DDP Talks To:
Tess Sinke (Creative Director) & Andrew Hoekstra (Executive Director)
Deos Contemporary Ballet
Tess, tell us about your background/personal story.
I was four when I saw The Nutcracker for the first time. I fell in love. I have a vivid memory of the first time I ever choreographed something in my mind. On my way home from pre-ballet, my mom played “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper. Over the years with a little persuasion, my sisters became my first ballet troupe. For career day in middle school, no one understood how my black sweater, dance sneakers and clip board made me a choreographer. Fun fact: my husband, Andrew, saw me in this costume; we went to the same middle school!
I went to Mercyhurst University after I finished my pre-professional training at Grand Rapids Ballet. In 2013, I received my B.A. in Dance Choreography and Religious Studies. During my time at Mercyhurst I was able to really explore my passion for choreography and those experiences solidified my desire to not only be a choreographer, but to one day have my own company.
I fell off the traditional path after college – more like pushed off, as I got sick. After a year, my medical team diagnosed me with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). In short, many things the body does automatically are performed wrong in my body. This includes things like heart rate, balance, and blood pressure. Along with a few other diagnoses, my POTS meant that I could not perform professionally.
While being diagnosed with a chronic illness at 22 and having to make major life changes is very difficult, it did allow me to jump into choreography full time much sooner than expected. I was the Resident Choreographer for Turning Pointe School of Dance for seven years, where I choreographed my first original full-length ballet at 22. Creating that ballet made me realize at the foundation of why I wanted to be a choreographer was my love for storytelling. Fun fact, in 2016 the ballet was performed for the King and Queen of the Netherlands during their visit to the U.S.
In 2016, I reconnected with my husband, Andrew. On our first date, we talked for hours about my dream for Deos Ballet. He dreams big like me, but we have very different brains. We married about a year after the first date and started Deos Contemporary Ballet a few months after in 2018.
Tess, would you walk us through the founding of the company. How did it start?
My husband, Andrew Hoekstra and I started Deos in 2018. Deos began as a summer only, professional company. I saw a need for dancers who were out of work over the summer to have paid opportunities where they could train, network, perform and recharge. From day one we wanted to make sure we treated every member of the team as valuable individuals who each bring a unique gift to the studio and stage. We made a commitment to put our dancers’ health at the top of the priorities. If you are familiar with the ballet world, you know that while there are SO many wonderful things, there are also some very outdated ways of thinking that are still very prevalent in so many companies. Our goal was to create a company that focuses on actively changing that narrative. We’ve been very fortunate to have grown from just the summer months and expanding into the rest of the year.
What’s special about being a woman-led company and working with your husband as Executive Director?
In the ballet world specifically, the amount of male leadership compared to female leadership is disproportionately in favor of men. As a female director and founder, I think that comes with a responsibility to collaborate and lift up other women whenever possible. The only way change will happen is if we actively work at it. Connecting with organizations like Dance Data Project® and utilizing your resources helps us continue to make steps in the right direction.
Starting a company with your spouse can either be a really, really good thing, or a really bad thing. Thankfully for us, it has been a wonderful thing. Each of us brings very different skill sets to the table, Andrew is an engineer by trade and is really wonderful handling the “back end” pieces of the organization. Whereas I am able to focus on the creative. That’s not to say that we don’t have days where we butt heads. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves to hit pause on work conversations when we are hanging out at home. I honestly cannot imagine starting a company with anyone else, Andrew has jumped in 100% even taking beginning adult ballet classes so he can have a better understanding of the art form. (And I’ll share a little secret…he has better turn out than me!)
What challenges have you faced over the last almost two years with the pandemic?
Tess/Andrew: When the pandemic hit we had just put down a theatre deposit for our first ever winter production for the following December. We pivoted very early on in the pandemic and cancelled both our summer 2020 season and our planned December production. We used our time during the initial months of the pandemic to focus on our mission and values for Deos. Being forced to take time off from planning performances gave us the time we needed to solidify our plans for the future. During the pandemic we also made a strategic alliance with Michigan Ballet Academy. Becoming their professional company in residence has provided new opportunities for Deos and helped us find a permanent studio home in Grand Rapids. This collaboration is something that we wouldn’t have considered prior to the pandemic. Overall, while the pandemic was very hard for us just like all arts organizations, we were able to come out of it stronger than before.
Let’s talk about the mission-faith driven aspects of Deos.
I originally came up with the name Deos Ballet back in middle school, when I first started dreaming of having a company some day. So when Andrew and I started making that dream a reality the name seemed like a natural choice. Deos means “to God.” Faith is very important to Andrew and I. At the same time, we are decidedly a secular company that hires dancers from all walks of life and backgrounds. “Deos” is Andrew’s and my personal reminder to be leaders that help others live their fullest life through ballet.
Andrew and I share similar theology too. In it, there is a call to redeem the place we are in this world. Ballet is a beautiful expression of the human condition. As Martha Graham put it, “dancers are the messengers of the gods.” We believe we are called to be a light. What better way to be a light than to create a company that supports and uplifts its dancers in a healthy environment while striving to create positive change in the industry.
Any exciting news or upcoming commissions you’d like to share with us?
Tess: We have exciting news on both the personal and professional fronts! First and personally, we are expecting our second child in May. It has been an incredible experience to have my first son, Theo, grow up in the studio around the dancers and artists. And being a Mom has, in many ways, opened up new avenues for creativity.
Andrew: Second and professionally, the Deos team is becoming a non-profit. We started as a for-profit using our own funds. This forced us to learn quickly because we had skin-in-the-game. Going non-profit will bring a lot of growth, including hiring more staff and expanding our performance season. Our first show under the new organization will be COLLIDE Series 22. This is our annual summer show presented in July and early August.
What does the future look like?
Andrew: We are small right now, with just a handful of dancers and personnel. With every small step forward, we’re laying a strong foundation and building something that is going to last. The next five years have a lot of growth and expansion involved. Year round performances, more dancers, and greater opportunities for artists whether they are just beginning their career or nearing the end of it. We will continue to live our mission and inspire (a) movement in the ballet community and beyond.