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A youthful celebration of 19th century avant-garde

February 09 2024

Junior Ballet Antwerp presents JAMES

Ballet lovers in Antwerp are in for something special during February when the theatrical spectacle JAMES will debut at the city’s Opera House. Promised by its creators to be “a unique blend between art, theatrical innovation and dance,” the production will centre on the visual art and character of the intriguing Flemish painter and multimedia artist James Ensor. Performing will be Junior Ballet Antwerp’s troupe of a dozen young dancers selected for the 2023–2024 season from nine countries around the world.

The cosmopolitan aspects of JAMES do not stop there, as the production has been constructed by internationally renowned, Italian-born dance-maker Mauro de Candia.

A dance celebration of Ensor and his art is particularly appropriate in 2024, as this year marks the 75th anniversary of his death. Ensor’s work as a painter and printmaker, and later in life as a self-taught musician, is a lively and still-provocative source from which to draw inspiration. The artist was known for his bold allegories with undisguised social commentary, sometimes riotous use of colour, attraction to the grotesque, and a fascination with carnival masks. Although essentially a 19th century artist, Ensor’s influence penetrated 20th century expressionism and surrealism.    

© Filip Van Roe / JBA


To me, there is a clear link between Mauro’s innovative, highly expressive choreographic language that is visceral and full of wry humour and Ensor’s oeuvre, (which is) on the surface colourful and carnivalesque and yet masking psychological depths,” remarks Alain Honorez, who founded Junior Ballet Antwerp (JBA) in 2019 and remains today its Artistic Director.

We are not trying to recreate a timeline of Ensor’s life,” Honorez continues. “Rather, we are portraying ‘episodes’ and events and sharing hints about some of the works he became known for. And there is just so much to discover! When we entered the third week of creation, we needed to translate the two-dimensional art works into a three-dimensional dance production. That’s a huge task, but we love it! The unique masks (created by props artist Julie Coppens), the layers which Mauro peels away to reveal the true characters of those who people Ensor’s world, including the artist himself – I can say JAMES is going to be very special!

© Alain Honorez

Very special, too, are the dancers.

Designed to fill a special need in the dance world, JBA is a two-year programme with high ambitions for a select group of young dancers. Honorez and co-founder Irma Swijnen both know firsthand what it is to be starting out in the ballet world. Once a novice dancer has completed his or her initial schooling, there is generally a break between graduation and the beginning of a professional dance career. JBA is intended to bridge that gap, filling it with intensive choreographic and technical training and opportunity to acquire performance experience.

JBA is this year celebrating its own 5th anniversary. Looking back, Honorez says the founders worked for about 2 years in developing the idea for JBA before launching it in 2019. Unfortunately, that was just before the COVID-19 outbreak. They got through the worst of the pandemic, though, and they were able to build a name thanks in large part to the excellent lineup of teachers and choreographers working with the young dancers.

We based ourselves on similar programs which already existed in our neighbouring countries offering necessary experience to graduated dancers before the start of their professional careers”, Honorez explains. “The collective knowledge and experience in the field between the founders, our artistic patron, and all the coaches and choreographers who supported our idea have led us to where we stand today.”

JBA is building its renown around the globe, and candidates audition in Antwerp each year. The current class of 2023–2024 includes dancers between 17 and 21 years of age who come from the United States, France, Japan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, England, South Africa, and Italy. Dance is an “international language,” Honorez notes, pointing out that it was absolutely a part of the original vision to bring together young dancers from around the globe, with different backgrounds, and who have been trained in various ways.

We look for individuals who through their dancing have something ‘to say’. At JBA, everyone is different! Some dancers excel in classical technique, others in more modern movements,” Honorez relates. “Some are born artists, others have technique and lots of potential but need to develop their artistry. We are generally drawn to dancers who have the potential to further develop and those we are certain we can help in taking their next steps.

All of the JBA dancers live just a few streets away from the studio where they train and practice 6 days a week for 6–7 hours a day. Some share apartments to economize on living costs. Despite their hard work in training, a number of them also have part-time jobs or pursue online studies. These are very motivated young people who want to excel.

On a daily basis, the young dancers work with Altea Nuñez, who is JBA’s ballet mistress and in-house choreographer. Nuñez is also Honorez’s life partner. The pair are the main forces running the organisation, but they get a lot of vital support. Co-founder Irma Swijnen is always close at hand to share her expertise in running an organisation, Honorez remarks, noting she has experience of 40 years in directing a private ballet school.

 © Alain Honorez

British choreographer David Dawson is JBA’s Artistic Patron. As a busy freelance choreographer, Dawson “is always on the road,” Honorez says, “but he tries to visit us when possible.” Moreover, Dawson created for JBA a ballet that was performed in 2022. Entitled METAMORPHOSIS, it was set to the musical composition of the same name by Philip Glass.

Furthermore, we receive help and support from some lovely volunteers for administration, writing, and translating,” Honorez emphasises. “In reality every coach, teacher, or choreographer who we bring in is of enormous help to JBA.


Also important, of course, is financial support. Tuition paid by the dancers, a yearly donation from the city of Antwerp, money from ticket sales, and contributions from private sponsors are crucial to cover costs and keep the whole creative operation running. VGP Foundation was pleased to provide support specifically for the production of JAMES.


And what, one must ask, becomes of the young dancers after their 2 years with JBA? About 80% of those trained so far are now dancing professionally in companies all over Europe, Honorez reports, including with the Hungarian National Ballet, Munich Staatsballett, National Ballet of Portugal, Poznan Opera Ballet in Poland, Vanemuine Ballet in Estonia, the Prague National Ballet and Brno National Ballet in the Czech Republic, Theatre Hoff and Ballet X Schwerin in Germany, Ballet Preljocaj and Ballet de l’Opéra National du Rhin in France, and Monaco’s Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.

JAMES Trailer


JAMES will debut 24 and 25 February at the Opera House in Antwerp. It will be performed during March, April, November and December at additional Belgian venues. More information is available at JBA’s website https://juniorballetantwerp.be/en