Nederlands Dans Theater II’s recent run at the Joyce Theater showcased former artistic director and current house choreographer Jiri Kylian’s stunning movement vocabulary, young dancers with exquisite technique, and intriguing concepts. But the evening of four works demonstrated more choreographic attention paid to form than content. For the most part, the product didn’t measure up to the promise.
Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, former NDT dancers-turned-choreographic- duo known as Lightfoot Leon, open Said and Done (2001) with typical Kylian movement set against Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” for organ. Torsos arch and undulate, legs carve and unfurl into fantastic heights, arms and hands weave intricate patterns. No feat is impossible for these dancers for whom virtuosity is like breathing. Bach’s grim organ screams drama, but the dancers, four men and three women, pay no attention to the music’s woes. Their dancing seems one-size-fits‑all, as though it could be layered over any composition. I find myself experiencing the work as two separate pieces—music and dance—each indignant of the other’s presence. Later in Said and Done, the drama I ordered is served in the form of one man standing stage right under a rainfall of plastic feathers, contorting his face and body into agony. Unfortunately, he is merely half of a dyptich with a lovely but vanilla pas de deux stage left, and Bach’s organ is no longer moaning. This context makes him look like a gimmick—a dash of theatricality mixed with beautiful shapes to demonstrate contemporariness. Just as the emotionless pas de deux seems irrelevant to his anguish, next to their abstraction, his story becomes irrelevant. Again, two disconnected halves flatten each other and drama becomes shtick.
Kylian offers us more of the same in Sleepless (2004), in which three women and three men pop in and out of a slitted white backdrop to an original score by Dirk Haubrich, based upon Mozart’s “Adagio in C Minor.” Deep single tones resonate alongside mysterious trills; it is thoughtful and minimalist. In the program notes, Kylian talks about his creation: “The nature of moving is that if you move towards something you automatically move away from something else. Are we really clear in our intentions?” But where is this charged idea in the piece itself? Where is the choreographic reflection of the eerie, ominous score? A dancer’s head pops out at the bottom of one slit and zips up to the top; legs développé in and out of the screen; dancers dive in one opening and appear out another. Maybe they’re chasing each other in the sleepless night? It’s mildly amusing, but not much more. There are only a few moments where the body seems to mean something—like when a man and woman convulse and then stop short on one leg, showing a bit of depth that leaves me craving more.
Sad Case (1998) is actually a rather happy case. The five white-faced, red-mouthed dancers in Lightfoot Leon’s creation twitch, curl, and swing cartoonishly to crooner tunes and Latin beats as they contort their faces into hyperbolic expressions. Their clownish faces and manic gestures are spicy and refreshing in contrast to the last two pieces. It’s light. It’s fun. I shouldn’t have read the program notes. Lightfoot says: “when Sol and I created Sad Case in 1998, so far into her pregnancy, the hormones were jumping and emotions were high. It is these hormones of laughter, madness and trepidation of the unknown ahead that are the umbilical cord of this work.” Instead of these layered emotions, entertainment is the end result.
Lightfoot Leon’s Shutters Shut (2003) is the short, sweet star of the show. Two of the same white-painted clowns dance a horizontal pattern of neurotic spastic gestures, with wild grins and frowns and saucer-eyed stares to the text of Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” Stein’s Cubist poem is broken, repetitious and distorted, like the choreography. It opens: “If I told him would he like it. Would he like it if I told him. Would he like it would Napoleon would Napoleon would would he like it.” One frustrated rhythm mirrors the other. Both sides of this composition are anxious: the poem intellectually, the dance emotionally. Unlike in Said and Done, these contrasting elements refract instead of replace one other, to stunning effect.
NDT is billed as one of the most revolutionary ensembles in the world of contemporary dance. It was certainly revolutionary in 1959 when it was founded with the intentions of breaking away from the more traditional Dutch National Ballet and exploring new forms and techniques. NDTII is purportedly a laboratory in which young dancers tackle the fresh experimental styles of young choreographers and, as the program states, “react closely to contemporary developments in music and art of our time. These talented young dancers are able to mirror the realities of today and incorporate these elements into new productions as a kind of Zeitgeist of the 21st century.” Judging from this small sampling, this seems a stretch. But historically, many artists have chosen to reheat past revolutions in their work. That may very well be our zeitgeist.
ERIKA EICHELBERGER is a dancer and writer based in Brooklyn.