An Appealing Darkness

July 11, 2007

Seeing two Dutch companies at Jacob’s Pillow last weekend reminded me of what’s sometimes missing in American dance, especially ballet: a willingness to be dark in mood. The companies were Netherlands Dans Theater II (the youth company of NDT), and Club Guy and Roni.

    NDT II showed two pieces that seemed to be about the desperation and aloneness of the night. In Sleepless (2004) by Jiri Kylian, the shadow of a solo dancer (Sarah Reynolds) seemed to creep into the dark crevices of hanging panels. Chilling metallic sounds brought to mind those wee hours when one is desperately insomniac, longing to slip into sleep. Invisible figures hold and stretch the dancers from behind the panels. The dance settles into duets that are ominous, delicate, leggy, designed, sinuous, provocative. It’s like doing a beautiful duet with someone you have an uncanny rapport with, but a sense of danger hovers over you. Kylian immerses his dancers in an edgy, noir world, lending a tingling sense of darkness—of alertness. At the same time, the movement is utterly contemporary—with a second-by-second inventiveness.

    Equally stunning was Dream Play (2000) by Johan Inger, a protégé of Kylian’s who now directs Cullberg Ballet. In this ballet, which uses part of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the main character does fall asleep (I think it happens when his dunce cap flies upward), but then he has a bad dream. In the dream the dancers twist and loop vigorously. (I particularly liked Menghan Lou and Nina Botkay for visceral dancing.) There’s even a moment in the mounting Stravinsky score when the dancers contracted like they’ve been shot. Only Nina Botkay “dies” but then, as often happens even in a bad dream, she becomes undead and joins the party. (Hans van Manen’s more cheerful Simple Things completed the program.)

    Club Guy and Roni, playing in the smaller theater, is co-directed by two Israeli dancers now settled in the Netherlands. (It was Dutch week last week in the Berkshires.) Their evening-length piece, The Language of Walls (2003), was dead-on riveting from the first thrashings of Roni Haver to the last loony solo. Both Roni Haver and Guy Weizman had worked with Ultima Vez in Belgium, and you could see the influence of its director, Wim Vandekeybus, in the crazed actions, unpredictable reversals, and dancing that is so physical it borders on violence. Women (there were six women with one male drummer, Elad Cohen) throw themselves across the stage, crashing down on their knees—and then they  suddenly chat sweetly (or wackily) with each other like they are pals at an after-hours club. (Here is Emily Macel’s full review.) The Walls of the title is a three-part cupboard that holds many secrets. You could also see the Ohad Naharin influence (Haver and Weizman have worked with him too) in the intense vulnerability and choreographed uncertainty. Each performer was both forceful and ridiculous in her own uniqueness. What a crew of wild women!

    All three pieces balanced darkness with humor, painting a multi-dimensional picture of the human condition. The motional complexity was more  satisfying to me than the optimism, or the “neutrality” that I often see here. Sometimes I think American choreographers are too concerned with athleticism and momentum to even dip into darkness (jealousy, fear, alienation, self hatred, any sort of behavioral extremism). Ironically, it was the dark side of Kylian, Inger, and Club Guy and Roni that delighted me.