Sure to be a highlight of 2016 for any contemporary dance-lover
It’s not hard to mount an argument for dance as the most relevant and resonant art form in our cultural life; it has an uncanny way of combining all the concerns of art, music and theatre while sidestepping the thornier debates over form and substance that plague those other disciplines. There is probably no greater exemplar of the ongoing vibrancy of dance than Nederlands Dans Theatre, a company that was founded in 1959 but still produces work of such immediacy it must surely be rated among the very finest in the world.
NDT have returned to Melbourne after a five year absence, and they don’t disappoint with a triple bill of works never previously performed in this country. The first is Sehnsucht, created by house choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot. It is an ingenious, expansive masterpiece; employing the contrast of Beethoven’s insular piano concertos with his full-throttled Symphony No. 5 to breathtaking effect, this is a work of remarkable choreographic and performance talent.
It opens on a dancer bathed in a disk of golden light, squatting with his head between his legs so that the curvature of his spine is the audience’s sole focus. His unfolding, flower like, is interrupted by the appearance of a couple standing in a room. The room is encased in a centrifuge, and proceeds to spin them around like clothes in a washing cycle. Or it would, if they weren’t so alive to the gravitational rules of motion, bringing a grace and poise to the tumult.
There is a suggestion of the early days of cinema, of Muybridge and Chaplin, of the short films of Buster Keaton rendered in the tragic mode. It’s utterly captivating and strange. Then Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 starts and the room is whisked away, the stage is opened out and a troop of bodies stalk the space. The dancer who opened the show becomes the central focus again – this time as a martinet, a ballet master, Charles Atlas – around whom the dancers strut and whirl. This is NDT as a corps, and it is a sight to behold.
The piece eventually returns to the centrifugal room and the interiority of this trapped and turning couple, and finally to the squatting spine of the opening image. It’s as if a world has suddenly brightened and then collapsed back into darkness.
The second piece, Crystal Pite’s Solo Echo,deals with the fleeting joy and lingering sadness of coupling in its first movement, and the noble if fractious attempts at community in its second. Set to two of Brahms’ sonatas for cello and piano, it contains some dazzling and poignant dance but, especially in its second half, suffers from a surfeit of choreographic ideas. There are many beautiful tableaux vivants, but also occasional lapses of clarity and purpose. It’s only mildly distracting but it does mute the emotional impact.
The final piece is again choreographed by León and Lightfoot, entitled Stop-Motion. Using flour as a metaphor for ash, it holds steady an image of human connection as a ghostly, lost thing. Inspired by their daughter Saura, and featuring her haunting image on a massive screen, it is an incredibly moving piece, not as visionary perhaps as Sehnsucht but just as evocative. The final stripping of the stage is more curious than satisfying, but it does leave us in a liminal state, suspended in the middle of a ritual.
Which is pretty much the point of dance. Apart from the sheer technique on display – and those glorious balletic lines arrested by sharp quirks of movement are nothing short of magnificent – NDT are proof that a company that stays supple and alert can remain at the forefront of its practice indefinitely. Anyone seriously interested in what live performance can do should climb over bodies to see this.
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