Introdans
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

June 11, 2024
“Energy” Program: Kaash, Concerto, Cantata

Jerry Hochman

Introdans is currently appearing at the Joyce Theater, its first engagement there since 2012, through June 16. If you don’t already have a ticket, get one. Quickly.

In sum, Introdans is presenting a superbly curated program, under the appropriately titled rubric “Energy,” that doesn’t so much break new choreographic ground as highlight dances that did, in the process providing an opportunity to see two landmark pieces as well as one that’s a different kind of classic. In the process, the program introduces audiences to a group of highly engaging dancers who appear to be legitimately thrilled to be here. The result is one of the finest evenings of dance that I’ve seen in recent years – and a superb commemoration of what, essentially, is a component part of the company’s extended 50th Anniversary celebration.

Based in Arnhem, Netherlands, Introdans specializes in contemporary dance, and is considered the country’s third major dance company (the others being Dutch National Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater). It was founded in 1971 (its co-founder, Ton Wiggins, retired from the company in 2022) and has been run by Artistic Director Roel Voorintholt since 2005, prior to which he danced with the company for more than 20 years. His efforts, as well as those of Wiggins and Managing Director Marieke Van ‘T Hoff, have shepherded Introdans from its origin as a small local eastern Netherlands company (its name, not surprisingly, is derived from “introduction to dance”) to one with an international reputation.

Voorintholt and the company staff have had over a decade to determine the best program to present upon Introdans’s return to New York, and I have no doubt that with “Energy” they found it. The quality of each of the three dances in the program is apparent. While I had some concerns about the program’s last piece, in the end, none of the dances is less than a superlative example of dance art; and each presents the company and its dancers to audiences in a different way. Although I have no basis for comparison to Introdans’s other programs (beyond the summarization at the end of this review), “Energy” represents the best of the best.

(l-r) Giuseppe Calabrese, Nienke Wind, and Salvatore Castelli
in Akram Khan’s “Kaash”
Photo by Filibert Kraxner

Kaash, which Akram Khan created in 2002, reportedly is the piece that put Khan on the choreographing map. It’s easy to see why. Kaash is mesmerizing, intelligent, intriguing, intense, highly dramatic, broadly meaningful, and more entertaining than a dance that has no physical interaction among its dancers and consists primarily of repetitive (and repetitively augmented) movement has a right to be.

The program submits that with Kaash (which means “what if” in Hindi), “Khan impressively builds bridges between classical Indian Kathak dance and contemporary dance styles.” Well, yes. Certainly. But a viewer doesn’t need to know the nuts and bolts of either to appreciate Khan’s – and the Introdans dancers’ – accomplishment here. The program also states that Khan only permits Kaash to be presented by his own company and two others, one of which is Introdans (which added the piece to its repertory in 2020). One can see why – there’s no margin for error; anything less than perfection in execution could limit its impact.

Salvatore Castelli and Nienke Wind
in Akram Khan’s “Kaash”
Photo by Filibert Kraxner

Kathak is one of the eight major forms of classical Indian dance, reportedly originating in northern India as a storytelling medium. Though English (he was born in London), Khan’s heritage is Bengali – an area of northeastern India now comprised of West Bengal and the independent nation of Bangladesh, where Kathak likely was the dominant classical dance form.

There are many variants of Kathak that accent different body parts (eyes, arms), but that’s not really pertinent. Here, the movement is largely dominated by upper body and arm and hand movement (I saw no eye motion or facial gestures, but at various strategically significant points the dancers’ heads are pulled up and back, as if externally controlled), and the feet echo the percussive sounds in the magnificent original score (credited to Nitin Sawhney and John Oswald, though Sawhney is separately identified as the music’s composer).

But as fine as its score is, and as dominant as its two primary movement forces are, Kaash is richer than both. Any sense of undue repetition is quickly overwhelmed by the dramatic (and often ferocious) movement variety that Khan creates. From its opening positioning of one dancer standing upstage audience-left, and the four others in a vertical line audience-right, to the closing image outlined below, the five dancers fill the stage, dancing and moving in tandem, sequentially, or independently, but at all times being part of a whole. Nothing stays the same, visually, for very long.

At one point the dancers form a vertical line center-stage, and peel away individually and sequentially, in the process combining an often-used contemporary dance form with an Indian one. The sense created is the presence of a god (the program indicates that Khan drew inspiration from the Hindu god Shiva).

Introdans in Akram Khan’s “Kaash”
Photo by Filibert Kraxner

Kaash has quiet moments, and periods when the dance focuses on a subset of the overall ensemble. And though there are relative constants, there are also less noticeable attributes to Khan’s choreography consistent with its Kathak input. The dancers’ hands occasionally have movement qualities of their own; they tell a story. I couldn’t decipher the story being told by these hand movements alone, but at the dance’s end Khan’s choreography provides a generalized idea of what Kaath and its dancers are trying to communicate.

Part of that story, or the sense of one, is the set design by award-winning visual artist Anish Kapoor. The set is a projection; a blur of horizontal rectangles within two or three other rectangles. That “blur” – the absence of clearly defined lines, creates a sense of distance and depth and mysterious spirituality, enhanced by the changes in color of the rectangular form as the dance progresses. It draws you in, as if it represents some unknowable but no less real force of nature. And it draws the dancers in the same way – spiritually.

The dance ends with a visually measurable climax that ties everything together, as well as a relaxing of the score to the point of being lyrical (the score prior to that point had occasional moments of calm as well). A circular panorama of the dancers stops at a particular point, and one dancer now located downstage center, with his back to the audience, slowly lifts his rounded arms up to the sky (very different from the downward thrashing arm movement with the arms essentially moving parallel to each other that had previously been a movement hallmark), his head directed at, and obviously communicating his thoughts into, that projected horizontal assemblage, essentially in prayer or giving thanks or baring his soul – and by extension, the souls of the other dancers as well –  before that force. The image is primal and tribal, but it is also universal.

Giuseppe Calabrese and Salvatore Castelli
in Akram Khan’s “Kaash”
Photo by Hans Gerritsen

The five dancers were outstanding, individually and collectively. They included Alberto Tardanico (a company veteran who, I think, creates the dance’s concluding central image), Salvatore Castelli, Giuseppe Calabrese, Angelica Villalon, and Nienke Wind, each of whose performances resonated. Somehow, though they mostly danced the same movement, one could see them as individuals as well.

Certain of Kaash’s choreographic qualities, repetition (though augmented over the course of the dance) and the absence of any physical connection between the dancers, facial movement, or emotional component, bleed into the next dance on the program. And I can’t help but think that there was an overriding purpose behind pairing Kaash and Concerto beyond that both are classics in their own way and that they fit any running time limitation.

Introdans in Lucinda Childs’s “Concerto”
Photo by Hans Gerritsen

Lucinda Childs is one of the pioneers of what’s come to be known as post-modern dance. In the early 1960s, the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village was one of the more radical avant-garde focal points of the movement in dance that came to be called “post-modern.” The Judson Dance Theater, which performed there, was an informal collective of artists – dancers, choreographers, composers, and visual artists – whose goal was to free dance from the constraints of modern dance technique and structure. Any movement qualified as a dance, and anyone, with or without training, could be a dancer – the goal being to convey the beauty of ordinary movement and the pureness of dance/performance art. Entertainment, indeed, the existence of an audience, was essentially irrelevant.

The Judson Dance Theater put on its first show in 1962; Childs joined in 1963, and in addition to performing, began choreographing. In all, she created 13 dances for Judson Dance Theater, and subsequent to her formation of her own company, 50 more – and growing. In addition, she’s choreographed for many contemporary dance, ballet, and opera companies around the world.

Particularly interesting is her choreographic trajectory. I saw a retrospective of her choreography at the Joyce in 2016, which showed that although she conformed to the prevailing post-modern orthodoxy, her choreography evolved in a more interesting direction (in a way, similar to the evolution of Twyla Tharp’s choreography, despite the results being very different). Although Childs maintained her focus on minimal repetitive movement, her dances became small gems that transcended repetitive movement as an end in itself.

Concerto, which Childs choreographed in 1993, is an example. It’s not only mesmerizing and minimal; it’s thoroughly entertaining. [Childs was present in Tuesday night’s audience.]

Introdans in Lucinda Childs’s “Concerto”
Photo by Hans Gerritsen

Concerto was a component of that 2016 retrospective, and my response to seeing it as part of this Introdans program is the same as it was then. With Concerto, Childs maintains what might be considered minimalism, but only in the sense that at any given time the choreographic palette is limited. And it’s still essentially all repetition (it’s choreographed to the repetitious-sounding Concerto for Harpsichord and String Orchestra by Henryk Gorecki) and geometric patterning. But with Concerto adds a ballet sensibility to the choreographed mix: I see fluidity and grace as dominant qualities of Concerto – qualities that might be considered anathema to post-modernism.

More significantly with respect to its presence in this program are qualities that Concerto shares with Kaash. As in Khan’s piece, movement directions change in an instant, and there’s a variety of visual shapes as the bodies move through space. And, like Kaash, Concerto displays no interaction (physical or otherwise) between the seven dancers, and no facial expression whatsoever.

So do those common qualities mean anything? Directly or indirectly, I think they do – though obviously more for what it says about Kaash than Concerto. It’s reasonable to think that Khan learned a lot about movement patterning within a context of minimalism and repetition, beyond being movement for movement’s sake, as well as the benefits of avoiding facial expression and physical connection, from post-modern pieces like Concerto. Perhaps, when one considers that Kaath melds Kathak dance with contemporary dance, what Child’s accomplished provided guideposts. I don’t know if that’s true, but pairing these two pieces highlights the issue, and is fodder for habitual overthinkers.

In any event, as in Kaath, the seven dancers in Concerto performed magnificently. They were Vincenzo Turiano, Elia Rudolf, Brooke Newman, Fabio Falsetti, Villalon, Tardanico, and Calabrese.

The program’s final piece isn’t characterized by minimal movement or the absence of physical connection between dancers. On the contrary, physicality by and between its dancers – and the nature of this physicality – is its hallmark.

Cantata may be unfamiliar to an average dancegoer, but its choreographer, Mauro Bigonzetti, is not an unfamiliar name to dance audiences in New York or, for that matter, worldwide. But Cantata displays a somewhat different side of Bigonzetti from the balletic pieces I’ve seen, one that’s easy to take an instant dislike to, as I did.

Cantata examines life – in particular the sexually-charged inter-gender activity – in an unidentified Italian village, in the process visualizing an earthy life of salaciousness tinged with overwhelming sadness, of exploitation and combative resignation, of misery and, ultimately, joy. That all this is squeezed into one dance is a measure of Bigonzetti’s choreographic creativity and skill (as well as that of the Introdans dancers), but it also sets up a question of narrative sincerity: how could such sadness and combativeness be compatible with joy? As I’ll outline below, the mix that are component parts of the life of this dance is an accurate reflection of the songs that address the seemingly contradictory components of life in this area of southern Italy.

Introdans in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Cantata”
Photo by Hans Gerritsen

The stage populace consists of a group of nine who fit the Italian stereotype (though not necessarily inaccurate) of self-important, fully entitled young men who do whatever they want to do, particularly with respect to the town’s young women (eight, according to the program), who fight back against the male exploitation, all the while seemingly fully expecting it and, in a way, comfortable with being sexual objects – because that’s the life they know and the life that’s been passed down from generation to generation. In the process of all this, the dance’s focus changes from ensemble and large group dances to solos and duets while the other townsfolk watch intently. Seeing this, I thought of another dance that includes such a visualization and is venued in southern Italy. The choreography here is from a different universe, but what came to my mind was August Bournonville’s Napoli. And in a way that’s exactly what it is – the difference is that Cantata is a reality rather than an idealization.

“Cantata” is derived from the Italian word “cantare,” which means “to sing.” [As in Domenico Modugno’s “Volare…cantare…”]. As a musical form, a cantata originally included vocal solos accompanied by music, but eventually the term came to be applied almost exclusively to choral works, as distinguished from solo vocal music.

And that’s how Cantata begins. While the stage is dark, the audience can hear singing by multiple voices. As the stage is slowly illuminated, the singers are revealed to be the cast, assembled in a triangle form upstage center (triangle point facing the audience), singing a collective choral song (or lip-syncing to pre-recorded music in a way that’s so carefully crafted and accomplished that it looks like they’re the ones singing). The words, in Italian, are not translated, but the piece’s title, per the program note, is “Stu core mio,” which translates as “This is my heart.” [There’s a significant permutation, as I’ll address below.] That song, as well as the others utilized, are attributed to a four-woman group: “Assurd.” [More on Assurd below as well.]

Introdans in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Cantata”
Photo by Hans Gerritsen

Almost immediately upon the opening song’s conclusion, the townsfolk separate largely along gender lines, and the predatory men pounce on, or under, the women, lifting them off the ground and holding them up in the air with their (the women’s) arms and legs stretched out. As the men parade their women around the stage, the women are motionless – except for an occasional full-body twitch – as if they were reacting negatively to being accosted, or were in fear of being dropped, or were having orgasms that were neither desired nor anticipated. When the men finally let them down (ambiguity intended), the women fight back, chasing the men upstage.

Things keep going like that in various forms throughout most of the dance – the cast at all times exhibiting the boundless energy reflected in the program’s title. I didn’t appreciate the many occasions that the women were exhibited spread-eagled during individual or group interactions; accurate or not, I felt it was exploitive. The dance’s partnering added emphasis to this initial view: the intricate partnering that the choreography requires included assemblages that Bournonville (or Vatsayana, the author of the Kama Sutra) (ah…there’s the connection to Kaash) would never have dreamed of. But again, as the piece evolved, it was clear that this village’s women gave as good as they got, and that they expected to be objectified that way.

After awhile, however, what initially came across to me as exploitation morphed into perfectly normal fun…sort of. Indeed, toward the dance’s end a few dancers step out of character and address the audience – in English with an Italian accent spoken by members of a Dutch company.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t understand most of what was said, but its intent was obvious: this is all fun; enjoy it. The remainder of the dance was in that vein – a party, not to be taken as behavior to condemn.

Introdans in Mauro Bigonzetti’s “Cantata”
Photo by Hans Gerritsen

Initially I wasn’t so sure about that since it’s such a dramatic shift of emphasis – it seemed to have been one dance grafted onto another, and because it seemed to contradict the sadness and melancholy in the songs that comprise the dance’s score. But, as I subsequently discovered, the dance is not contradictory; in the southern Italian town in which Cantata takes place, that’s life.

I did some research into the singing group that provides the dance’s score and attempted to find a translation of the songs – particularly the one that opens the dance. So I searched … without much luck. It seems that that song has many iterations. But eventually I lit on the Introdans web site … and there it was (buried in the “News” section), along with the translations of the other songs used in Cantata.

Assured’s purpose, as described on the Introdans site, is to create “a unique and authentic musical experience. Their work not only preserves the cultural heritage of southern Italy [my emphasis], but also brings it to life for contemporary listeners … The music has its origins in age-old rural traditions that have been passed on from generation to generation.”

I also found that the songs are classic folk songs, translated from their original southern Italian dialect and/or updated with different words. The bittersweet memories of which Assurd sings are exactly that: bitter and sweet. Accordingly, they relate closely to what happens on stage, and support what I saw as the dichotomy that Bigonzetti presents in Cantata. And the connection I sensed between Cantata and Napoli (and the differences between the reality and the ideal they present) turns out to have a real basis. I doubt that Bigonzetti had Napoli on his mind when he created Cantata, but that doesn’t really matter.

I won’t replicate all the lyrics of all the songs, but “Stu core mio,’ the song that opens the program, is revelatory. The lyrics translate as:

“With this bitter voice I sing the pain of this land of mine/ With this dark voice I sing the warmth of these ancient people/ My people go far to seek their fortune/ And This This Luck Is Sweet Because He Was Born Carbon Black/ And then when the stars 1000 by 1000 greet this heart/ Words of Love, Sweet Words Sung Softly/ And When Then The Stars 1000 By 1000 Laugh In The Sky/ It seems that Heaven comes down like a cloak and consoles me/ And with this dark voice I sing the color of my land/ This abandoned land is black land made of lava and sea/ My Sick Heart* Looking Only for Beauty and Love/ Because Only Love Can Cure This Illness of Mine/ And When Then The Stars To Me 1000 Shine In The Sky/ They bring back torment to me and this torment is an ancient pain/ And When Then The Stars 1000 By 1000 Laugh In The Sky/ It seems that Heaven comes down like a cloak and consoles me.”            *My Sick Heart” is the translation of “Stu core mio” at this point in the song – the permutation to the song’s title that I alluded to earlier.

And the song that accompanies Cantata’s conclusion, “Pizzica,” concludes with the following lyrics: “And long live those who dance now, long live those who dance/ He is dancing the palomma and the cardillo/ I have to give you a fire-throwing kiss/ So you’ll keep it as a memory of me.” Joy amid the sadness: exactly what Bigonzetti choreographs.

The entire company deserves to be praised for their knock-out performances here; the standing ovation they received on the dance’s conclusion was well-earned. But I must single out one – unfortunately by process of elimination since the dancers aren’t keyed to their characters – Léa Visser, who deserves combat pay for playing the pliant, and reluctantly compliant, object of prurient interest.

I don’t know the dance’s that comprise Introdans’s repertoire; the company doesn’t list them on its web site. What it does do is review its recent past performances, including the pieces on each of the programs presented. From this, and from its references to choreographers with whom it has an ongoing relationship, that repertoire can be safely described as eclectic and Eurocentric (although the company has included pieces choreographed by Robert Battle) – though decidedly not what some on this side of the pond describe as “eurotrash.” These dances don’t look angst or anomie-ridden; rather, allowing room for varieties of style and subjects, they’re often celebrations. And they include interesting-looking original versions of Swan Lake, Carmen, the Nutcracker, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as an event (or two or three…) that includes everyone who shows up to see it.

Before Introdans leaves, the Joyce should make arrangements to bring them back. Quickly.