Nederlands Dans Theater
New York City Center
New York, New York
March 4, 2020
The missing door, Walk the Demon, Shut Eye
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!” [Rod Serling, 2nd Season introduction to the TV Series.]
For its most recent visit to New York, and in recognition of its 60th Anniversary and Paul Lightfoot’s last year as the company’s Artistic Director, Nederlands Dans Theater took its audiences to a twilight zone. As with episodes of the TV series, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Lightfoot selected the three pieces on the program, all U.S. Premieres: The missing door, created for NDT by Argentine-born Gabriella Carrizo in 2013; Marko Goecke’s Walk the Demon; and Shut Eye, choreographed by co-House Choreographers Lightfoot and Sol León. Each, in one sense or another, took us to a place to which we’d rather not go.
Created in 2013, The missing door, all too literally, takes its audience to that twilight zone. I have great respect for the obvious effort, choreographic and otherwise, that went into the conception of this piece, and for the strong-stomached NDT dancers who performed it. But as well put-together as it is, underneath it all there’s something decidedly unsettling. The missing door doesn’t so much make you think as it repulses you.
Whatever it was that Carrizo may have been trying to visualize or communicate, underneath it all is an apparent misogyny that is pervasive, and that ruins it. But because of its novelty, relative accessibility, and the otherwise fascinating mental and visual conundrum that it presents, it’s nevertheless a fine though flawed piece of work.
The stage setting is an exposed room with two walls angled from an upstage center junction. The walls have multiple doors, and the right wall has a mirror of sorts that can also be a window to the outside. Or vice versa. To the best of my recollection, there’s a reclining chair against the right wall, a table and chair upstage center, and a few other scattered small tables and lamps. In program notes, Carrizo references having been inspired by the story of a photographer who, as a child, used to eavesdrop behind the door of his father’s office. His father was a psychologist, and the words the boy didn’t understand “generated dreams and stimulated an imaginary world in which the hidden and the tacit predominated.” She continues: “I constantly try to look for new perspectives to make the parallel mental world visible; a world in which hyper individual fears, oppression, fantasies, and thought construction of the characters and artists break into a regular social relationship.” Fair enough: the room on stage is as much, or more, an exploration of the mind as it is “real” sight and sound.
Into this twilight zone are several characters: a man (Marne Van Opstal) reclining or sleeping on a reclining chair looking dazed and probably inebriated, and a woman (Lydia Bustinduy) sprawled across the chair next to the table, who looks the same. A man (Donnie Duncan, Jr.) is on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor and a woman (Yukino Takaura) appears to straighten up the room: they’re the hired help – or the brain’s palette cleansers.
What happens after is, at best, bizarre. People appear and disappear, or attempt to. They act out, or are acted upon. The mind’s “real” residents, the hungover man and woman (although the man’s mind is the one being mined), awaken and appear to relive what happened before the mind’s door opened. Sometimes it’s comic. People seem to enter and leave through doors to mess things up (the narrative and each other). But this isn’t Noises Off or Groucho meets Sigmund. This vision of the mind (or reconstruction of it through someone else’s eyes) is brutal. And the objects of the brutality are the women. The “maid” is demeaned and intimidated; the “central” woman on the chair is pushed and pulled offstage and on and is pawed at and provoked (though some might say she gave as good as she got).
The worst fate is saved for a somewhat sophisticated-looking young woman (Chloé Albaret) wearing a chic teal or blue dress (initially unnoticed until she emerges from a downstage chair to join the action and … read a book that the maid gives her), who may be a surrogate for the woman sprawled in her chair in this nightmare scenario. At one point, this character is confronted by a sinister-looking man (Roger Van der Poel) who may be a surrogate for the man in the recliner. Eventually, in an apparent rage, this man grabs the woman in the teal dress and tosses her around. But it’s not that simple. The man does this by reaching through her legs from behind, grabbing her crotch, lifting and molesting her at the same time. At another point, this man grabs her neck from behind, lifts her up from beneath her jaw, and then swings her around and around like a rag doll while holding her from the neck, before throwing her aside like so much flotsam. This may all have been done safely (“no dancers have been harmed….”), but it looks horrific.
Indelible images are a good thing, and usually indicative of a successful dance. Here what’s indelible is how revolting these images are. I assume this scenario may have been intended as a vision of the subliminal mind of the “real man” (the inebriated one) reflecting his attitude toward women – or at least how a young boy’s mind imagined it as the man’s story seeped through the psychiatrist’s office wall. But regardless of what the inner-mind’s workings might reveal and what Carrizo’s intention may have been, was this display really necessary? Is shock value appropriate at all costs?
There’s much more action going on in The missing door (there’s no explanation for the missing initial caps) than the above paragraphs indicate than I could, or should, possibly describe. Eventually, the players leave the room; the “real” man and woman, having relived how they got to the point at which the audience first sees them, return to their original passed-out positions; and the hired help returns to clean up the mess exactly as they were doing when the piece began. As intelligently conceived and reasonably provocative as it was, however, the mess can’t ever be cleaned up: theoretically, The missing door would open again and again because … this is the twilight zone.
Every member of the cast excelled (Cesar Faria Fernandez was the seventh castmember and another possible surrogate for the lead man, who, as I recall, forces his way into the room accompanied by sounds that resembled machine gun fire and terrorizes everyone in sight); and Albaret, an attention-grabbing, at times fragile-looking dancer who obviously is made of steel, deserves combat pay.
Walk the Demon is considerably more abstract, and even more incomprehensible, in a different sort of twilight zone. It’s “about” something – maybe the demons we carry inside of us, and the need to have them emerge every so often. Like walking one’s dog. But to me the movement, though not at all monochromatic, makes little sense, and looks neither like a nightmare nor a dream: just purposeless anger, confusion, and acting-out.
I’ve frequently remarked that I find little to appreciate in Goecke’s choreographic language, which is fast, angular, driven by rapid-fire arm and hand movements, and which often makes the dancers look like insects. In Walk the Demon, the insect-like images are less prevalent, but the rest of what characterizes Goecke’s choreography is there: bodies (mostly extremities) are pushed and pulled by seemingly invisible forces, accompanied by staccato thrusts that look dramatic but are empty gestures. To this formula Goecke here adds voices: not just the voices in the curated accompanying score, but voices of the dancers thrusting gutturals and words that are empty sounds.
Recently in several of his dances I’ve found a method to the apparent madness, and appreciated and understood what Goecke was attempting to say despite my dislike of his style. Walk the Demon is not one of them.
For the evening’s final piece, an antidote to the first two dances would have been appropriate – something along the lines of Lightfoot and León’s SH-BOOM!, which closed an NDT2 program that I saw last year. But no: Shut Eye is another venture into the twilight zone.
Make no mistake: Shut Eye includes gorgeous choreography, an intriguing set, and a premise that is comprehensible. Sort of. But it lost me with what appeared to be an overlapping storyline – maybe two (or more) people sharing the same mind. Or maybe there were different minds in one environment. Regardless, the end result, though lovely and mysterious in all the right ways, was confusing.
Essentially, like The missing door, Shut Eye takes you into the recesses of one’s mind as one assesses a relationship and/or one’s relationship to the outside world. It even has a door to that outside world (I presume representing that eye open), dramatically situated upstage center. The choreography is relatively liquid and languid (a refreshing change from the two earlier pieces), as if the moving images were unreal imaginings in some mental sea; the accompanying score (compiled from a variety of sources) is complementary; and the execution by the eight dancer cast (Albaret, Takaura, and six men) is superb.
There is internal conflict here, as the action within the mind’s eye plays out with varying concerns and alternative scenarios. But that’s where it lost me. What Lightfoot and León appear to be presenting is not one person’s internal musings, but at least two, and maybe several. Multiple story-lines are fine, but here it’s difficult to separate them, and it makes the dance more complex than it needed to be. In the Night mixed with In the Upper Room all within an inner room. It also results in false endings; just when you think it’s over, it isn’t.
I’m being hypercritical here. Losing me part way through may well have been the product of binge Twilight Zone fatigue. Shut Eye can be visually spellbinding, with compelling lighting by Tom Bevoort creating an otherworldly aura perfect for depicting that other world inside one’s mind (whether one mind or several minds in some communal mental tenement). It may be “a world full of fantasy … a glimpse into a surrealistic world” as Lightoot and León state in the program note, but it’s a world in which emotions, and evaluations, and decisions, and the courage to take action are intertwined in the minds of everyone who thinks before he or she acts. And that final set of images, live and projected, that precede the final final ending are eerie and awesome and push all the right buttons. I look forward to seeing Shut Eye again sometime, maybe without competing twilight zones on the same program.