Nederlands Dans Theater
New York, New York
November 18, 2016
Safe as Houses, Woke up Blind, The Statement, Stop-Motion
Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) returned to New York last week with an evening of four pieces that displayed the virtuosity of its dancers, but that also highlighted an approach to contemporary dance that focuses on surface movement and concept rather than any underlying emotional content. Choreographic expressionism without choreographic expression; style dominating substance. The result, though technically interesting and choreographically demanding, was less than completely satisfying. The program included an opening and closing dance choreographed by NDT’s house (resident) choreographers, Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot (Safe as Houses and Stop-Motion), and pieces created by associate choreographers Marco Goecke (Woke up Blind) and Crystal Pite (The Statement).
I recall vividly when then Artistic Director and Choreographer Jiri Kylian brought NDT to City Center in the late 1970s, and how the choreographic style that he and his dancers brought with them, evidenced in such immediate classics as Symphony of Psalms and Sinfonietta, stimulated NYC dance audiences like a shot of adrenaline. Kylian’s choreography communicated something beyond steps and movement for movement’s sake; it seemed particularly special, almost revolutionary (as Balanchine’s choreography might have appeared when it was revolutionary), with a spirit that was decidedly non-academic. It did what superb choreography is supposed to do – even though his pieces may not have had a narrative, discernible or otherwise, they brought the audience into the world he and his dancers created.
Based on Friday’s program (the engagement began on Wednesday), and on what I’ve heard anecdotally, involving the audience on any emotional level is no longer on the company’s priority list. This doesn’t make the dances bad – on the contrary, all four are stellar examples of choreographers thoroughly in command of their craft – but something essential is missing, and consequently the dances are not as significant as they might have been. Perhaps that’s why – with the exception of the Pite piece, which is sui generis – the most coherent dance, and the one I enjoyed most, was the oldest, and the one that can most easily be accepted as a purely abstract piece as opposed to one in which any meaning either was deliberately left out, or failed to be communicated.
Leon and Lightfoot created Safe as Houses in 2001, before they became NDT’s house choreographers, and apparently while they were still dancing with NDT 1. For an early piece of work, it’s a dance of uncommon stylistic polish.
Choreographed to a series of excerpts from compositions by J.S. Bach, and inspired, according to program notes, by I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, a text used for divination and philosophical discussion, Safe as Houses is a series of integrated scenes separated by physical as well as choreographic and musical distinctions.
The title is not explained, and seemingly has nothing to do with I Ching. The expression “safe as houses” is an English colloquial phrase meaning “safe from harm” or “free from fear” which never caught on in the U.S., and is probably dated in the U.K. as well. Assuming that this phrase is the basis for the title (I can think of no other explanation for the words that makes any sense), it’s use is somewhat sarcastic – there’s nothing “safe as houses” in the separate spaces created in the course of the dance, which are seemingly random developments – keeping in mind, however, that to my understanding I Ching is not at all random, but, in the sense of divination, a prediction of what will happen. [An aside: many decades ago, “playing I Ching” was the rage, at least in my corner of the western world. I recall asking a question of cosmic significance, at least to me, tossing coins with Chinese characters (or maybe throwing dice, or both), then “checking” the I Ching translation to find what the result meant. It was much a much more complex process than a fortune cookie, and probably considerably more philosophically accurate.]
The movement quality varies throughout, with the opening featuring three or four dancers (it was difficult to tell from my vantage point) spread downstage dressed in black, their backs to the audience, presumably contemplating something. The stage is bare except for what appears to be a wall that incompletely divides the mid and upstage areas in half. The choreography that ensues during this opening segment is frenetic and explosive, but not connected to any particular thematic context. When this opening segment ends, the movement quality becomes more varied (matching the musical differences), and the remarkable stagecraft takes over as the “wall” moves like a solid, oversized windshield wiper that erases the images just seen and replaces them with “new“ images and new dancers who suddenly and somewhat mysteriously appear from behind the wall – simulating the changing landscape, changing rooms (within safe houses?), changing spaces – perhaps reflecting a situation that I Ching divines. That’s a klutzy way of explaining this, but the effect of this wall moving on its axis and closing off then reopening different parts of the stage, each time revealing a new assortment of dancers, a change in costume, and different choreography to accompany the different Bach composition excerpts is stunning.
Leon and Lightfoot’s choreography softens somewhat as the piece progresses from the ceaseless movement of every dancer’s limbs to more modulated visual combinations that might avoid whiplash, and I particularly admired the repeated image of a hand being placed over another dancer’s face, as if visualizing that dancer’s inability to know what will happen next (there might be a connection between this movement and repeated head-manipulation in the first segment, but the connection, if any, eludes me). The choreography never reveals any “meaning” to any of the choreography, which is sufficiently interesting-looking on its own, but in this context, it’s the “change” that’s significant, not so much what the change is. And, structurally, the piece is enigmatically circular: apparently the same dancers as in the initial image are again positioned downstage, costumed a bit differently than they were when the dance began, and this time, most significantly, facing the audience, as if changed, and at the same time awaiting the next change. The intriguing structural balance takes Safe as Houses to an even higher artistic level.
Leon and Lightfoot’s second piece on the program, the closing piece, is a different matter. Stop-Motion, created in 2014, does appear to have a definite emotional component – but the message, if there is one, is buried in choreography and stagecraft that overwhelm it.
To an assortment of musical excerpts from compositions by Max Richter, Stop-Motion’s images are often beautiful, but together they make little sense, and the piece’s grasp on any semblance of reality is tenuous. If it’s “about” anything, it’s about a relationship, or more than one relationship – it’s hard to tell because, with the exception of the “lead” man and woman, there’s little distinction among the others. Of course, it doesn’t have to be “about” anything, but the ambiance of the dance not only suggests a meaning, it requires one.
The piece begins with a video projection above stage left of a woman in what appears to be some sort of period costume. She moves her body and head from time to time, comes in and out of focus from time to time, and stops moving from time to time (ok, stop-motion). But the reason, if there is any, is elusive. The woman in the projection doesn’t look identical to the lead woman who initially appears on stage in a period costume, but there’s a vague similarity. Are they supposed to be the same woman? A memory of the way the lead woman used to be? If so, whose memory? We don’t know. [My understanding, obtained following the performance, is that the projected image is Leon and Lightfoot’s daughter Saura (to whom the dance is dedicated), which is not clearly indicated in the program. But that knowledge renders the piece even more confusing, since the reason for her presence and her relationship to the dancers on stage isn’t apparent.] A projected image of a man floating down the rear scrim is intriguing, but doesn’t connect with any action on stage – at least nothing I noticed – and to the extent it might supposedly replicate the emotions of the lead male dancer, it’s simply too much of a visual stretch.
Individually, the lead couple do provide a hint of emotional gloss – the man sorrowful about something; the woman comforting him about something. I thought perhaps the choreographers were reflecting on the man’s memory of love now lost, with the projected image of the woman being the memory. Of regrettably drifting apart; of death. [But it couldn’t be death, since the visualization of the presumably deceased woman is far too sensual to be a death image.] That’s the only interpretation that makes any sense in a piece that cries out for some meaning, but it would ignore the other couples who share the stage and who are vacuously dancing choreography that seems meaningless. Providing a series of interesting images is nice, but it’s not enough to carry a dance that reflects obvious deliberation and conceptualization, but that left its heart out of the process.
I reviewed Goecke’s Woke up Blind after NDT performed it at a Fall for Dance program a few weeks ago. At the time, I observed that to the extent the dance is about love (or the longing for it), as described in the program, it’s love as one might witness it an insect colony – or on a planet populated by aliens seriously in need of ADHD medication. The movement in Woke up Blind is jarring, percussive, angular, and fast, and the direct interaction between couples (male/female and male/male) is distant and impersonal no matter how close they are to each other physically and no matter how often they quickly strike at one another’s groins. There may be something describing relationships here, but its relationships based on speaking a language of disconnection.
But I must amend my initial comments in one respect – I see now that Goecke is doing what the music – Jeff Buckley’s You and I and The Way Young Lovers Do – encourages him to do (although Goecke chose to be bound by it). When Buckley alters the form of the latter song from a love song/ballad to a love song/scream, with staccato rhythm that pulses rather than sings, Goecke does the same. See the music. But when you see every nook and cranny of Buckley’s sounds, you see jagged edged choreography – intentional but interesting only to the extent the NDT dancers execute it so well.
The program’s penultimate dance, Pite’s The Statement, is less a dance than a polemic. The use of a “table” around which the four dancers circulate invites a comparison to Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, and there’s a surface (table surface) similarity in that both can be seen as anti-war. But the Jooss ballet is far more of a complete dance, and Pite’s piece is less anti-war than a diatribe on bureaucratic self-preservation, irresponsibility and accountability, covering one’s political ass, and post-truth. It’s a brilliantly clever satire – converting playwright Jonathan Young’s libretto into visually comic – and concurrently pathetic – movement explosions (“see the words” as opposed to “see the music”), but it’s also intellectually loaded and intentionally one dimensional.
But in addition to its spot on brilliant images, The Statement is a dance that illustrates the problems with the other dances on the program (with the possible exception of Safe as Houses). The Statement may be transparent and choir-preaching, but at least it makes a comprehensible statement.
Despite the criticisms I’ve expressed of some of the choreography presented, I must reemphasize that this has nothing to do with the quality of the NDT dancers’ execution. They’re a magnificent group of contemporary dancers. And their competence serves to emphasize another critical observation – and one that’s apparent in this review: none of the dancers is identified. Not only is there no an indication of who is featured in a given dance, there’s not even a listing of the dance’s complete cast. For a company of NDT’s caliber, this is inexcusable, and reduces the dancers to being replaceable cogs in a choreographed machine – which may be true, but it relegates these dancers to secondary status. It’s understandable that a company may not know far in advance who will be dancing on any given night, but not to include any reference to specific dancers in any dance in any way (e.g., via alternative cast listings, a program insert, or an announcement) is demeaning to both the dancers and the audience…and, effectively, to the company. NDT is better than that.