The Moving Image

August 23, 2000

NDT III dancer and former principal with National Ballet of Canada Karen Kain.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy Great Performances.

The Moving Image: Can’t Stop Now . . .
Great Performances, PBS

August 23, 2000

Reviewed by Rose Anne Thom

The consciousness of theatrical dance as an activity for all ages is one that is slowly, very slowly, gaining understanding and acceptance among audiences. There are dance companies, primarily modern dance, such as the Maryland-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, that include dancers of many ages. In New York City, 40-UP presents performances by choreographers and dancers who are exactly that. The first heralded acknowledgement of the abilities of “mature” ballet dancers was in l991 when Jirí Kylián, artistic director of the Netherlands Dance Theatre, established NDT III, a company for dancers over 40 years of age.

A small troupe, usually just five dancers, NDT III’s performers are rich in experience and ability, as Eileen Thalenberg’s documentary Can’t Stop Now . . . attests. Stormy Nights Production, is made in association with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Television Fund. Can’t Stop Now’s slim narrative thread focuses on veteran Canadian ballerina Karen Kain, who has been invited by Kylián to be part of a new ballet for a gala performance and to replace former American Ballet Theatre ballerina Martine van Hamel in one of her roles. The larger context, in detail, is the experience of these mature dancers.

The camera follows Kain to The Hague, Netherlands, catching her and fellow company members rehearsing with various choreographers, relaxing in the city, and, finally, performing. Throughout, it is the dancers who do the talking, often as voice-overs while they are working. The choreographers who create works for them supplement these descriptive comments. The balance between talk and action is a comfortable one, the camera moving easily from the studio to the comfort of living rooms. The dancers’ identities are firmly established by both their dancing and by their words.

Kylian sets the documentary’s tone when he recalls having to tell older dancers that it was time to move on. He remembers thinking, “Why are we not able to supply different works for these dancers?” He adds, “Dance is always associated with youthfulness, but it’s stupid. Any age dances.” The idea for NDT III was first proposed by Gerard Lemaitre, an NDT dancer who became one of the new company’s founding members.

Kain joins Sabine Kupferberg and Jeanne Solan who, like Lemaitre, had previously danced with NDT. The troupe also includes the extraordinary Gary Chryst, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer, and the stellar van Hamel. Watching these performers in action, they appear to lack nothing. Replacing pyrotechnics? although one of Chryst’s solos is definitely a tour de force?is an attention to dynamic nuance, a clarity of motion and an emotional engagement, qualities that inform their work now as it did at the “height” of their careers. Their actions confirm that virtuosity takes many forms.

The dancers are lucid in their expression of the differences between their earlier dancing and what they are doing now. Says Solan; “Dancing after 40 . . . the body is empowered by perhaps a clearer mind.” Chryst elaborates further: “The point of NDT III is to see what dancers do with their maturity . . . it’s what we have to offer now. I can stand still now on stage and have a stronger presence than having to fly around. It’s so much about stretching yourself and finding out more about yourself and what is in there.” In a moment of candor, after chronicling the day’s full and demanding schedule, Chryst addresses the camera forthrightly, “and I’m going to my bathtub now.”

For van Hamel, the pleasure of performing with NDT III obviously involved venturing into new choreographic territory. Tired of dancing the classics and finding things weren’t “quite as easy anymore,” she appreciated the creative process at NDT III. “When half of you is going, closing in, and part of you is staying open . . . you learn something new. ” Leaving NDT after five years, she acknowledges bittersweetly the challenge of having a life without dancing.

Kain finds her time with the NDT III dancers fulfilling emotionally after years as the senior ballerina (with the National Ballet of Canada) in a company of youngsters. Their similar experience in life and dance acts as a bond. She and van Hamel joke in rehearsal about the height of leg extensions. Although Kain insists she’s having trouble getting to 45 degrees, the actuality is something else. Van Hamel assists Kain in learning Kylin’s dance language. “We bring individuality,” Van Hamel tells the invisible interviewer. “We are not interchangeable although we do the same piece.” Kain asserts that she now finds herself “emotionally capable of taking more risks” in her dancing. Choreographers are aware of this and Lemaitre notes that “choreographers who work with young dancers create dances for themselves, and those who work with NDT III create for us.”

While the dancers in NDT clearly cope with an awareness of diminishing physical ability, they no longer have anything to prove and find in their work an emotional satisfaction that may have been missing in their earlier careers. Says Kupferberg, ” I actually feel much younger. I have so much more fun.” Watching NDT III makes that quite clear.

Watch for an exclusive online review of Netherlands Dance Theatre I, II, and III in September 2000.