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December 2013

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Juilliard Dance

Published: December 6, 2013
Category: review

Famed Spanish Troupe Struggles for a Stylistic Core

By Rachel Straus

Nacho Duato

Nacho Duato

MADRID–Three years ago, former Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer José Carlos Martinez took over the decidedly un-balletic national dance company of Spain (the Compañía Nacional de Danza). Back then, the Madrid-based troupe’s identity was synonymous with the works of Nacho Duato [pictured], whose two-decade leadership and ballet-meets-modern, folk-inflected choreography gave the company a stylistic coherency—a rarity these days, and a major accomplishment.

But Duato’s achievement, along with CND’s international acclaim and heavy touring, didn’t sufficiently please the primary underwriter, the Spanish Cultural Ministry. The neo-conservative government wanted a national ballet company, just like the ones in Paris, London, and Moscow. So what the Spanish people have now, as evidenced by CND’s Nov. 16-24 season at the Teatro Zarzuela, is a fine cadre of 35 new ballet-trained dancers (out of a company of 41) with a repertoire created by in-demand dance makers. Lacking an in-house centralizing choreographer, CND is left searching for its artistic soul.

Opening night’s mixed repertory program didn’t offer Petipa or Balanchine, whose works will be featured on tours to smaller Spanish cities in the coming months. Instead, it featured Ohad Naharin, Jiří Kylián, and Itzik Galili, whose pieces bridge the so-called ballet-modern divide. (Duato’s works do as well, but he won’t let CND dance them.) None of the choreographies featured pointe work–not a pas de deux was in sight. The dancers were enthusiastically received by the full house, but their delivery looked mechanical, perhaps because they were negotiating radically different styles in the space of 120 minutes. Rather like asking a classical cellist to perform Bach, Kiss, and Coltrane on the same program.

The spirit of Duato’s style was evident in Falling Angels (1989) by Jiří Kylián, for whom Duato danced before turning to choreography, with Kylián as his role model. Representing the angels, nine female dancers in black androgynous tops and briefs emerge out of darkness with a gait that stalks more than lilts. When they become confined into square patches of light, and we hear the first ominous, interspersed drum beats of Steve Reich’s Drumming/Part I, the women perform geometric arm movements in sharp unison. They resemble modernist harpies–not Michelangelo’s soaring figures from the Sistine Chapel. But the 15-minute work’s sharp, menacing, gravity-infused gestures (that occasionally evoke the gut-wrenching shapes of Martha Graham’s Steps in the Street) never quite came through. No wonder: the women’s technical training in ballet emphasize the ethereal, lyrical, and “feminine.” This Kylián ballet requires the opposite.

Galili’s eight-man warrior dance Sub was receiving its company premiere; it dates to 2009 and seems to have been inspired by composer Michael Gordon’s metallic, muscularly repetitive composition for strings and electronics, Weather On. The title Sub probably refers to the subterranean, as suggested by Yaron Abulafia’s atmospheric lighting. Dressed in Roman-styled black kilts (by Natasja Lansen), these warriors dance full throttle. Cell-like spotlights mark their territory. They rarely acknowledge one another but they look like they are in combat; perhaps each is fighting an invisible enemy.

The Israeli, Amsterdam-based Galili strives to glorify male fighting and the male body as sexy weapon: Over the course of 20 minutes, the men ceaselessly ricochet through space, slice their limbs like shark jaws, and slap their chests. Suddenly, an abrupt change in lighting turns the stage into something resembling a Las Vegas wrestling ring, with a glaring border of lights along the floor. Sub is comically redolent of homoerotic soft porn. That’s not a bad thing, but Stanley Kubrick was already wink-winking at gay “sub” culture as far back as 1960, in Spartacus.

Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s popular Minus 16 (1990) culminates in a light mood, with dancers and audience members on stage in an improvised salsa. But it is the central section that is the work’s dark, fascinating heart. The dancers’ black suits and felt hats call to mind early 20th-century central European Jewish student attire; a mass murder (submachine style) repeatedly takes place to the soundtrack of Hava Nagila. With each refrain of the song, there is mass carnage followed by mass resurrection, during which the 17 dancers (minus one, the 16th) stand at attention and shout the beginning of the German national anthem.

Minus 16–danced by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Nederlands Dans Theatre II, Iceland Dance Company, and Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company, among others–was a challenge for the CND dancers stylistically, because it calls for improvisation in the first and last sections. But principal dancer Javier Monzon was well up to the task: With the house lights still up, he began the work with antic gyrations, runs, and falls—call it “Road Runner meets Charlie Chaplin meets Rave party kid.” He was a delight, dancing as if on banana peels.

Perhaps Monzon can choreograph as well as he improvises. Choreographic vision is what CND truly needs. The great companies possess dancers who perform as one, with an unmistakably distinctive approach to movement. But that distinction only comes through a homegrown body of work.


Copyright © 2013, Musical America


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