Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT 2)
New York, New York
January 16, 2019
mutual comfort, Sad Case, Wir sagen uns Dunkles, SH-BOOM!
While there is no denying the extraordinary capabilities of the dancers I’ve seen with Nederlands Dans Theater, those few NDT programs that I’ve attended in recent years have frequently been overly expressive, alienating, self-absorbed, and audience unfriendly, with movement that generally appears prompted by repetitive electrocution. NDT (NDT 2) returned to City Center Wednesday night with a program of four dances, all, based on my prior exposure to the choreographers, practically guaranteed to produce another uncomfortable evening.
This NDT 2 program, consisting of American premieres by Edward Clug and Marco Goecke, and two pieces by NDT house choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, was a marvelous presentation of style and technique. While one of the four did indeed leave me feeling uncomfortable – that was its intent. Of the others, two are highly enjoyable zany adventures, and the best, Clug’s diminutive contemporary dance gem.
NDT 2 is a component of Nederlands Dans Theater, the company that, under the leadership of Jiri Kylian, swept into New York like a breath of fresh air in the late 1970s. The memory of that initial program, performed at City Center, is still fresh, and still feels exciting. In 1978, NDT formed NDT 2. Like most “second companies,” NDT 2’s function was to provide professional and performance training, the purpose of which is to funnel dancers into the main company. Whatever its origins might have been, however, NDT 2 is now considered a standalone company (the “original” NDT is now known as NDT 1), with its own repertoire. I last saw the company, now under the artistic direction of Fernando Hernando Magadan, at an engagement at the Joyce Theater in 2015 (NDT 1 in 2016 at City Center), and they’ve been represented in various Fall for Dance programs as well. Nothing I’d seen before, however, prepared me for the tour de force that this company and these dancers present now.
By far the most absorbing piece on the program, if not the most unusual (all the pieces, by New York standards, may be considered unusual), was Clug’s mutual comfort, the evening’s opening piece.
My only prior exposure to Clug’s work was the recent Sleeping Beauty Dreams, which had its New York premiere last month. I didn’t think much of the choreography in that piece, and didn’t even mention Clug in the review because although he got the choreographic “credit,” I thought his abilities may have been overly and artificially restricted by the program’s overall concept.
mutual comfort is nothing like that, and, hopefully it provides more of an indication of Clug’s choreography (and perhaps a sense of the way Sleeping Beauty Dreams may eventually evolve). There’s never a dull moment, and it visualizes its theme in a very strange but fully accessible way. More significantly, Clug here utilizes an idiosyncratic movement language that’s internally consistent and, once you figure it out, both translatable and dazzling.
Clug uses a score by Milco Lazar, PErpeTuumOVIA, as the dance’s framework. Lazar is a contemporary Slovenian composer, musician and conductor, with over 40 LPs to his credit and a background in classical as well as “Big Band” music. This places PErpeTuumOVIA in a context of sorts. While it’s repetitious and rhythmic, it’s also gentle and decidedly non-electronic (it was danced to a recording by a ballet orchestra, with two pianos and two cellos). If anything, it’s a background purr as opposed to a noisy engine.
The piece, which premiered with NDT in 2015, opens with two male dancers standing midstage left, in identical poses, roughly six feet apart and moving their heads in a circular motion while the rest of each man’s body remains still. One of the two women in the piece appears, but the men do nothing more than continue to move their heads in a circle. One thing leads to another, the other woman appears, and the quartet interacts. And that interaction is dizzying. Every limb is used in unusual ways, but not to make individual statements (which is how I’ve observed similar movement previously – slight highlights in an otherwise not unusual piece of choreography) – this is the language. A foot will grab a head. An arm will move a leg. And the whole thing will lead to a woman somehow straddling a man’s neck. The motion is constant – although at times one or more of the dancers will watch the others. And like the best choreographers, Clug repeats particularly meaningful and surprising image combinations to add emphasis and a sense of creative control.
When it suddenly dawns that Clug’s movement is not just unusual, but extraordinary, one realizes that there’s a point to all this. It’s minimal to be sure, but what Clug is choreographing are relationships and the ‘mutual comfort’ relationships provide, using a new and thrilling way to visualize the same type of thing we’ve seen in other “relationship” dances. The dancers may not “act,” but they’re not automatons either. They smile. What they’re doing is enjoyable, not torture. Dances at some 21st century gathering. And when the piece comes full circle at its conclusion, the realization that the men’s head rotation (which expands to include the women, and is repeated in different contexts during the dance) is just a new way to see guys standing on a corner watching all the girls go by, is a lightning bolt. Sharply defined it is, as the program note indicates – all thirteen minutes of it. Twitchy it isn’t. [For “twitchy,” see below.] It’s stunning. Thalia Crymble, Tess Voelker, Kyle Clarke, and Adam Russell-Jones were the extraordinary dancers.
León and Lightfoot’s Sad Case is anything but. Created in 1998, the program note emphasizes that León was seven months pregnant with the couple’s first child, and her ‘raging hormones’ contributed to the zaniness of the dance. That’s unfortunate – not that the hormones effected the choreography (I suspect that this is the case with most creative artists – male or female), but that it somehow explains the strangeness. While Sad Case certainly has a quality of strangeness, it’s also marvelously inventive.
One of the most inventive aspects of it is that it’s not what you might think. The piece is choreographed to a suite of Mexican mambo music by Perez Prado (if you were around in the sixties, you might recall “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White”) and others, including a non-sanitized version of “El Watusi” by Ray Barretto. Limp American mambo covers (e.g., Perry Como’s “Papa Loves Mambo” or Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano”) are not included.
To this mambo suite, León and Lightfoot create a suite of dances, none of which remotely resembles a mambo – except for the overall sense of freedom, energy, and a little craziness that the mambo music instills and that the dramatic lighting by Tom Bevoort emphasizes (e.g., the opening image of an overhead spot illuminating one dancer). The movement generally is in broad strokes, but it matches the background sound – not just the rhythm, but the melodies and musical punctuations, making for a sparkling and surprising presentation. True, there’s a lot of shaking, but it’s consistent with a lot of gibberish sound (amplified by some gibberish speech from the dancers). And for all its zaniness, it comes full circle at its conclusion, with a sole overhead spot illuminating a sole dancer, but a different one. Combined with the program’s concluding dance, Sad Case displays a side of León and Lightfoot’s choreography that I’d not previously seen, and is most welcome. Fay van Baar, Amanda Mortimore, Toon Lobach, Surimu Fukushi, and Boston Gallagher delivered brilliant performances.
I’ve found Marco Goecke’s choreography hugely problematic in the past, and still do. Movement reflecting manic anger and/or chaos and/or alienation is not inappropriate in the right context – it’s that kind of world. But movement that seemingly makes no sense just to be different and ugly, no matter how depressing the subject, is overkill. That being said, I recognize that many consider his twitchy (truly), jarring, ultra-angular, ultra-fast, seemingly pointless movement for movement’s sake interesting, and it’s indisputable that this type of expressionist movement is typical of much contemporary European choreography.
In any event, and with that prejudice in mind, Wir sagen uns Dunkles (roughly, “we exchange dark words”) is thoroughly in keeping with Goecke’s oeuvre, at least what I’ve seen of it. The movement quality is dark, twitch, shaky, sexually obvious as well as ambiguous – but what takes getting used to (if one can ever get used to it) is an insect-like quality that, at best, is unpleasant to watch. Often I don’t see dancers, or humans, I see mosquitoes or fleas or the aptly named ticks on steroids, angularly and rapidly moving their legs or antennae as they prepare to suck blood.
In this piece, however, as uncomfortable as it is to watch (at least to me), I saw – at least I think I saw – what Goecke was trying to say. It’s nihilistic to be sure – but it’s also, in its own way, a dystopian epic, and by far the best of the Goecke pieces I’ve seen.
The dark ambiance of the piece is evident immediately, from Udo Haberland’s barely existent lighting to Schubert’s dark Piano Trio: Notturno in E flat, Opus 148. This music is more than sad, it’s gloomy, but gloomy with some built-in sharp edges – rapidfire dramatic punctuations that cut through the gloom like sawtooth blades, suggesting danger, which Goecke emphasizes with choreographed spasms of dancers’ bodies, limbs, or just hands, as if they’re diseased – or insects.
This setting thereafter is further reinforced by three songs that Goecke uses for the bulk of his dance, sung by the English alternate rock band, Placebo. Sometimes classified also as “post punk rock” or “pop punk,” among other descriptive terms, the band has been well-known in the U.K. and Europe – somewhat less so here – for over 20 years. The songs chosen – “Song to Say Goodbye,” “Slave to the Wage,” and “Loud Like Love” – exemplify the sense of alienation, angst, and hopelessness that permeates Goecke’s piece, and the lead singer’s loud, monotonic, and somewhat nasal delivery adds to the annoyance factor, like chalk on a blackboard. These three songs describe different societal problem areas: the first is believed to address heroin addiction; the second’s title is self-explanatory; and the third is a paean to love – but in context, with its repeated emphasis on imagining “a love that is so proud” among other similar references, its subject clearly is intended to extend beyond “conventional” heterosexual love.
Goecke’s ‘dark words’ encompass each of these issues. Some of the scenes, and the androgynous appearance of many of the NDT 2 male dancers (a comment made about the Placebo band members as well), reflect what used to be described as a heroin-chic appearance on top of the anger and anomie. And here Goecke adds to his insect-like movement rep various animal-like movements and sounds, most notably dancers emerging onto the stage from behind a black upstage curtain in rapid steps, making tiny “clicking” sounds as they move – like a horde of mice. Or rats. [One of the lyrics in “Slave to the Wage” is “It’s a race, a race for rats / A race for rats to die.”] And if the connection weren’t already sufficiently clear, Goecke clads the dancers in costumes (which he designed) edged with simulated fur. Lastly, the final image of the dance (by this time the Placebo songs have yielded to an excerpt from Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, Part 2 in tempo di valse) – is a slow, ebbing, disappearance behind the upstage curtain of one of the company’s male dancers as the one male dancer remaining on stage longingly watches him depart.
Dealing with all these issues is fine for three individual songs that have little relationship to each other beyond the band singing them and a certain style. Homogenized into one dance, however, the multi-pronged attack on society as it is loses focus – as well as potentially an audience that may be unable to discern how it all ties together. Regardless of the movement quality, this lack of cohesion makes Wir sagen uns Dunkles, which premiered in 2017, less than it might have been. But it’s undeniable that there’s intelligence at work here, and a style that much of the opening night audience clearly appreciated – although, judged by the muted laughter I heard within earshot, some audience members thought Goecke’s movement was quite funny to watch, which clearly was not Goecke’s intent.
But humor clearly is part of León and Lightfoot’s intent in SH-BOOM!, an emotional antidote to the dance that preceded it. The choreography is over the top, exaggerated, cartoonish, sexual (there’s unannounced male nudity), and more fun than orchestra seats padded with whoopee cushions. Don’t ask me to describe the choreography – I couldn’t begin. But the gist of SH-BOOM! is captured in a quotation from Francisco Goya that begins the program note: “The dream of reason produces monsters. Imagination deserted by reason creates impossible, useless thoughts. United with reason imagination is the mother of all art and the source of all its beauty.” I’ve seen some key words translated from the Spanish somewhat differently, but the essential meaning of two seemingly contradictory terms, reason and imagination, being essential for the creation of art is the same.
This contradiction, as the program note indicates, is the essence of SH-BOOM! But perhaps that intellectualizes the piece too much. It’s crazy, but crazy fun. The first dance that León and Lightfoot created, it had its formal premiere in 2000 (this performance was its New York premiere), and it’s a fitting fin de siècle commentary.
The piece is a series of seemingly disparate scenes choreographed to eight seemingly disparate songs and a cast of seeming thousands (ten dancers), united primarily by the men wearing white underwear and the women robed (or otherwise costumed – maybe pajamas) in black. It’s more insane than funny, but it’s very funny. Pseudo glitter / confetti reigning down on the orchestra seats as the piece concluded was icing on the banana cream pie. In addition to most of those dancers already mentioned, the cast included Nicole Ishimaru (who danced a superb solo), Donnie Duncan, Jr., and Jesse Callaert.
I have only one complaint with the NDT 2 presentation. Nowhere does the program indicate who is performing what, or even the names of the members of the company. [The only reason I’ve inserted the names here is that a cast list was made available to the press.] I understand that to some extent dancers in these pieces are interchangeable, and generally that all that’s required of them is to execute the choreography perfectly (considering the athleticism and timing involved, no easy task). I also accept that the company may not be certain in advance which dancers will be appearing in which piece. Even so, those difficulties can be addressed by program inserts available to all. To me not identifying the dancers on stage is demeaning to the dancers and the audience. I hope that when NDT 2 (and NDT 1) return, this oversight, which I consider a serious one, will not be repeated.