mutual comfort
Sad Case
Wir sagen uns Dunkles

The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
Kay Theatre
College Park, Maryland

January 30, 2019

Carmel Morgan

I’d given some thought before to what dances I’d like to do in heaven, assuming that place exists, and what dances I’d like to see again, but I hadn’t previously thought about what dancers I might want to be, if given a chance. Now I know. If I were reincarnated, I’d like to be an NDT 2 dancer. Nederlands Dans Theater’s second company, NDT 2, auditions dancers from ages 17-21, who have completed a classical ballet training course. The dancers selected for the company come from around the globe and are exquisite in every way. They impressively bend, balance, soar, stare, laugh, and explode like determined little firecrackers. Their extensions are wondrous, their acting is phenomenal. They’re the future of contemporary ballet, and they’re as close to perfect as it gets.

One reason the young dancers look so good is the excellent choreography they’re given, and I’m sure this is what draws many to the auditions. But I’m also sure there’s something else afoot. However they train and rehearse, it must be a relentlessly exacting process, because these dancers are beyond compare. If aliens from outer space who know nothing about dance watched them and a few other young companies, the aliens would have no problem recognizing the matchless skill of NDT 2’s dancers. They’re jaw-droppingly good and look like no other junior company I’ve seen.

Even the old curmudgeons in the audience seemed entranced with NDT 2’s recent University of Maryland performance. I dare anyone to watch NDT 2 and not feel moved by the sheer talent on stage. And like the dancers themselves, the works presented were provocative and charismatic.

The gem of the evening was the opener, mutual comfort, by Edward Clug. The audience in the lobby after the first intermission was abuzz. People muttered, dumbstruck, “That first piece!”  My only complaint about mutual comfort is that it’s too short. I emphatically wanted more!  

NDT 2 in mutual comfort by Edward Clug, photo by Joris-Jan Bos

NDT 2 in mutual comfort by Edward Clug, photo by Joris-Jan Bos

In mutual comfort, dancers seem to speak via an entirely new movement vocabulary, although the choreography incorporates many pedestrian gestures. The relationship between the dancers and the space between them holds mystery and tension. A hypnotic head nod that begins and ends the dance is both subtle and peculiarly resounding. A mixture of repetition, minimalist movement, and restrained turbulence captivates throughout. I sensed a casual flirtiness, even competition between the male and female dancers, in partnership and alone. A male dancer is aggressively slapped away by a female dancer, two women walk hand in hand. Dancers grab, dart, ripple. Sometimes almost robotic but also often silky smooth, the dancers appear human, but maybe not fully so. The agency between the dancers shifts, some taking firm initiative, then receiving a push. Unfolding, pulling, strolling, slyly snaking on the floor, at no point did my attention wane. I felt an underlying vague creepiness. The music, Milko Lazar’s PErpetTuumOVIA, is more than background noise but doesn’t overwhelm the picture being painted. The piano strikes and cello hums are a lovely accompaniment.                       

Sol León and Pau Lightfoot’s 1998 work Sad Case, which followed, doesn’t disappoint. Contrary to its title, Sad Case is happy, funny, and perhaps disguises something profound about humanity beneath its playful surface. The dancers wear pale costumes with charcoal smudges over them and their bodies. The music, old fashioned Mexican mambo, contrasts with madcap movement. The dancers are at times sharp and mechanical, and at times they actually convulse, but there’s an ever-present elegance nonetheless. I was reminded of children told not to jump on the bed, and catching the kids having a ball doing it anyway, despite the warning. But it’s not all absurdity and chaos. In a quiet moment, dancers tilt their heads up as if waiting for rainfall.      

German-born choreographer Marco Goecke’s Wir sagen uns Dunkles (We Exchange Dark Words) is, as its title suggests, dark, but with some hope thrown in at the end. The music alternates between pop punk songs by Placebo (Song to Say Goodbye, Slave to the Wage, Loud Like Love) to classical music by Franz Schubert (Nocturne in E flat) and Alfred Schnittke (Piano quintet, part 2: ‘in tempo di Valse’). The costumes, by Goecke, have a line of long glittery fringe on the back of each pant leg, which shimmies as the dancers shake, resembling rustling scales or feathers. Udo Haberland’s lighting leaves the floor generally bright, but the dancers’ faces are mostly obscured by shadows.

The work felt like the younger generation depicting suffering that they haven’t yet encountered. There are pugilistic martial arts type moves, and miniscule jerks, also lots of elbows sticking out. The dancers don’t hide heavy breaths or counting. A laugh track may signal a descent into depression — something spooky or sinister. Dancers gather while childhood rhymes are recited. Someone later teeters as if on a tightrope. Sad Case might be a more accurate title for this one!        

NDT 2 dancers (foreground, Surimu Fukushi) in Sol León and Paul Lightfoot's "SH-BOOM!", photo by Rahi Rezvani

NDT 2 dancers (foreground, Surimu Fukushi) in Sol León and Paul Lightfoot’s “SH-BOOM!”, photo by Rahi Rezvani

Closing the program was another fun piece by León and Lightfoot, SH-BOOM!, which premiered in 2000 at The Hague. Once again, this choreographic duo chose foot tapping music that’s frequently at odds with the movement. (The title is taken from SH-BOOM!, an early doo-wop song by The Chords). SH-BOOM! comes across sort of like fiddling around on the TV or radio, letting one song or show play, then switching to one with a different mood and different content. A single dancer acts out a soap opera, playing two parts. A male dancer, with no clothes on, dances under flashlight beams and sometimes hides his private parts with a copper pot (but sometimes he doesn’t). Men wear white knee socks and underwear, women high necked, long-sleeved back dresses.   

Here, Surimu Fukushi, a Japanese native, was extraordinary. He exuded comic charm, but he also lit up the stage when he wasn’t being a clown. The other dancers, too, infused SH-BOOM! with joy. I look forward to following the careers of these 16 incredible dancers, because it’s clear the sky is the limit for them, whether they join the main NDT company or venture off elsewhere.