Nederlands Dans Theater Plays up the Spectacle in Performances at the Music Center

Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot in an interview for the company’s recent Australia tour said he wanted to “put the theater back” in the company’s name. The three works on Friday’s program, two by the Lightfoot and Sol León team, and a third by NDT company member, Medhi Walerski more than proved that point. But it also feels like the current era at NDT is laboring hard to define the post Kylián era with oversized,concept driven works that at times diminish the dancers and subordinate them to a sense of spectacle.

Nothing can quite prepare you for the power of NDT at a full gallop. The quality and quantity of imagination is astonishing and the technical savvy of its dancers can move, but also stun you. Now that Kylián and his ballets are gone from the repertory, Lightfoot and León, as house choreographers, preside over a growing group of choreographers who carry on enhancing the NDT, Euro Zone dance brand. NDT dancer Medhi Walerski contributed his work “Chamber” for this concert which, in its provenance, picks up on the Stravinsky Rite of Spring centenary. The two other works on the program were “Shoot the Moon” (2006), and “Same Difference” (2007). The pieces were set to excerpted orchestral and chamber music by Philip Glass.

The best of “Chamber” was Joby Talbot’s original music Chamber Symphony, which scales down Stravinsky’s orchestra but also quotes readily recognizable fragments, textures, and orchestrations. It lacked the original’s ferocity, but its design was beautiful and smart.  After a weak,  discardable beginning with a mostly silent,  on-stage Stravinsky impersonator, “Chamber” begins with 18 suited dancers forming a line across the back of the stage. They disrobe, and dancing on a darkened stage, give the appearance of being naked. The choreography reprises some of the organization of the dancers into circles and phalanxes from the original Rite, but avoids most of its narrative. The idea of the Chosen One is replaced by a set of four couples, and one female soloist,who are treated independently. The lighting was overly dark. More often than not it obscured the dancing without any useful effect.

Both the back and sides of the stage are lined with back lit,towering panels that operate as doors, and create an enclosure that feels subterranean. While some of the lighting effects (Jordan Tuinman) were vivid, it wasn’t clear what connection they had with the dancers themselves. With nearly naked dancers and recurring unison movement we get that Walerski is going for a kind of stripped down man, a tribal appeal. But it all seemed too safe and at times even bloodless–contemporary movement wrapped up in a verifiable NDT ballet aesthetic. The music has a future as a stand-alone concert work. I wonder if the choreography will prove that durable.

“Shoot the Moon” and “Same Difference” delivered full throttle theater dance, essaying complex themes of relationships and personal psychology. They create unique worlds infused with often eccentric contexts and extreme situations. Each had intimate casts (five and seven respectively) that measured detailed, complex dancing against overwhelming sets, and competing, often spectacular lighting effects by Tom Beevort that dwarfed the action on stage. “Shoot the Moon” added projections via handheld cameras to provide multiple viewpoints and simultaneous perspectives. Both pieces inhabit worlds not easily explained.

“Same Difference” is dark and disorienting. The surreal Brechtian chaos of the work’s first half yields finally to expressive dancing, and a harmonious pas de deux of the conclusion. The characters are sometimes speaking actors, and sometimes dancers. They inhabit the same space but interact as if perpetually unable to really experience one another. A runway that mimics the setup of the Japanese Kabuki stage connects the audience and the players. Complex lighting and sliding panels surround the stage.There were outstanding performances by Medhi Walerski as the Poéte, and Jorge Nozal as a deranged, frenzied soldier. The work concludes wryly with a reprise of the self-conscious chatter and audience confrontation that characterized the opening.

“Shoot the Moon’s” rotating set divides the stage into three large rooms (each with doors and a window) only one of which can be seen when viewed from the front. The rotating set suggests a physical as well as emotional labyrinth. The dancing is fevered and loaded with grappling, obsessive partnering, but the sense of personal alienation remains deep. We feel like voyeurs as new interactions are created and dissolve. There is romance there but it is saturated with anxiety. The movement gives a sense that these relationships are lurching from crisis to crisis. León suggests that we carry with in us shared identities. At one point,in one of the video projections (they are projected on overhead panels and are shot in real time in an out-of-view room), a woman walks toward her partner, as she disappears off the screen you have the sense that she has entered his body. The men, Walerski, Brett Conway, and Roger van der Pael, were particularly daring.

It was something of a shock that with so much riding on the music the program was presented with recorded performances. Those recordings on Friday were unremittingly loud, proving that just turning up the volume is no substitute for actual playing. There can be consequences aside from just missing the boost that live music gives a performance. In “Same Difference” where the chaos of the symphonic excerpt gives way to the intimacy of the quartet the music blared, dimishing a moment that should have moved us. For Talbot’s Chamber Symphony, significant new music for a local premiere added up to little more than an afterthought. In the generous world of European state run ballet and opera theaters you can have both. Here, in the land of the cutters, it was a choice between the reved up spectacle of expensive staging or music. This time out, the music came up short.

(Talbot’s work was heard recently at the Music Center in the score for The National Ballet of Canada’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass”, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. I reviewed Walerski’s work, “Petite Cérémonie” this year on the Ballet BC program at Irvine Barclay Theater. The reviewed performance took place at the Los Angeles Music Center on Friday 18, 2013.)  

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