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April 2013

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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 18, 2013
Category: review

Nederlands Dans Theater, sans Kylián

By Rachel Straus

Nederlands Dans Theater’s brief visit (April 12-13) to the former New York State Theater was greeted with sold-out audiences and standing ovations. This was to be expected; the company hasn’t been seen in New York since 2004, and it has been much admired for its folk-inflected, ballet-meets-modern, kinetically charged romantic works by Jirí Kylián, its former leader of 24 years. Now under the direction of husband-wife team Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, the 24-member troupe still possesses some of the best contemporary dancers around, but they are dancing a very different kind of dance. Lightfoot and León’s choreography specializes in quirkiness and stealth. Think Charlie Chaplin as a swooping eagle, fixed to one spot.

Silas Henriksen (left), Parvaneh Scharafali (center) and Medhi Walerski (right) in Sehnsucht. Photo by Bill Hebert.

Silas Henriksen (left), Parvaneh Scharafali (center) and Medhi Walerski (right) in Sehnsucht. Photo: Bill Hebert.

Yet what disconcerted this reviewer wasn’t the León-Lightfoot style, it was the programming. Both nights (I saw it April 12) offered Sehnsucht and Schmetterling, two 2010 works whose sameness isn’t merely in their titles. Each delivers a monochromatic world through black and white costuming and set designs. Each evokes an ambiguous mood, one part mystery, two parts absurdity and gloom. Each features three dancers in roles equally ambiguous in their relationship, one to the other, being neither romantic, nor combative, nor indifferent. Each offers a coagulation of speedily rendered gestures, which reads like a monologue gone mad, and seems to keep the dancer from covering space.

In Sehnsucht, (Yearning), the primary point of interest, in the first and last scenes, is a large rotating cube, of León-Lightfoot design, that holds two dancers (Parvaneh Scharafali and Medhi Walerski) and resembles a spartan living space with table, chair, door, and window. When the cube turns 90 degrees, the two dancers are rendered horizontal, bracing their legs against the walls as though caught in mid-cartwheel. Message: the world can turn upside down; be flexible. It’s an amusing concept, but by the third or fourth pivot of the cube it becomes painfully obvious that the visual trick isn’t going to evolve into anything more substantial, such as the development of the relationships between the dancers.

Meanwhile, the third dancer (Silas Henriksen) spends much of the time dancing in place in front of the cube, under a spotlight. Shirtless and deadpan, he doesn’t acknowledge the pair in the box. When he finally does, he reaches toward Walerski; yet they never connect.

In the second section of Sehnsucht, danced to movements three and four of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, 15male and female shirtless dancers perform in battalion-like formations with impressive power and synchronicity. Why are the women’s breasts on view? One answer is that in Europe, nudity is no big deal. (So why aren’t the men bottomless?)

Silas Henriksen (center) in Sehnsucht. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

Silas Henriksen (center) in Sehnsucht. Photo: Rahi Rezvani

In any event this section showcased these dancers’ ravishing abilities, specifically their fluidity, their ease in partnering, and their passion for devouring space when given the opportunity. My objection is that, in each pas de deux, the woman opens her legs wide as she faces the audience. This sexual motif in contemporary dance may no longer mean anything to choreographers. It’s become like the arabesque line: visually enticing but symbolically empty. After the multiple pas deux, Henriksen reappears. Clad in white pants, in a sea of black-dressed dancers, he stands out like a ringleader. When he extends his long leg to the side and thrusts his opposite arm in the air, he makes a swastika shape with his body.

The work ends as it began: the rotating cube, the two dancers inside, Henriksen outside. When stagehands begin sweeping the stage and the house lights come up, Henriksen remains in a squat. Theater as life? Life as theater? Yada yada.

The evening ended with Schmetterling, (Butterfly), which owes much to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch. Her works, like this one, use audience interaction and line dances in which the company snakes through the aisles. Again, the main point of interest is the León-Lightfoot décor: Five black doorways, one smaller than the next. Emerging from the sides of the doorways, the dancers dressed like house frau: black dress, black socks, black loose cap on the head. They performed slapstick-style solos to songs by indie rock group Magnetic Field’s 69 Love Songs. My favorite solo dance by a bearded male was to the remake of A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody because the bearded, muscular dancer was exactly not that.

Medhi Walerski (center) in Schmetterling. Photo: Ravi Rezvani

Medhi Walerski (center) in Schmetterling. Photo: Ravi Rezvani

Schmetterling isn’t particularly memorable, but its ending is nonetheless dramatic. The last black door mysteriously opens to reveal a sunset. When the doorway set unit is raised, and Max Richter’s Europe After the Rain comes through the speakers, three men are standing in front of an enormous mountain landscape, its dark clouds pierced by the rays of the setting sun. Because León and Lightfoot are hardly romantics, the work doesn’t end there. A dancer slowly peels away the backdrop by walking it, like a shower curtain, from stage right to left. Plunged back into blackness, Henriksen stands alone (again). His arms reach upward under a piercing shaft of light, like a prisoner put back in his cramped cell, where movement is limited to gestures.

Musical America

Copyright © 2013, Musical America



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