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Nederlands Dans Theater's City Center Program Dark and Somewhat Disappointing

by Mindy Aloff
December 4, 2016
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
212.247.0430
In a program letter to City Center audiences for the Nederlands Dans Theater's half-week of performances (November 16-19), the company's current artistic director, Paul Lightfoot, and its general director, Janine Dijkmeijer, reminded us that the principal co-founder of NDT, in 1959, was American choreographer Benjamin Harkarvy. In other words, they gently made a case for the position that this is not what has come to be known among many American balletgoers as a “Eurotrash” operation; rather, it carries on as the legacy of a native New Yorker whose dance education was mostly classical ballet at the School of American Ballet and with many other prominent teachers in New York, including Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske.

As one of NDT's first two artistic co-directors (with choreographer Hans van Manen)—and, along with a group of dancers from the relatively conservative Dutch National Ballet, one of its co-founders—Harkarvy had a major and lasting effect on the company's core identity. He wanted to pursue an experimental path of new choreographic ideas and new dance techniques; some eight artistic directors later, NDT continues to cleave to the spirit of its founding (even though Harkarvy himself went on to serve as artistic director of far more conservative dance institutions and programs in Europe and America, among them the Dutch National Ballet). Furthermore, for a while NDT had replicated itself into three dance companies: the original (founded 1959), NDT II (founded 1978, for a small group of dancers between the ages of 17 and 22), and NDT III (founded in 1991 by Jirí Kylián, then artistic director of the parent company, for dancers “between 40 and death,” as Kylián put it, but discontinued in 2006, owing to lack of financial support). Both have danced in the U.S. New York audiences saw NDT II perform at the Joyce Theater, in 2009, and some of that group's repertory has been seen danced by other companies as well. NDT III performed at Jacob's Pillow dance festival, in Massachusetts, in 1994.

For the 2016 New York visit, the parent company brought to City Center a program of four works. Two were co-choreographed by Lightfoot and Sol León, a former dancer with NDT and, for some years, Lightfoot's offstage life partner. (Their choreographic partnership has been dubbed “Lightfoot León.”) One was by NDT's associate choreographer, Marco Goecke. And one was by celebrated Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. All were optically dark, always emotional—and three of the four were also humorless.

The most difficult for this viewer to sit through on November 19 were the two by Lightfoot León, both melancholic dirges for big casts with huge set elements (designed by the choreographers) that dwarfed the performers and also—as with other Lightfoot León works I've seen—looked like mash-ups between the art direction of a very gloomy Béla Tarr movie and a hoity-toidy JFK-era fashion shoot. "Safe as Houses," apparently made in response to 9/11 (the world premiere was November 14, 2001), featured india-ink-colored costumes and unsullied vanilla ones; a massive partition that slowly swept around in a circle on its own axis, under spanking light, like the needle on an ominous dial; choreography that configured the cast into solos, duets, trios, and groups as it twisted their torsos and stretched out their limbs, as if the dancers were so many stop-action clay figures, to a score that arrayed gobbets of secular music from the playbook of J.S. Bach and one selection—based on a song about death—that had something to do with something Bach once wrote based on an 18th-century German song, all described in a way impossible to understand in the program credits. Sadder, to me, is the mystery of why the performers were not named at all in the program for any of the four dances. The company consists of 29 dancers, according to the “Meet the Dancers” section of the program booklet, but one has to be an NDT aficionado to say who performed what.

The other Lightfoot León work of the evening, from 2014, is actually entitled "Stop-Motion," which makes me wonder if the choreographers really are interested in animation—a medium also evoked by their little duet at the Met Breuer, discussed below. But "Stop-Motion" (the last work of the night, before which hordes of audience members fled up the aisles) is so bizarre that I left thinking it must have a back story, just not anything Lightfoot León would deign to share with their audience. If you hadn't read articles about it, you could well be forgiven for thinking the dance a dirge for Lightfoot and León's beautiful daughter, Saura, to whom the ballet is dedicated and who is accorded “special thanks,” along with someone named Stefan Zeromski and “Hector the kestrel.” Gigantic black-and-white moving images of Saura wearing 19th-century-styled gowns are projected onto “massive screens that show delayed video projections,” as a program note reads. “On melancholic music by Max Richter, seven dancers depict a process of farewell and transformation.” To another anthology of musical gobbets—this time, by the German-born, British composer Max Richter—we saw variations of what is meant, through twists on crossover modern dance, executed by trained ballet dancers, in 2017, to be crazed (I presume with grief, much of it delivered in solos).

NDT's dancers are fantastical in their pretzeling coordination and severity of exact placement. The dance is fantastical in another way: in teasing an unsuspecting audience into the notion that we're seeing a morbid valentine to Lightfoot León's beautiful, mourned child. AND YET, Saura, according to Internet accounts, is alive and well!! The audience members who remained in their seats went wild over it, and, at that point, I rued that I didn't continue in my college freshman math major and become an accountant instead of an arts reporter.

Recently, I saw an American review of choreography by Marco Goecke that called him a genius. His NDT entry, "Wake-up Blind," to a pair of grammatically challenged songs written and performed by Jeff Buckley (“You and I” and “The Way Young Lovers Do”), showcased its anonymous cast in moves that, at first, made them look as if they were being continually electrocuted…with pleasure although, as I thought about it, the images they expended so much energy and control to craft for us were perhaps closer to imitations of what bodies might look like in the flashlit assaults of paparazzi. This number had a dramaturge (Nadja Kadel), who seems to have helped the choreographer (as per the program note) to “excel in contesting with Buckley's vocal power and his frenetic guitar sounds. Like young lovers, [the dancers] throw themselves into the unknown regardless of the consequences.” I suppose that “genius” is one word for the result.

Crystal Pite's "The Statement" (2016) isn't a dance, but it's the kind of dance-play, like Matthew Bourne's "Play without Words," that only seasoned dancers can pull off, and only with a lot of coaching of their silent acting. Described in its program note as a piece that “could be considered a play, based on a script written by Jonathan Young that is expressed by four dancers [who] share a heated conversation around a conference table, symbolizing a corporate environment,” the movement—part staging, part choreography, sometimes literal, sometimes symbolic—sends the cast over, under, around, and through the table like so many billiard balls suddenly morphed into balls for croquet, as a crushingly heavy overhead press threatens (shades of Poe!) to make Peking duck of them all. The voices we hear (of Meg Roe, Colleen Wheeler, Andrew Wheeler, and the playwright) indicate that something BIG is going down, maybe some mergers and acquisitions, maybe nuclear war. One guy turns into a sort of “it,” his “secret” exposed on the taped record. The whole thing is so exactly styled that it sounds like both an earnest suspense plot and a take-off on movies with suspense plots: the sardonic bubble is perfect. The City Center audience—including this reviewer—gleefully guffawed along for the ride.

I happened to go to NDT's last City Center performance, so I don't know if, at the rest of NDT's performances, the audiences also dressed to the nines and presented themselves to look as photogenic as it's possible to look in New York when Fashion Week isn't on. Wowie zowie, though, for this one!!

Still, much more diverse crowds gathered around the small patch of dance flooring several times over the afternoon of November 13 inside the Met Breuer's recent “Humor and Fantasy—The Berggruen Paul Klee Collection” to look at a charming, five-minute-long Lightfoot León duet (performed by Chuck Jones and Parvaneh Scharatali). Inside this new Met annex on Madison Ave., a rented space for modern art, there were seniors and solitaries of a certain age and lovers and college students and families with little kids, and everyone was rapt by this Oscar Schlemmer-sweet work from 2003, called "Shutters Shut." The couple, dressed in black-and-white bathing suits and soft slippers, had powdered their skin as well, evoking Swiss mimes. And, for the entire running time, they moved with exaggerated specificity, like mimes—or automata or typewriters—acting and reacting slyly, with dry wit, sometimes in silence and sometimes in conjunction with an 80-year-old recording of Gertrude Stein reciting her poem “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” The dry wit paired nicely with Klee, and the fact that nothing else about the performance related directly to the imagery of Klee's paintings (or, for that matter, to Picasso's) gave the five minutes a kind of joie de vivre==something quite different from the feelings of NDT's over two-hour-long Center City program.

Of course, the five-minute running time (not to speak of Klee and Stein) helped rather a lot, although whether the use of work by these oldsters, both a lot closer to death than age 40, would have pleased Harkarvy in his experimentalist period is anyone's guess.
NDT dancers in Lightfoot León's 'Stop-Motion.'

NDT dancers in Lightfoot León's "Stop-Motion."

Photo © & courtesy of Rahi Rezvani


NDT dancers in Lightfoot León's 'Stop-Motion.'

NDT dancers in Lightfoot León's "Stop-Motion."

Photo © & courtesy of Rahi Rezvani


NDT dancers in Lightfoot León's 'Safe as Houses.'

NDT dancers in Lightfoot León's "Safe as Houses."

Photo © & courtesy of Rahi Rezvani


NDT dancers in Marco Goecke's 'Woke up Blind.'

NDT dancers in Marco Goecke's "Woke up Blind."

Photo © & courtesy of Rahi Rezvani


NDT dancers in Crystal Pite's 'The Statement.'

NDT dancers in Crystal Pite's "The Statement."

Photo © & courtesy of Rahi Rezvani


NDT dancers in Crystal Pite's 'The Statement.'

NDT dancers in Crystal Pite's "The Statement."

Photo © & courtesy of Rahi Rezvani

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