The Joyce Theater, New York, NY; February 3, 2015

Jerry Hochman

NDT 2 in 'Sara'.  Photo © Yi-Chun Wu

NDT 2 in ‘Sara’.
Photo © Yi-Chun Wu

Nederlands Dans Theater’s visit to New York in 1979, under the artistic direction of Jiří Kylián, is the stuff of legend. Attending the performance one could, almost literally, feel the fresh air created by a different kind of choreographic energy wafting through City Center.

Much has happened since then, not least Kylián’s relinquishing of the artistic leadership in 1999, and his retirement as house choreographer in 2009. But based on this program by NDT 2, which provides a launching pad for talented dancers and a place for young up-and-coming choreographers to develop, the fresh air still flows –perhaps a bit more erratically, but the stunning movement quality and stagecraft are still there, illuminating The Joyce Theater with ideas and energy, and considerable talent. Ten of the company’s sixteen dancers performed on this program. They’re a very strong group – and the fact that they’re not (yet) in NDT speaks volumes as to the talent in the main company.

The dances were a mixed bag, but they were all, at least, interesting to watch. Even the one I found most uneven, the opening “I New Then”, included interesting choreographic moments and super performances. But that which was most exciting was the simplest, and the oldest, with no sets, no music, and only two dancers.

“Shutters Shut”, choreographed by NDT’s house choreographers, Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot and Artistic Advisor Sol León, is set to a four-minute 1923 poem by Gertrude Stein, “If I told him: A completed portrait of Picasso”. On the surface, the poem is a verbally fractured satirical essay on, among other things, what history teaches. Hearing Stein’s own, deadpan, original rendition of the poem is a fascinating curiosity (the words, and the arrangement of them, provide the intellectual stimulation), but the choreography adds to the poem a remarkable level of visual interest.

I’ve seen pieces similar to this previously – perhaps choreographed to this particular poem – but this 2003 work is critically different. It’s not simply choreography that fits the meter of the poem as it’s read; it expresses, reflects, and complements the words of the poem, in the process creating a specific movement and mime language that amplifies the words and at the same time liberates them. The movement is as distinctive and clever as the poem. But it’s also the choreographic equivalent of a tightrope, which the two dancers walk without benefit of a safety net.

At the outset, the choreographed language corresponds to the text. For example, as ballet mime has a specific visual movement to identify and describe a member of royalty, “Shutters Shut” (a phrase from the poem) has a specific visual movement that corresponds to references in the poem to Napoleon. After a few verses, the movement and mime becomes familiar. What doesn’t become familiar is that it’s performed by a male and female dancer, side by side, in exact sync both with Stein’s tempo, and with each other. The movement qualities are distinctive and appropriate (fractured, frenetic, and visually startling, in which arm, hand, and head movements are more critical than leg or foot movement), but all in keeping with the tenor of the poem tempered by the studiously unembellished verbal delivery.

And then the remarkable becomes miraculous. At a certain point in the piece, the dancers begin to move separately and the movement for each is different – they still move in sync with the verbal ‘music’, but not with each other. Then the side by side synchronization returns. The cycle then repeats. There’s no margin for error, no place to hide, no possibility of correcting a misstep or miscount, however minor it might be. And soon after it begins, the piece not only becomes an exercise of precision execution, but a heart-pumping, second by second mental form of choreographic cooperative combat with the viewer glued to the stage to see if the dancers, and the piece, emerged unscathed.

The terrific pair of dancers, Imre van Opstal and Spencer Dickhaus, executed perfectly.

Imre van Opstal in 'Sara'.  Photo © Rahi Rezvani

Imre van Opstal in ‘Sara’.
Photo © Rahi Rezvani

“Sara” is almost as startling, except here the movement quality is completely different. The abstract piece, by the Israeli duo of Sharon Eyal (who danced and choreographed for Batsheva Dance Company from 1990 to 2008) and Gai Behar (a Tel Aviv DJ and producer), is mostly slow-paced, as if the dancers were under water, or lifeforms on some faraway planet. The electronic music, by Ori Lichtik, also gives it an otherworldly, ethereal feel. Where the work ‘really’ is could be anywhere, or nowhere. The name ‘Sara’ isn’t explained, but unless it’s some mysterious acronym, it has middle-eastern connotations of searching, wandering, finding an identity and a sense of relative place.

But “Sara” isn’t venue-specific, and there’s something bewitching and mesmerizing about the choreography, which takes it beyond such mundane concepts as location. These are not bodies crisply moving, “Monotones”-like, in some particular space; they’re humanoid expressions of individual, and collective, dreams and emotions. It sounds strange – and it is. But it’s also strangely beautiful. The four women and three men, clad in identical colorless unitards, have no distinct personalities until they split off from the mass and pose, or silently wail, or verbally speak at a level that can best be described as a forced whisper or a muted exclamation. The performance was led by the dynamic van Opstal.

The program’s closing piece, “Subject to Change”, is an expressive, romantic piece choreographed by Lightfoot/Leon to excerpts from Schubert’s “String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor” (“Death and the Maiden”). The 2003 piece is also a tour de force of stagecraft for a male and female lead, a corps of observing and encouraging men, and a red carpet.

There are obvious similarities between Balanchine’s “La Valse” and “Subject to Change”. There’s a narrative of sorts that’s common to both – a fragile woman’s encounter with a dominant and dangerous male to whom she has an initial attraction, and a melodramatic, feverish aura. A critical difference, however – at least as it was performed opening night – is that the woman is not a victim, and she’s not particularly fragile. She’s an equally interested, determined, driving force. The piece comes perilously close to being buried in excess, and crosses that line with gratuitous and superfluous guttural shrieks from the male chorus and the male lead – obviously intended to be disturbing and to add a note of cataclysmic foreboding.

However, the gripping performances of the overstuffed choreography (thrusting legs, thrusting arms – a lot of thrusting) by the lead couple (Yukino Takaura, a particularly exciting dancer, and Olivier Coeffard, who provided melodrama as well as skillful partnering) makes the piece thrilling to watch, and the remarkable stagecraft (the use of the red carpet, which is both a platform on which the dancers dance, a revolving stage, a body covering, and a stage divider), is quite clever. There’s a lot of Kylián in this piece.

NDT 2 in 'I New Then'.  Photo © Yi-Chun Wu

NDT 2 in ‘I New Then’.
Photo © Yi-Chun Wu

The opening work, “I New Then”, by Swedish choreographer Johan Inger, a former NDT dancer and former Artistic Director of Cullberg Ballet, though brilliantly performed, is more problematic than the others. The title is obviously a play on words, but the dance doesn’t clarify the significance of it. It’s choreographed to five songs by Van Morrison, and the sequence (“Madame George,” “The Way Young Lovers Do,” “I’ll Be Your Lover Too,” “Sweet Things,” and “Crazy Love”) supports an apparent theme, however trite.

“I New Then” opens with two men facing the audience, one behind the other, dancing in tandem. Then one breaks off. Other dancers join them, forming pairs, solos, groups. Fair enough. In the second song, one of the men partners with one of the women, they leave the stage ‘clearing’ to the presumed privacy of what the program notes describe as a “steel forest” (a grouping of metal poles upstage left), where they get acquainted, and teasingly strip to their underwear one piece of clothing at a time, after which the item is tossed outside the ‘forest’ perimeter. But that’s the extent of the visualized activity – the two look at each other longingly, approach each other, but don’t go further. A sole man, who was one of the initial pair of men, spies the male/female couple, and goes berserk with apparent jealousy. The forested couple re-emerges, and eventually all are joined by the rest of the cast, who subsequently strip to their underwear and return to the stage. And to my recollection, the piece ends with one woman behind another, facing the audience, and moving in tandem.

But finding a narrative in this way requires ignoring most of the dance, which is abstract and unfocused. The choreography, which appears at least in part derivative of William Forsythe, is a hodgepodge of movement that is at one moment still, at another frantic, at one moment angular, at another somehow frenetically lyrical, with no unifying core.

The dancing, however, was super, particularly by the women: Casia Vengoechea, a calming presence amid the choreographic cacophony; Katarina van den Wouwer, the company’s little firecracker who attacked every step; Takaura and van Opstal. Dickhaus, who may have cornered the market on expressiveness, and Richel Wieles led the men.

NDT 2 is supposed to be a training ground to prepare classically trained young dancers for the main company within three years. Based on their performances on Tuesday, they are already well prepared.