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Juilliard Dance

Published: November 28, 2016
Category: review

Nederlands Dancers Mostly Outshine Choreography

By Rachel Straus

A roar of approval from the sold-out crowd greeted the four marvelous Nederlands Dans Theater performers following Crystal Pite’s The Statement (2016), seen in its local premiere at New York City Center on Nov. 18. Pite has been the associate choreographer of NDT since 2008. The roots of her movement style stem equally from ballet’s pinpoint precise, smooth physicality and hip-hop’s distorted, propulsive jagged musculature. It’s an intriguing combination, one that appears to be spawning imitators inside the company: the three other works on the nearly three-hour program looked Pite-ish, but were far less absorbing. But more on that later.

Prince Credell in Safe as Houses. Photo by Rahi Rezvani

Pite has constructed The Statement in lockstep with the score’s spoken-word conversation and electronica, by writer Jonathon Young and composer Owen Belton. A clear narrative emerges as the four pliant dancers mirror the unique tone and inflection of each of the four voices. They are members of a corporate hierarchy; “Upstairs” has sent two people to “get a statement” about a deal gone bad.

Yet The Statement is much more than a danced Das Capital. As the voices rage loud and whisper fearful uncertainty, the dancers embody their unique timbres and rhythmic cadences. We see them in I-am-being electrocuted gestures, temper-tantrum upper body spasms, and acrobatic maneuvers: an aggressive statement is mirrored in an ape-like pounce on the smooth, oval table that sits center stage; heated conversation manifests as the quartet skimming like water-beetles around and under the table’s surface. The one-to-one match of word inflection to body movement/stance becomes a tour-de-force, a prime example of Martha Graham’s famous dictum, “The body never lies.”

The other works on the program, despite their use of much of Pite’s eye-popping movement, were more opaque in their meaning. Marco Goecke’s Woke Up Blind (2016), reviewed here last month as part of Fall for Dance, features gestural muscularity: faces freeze, bodies seize up and move in jerky motions with high leg extensions. The dancers gave it their all. Yet apart from looking beautiful—and mean—they became increasingly innocuous as they entangled themselves in their own limbs or portentously walked alone down stage. At times, they glared at the audience and hissed like possessed demons, for reasons I could not fathom. Meanwhile, two songs from the late Indie rocker Jeff Buckley, “You and I” and “The Way Young Lovers Die,” spoke of longing— not indifference to another.

The two other works, Safe as Houses (2001) and Stop-Motion (2014), were created by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, who have helmed NDT since 2011 and 2012 respectively. The works were remarkable for one reason: each used only minimal traveling steps through space, a key ingredient to making ensemble choreography interesting. Instead, the performers were isolated, one from the other, in a series of solo spotlights, their beautifully articulated arms and legs moving in and out, up and down (but rarely out and beyond). Over time, this became disturbing, as if the goal was to transform them into automatons, manipulated by invisible strings above.

Safe as Houses, which began the program, was the stronger of the two, largely because of its ingenious set design and décor. It featured a white wall rotating from a central axis, like the hour hand on a clock, its outermost edge barely skimming each of the four stage walls as it passed. It alternatively revealed and hid the nine dancers, costumed in black or white, propelling them in rectilinear pathways. The recorded music, a mash-up of J.S. Bach instrumental and choral works (the latter electronically manipulated by Knut Nystedt), seemed to have little relation to the dancing. The bleached walls and floor combined with Tom Bevoort’s florescent lighting made the stage resemble a square petri dish, and the dancers, as if under microscope, connected to each other like particles instead of people. The synthetic atmosphere was heightened at the dance’s end, as the four white drop cloths covering the stage walls were slowly lowered to blackness. The stage now submerged in darkness, the curtain inched down as three dancers stepped forward to stand in a line at the lip of the stage, their expressions utterly blank.

Lightfoot and León’s Stop Motion, seen last, is dedicated to their teenage daughter Saura, according to the program note. We see Saura’s poetic face and torso, costumed in a baroque-style black gown, in a stop-motion film projected onto a large screen at the top right of the proscenium. A medley of Max Richter’s romantic-minimalist music unfolds. Saura cries. Her slow-moving teardrop falls down her cheek while a dancer, who looks minute in comparison to the giant simulacrum, curls up below her. The marvelous dancers of NDT are given bits of choreography and are rendered as miniature cartoon figures. Saura blows white powder out of her hand, and dancer Prince Credell spins and rolls in layers of white powder on the stage. Finally, the image of Saura is transformed into an eagle that crosses onto the cyclorama and exits stage right. Their child has flown the coop. Check. Meanwhile, the versatile NDT dancers are left without choreography that has focus, movement, and good steps that move beyond the confines of their intriguingly mobile limbs.

Copyright © 2016, Musical America

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