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April 2012

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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 19, 2012
Category: review

Dances in Darkness

By Rachel Straus

NEW YORK – Two recent dance events spoke more of doom and gloom than the earthly delights of cherry blossoms and daffodils that have accompanied the start of springtime in New York. In Jirí Kylián’s Last Touch First, viewed April 10 at the Joyce Theater, the Czech choreographer, known for his acclaimed artistic directorship of Nederlands Dans Theater, abandons his physically vigorous, romantic style. Created in collaboration with American choreographer and former NDT dancer Michael Schumacher, the 2008 work for Schumacher and five veteran performers resembles a slow motion Victorian parlor game. In the course of an hour, it evolves into a house of horrors.

Photo by Robert Benschop

The avant-garde dance style called Butoh, also known as the dance of darkness, pervades Last Touch First. Butoh emerged after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is characterized by glacially slow movements, expressive of physical and mental anguish. Such is the nature of Václav Kuneš’s approach to an unknowing Elke Schepers as the dance begins. Is this her soul mate or a disappointing suitor? He is both. When he holds her, he looks like he is both cradling and crushing her.

An incessantly repeated note on the piano, bringing to mind a beating heart, dominates Dirk Haubrich’s minimalist score. As the repetitions grow more intense, the parlor games get crueler. Three women paste playing cards on a man’s face. A book is shoved into Scheper’s mouth. Another performer is strangled. The cast gropes each other; their slow motion pawing elicits more expressions of pain than of pleasure. Meanwhile, Haubrich interjects a high-pitched electronic shriek that pierces the ear’s membrane like a knife.

These may sound like gratuitous acts, but what makes Last Touch First artful is the dancers’ abilities to sustain lentissimo movement and to demonstrate fraught, specific relationships with each other that look genuine. In the program notes, Chekhov is cited as an inspiration, perhaps because his most famous stories are populated with individuals whose inner turmoil quakes beneath a sunny surface.

But there is no sunshine in Last Touch First; it is performed in a permanent midnight. (Kees Tjebbes and Ellen Knops’ are credited with lighting design.) Walter Nobbe’s set evokes a deserted, unlived-in home, the blackness of the stage punctuated with various pieces of furniture covered in drop cloths. Dressed in Joke Visser’s Victorian black suits and bustled gowns, the dancers resemble ghosts as they float sinisterly toward each other. Last Touch First has a bleak ending: Cora Bos-Kroese walks upstage toward the black void of an open doorway, her torpidity, previously expressed in drinking and burrowing deep into her armchair, never transforms. As she makes her way out, the cast pulls the cloth she is standing on out from under her, so each step forward is futile.

Sylvie Guillem’s 6000 Miles Away, viewed April 6 at the former New York State Theater, is also a rather bleak assemblage of works. Guillem, 47, is an internationally hailed French ballerina, formerly with The Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, who has turned to contemporary dance. During the time in 2011 when she began working with William Forsythe on his choreography, Japan was hit by the devastating earthquake and tsunami. What resulted in the dance studio was Forsythe’s duet Rearray.

Photo by Bill Cooper

Dressed in street clothes, Guillem and Massimo Murru perform in near darkness. David Morrow’s atonal, acoustic recorded score featured what sounded like a piccolo playing a high C inside a slow moving washing machine. In the course of the work, the dancers pick up and drop ballet steps, sharply discarding them for mysterious gestures and pedestrian movements, like precocious teenagers trying to figure out what to wear. Guillem performs snippets of classical dance—a pirouette, grand jeté, and ronde de jambe en l’air. They feel like broken artifacts, or what washes ashore after a violent storm.

But when she stretched her impossibly long leg with its talon-like foot to the sky and balanced effortlessly on the ball of her other foot, the audience cooed. This elastic, virtuosic display is what made Guillem a household name among balletomanes.

Jiri Kylián choreographed the next work on the program, 27’52″, but it was presented as an excerpt and, while beautifully danced by Aurélie Cayla and Lukas Timulak, it begged more questions than it answered. Why was Cayla topless midway through the piece? Why did both performers ended up under a thick piece of floor covering? The spoken segment of the work — poems in Czech and Spanish — seemed key to understanding these two people, whose lush, swift partnering evoked a complex relationship. But the poems were not translated.

Photo by Bill Cooper

The last work on the program, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek’s Bye sounds like a swan song and comes across as lark. Guillem stands on her head and paces about the stage, as though searching for different ways to react to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111 (performed in a recording by Ivo Pogorelich). By hiding her steely limbs and sinuous figure in a shin-length billowy skirt and loose sweater, she looks average. Onstage, a white door doubles as a movie screen for Elias Benxon’s previously recorded video projections of Guillem close ups. It’s a consolation to know that divas have wrinkles too.

At the work’s end, a group of bystanders that loom in the movie screen/doorway look curiously at Guillem. Then Benxon’s video shows Guillem and her virtual audience walking away. Becoming one of the nameless multitudes, Guillem goes bye bye. But is this ending a sign that she is leaving the world’s stage? Ballerinas hang up their pointe shoes in their late 30s or early 40s. Famous dancers, like Guillem and Baryshnikov, are proving that they can push their careers beyond the springtime of their lives. Despite some ineffectual moments in these dances, Guillem is doing just that.

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