Exuding energy and inspiration, Purchase College Conservatory of Dance Director Nelly van Bommel has heart of gold and an undying dedication to her work. Guest blogger Lilia Ambler recently chatted with van Bommel about her background, her work, and her long history at Purchase.
Van Bommel grew up in France with an innate appreciation of the arts, passed down from her parents. “I was a very dreamy person,” she says. “I had a lot of emotions. I could tell that dance and a lot of other arts really moved me. It put me in a state that I really loved. It was a state of happiness and feeling connected to the world.” Though she loved dance very much, in her early college years she focused more on theater. “It had a huge impact on my life. I absolutely loved everything. I loved the way we would warm up with the company members and I loved learning the tasks.”
Van Bommel’s received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in France and then, with the help of her professors, found an opportunity to study abroad at Purchase College. After a challenging application process, van Bommel was accepted and headed to New York. She reflects, “In the spring of 2002, I came to Purchase for the first time. I remember it being very snowy, and I took the bus from White Plains. I had no housing. I was really kind of all by myself, with just the information from the Purchase website, but I was definitely not a student that had a lot of resources.” She added, “My parents always supported me, in whatever I was doing, but the financial support was only what they could afford. I had to work in order to come to Purchase, and I had all kinds of side jobs. I was even the company manager for a dance company for two years.”
At Purchase, van Bommel took to dance like a fish to water. Larry Clark, a longtime professor in the Conservatory of Dance recalls, “I was very taken by Nelly. She is so kind and is just bubbling with intelligence. She took my class, and she wasn’t really a dancer-dancer. She wasn’t trained formally, so I know she struggled a little in my class. But she really worked hard. It was a lot of fun to have her.” She was a visiting student at the time which meant staying only one semester. However, the faculty adored van Bommel, and offered her a partial scholarship for the MFA program.
Van Bommel was able to continue supporting herself while in school by teaching French classes on campus and working as a nanny for families in the area. She began sitting in on Rozalind Newman’s dance composition classes. Newman recalls van Bommel as a student as well. “When Nelly first came into my class she would just sit really quietly,” she said. “I was so involved in the class that I didn’t pay much attention to her, but then I realized, this woman is soaking in everything I’m saying. I didn’t know what she thought of it, but in that moment, I realized she was really looking at it, thinking, in an intelligent way.” Little did Newman know, van Bommel was enthralled by her class. “Her approach was very much based on trusting what you want to do and clarifying what you want to do. This was a revelation for me because everything she would say in class are things that I would have felt. I was like, oh my god, she’s absolutely right, and everything she’s saying that’s what I’m feeling! I wanted to do that. She was thinking about the creative process as this complicated, definitely not linear, but this messy kind of approach was exactly what I was for. I owe a lot to Roz Newman. She gave me confidence,” concludes van Bommel.
After graduation, van Bommel landed a gig working in the dance office at Purchase, while continuing her work as a choreographer. She received grants and commissions for esteemed dance companies such as Ballet Austin, Milwaukee Ballet, and Kaatsbaan International Dance Center. She later became a full-time faculty member, and then went on to serve as assistant director for Larry Clark and Bettijane Sills, both longtime professors in the Conservatory of Dance.
When van Bommel was asked to take on the position of Director, she was apprehensive at first, concerned that the job would be all-consuming and that her choreographic work would suffer. Yet she rose to the challenge, and now manages to successfully direct the Conservatory, teach freshman seminar, and act as an advisor to students and a mentor to seniors. And she still choreographs, most recently a work for Julliard.
“I knew that I wanted to live a significant life. I was lucky to live in a family environment that gave me a sense of what happiness felt like. Which was basically doing the things that you felt were right. And just enjoying being alive and being surrounded by people you care about, and I think that’s what I’ve been doing. I have been incredibly lucky, but I have also worked hard for what I have, I’ll say that. It’s a combination of hard work and luck and, you know, the stars align, you meet people, and you realize that those people are just fantastic. So, I’ve been following that,” says van Bommel. “What I wish for everybody is to be able to live a life that is significant and to define what makes them happy.”
Nelly van Bommel will be hosting the April 30 Virtual Watch Party featuring Heginbotham Dance. Learn more and find out how to join the party by clicking here.