by Lilia Ambler
With a heart of gold and an undying determination to do good, Nelly Van Bommel makes the perfect director of the Conservatory of Dance at Purchase College. Her story has gone untold for quite some time, but the energy and inspiration she consistently exudes adds up to a noteworthy figure in the dance community.
Van Bommel’s life thus far has not always been an easy one, but each component of it has produced the esteemed person she is today. She grew up in France with an innate appreciation of the arts. A character trait passed down from her parents’ deep appreciation for music and art.
“I was a very dreamy person,” said Van Bommel. “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 was very connected with theater and worked with theater companies while in school. She described her experience saying, “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 education did not stop at a bachelor’s degree. She went on to earn her masters in France and then, with the help of professors, she found an opportunity to study abroad at Purchase College. After a difficult application process, Van Bommel hopped on a plane and flew from France to New York.
“In the spring of 2002, I came to Purchase for the first time,” said said. “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 went on to say, “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 during my last two years and so I learned a lot about administration while I was in France.”
At Purchase, Van Bommel took like a fish to water. Larry Clark, a long-time and current professor in the Conservatory of Dance said, “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. The faculty, however, fell in love with Van Bommel and offered her a partial scholarship for the dance MFA program.
Carol Walker, the former director of the Conservatory of Dance said, “With the red hair, and the energy, and the wonderful French accent, she’s irresistible. She had energy to burn and is just so much fun.”
Van Bommel was able to continue supporting herself while in school by teaching French classes on campus, as well as nannying for families in the area. While studying at Purchase, 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 is really looking at it, thinking, in an intelligent way.”
Little did Newman know, Van Bommel was enthralled by her classes. “Her approach was very much based on trusting what you want to do and clarifying what you want to do,” said Van Bommel. “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, 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.”
This confidence launched her into the rest of her studying years at Purchase and then landed her a gig working in the dance office the summer post-graduation. Walker offered Van Bommel the position to help her stay in the US and retain her visa.
“The job wasn’t a charity case by any means,” Walker said. “She was totally interesting, qualified, a great spirit, and very positive. As she still is. Oh, and fun to be around, eager to learn, and learned very quickly,” Walker added.
While in the dance office, Van Bommel was also achieving choreographic grants and commissions for esteemed dance companies, such as Ballet Austin, Milwaukee Ballet, Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, etc. Eventually, she landed a job as a full-time faculty member with the college.
After this, she eventually became assistant director for Larry Clark and Bettijane Sills, both longtime professors in the Dance Conservatory.
A few years later, Van Bommel had the opportunity to go on tour with Purchase in Taiwan. Clark said, “The last time we went on tour we took 12 kids to Taiwan. I remember being in class with her and we were going to coteach an improv class. There were about 60 kids there, tons of them, but she just went! She just taught this wonderful class all from her head and it was really wonderful for me to watch her go at it. I just stepped back and watched her. I learned a lot from it and the kids loved the class. They did things they never thought they could do!”
Eventually, Van Bommel was asked to be director full time but was initially apprehensive about taking the position. She knew her choreographic work would suffer and was worried about other areas of her life that might not have fulfillment. Yet, despite her roadblock of a busy schedule, Van Bommel took on the position and manages to direct the conservatory, teach freshman seminar, be an advisor to the students and mentor seniors. She even made enough time to choreograph work for Julliard two years ago.
“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,” Van Bommel said. “What I wish for everybody is to be able to live a life that is significant and to define what makes them happy.”