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.
“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.”