured the very first performance in the suits at sunset on the roof terrace of the Museum aan de Stroom on the edge of the city.
It continues to intrigue me that you work for months on a choreography, such as Nicolo’s and then the costumes are added, in this case your suits – but they really merge at the very final moment, when it is performed on stage. This is where the unique experience, which includes the audience, takes place. To have been given a hint of this fusion for everyone to see, by means of the video, gives extra color to this interaction. The special choreography by Nicolo and the way the suits react to the movement of the body creates an ‘out of the box’ vision that clearly shows what we stand for with Junior Ballet Antwerp: a meeting of tradition and innovation, that provides a unique experience showing the power of modern classical dance.
Special thanks to Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp for providing their rooftop for the shoot and ICONS Collections Oostende who collaborated with us on this project.