Nederlands Dans Theater I

Nederlands Dans Theater I
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
June 16–17, 2009
Reviewed by Laura Molzahn

 

Photo: © Joris-Jon Bos photography. NDT I in Crystal Pite's The Second Person.


If you blinked, you missed them. Nederlands Dans Theater I began and ended its first U.S. visit since 2004 in Chicago, with a program of works by choreographers Jiri Kylián, Lightfoot/León, and Crystal Pite.

 

Classical training—and untraining, I guess—gives NDT’s dancers the plasticity to replicate a stringed puppet’s collapse or a mermaid flipping her tail. Their strength and musicality unified the program’s kaleidoscope of often startling movement.

 

So did the choreographers’ seriousness. Like a Henry James novel, Lightfoot/León’s 2006 domestic drama Shoot the Moon transcends its claustrophobic sphere. Aided by an ingenious revolving set of three heavily wallpapered rooms with oversized doors and windows, it ripples out to suggest a never-ending chain of unhappy couples linked by betrayal and anger. Live video enhances the point—and the voyeuristic allure.

 

Paul Lightfoot and Sol León’s choreography goes for the gut. Noiseless screams and agonized phrases of bug-like creeping along the wall pay homage to silent films, which Lightfoot acknowledged as an influence (during the post-show discussion that I moderated). The emotional content is overt and immediate, sometimes overstated—though the gazes that never seem to connect chill the heart.

 

Pite’s 2007 The Second Person, a piece for 24, is an odyssey whose way is marked by voiceover texts stating and restating the obvious, sometimes comically. Against a backdrop of lowering clouds, a shadowy mob manipulates a wooden marionette—and later, a touchingly fragile and unstable woman. Like the puppets they emulate, the dancers have a child’s innocence and vulnerability: Legs swerve wildly in and out at the hip, the knee, the ankle as a man staggers on the sides of his feet.

 

Though The Second Person can meander, it seems to trace a trajectory from youthful self-discovery through a loss of innocence. In an intimate, uneasy “after the Fall” duet of conflict and reconciliation, the man shoves the woman across the floor, then revolves into her cradling arms. The couple’s supported falls reveal their mutual caring—and weakness.

 

Kylián, the company’s resident choreographer and former artistic director, was represented by his 1997 masterwork, Wings of Wax. Its title alludes to the myth of Icarus (program notes refer to a Breughel painting and W.H. Auden poem on the subject). A bare tree hanging upside-down sets the dance in some otherworldly place, perhaps the sky just before the impact of Icarus, or if you see the roots as branches, an underground kingdom.

 

But there’s nothing otherworldly about the dancers’ interactions, especially in the musically astute final four duets. Like Auden’s poetry, they capture both the inevitability and impossibility of love, expressed in helpless affection and casual cruelty. A man seems to glance at his watch in the middle of a lift. A crouching dancer encircles his partner’s foot only to have her matter-of-factly remove it. But the piece closes with a seemingly endless embrace, heads swinging in magnetic attraction and repulsion.

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