Make 'Em Laugh
Nederlands Dans Theater 2 at New York City Center
January 16-19, 2019
SH-BOOM! (1994) by NDT’s house choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot. Pictured: NDT2 Company. Photo: Rahi Rezvani.
Having never seen Nederlands Dans Theater, I was worried its junior troupe, NDT 2, might be a little too “European” for my liking—one of those avant-garde four-hour-long productions you go to against your better judgment in Paris, in which art is less about pleasure than it is a test of “intellectual” endurance.
I was surprised. First by the aggressive technical virtuosity: NDT 2 hosts younger dancers ages 17-23, and they might as well be bleeding their hearts out onstage, pushing themselves without the usual performance mask that comes with too much practice. They’re still figuring out who they want to be as artists, and the effect feels fresh on their rigorously trained bodies, as if they’re dancing with as many questions as they are with answers.
It was also the humor that struck me, wry and arch. Part of this has to do with an explicit commentary on American spectacular culture. In Sad Case, SH-BOOM!, and Wir sagen uns Dunkles—the first two collaborations of longtime choreographic duo Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (artistic director and advisor of the company, respectively) and the latter designed by Marco Goecke—pop music from doo-wop to post-punk provided an ironic backdrop to the dancers’ contorted, robotic gestures verging on the freakish. While toes were pointed and legs were stretched with an almost ruthless vengeance, their lack of presentational niceties troubled the otherwise beautifully virtuosic surfaces of the choreography, evoking the same impending menace as the slick minimalist interiors of Scandinavian crime TV.
Sad Case (1998) by NDT’s house choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot. Pictured: Paxton Ricketts, Gregory Lau, Spencer Dickhaus, Katarina van den Wouwer. Photo: Rahi Rezvani.
“There is something that makes a woman’s pointe not a foot—that makes it a sign,” as Arlene Croce once said of ballet’s dream-like symbolism. Part of the off-putting effect of NDT 2 relates to the way contemporary ballet draws from classical shapes, but doesn’t follow through with the same sublime vision of the dancing body. In NDT 2’s gestural vocabulary, dancers’ feet are always just feet, nothing more, nothing less. Dancers hit, help, shove, throw, panic, and embrace, as people do in the street.
NDT’s dancing style might be interpreted as vacuous for this reason, all surface and no depth, insincere and showy. Yet the unfeeling delivery also reveals a full and complicated emotional range, pairing love and intimacy with less agreeable emotions. Several pas de deux are genius in the way partners ignore each other even as they intertwine, subverting the usual reciprocally absorbed push and pull of a romantic duet. In Edward Clug’s mutual comfort, dancers manipulate and push off each others’ backs and thighs. The satire never explicitly reveals itself to be a satire, which makes it a tough read—but that seems the challenge to the audience, to rethink the terms of interdependence.
Rather than leading to unsettling comedy, the mixed signals can sometimes just confuse. Goecke’s Wir sagen uns Dunkles (“We tell each other dark things”) had a lot of those moments, though I was so distracted by the costumes (flared pants with glittery cowboy fringe, “rattling” as the program said to “interfere with the music”) that perhaps I missed the subtlemessage he had in mind. Nor could I figure out whether the three tracks from Placebo were used in earnest or in irony. I wanted to laugh at the moody ridiculousness of it all, but some of the dancers’ more pathetic gestures—notably their mouths opened to the ceiling in a silent scream, hands gripped in fists—made me think I shouldn’t.
At other times, the company works up to a strange and entertaining fever pitch. SH-BOOM! served up a burlesque take on gender’s theatricality, elevating the conventions of the couple to the grotesque. In one act, female dancers with flashlights cluster their beams on a man who, stripped of his suit and nervous in his underwear, moves convulsively. The women look like the airborne witches in Francisco Goya’s black and white drawings he made while going mad (the stated inspiration of the work). With this eccentric vision, the spotlight’s traditional legacy of blinding and objectifying the female body onstage came to be reversed.
NDT 2’s dances are not made as protest. There is no staged struggle against the “rules,” which might explain why the company has not had the same critical reception stateside as it has in Europe. As opposed to almost all American dance (outside of classical and neoclassical ballet), there is no sense of a triumph against history, normativity, or much of anything at all. But when the system is so whole-heartedly accepted, then imitated in caricatural perfection, a critique is nevertheless leveled at its absurdities.
MADISON MAINWARING is completing her PhD in French at Yale. She has contributed to The Believer, The Economist, and Harper’s Magazine, among other publications.