Nederlands Dans Theatre II

'Indigo Rose,' 'Sad Case,' 'Minus 16'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

April 26, 2003 -- Stanford Lively Arts in the Memorial Auditorium, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA

Some performances you just enjoy so much that you want to keep rolling them around in your mind, like rolling a nice wine around on your tongue. The visit last weekend from Nederlands Dans Theatre II, who appeared as part of the Stanford Lively Arts season, was one such performance. We've been lucky enough in the Bay Area to have quite a number of major contemporary companies come through this season - Cullberg Ballet, Ballet Preljocaj, Compañia Nacional de Danza, Ronald K. Brown, Alvin Ailey, Stuttgart Ballet -- all of them terrific performances, but NDT2 just might be my favorite.

When their tour was announced, a friend of mine commented that, out of the triumvirate of companies that grace the Hague in the Netherlands, NDT2 was the company to see.

"Why so?" I asked.

"They're hot," he replied simply.

Wherever they go, the emphasis in both the advance and review materials has often been on the youth of this company of 17 to 22 year olds. They are duly noted to be a training ground, a feeder company for the "main" troupe (NDT1) But make no mistake, these are already polished performers that could easily be rising stars in any number of companies around the world. These young dancers may not look quite as refined as NDT1's dancers, but they are sure having a heck of a lot of fun -- and what's more, they're inviting us in on the party.

Of course, their youth does add to their distinctiveness as a group. The intense and serious NDT1 is undeniably compelling, but like their over-40's counterpart NDT3, NDT2 is a little looser and filled with boundless energy and a lack of inhibition. The dancers are every bit as technically strong and clean as their older counterparts, but an air of goofiness creeps into their work, making them at once exotic and yet also accessible.

The five pathetic characters in Paul Lightfoot's "Sad Case" illustrate this dichotomy perfectly, although these are probably the most agile sad sacks you'll ever see. They caper about in the abbreviated space created by Sol León, and execute choreography in precise spurts while never losing touch with the power of the ridiculous. The result is funny, theatrical and touchingly human.

Lightfoot sketches "Sad Case" as both a cartoon and an elegant lithograph in which ash-colored characters yearn, rail, hope and cavort in a surreal spotlit central area. The dancers have no fear of looking odd, quirky, or, in short, of having a truly individual personality. Nothing is too silly for them. A groovy line of four dancers work their way across the stage like cheesy backup singers, and never for a moment do they pull back from the zaniness.

Near the end, as the dancers exit one by one, Medhi Walerski sits, half-hidden behind a lowered light tree, trying valiantly to make his forefingers meet. Like all of us, Lightfoot seems to be saying, he's just trying to make it work, to put it all together.

Putting it all together is one of the pleasing challenges that Jiri Kylian always offers in his works. "Indigo Rose," which opened the program, was yet another opportunity to admire a complete package: beautiful dancers, immaculate technique in the service of dazzling choreography, an unusual stage design and --who would have thought it -- even bearable music by John Cage, along with other works by François Couperin, Robert Ashley, Ted Daffau and J.S. Bach.

From the outset, Kylian delineates the space with a stark diagonal of white string that cuts through the space. But this is Kylian and things wouldn't be right if he didn't play with our expectations. It's just a line in space, until a swath of fabric slides down the length of it, creating a dramatic geometric division of the stage.

As always, Kylian is a master at setting up the cleverly balanced off-balance moment. You look at a mildly interesting pose and think that you know where a dancer's weight is, but then Kylian kicks away the support, giving us the momentary but highly compelling illusion that weight has suddenly evaporated. In one duet, a girl is caught midair in her partner's arms, and he lets go of her, but she stays suspended. It's effortless and yet so unexpected that the heart skips a beat.

In fact, there was a lot to say about this work, but I look at my notes and realize that there are huge gaps on the pages -- times when I was so mesmerized by the work that I forgot to take notes. Over and over, the thought stuck me that these were people who love to move, first and foremost. The nine dancers, Michael Walters, Bastien Zorzetto, Fernando Hernando Magadan, Parvaneh Scharafali, Dana Johanikova, Marthe Krummenacher, Alejandro Cerrudo, Valentina Scaglia and Walerski show us the plain pleasure of physicality and motion.

The advance word from my friend regarding Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16" was "It's the bomb." (That's a good thing, by the way) Created especially for NDT2 and used often as a closer to their touring programs, "Minus 16" definitely meanders, there's no doubt. Its five main sections are somewhat disjointed, but for this once, we are happy to let the dancers lead us hither and yon, trusting that we'll enjoy wherever it is that they take us.

When we arrived back at our seats after intermission, the piece was already underway with a single black-suited performer dancing a kind of “square guy funk” in front of the curtain to barely audible music. As the curtain slowly rose, the other dancers joined in, until the stage was atwitter with quirks and spasms. Imperceptibly though, the dancers slipped into a kind of gestalt with each other and finally broke out in unison in a satisfying choreographic flight that brought cheers from the audience.

One of the most striking episodes of the work ensued, as the curtain came down briefly (intentionally cutting off one of the dancers) only to rise again on a semicircle of chairs. In a simple and yet startlingly effective repeated segment, set to what might be described as Hebrew house music, the thirteen dancers unleashed a canon of torso releases rippled around the circle ending with an explosive fling of the last dancer onto the floor. Each repetition would be interspersed with the removal and toss of an article of clothing into the air. The contrast between the pensive, almost resigned slump in the chairs and the sudden tumultuous flinging of items and bodies was visually compelling, even if it wasn’t clear what was meant by all of that.

“Minus 16” cleverly shows off the very qualities that make this particular company most appealing. It is also immensely satisfying in that it introduces us, at last, to the dancers who we’ve been longing to know all through the program, as they dance individual solos to recordings of them talking about who they are, and what is most important to them.

Naharin, who must spend a lot of time hanging out at the clubs if his choreographic style is anything to judge by, is also a canny observer of audience reactions. A quick glance around me as the house beat picked up revealed a lot of shoulders bobbing in time with the bass. It seems that everyone wanted to dance and that wish was fulfilled for some as the entire cast swept into the house and brought back members of the audience to dance cha-cha-chas with them onstage. A natural hilarity ensued, although it was less of a lampoon of the “ordinary folks” and more an illustration of the natural inclination in all of us to want to move and join in.

After the extras had filtered back to their seats, the company burst into a freewheeling frenzy mixed in with bows. They were still dancing when the curtain came down and when it went up again. I was almost sorry to see the company take a regular standard curtain call after that. I would have liked to have held that image of them all dancing joyously as if they never intended to stop.

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