BETTIE DE JONG (Rehearsal Director) was born in Sumatra, Indonesia, and in 1946 moved to Holland, where she continued her early training in dance and mime. Her first professional engagement was with the Netherlands Pantomime Company. After coming to New York City to study at the Martha Graham School, she performed with the Graham Company, the Pearl Lang Company, John Butler and Lucas Hoving, and was seen on CBS-TV with Rudolf Nureyev in a duet choreographed by Paul Taylor. Ms. de Jong joined the Taylor Company in 1962. Noted for her strong stage presence and long line, she was Mr. Taylor’s favorite dancing partner and, as Rehearsal Director, has been his right arm for the past 35 years. In November 2007 she received the Dance Magazine Award.
The following article appeared in the Fall, 2004 issue of TaylorNotes.
FOREVER DE JONG
Bettie de Jong joined the Paul Taylor Dance Company in 1962, when its members were Mr. Taylor, Dan Wagoner, Liz Walton, Bonnie Mathis and Shareen Blair; her Company debut occurred on April 15 in Paris. She danced until 1985. During those 24 years — the longest stint of any of the 124 people who have been members of the Company — Mr. Taylor set 24 parts in these dances for her: Tracer, Piece Period, La Negra, Scudorama, Party Mix, The Red Room, 9 Dances With Music by Corelli, From Sea To Shining Sea, Post Meridian, Orbs, Lento, Public Domain, Churchyard, Foreign Exchange, Big Bertha, Book of Beasts, Fetes, Guests of May, Noah’s Minstrels, American Genesis, Esplanade, Cloven Kingdom, Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), and House of Cards. Bettie, who was Mr. Taylor’s favorite dancing partner, became the Company’s Rehearsal Director when Mr. Taylor stopped performing in 1975. The cognoscenti see her deft touch throughout the repertoire. Reviewing the Taylor Company’s 2004 City Center season, Mindy Aloff wrote in Dance View New York, “Regardless of whether a given dance is profound or superficial, likable or grating, it will always be beautifully made and, thanks to the Taylor company’s rehearsal director, Bettie de Jong, performed with intensity.” A native of Sumatra, Indonesia, of Dutch heritage, Bettie moved with her family to Holland after World War II on her 14th birthday; New York has been her home since 1958. We caught up with Bettie in July.
Taylor Notes: You grew up in a very difficult time and place: Indonesia during the Second World War. Bettie de Jong: My growing up years in Java were very, very nice; it was a warm climate but we were on a plateau so it wasn’t excruciatingly hot; these were the days of ceiling fans. School started at 7 and we were out by 11 and we went straight to the pool every day. For a kid it was heavenly. It was wonderful until the Japanese prison camps, but when you’re that young you don’t take away what mature people take away from it, you just remember the silly things. You do remember the hunger. It took me a long, long time to be able to leave food on my plate when I had had enough to eat. Once in a while I get flashbacks of being behind barbed wire. Once, with Paul in Berlin, the wall had just gone up and the dancers wanted to go into East Berlin, so we took the underground train to Friedrichstrasse and when I saw all those people standing in line I said, “No thank you!” and took the next train out. If I wasn’t obligated to go with Paul’s Company to the USSR I would have backed out. The idea of being state-controlled. it comes from nowhere because we weren’t in really bad camps — only the last one and that didn’t last very long. It’s just implanted that to be interned behind barbed wire.
TN: Dancers generally seem to know at a very early age what they want to do. BdJ: I didn’t, though. I took dance classes when we moved to Amsterdam when I was 13, but I was as tall as I am now, and all the boys were smaller than I. I knew the local ballet schools weren’t going to take me because on pointe I’d be another few inches taller, and there was no modern class. When I saw the Graham Company I saw that Miss Graham used tall women and I thought, aha, that’s my chance. I came to the US to take classes at the Graham school, thinking I’d go back to Holland and teach Graham.
TN: Do you remember the first time you encountered Paul? BdJ: Oh sure, at the Graham School . He was a big guy who could do anything. The first piece I saw Paul dancing in was John Butler’s Carmina Burana, or it may have been Balanchine’s Episodes; I snuck into the ballet in those days. The first piece I remember him in from the Graham repertory is Embattled Garden. He jumps out of a tree after the dancing has been going on for a while. He was able to be so still that I had not seen him. When he jumped out my heart just leapt out of my chest! That tree was nothing, and he was a bulky guy! It was just amazing.
TN: How did you come to join his troupe? BdJ: I heard that he was having a closed audition — by invitation only — because one of the dancers had two children and couldn’t go to Europe with Paul. Martha had a kitchen at the Graham school where the senior staff could make coffee and she allowed me to use it, and I stumbled into Paul there. When there’s something on my mind I blurt it out, and I said, “Is it true you’re having auditions?” And he said, “Yes, but it’s by invitation.” Then he said, “You may come.” And I said, “Can I?!” So he gave me the time and place. Well the steps were all very fast and I hadn’t moved that fast in my life. I walked out with Dan Wagoner, who I knew, and he said, “Paul said he’d never thought about having a tall woman in his company.” So the next day I went to Graham class as usual and got home around 1pm and the telephone rang. “Hello?” “Where ARE you? We’re REHEARSING!” Paul had never told me.
TN: Did you have the same happy/stunned reaction that dancers do now? BdJ: It was different then because it was a smaller group and he didn’t have that many dates; it was more like, oh gee, I’m getting to dance and I’m going to get paid a little for it. We carried our own makeup, we washed our own costumes. But I was delighted. I was going to get to dance.
TN: You arrived in 1962 but you weren’t cast in Aureole. BdJ: I had gone home to Holland to visit my dad, who was dying, and by the time I got back Aureole was finished. Audiences loved Aureole and it was on every program. That was the hardest part about not being in it, especially with only six people; it would have been a nice way to finish the evening with everybody in the piece.
TN: Do you get a twinge when you’re rehearsing Aureole now? BdJ: When I hear that music I get nervous. I have nothing against the dance; I did Paul’s solo once when he wrecked his ankle at the American Dance Festival, and part of Dan’s part when he wrecked his calf muscle. Because it was such an important dance in those days I still get sort of worked up. Even though I wasn’t a regular in it, I got nervous for everybody else.
TN: What was the modern dance scene like at that time? BdJ: There was a lot going on — just not a steady stream of companies. Sophie Maslow would do a big Chanukah show at Madison Square Garden, Anna Sokolow was around, Pearl Lang was around, Martha, John Butler, Lucas Hoving, José Limón: all these modern dancers were choreographing and they asked their friends to dance, so the companies weren’t always the same.
TN: This must have all been so new to you. BdJ: We did From Sea To Shining Sea, with all sorts of American images in the third part, and when it came to Betsy Ross sewing the flag and saluting, I saluted with my palm out, and Paul said, “De Jong, we don’t salute like that,” I said, “Oh certainly, yes,” and he said, “You’re crazy.” So the next season Eileen Cropley came from Britain and saluted the same way I had and I said “See!” That’s how we saluted in Europe: palms out, to show you have no weapon. Paul always made fun of me. Of course, I didn’t even know who Betsy Ross was; I called her Betsy Roth. That’s how new I was to this country!
TN: Were you aware how potentially controversial works like Bertha and Sea were? BdJ: From Sea To Shining Sea yes. Paul was way ahead of the times in terms of poking fun at America. Big Bertha was very often requested because it was so powerful, but child abuse was still a forbidden subject here in the ’70s. With all the talk about the military/industrial complex, audiences could identify with the idea of a machine destroying our society rather than focus on the father abusing his daughter. The minute child abuse started to be widely talked about, we had the dance taken off the bill.
TN: What abilities does it take to be Paul Taylor’s rehearsal director? BdJ: When I started doing it I didn’t have any skills at all, none, except for having a pretty good memory of the dances and what other people did in them. I guess I was always interested in the geography of the whole dance rather than my own little part so I always knew what other people were doing, and I think that prepared me. I’ve found that I have to hear the music to know what’s coming in the dance. It’s not just muscle memory but eye and ear memory. Some people are just more in tune. Lisa [Viola] was very good; she sometimes sees things I don’t, and I’m not as detailed as she is. Mary [Cochran] always had a very good eye for what a dance should look like. Patrick [Corbin] is very good at coaching. I don’t want to be, because I was never coached. Paul let me do what I thought was right and if it wasn’t right he would give me another image. I feel that a performer should have that freedom, so I don’t like to tell people how to do something unless they really have the wrong approach, and then I’ll try to be general. If I tried something and Paul said ‘Keep it,’ I will translate that to the next dancer, but I feel they should be able to make their own choices. That’s part of the joy of performing.
TN: Dancers say how much they appreciate hearing from you what Paul’s original intent of a moment or gesture was. BdJ: There was very definitely an image Paul gave us with “the conversation” in Esplanade. He wanted us to be unable to make contact with each other, and used the term “ghost” to indicate the idea that we were invisible to each other.
TN: Was that his way of eliciting a dysfunctional family? BdJ: I think he was looking for a haunted house, for memories. That’s why my figure never looks anybody straight in the eyes, but always somewhere past. But those images can be read differently too, like in other art forms. No two people look at a painting the same way, and that’s fine.
TN: Do you think your persona led Paul to places he might not have gone otherwise? BdJ: He always used me for my height; I was always the tallest person, sometimes in heels and a high hat. I don’t think I took him anywhere he wasn’t able to go anyway. On the other hand, he used all of us for the qualities we had in particular, so we all took him to places he might not have gone had we not been there.
TN: Where have you enjoyed going on tour? How do you spend your free time? BdJ: I really love Paris. It lives. And I love the French countryside, too; the audiences give us standing ovations. I enjoy Italy when I’m there with [General Manager] John Tomlinson, because he speaks some Italian. I had a great time in Turkey, and we were in Teheran while the Shah was still in power; I had taught one of the Princess’s handmaidens at the Graham School. I’m a knitter, crocheter and an embroiderer, but I can’t do any of it anymore because of arthritis; that used to be my pastime on planes.
TN: You’ve had a unique vantage point on the Company from 1962 to the present; how has it changed? BdJ: The attitude is very different. Technically they’re way above the caliber we were; these kids can do anything. There’s better understanding of how to train people; better nutrition; very few dance with injuries. But in terms of real commitment, we would go through hell to do a performance. It’s such a different world. And today’s dancers don’t ever say no to Paul; we said plenty of no’s to Paul because we were all his age in the beginning. If something felt funny we would say, “It’s not organic.” Now they say, “I’ll try.”
TN: Looking back, what gives you satisfaction or a feeling of pride? BdJ: Just this whole experience for me, because I do not come from a theatrical family. Sometimes I walk backstage at a theater and think, Gee, I should have been something completely different! My mother was a nurse, my father was an agricultural engineer dealing with diseases, my sister was a nurse.. I had no familiarity with theater life. So this is all very miraculous to me. My father understood it though. He was involved in agricultural research and he could see the traps and the good things of being in the creative field. How I arrived here I really don’t know, I really don’t.
TN: Are there historical figures you would like to have met? BdJ: I came here at a time that was very rich in terms of dancers and choreographers, so I got to meet pretty much everybody except for Hanya Holm, and Doris Humphrey, who died about three weeks before I arrived in this country. I met Ruth St. Denis at the Pillow on her 50th Anniversary! I saw her incense dance, and she did a little dance with Ted Shawn. We were sharing a program with Alvin Ailey, and she knew who the Taylor Company was.
“There was magic in the air. and terror”
Taylor Alumna Mary Cochran was 12 when she first saw Bettie de Jong perform and grew up idolizing her. When Mary joined the Company in 1984 as a shy 22-year-old, she had the opportunity to dance with Bettie in Esplanade. “She was Paul’s favorite partner and a legend in her own right, so I always deferred to her,” said Mary. “She’s extremely funny and she loves to laugh, which helped break down the barriers.” Odd as it might seem, the diminutive Mary inherited one of the statuesque dancer’s roles — that of a statue — when Mr. Taylor revived From Sea To Shining Sea. “For devilment, Paul cast me in Bettie’s role as the Statue of Liberty. He thought it was funny to have the runt in that role. I was young and this was important, and I was intimidated. But Bettie was great; she taught me the opening gestures and she was extremely specific; she always demonstrates with full performance intention — the acting, the turn of head, the eyes, the eyebrows. That made a hard nut to crack a little easier.”
Joao Mauricio confirmed that Bettie loves to laugh. “Once, during a tech rehearsal of Syzygy in Hong Kong, Chris Gillis was wearing a huge papier mache head he had bought, and while he was revolving the head kept facing front. Bettie was in hysterics! “She’s very patient,” said Joao. “While I was learning David’s [Parsons] solo in Musical Offering, she let me grow into it, even when I was doing very badly, and her suggestions were great, like rounding off a phrase to make it work better for me. Sometimes I didn’t agree right away, but when I tried them she was always right. “I admire how detached she is; she can watch us in rehearsal distort steps that are dear to her without criticizing us. She gives you the feel of the dance, and she can tell when something is wrong. And I admire how fair she is to everyone, which is a great quality; I never noticed any favoritism.”
Ruth Andrien joined the Taylor Company in 1974 at the age of 20. “I was very close to Bettie,” she said. “She and Carolyn [Adams] roomed together, and they gave a wonderful sense of security and stability, especially since Paul was not on the road with us. Carolyn and Bettie were the party-throwers; if anyone was upset or depressed, all of a sudden there would be a party. “They provided benevolent leadership. They understood Paul, and his decisions would be filtered down through a soft wisdom. There was a great sense of being cared for; I just felt safe with Bettie. It wasn’t like a mother figure, but a soothingness and a sense of professionalism — not the criticism and negativity that often goes with coaching dancers. She could translate the core quality of the work by recalling a story that would help you get it. For example, Paul saying to Danny Grossman, ‘Turn out your legs,’ and Danny replying, ‘Which one, because you can’t have both!’ It was more important to Paul that you be an interesting dancer than a perfect one.” Bettie related a bit of her childhood, which she spent in Japanese-occupied Indonesia, to Ruth. “I got the sense that for that young girl there was magic in the air, and terror. Food was scarce. One time, when Bettie was 11, she was working on an air-raid bunker and one of the other girls insulted a Japanese officer in Dutch, but he understood Dutch. He made everybody stand in the sun until the guilty person admitted doing it. People were starting to drop. Bettie stepped out of line and said ‘I said it.’ A guard was so moved that a child would take the heat for it that he dismissed them all. I think that whole experience gave her a level of madness along with a complete reality check.
“The conversation in Esplanade could never have been what it is without Bettie’s ability to turn something normal slightly macabre and otherworldly,” said Ruth. “The way she turned her head from one person to the other — there was incredible storytelling in that gesture, yet the intention and motivation of the movement was inexplicable. She turns her back to you and slowly turns to look at you; she could be so scary — that’s her dark side. She’s a maternal person but she had these hauntings that she could draw on, this cobwebby space that was the most interesting part of her dancing; wonderful and strange. Paul trusted that, and she was invaluable in expressing his core style.”
Susan McGuire also remembers Bettie’s laid back style of coaching. “When she demonstrated her role in something like Orbs or Post Meridian,” said Susan, “she was able to give me a wonderful sense of gesture, and very specific things to think about in terms of the original intent. And she had a way of saying just enough and not too much, so you could make it your own. I generally had to ask; she was very reluctant to impose her ideas, but if you really wanted to know, she’d give you so much. “As a dancer, her movement appeared from nowhere — all of a sudden it was just there, and for someone so tall and long-limbed that was kind of phenomenal. It came from a center place and spilled out so clearly and quickly; very clear and very deep and so articulate. I’m sure her movement quality took Paul places he wouldn’t have gone on his own. She could move in a quick, mechanical, suggestive way, so the kinds of pieces he did might have been influenced as well.
“Bettie’s an original. We can have endless conversations and she always has an interesting take I wouldn’t have thought of. And it was such a privilege to talk to someone with the personal history she has, coming from the camps in Indonesia. Having a history like that gives you a perspective that’s important to hear about. “I think she has a real solid core of integrity,” said Susan. “There’s tremendous loyalty and compassion and a real sense of ethics there. She knows what’s important in life.”