Friday, April 17, 2009

Dancing in the dark

Excerpt from "Shutters Shut" by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León.

Reviewers have been tough on the current tour of Nederlands Dans Theater II, but you should ignore them, and try to scarf tickets to the remaining Celebrity Series performance tonight at BU - if you can, that is; they're probably sold out (they were last night).

It's true, however, that the crowd had clearly come to see the dancers rather than the dances. Nederlands Dans Theater II is essentially the "feeder" company for its namesake global powerhouse (which tours far less often); and its dancers, aged only 17(!)-22, are as fresh-faced as they are elastically talented.

There's also some truth in the charge that their choreographers - particularly Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (a.k.a. "Lightfoot León") - tend to exploit that youthful prowess rather than allow it to develop. The house style of Nederlands Dans Theater is an exciting amalgam of classical strictness, modern freedom, and street-wise moves - call it "break ballet," if you will - and these youngsters perform it better than anyone I've ever seen (the Kylián touch has crept into the repertory of just about every ballet company in the world, including Boston's). But said signature easily devolves into micro-management of the dancer, and sometimes a series of ever-tinier swivels and pops and breaks turned these performers into puppets. In the works of "Lightfoot León" in particular, they never got a break from the breaks - there were no long phrases, and thus little for them to interpret, and very few opportunities to connect with each other.

To be fair to "Lightfoot León," however, they exploited their control fetish expertly in one piece, "Shutters Shut," (above) set to Gertrude Stein's ""If I told him: A completed portrait of Picasso." The choreographers' micro-beats mimicked perfectly Stein's iterative vocal rhythms (the nearly-nonsense verse was wryly read by the poet herself), while their usual atmosphere of alienated posture wittily matched something in the writer's po-faced deflation of grandeur. And dancers Jin Young Won and Anton Valdbauer performed the piece with a charming combination of grotesque grace and deadpan precision. Rarely has Stein seemed so transparent, or so amusing.

Alas, the two longer pieces by Lightfoot and León, "Said and Done" and "Sad Case," weren't as compelling. "Said and Done" proved pretentious and overblown, with its lone dancer standing in pain in a shower of black feathers, and "Sad Case," though almost bursting with energy, began to feel a bit reductive. "Case" at least had a poignantly perverse vibe - set to a bouncing Latin score, it seemed to be seeking the pain hidden within its own rambunctiousness; but alas, sometimes its contorted dancers seemed almost simian, and its many variations never built into anything cohesive.

Excerpts from Jiří Kylián's "Sleepless."

Jiří Kylián, the guiding light of this whole enterprise, had only one dance on the program, "Sleepless" (see above), but it was by far the most ambitious of the evening. It opened with a single female dancer (the fascinating Carolina Mancuso) creeping toward a pale, undulating wall, then, like Alice, vanishing into it. Other dancers soon popped out of it, however, and the piece (set to a percussive re-imagining of Mozart's Adagio in C-minor, for glass harmonica) quickly developed into a strange rumination on movement as a kind of perceptual dream, which was always bounded by that weirdly resonant wall. (It was interesting to compare "Sleepless" to "Walking Mad," by Johan Inger, which Hubbard Street Dance brought to town this season, and which depended on a very similar type of prop.) Kylián also afforded his dancers a bit of space in which to shine, via a suite of duets at the work's center. Here Mancuso shone again, sensitively partnered by Anton Valdbauer, although there was also clean, crisp work from Maud de la Purification and Roger Van der Poel. I hope we see this troupe again soon, but perhaps more in the hands of Kylián than "Lightfoot León."

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