The Poetic Intensity of Nederlands Dans Theater

United States Nederlands Dans Theater: Medhi Walerski, “Chamber,” Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, “Same Difference” and “Shoot the Moon,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 18.10.13-20.10.13 (JRo)

SHOOT THE MOON-11-by Rahi Rezvani[1]
SHOOT THE MOON-Photo – Rahi Rezvani

Though “Shoot the Moon” is a small ensemble piece, it says volumes about the singular dancers and idiosyncratic vision of the Nederlands Dans Theater.  The third in a trio of ballets performed opening night during the company’s brief run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, “Shoot the Moon” was a gripping convergence of contemporary choreography, music, and art.

Set to the second movement of “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” by Philip Glass, this ballet, the collaboration of Sol León (resident choreographer) and Paul Lightfoot (artistic director), highlighted the troupe’s theatrical concerns by offering edgy ballet infused with twenty-first century angst.  It’s brilliance lay in how that angst was communicated through dance, set design, and video.

Five dancers – three men, two women – paired off and explored their relationships through revolving sets depicting three empty, wallpapered rooms.  Reminiscent of a dwelling Gregor Samsa might have inhabited in Kafka’s Prague, these rooms told a story of their own and became part of the psychology of the couples.

Varying aspects of relationships were explored from isolation to rage, commitment to ambivalence, longing to remorse.  States of mind were sometimes made visible through stuttering, crippled motions but oftentimes were expressed through extensions of legs while dancers lay on their backs.  The legs migrated off the floor, only to climb up and probe the walls.  Think Fred Astaire dancing on walls and ceiling while channeling Mack the Knife in Brechtian frustration.  The marvelous, elastic Nederlands dancers brought the dance drama to vivid life with poetic intensity.  Even the set, designed by  León and Lightfoot, seemed alive, becoming part of the push and pull of the choreography.  A window, in one of the rooms, revealed a solitary figure or, at times, a couple standing just outside, perhaps escaping the confines of domestic life.  Enhancing the experience was the novel use of live video more familiar in the art installations of Bruce Nauman than on the stage.  Above the back walls of the rotating sets, we were confronted with a stationary screen that displayed live video projections.  What we glimpsed on the screen were the offstage movements, in character, of a given member of the five-person ensemble, reacting to his or her relationship.  And so the audience became voyeurs, witnessing so-called “private” moments away from the stage, which added another dimension and odd reality to the piece.

As for the music, Lightfoot and León have created works to Philip Glass compositions on over ten occasions.  Glass’s music has long been a partner to dance.  His music supplies a rolling wave of sound, which allows a choreographer to run free.  Given the vividness of the performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble in “Einstein on the Beach” last weekend at the same venue, one missed hearing live music rather than recording.

Same Difference Photo-Rahi Rezvani
SAME DIFFERENCE -Photo-Rahi Rezvani

The second ballet on the program, also to movements from a Glass symphony and string quartet, was notable for the screams and vocalizations heard over the score.  “Same Difference” was more theatrical than balletic – a surreal nightmare of what the choreographers described as “the chaotic influence the ego has on the individual” but I interpreted as a depiction of European post World War Two trauma.  The lighting by Tom Bevoort intensified the drama, creating patterns and the suggestion of a battlefield where an odd assortment of souls traversed the landscape, in particular a stricken soldier, Jorge Nazal, crying out in pain and rage.  The ballet did have its humorous moments: Medhi Walerski (who created the opening ballet, “Chamber”) moving like a demented Charlie Chaplin reciting familiar French phrases such as “L’addition s’il vous plaît,” and Fernando Hernando Magadan in drag as an old matriarch.  The piece, though interesting, felt as if the choreographers were inhibited, in service to the idea rather than to the dance.  When finally, towards the end, the dance did bloom it was with a stirring pas de deux, the couple (Sarah Reynolds and Marne Van Opstal) moving as if with one body, becoming a two headed, four legged being.  The sets were designed by León and Lightfoot, who, once again created another beautifully realized environment.

Chamber Photo: Rahi Rezvani
CHAMBER- Photo- Rahi Rezvani

The evening opened with a newly commissioned work by NDT dancer, Medhi Walerski, and composer Joby Talbot, entitled “Chamber.”  Inspired by Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” this piece loosely referred to both the music and choreography of the original.  After an unclear introduction with a man in full dress and cane (perhaps a reference to the impresario, Diaghilev), the dance opened on the corps at the back of the stage, gliding forward mechanically like a line of comatose Rockettes.  It was a riveting opening to an intriguing ballet that at times soared, but occasionally treaded water when it veered into posing rather than sustained movement.  The lighting by Jordan Tuinman in combination with the bare costumes, suggesting nudity, created startling effects – a chiaroscuro worthy of Caravaggio.  The light seemed to create a two-dimensional world on stage resembling a German Expressionist woodcut or the flickering universe of Expressionist cinema.  It may have been the ravishing beauty of the dim light, which, though effective in painting a picture distanced me from the dancing.

This evocation of spring seemed more about individuals struggling to make a personal space outside the group than about rituals that bind people together.  While the percussive score referenced Stravinsky, the dancing bodies were insect like in their posturing.  Chests caved in or heaved forward, an individual tried to “dance” out of his skin like a moulting cicada, arms beat like wasp wings.  Though the dancers did justice to the choreography and there were breathtaking moments, one longed to see the incredible grace and athleticism of this world-class company featured in all its power.  Unquestionably accomplished, NDT once again challenges the audience with its rigor and vision.

Jane Rosenberg