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Nederlands Dans Theater

Photo by Joris-Jan Bos

Sydney Opera House and Etihad Airways present NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House.

The Nederlands Dans Theatre (NDT) presented four dances last week at the Sydney Opera House: SWEET DREAMS, SARABANDE, SH-BOOM !, and SHOOT THE MOON. One could not wish for a better night at the theatre. Every element of the works: dancers, choreography, costume, setting, lighting, music-sound, the programming, achieved such an integrated standard of excellence, a transporting experience of both beauty and intellectual puzzle, such a grasp of what it is to be human, that one could quite easily let this be the last thing one need ever see. One could die, for one was in a kind of ‘heaven’. As you can read, I loved it.

Having seen the company two years ago in Melbourne I eagerly awaited the opportunity to see the company again and had urged many of my friends to attend, as well. Not I or any of my friends regretted the time given this time in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. (Although the limited (TINY!) stage width was not a plus for the works. They appeared cramped. Compare the luxuriance of the Victorian Arts Centre where I last saw this company – there is no flattering comparison, I’m afraid).

Jiri Kylian, a former Artistic Director OF THE NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER (1975-1999), choreographed a series of six dances known as his Black and White ballets, “so named for the uniformity of the settings and costumes” and in this short season at the Sydney Opera House by NDT we saw two of them: SWEET DREAMS and SARABANDE, both choreographed in 1990. Both these works are danced without an interval, one leading to the other, making a double observation of the complexities of being human. Separate works but connected.

SWEET DREAMS uses the image of the apple – Eve’s apple, perhaps – and so a symbol of temptation and guilt. In isolated and varying spots of dramatic lighting shapes covering, at various times, the entire stage, the dancers entwine, stretch and reach into provocative, sometimes absurd, terse statements of ‘truths’ that, so Mr Kylian says, “make us realise how thin the wall between despair and laughter is” in the human expression of acts of love. Using the moody music of Anton Weber’s Six pieces for orchestra, opus 6b (1928) and inspired by the mysterious ambiguity of the world in Franz Kafka writings, the beautiful imagery and physicalities of the work entrances one into an absorbed observation and speculation. Both the wonder of the intellect and an eager subjective warmth of awe in the beauty of the work, provokes sweet dreams from us about our existence – the why and wherefores! the possible joys and fears!!

Beginning with ‘a magic trick’ of an apple tossed from a mysterious shape across the proscenium and, marvellously, caught,on the other side, to other images of delighting ‘weirdness’, such as the steeply raked platform with an upside down dancer spread-eagled, moodily lit, seemingly, defying gravity, surviving a cascade of falling apples, one is amused and puzzled and sent on a questing for meaning. A stimulation that is never satisfied, for just as one provocation is offered and one begins to cogitate in pursuit of knowledge, solution, one is offered another, and needs to abandon the ‘hunt’ on the present puzzle, and move to the next, lest one misses something. So delicious is it, that one desires to see the work again, to quench the appetites for solving, knowing and indulging in the wealth of stimuli (check out my look at the Australian Ballet’s program VANGUARD and my response to Kylian’s BELLA FIGURA).

With a pause, in darkness, we sit suspended in the breathless mystery of what we have just seen, to be, then, as SARABANDE, the second work unfolds, visually confronted, with the dawning of the lighting, on six complex period dresses/costume – perhaps, that of the court of King Philip II of Spain – 1539 being the originating date of the Sarabande – ” a frivolous and indecent dance often performed by men in woman’s clothes” – standing with no figure inside them. Six male dancers appear in boxes of square/oblong light, in costume that gradually disappears over the length of the work, to give the appearance of teasing near nakedness. Mr Kylian says: “One of the starting points for my choreography actually stems from the “Genesis” the “Book of Job”: ‘Man born of a woman is few of days, and full of trouble. He comes like a flower, and is cut down. He disappears like a shadow, and does not last.’ Well yes, this choreography deals with the male element within our genetic make-up: Men with their aggression, vulnerability, sense of respect, sexuality, importance, uselessness and outright idiocy … ” (-men with their pants around their ankles!).

And that is what we see, as the dresses rise into the air, men, underneath them, born of woman, physically, gloriously expressed by bodies of athletic beauty, lit glowingly in romantic colours, highlighting the contour of their body gift. The dance physicalities are accompanied by the men making ‘live’ sounds that are distorted (original sound design by Dick Heuff), like primitive man, noisily finding the mechanisms for speech, contrasted with the heavenly, interpolation of parts of the J.S. Bach, Sarabande from partita Nr.2 for solo violin in d-minor (BMW 1004). This startling, though familiar, contrast of man’s primitive noisy self, alongside one of the heights of man’s possibility for sublimity with sound, in the work of Bach, is finally declared achingly, beautifully, in an extended quotation of the music and dance of some sophisticated human elegance, at the end. We are challenged with this work, as with SWEET DREAMS, to climb over the obstacles of the multifarious offers of gesture, both, visual and oral, to “discover a little corner within our souls which was hidden from our consciousness until now …”

This is contemporary European Dance, where the brain is tantalised along with the joy of the witnessing of artistic beauties of bodies in movement, integrated with the complications of thoughtful use of sound and all the other crafts and arts that make dance, a great experience (GREAT, as in distinguished; of much consequence; important). Last year we were, us Sydney-ites, similarly, challenged (differently, of course) with CESNA by Anne Teresade Keersmaeler and Rosas at Carriageworks. Too, with Gary Stewart’s BE YOUR SELF by Australian Dance Theatre (ADT). On the other hand, I declare, The Sydney Dance Company lacks this kind of intellectual rigour, and, in my experience, continually disappoints – it has no philosophy or observations to share on the complexities of being alive and human in the world – it simply moves, and admittedly, in its last season, very well indeed, but it has no underpinnings of a philosophic gaze for us to be amazed, enlightened, to help us untangle ourselves and live through. Just to look and admire. Superficial.

Jiri Kylian has recently embargoed all of his works from been performed by The Nederlands Dans Theater for the next three years. At first, the present Artistic Director, Paul Lightfoot, was shocked, but “now sees the change as an opportunity to innovate – to ‘fill the empty space with something new. Kylian does not punish us but challenges us”.

The second half of this program gave us two works by the present artistic leaders of the company: Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon. SH-BOOM! and SHOOT THE MOON, both, a joint collaboration. It is pleasing to see the quality of these works and note the heritage of the Nederlands style both in their intellectual approach and choreographic form, deeply embedded, and built from, to create these works. There is no throwing out of ‘the baby’ with these new leaders but clearly, a sign that these choreographers, artistic leaders, are going to stand on the shoulders of their forebears and grow by grafting their own skills and visions upon the very excellence of the past – a lesson that many of our “innovative” institutions could maturely comprehend. Innovation does not mean ‘start again’, ever. Throw out the bath water but keep the ‘baby’ for goodness sake!

SH-BOOM! is a delightful divertissement, using music from the 1940’s-50’s, mostly of the jazzy kind: e.g. Stan Freeburg, The Mills Brothers, Vera Lynn. Interludes, sketches of dance are wittily executed, both ironic and straight-out humorous. My favourites were the naked “fan dance”, executed fully naked (Cesar Faria Fernandes) and with a copper pot rather than a fan, lit by a chorus of four black garbed girls with searching torch lights -teasing, funny, SEXY! – a stretchy twang of his appendage to cap the movement to a heady, literal blackout  of light – indeed, cheekily sexy; the “Sixty seconds got together”, sequence; and, of course, the entirely embracing and seductive sight and sound of the finale, SH-BOOM ! by the company of 10 dancers. We all were all humming that tune for, at least, the entire interval break. Intelligently programmed for the night’s degustation of dance. SH-BOOM ! some slight , light hearted distractions surrounded by thought provocations and considerations in the rest of the program. A welcome change of pace.

SHOOT THE MOON driven – a major element of the experience of the dance – by the music of Philip Glass: Movement II from the Third Concerto for piano and orchestra, situated on a design of three revolving rooms, with selected scenes filmed live, on screens suspended above the action of the dancers, (never gratuitous but wholly integrated into the dramaturgy of the work), expresses the hidden emotions within ourselves. It tells of the yearning inter-connectedness between our fellow ‘travellers’ and of the, perhaps, unavoidable, continuing genetic – physical, emotional and spiritual – heritage of one generation to another. Our forebears – ourselves! Revoving rooms with windows and doors, creating entrances and exits to further rooms with windows and doors to exit and enter from, again, around and around. Danced with emotional intelligence and commitment and exquisite physical skills and meaning by Danielle Rowe, Parvaneh Scharafali, Roger Van der Poel, Medhi Walerski, Brett Conway, supported by Silas Henriksen, Joe Ole Olstad, Spenser Theberge rotating the walls, we are permitted with the pulsing beauty of the Glass composition to impose our own lives, needs, onto the work, to reach a kind of exhausting wringing of emotional identification that is personal and vulnerable in its experience. It is cathartic and costly, but, transcending in its humaness, its pulsing beauty.

Both of these post-Kylian works for the NDT are equal to the other piece of their’s that I saw in Melbourne: SILENT SCREEN (2005) and that of Crystal Pite and her choreography of THE SECOND PERSON (2007). This company seems to be robust in the obvious health  and wealth of its repertoire.

In this Sydney program, each work, built on the affect of the prior other, creating a complete and exhausting, but, exhilarating thrill, and a possessive occupation of powerful presence within the audience bodies. It was, in result, a priceless gift given to us by the NEDERLANDS DANS THEATER. When one left the theatre one was not the same person that one was, when entering. One was a better human on our exit though the doors. It was a night at the theatre that was truly translating. A kind of excellence made flesh by them for us to take home.

P.S. For History’s sake:

SWEET DREAMS, staged by Lorraine Blouin.
SARABANDE, staged by Stefan Zeromski.
Light: Jiri Kylian (concept), Joop Coboort (realisation).
Decor : Jiri Kylian.
Costumes: Joke Vissser.

SH-BOOM! assistant to the choreographers, Lorraine Blouin.
Light: Tom Bevoort.
Decor: Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot.
Costumes: Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot (realization costumes:Joke Visser, Hermien Hollander)

SHOOT THE MOON assistant to the choreographers, Anders Helstrom.
Light: Tom Bevoort.
Decor & costumes: Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot (realization: Joke Visser, Hermien Hollander)
Live camera: Bert Coenen, Rupert Tookey.