In the spring of 1978, Jim Vincent was a sophomore at the N.C. School of the Arts. It was midterm week in Winston-Salem, and one night while studying, his dorm room phone rang. Vincent answered, and on the other end was a man with a thick European accent.
It was choreographer Jiøí Kylián, artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater.
"I had no idea who he was at the time," Vincent recalled. "He said he was in New York looking for dancers. He didn't understand that I was in the middle of midterms. I drove up four days later - a 14-hour drive - and auditioned for him at Steps on Broadway. After class he offered me a contract, and two months later, I moved to The Hague. I'm still not sure what I did to deserve that phone call."
When pressed, the modest Vincent acknowledged that his professors had recommended students to Kylián. This week, in what can be called coming full circle, Vincent, 52, is returning to North Carolina, this time as artistic director of the company he joined at age 19.
Nederlands Dans Theatre, the leading dance company in Holland and one of Europe's top, will perform at UNC-Chapel Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. It's the final of just three engagements booked on NDT's first American tour since Vincent became artistic director in 2009.
He hasn't been estranged from North Carolina, however. Vincent has served on the UNC School of the Arts board, and for nine years, led Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, twice bringing the troupe to ADF. (In fact, ADF just announced Hubbard Street will return June 9, performing at the festival's gala.)
The modern dance world is small and interconnected. In addition to Vincent, the ranks of former NDT dancers include Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, 2009 recipient of ADF's Scripps Award, and Nacho Duato, who performed at UNC last year as artistic director of Spain's national dance company.
As NDT's artistic director, Vincent is continuing the tradition of nurturing up-and-coming choreographers. On this American tour, the company is performing two fairly recent hits: "Silent Screen," a 2005 work by semiretired NDT dancers, Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, and "The Second Person," created for the company in 2007 by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite.
Both works feature elaborate multimedia projections. "Silent Screen," as the title suggests, plays with bygone cinematic aesthetics, while "The Second Person" challengers viewers to peer at their shadows with far less innocence than Peter Pan.
Speaking from Berkeley, Calif., recently, Vincent said the company would gladly have extended its tour, had the troupe received "more opportunities." But financial constraints on both sides of the Atlantic make flying around with sets and a 29-member dance troupe difficult. To continue receiving 50 percent of its funding for the Dutch government, NDT must maintain a quota of Low Country performances.
An East Coast reunion
The dancers themselves are more international, hailing from 21 nations. The company's four Americans are happy about the homecoming, and a little confused.
"Honestly, it seemed a little random, because we are in San Francisco, L.A., and - Chapel Hill? I was like, 'Ooo-K,'" dancer Shannon Alvis said. But the Indiana native and former Hubbard Street member seized the East Coast moment: Her mother and grandmother are flying in to see her dance. They'll be in good company too; Dutch ambassador Renée Jones -Bos is traveling from Washington, D.C., to see NDT.
That the company is coming to Memorial Hall and not the Kennedy Center says a lot about UNC - and the state of dance presenting. Universities are more likely than ever to embrace avant-garde dance. And NDT may be back soon: Vincent says he is speaking with Emil Kang, director of Carolina Performing Arts, about a major collaboration for the 2012-2013 season.