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REVIEW: Nederlands Dans Theater | Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney

The Nederlands’ world-renowned dance company exported four works to the Sydney Opera House to wow local dance fans. It’s movement unlike anything seen in Australia before.

A scene from the Nederlands Dans Theatre | Joan Sutherland Theatre

And now for something completely different. Completely. As enamoured as I often am with Australian dance theatre, I don’t subscribe to what I regard as a jingoistic argument, currently doing the rounds again, that we should emphasise local work to the exclusion of work from elsewhere. To my mind, it’s exposure to work from elsewhere that keeps us alive, fresh and on our toes. It informs and inspires. It helps aspirate our aspirations. So it was with great interest and anticipation I braved a cool winter’s evening to see what The Netherlands has to offer besides Edam.

One of Nederlands Dans Theater’s claims to fame, which the company enjoys from one hemisphere to the other, is, of course, Prague-born Jiri Kylian, who hadn’t even turned 30 when he became artistic director in 1978. To put it in less than orthodox terms, anything goes with Kylianography. His explorations are focussed on space: it’s opportunities and inhibitions. Also on how far a body and its constituent parts can bend, before they break (fortunately, he’s never taken this to the limit, to the best of my knowledge).

He’s unabashed in timing entrances and exits, which often surprise. The last is key to his mischievous sense of humour and parody, methinks. Come to think of it, less than orthodox terms are entirely appropriate for, like all towering choreographers and, probably, terrible ones, he’s less than orthodox. Of course, neither is the NDT orthodox. Quite the opposite, being, originally, a breakaway from the Dutch National Ballet in 1959. And so these two forces of exhilaratingly uncharacteristic human nature, rebels with cause, conjoined, like twins, one name becoming interchangeable with the other.

To some extent, you probably already know Kylian’s work, thanks to the Australian Ballet. At the turn of the millennium, Kylian had the grace to step aside, but his contribution is so iconic as to still be celebrated. Thus, the first work in the programme was his.

Sweet Dreams features music by Anton Webern: specifically, his Sechs Stucke fur Orchester, Opus 6b, from 1928. It is strident, invasive, challenging music the six movements could easily comprise the soundtrack for a Hitchcock film) and Kylian has designed movement to match. He manages a kind of violent romanticism, such as I’ve never seen before. It is anxious. Urgent. Intense. Fifteen fixating minutes in a language all Kylian’s own. And how many choreographers can you truly say that about?

It’s a language that’s first spoken in complete silence, as a lithe female dancer steps delicately across the stage, on stepping stones which, from P row, look like glow-in-the-dark tennis balls, or Granny¬† Smiths. Suddenly, a hand, Thing-like, emerges from an urn and launches one of the unidentifiable objects at her head. She tumbles off-stage, as gracefully as she came on. It’s an inscrutable beginning to an inscrutable, yet fascinating work. Another dancer bows her legs and lays an egg, before transforming herself into a bug-eyed creature. Meanwhile, yet another slinks across the stage on elbows and knees, like a forest beast, or crawling insect, trying its damnedest not to attract the unwanted attention of predators. Alas, she is suddenly assailed by two male dancers, who seem to engage her in an act of consumption, or consummation. The brutal, merciless act is ironically beautiful.

We seem to have shrunk, to be up close and personal with a microcosmic world we otherwise only but glimpse; this is an entomological essay, in the language of dance. A menagerie of the minute presents itself: critters of all kinds, displaying their idiosyncratic modes of mobility like tiny exhibitionists. It’s at least as weird and wonderful as the music that presumably inspired it; the dancers called upon to execute their animal kingdom emulations with the utmost athleticism and precision, with movement sliding between linear and mechanical, on the one hand and lyrical, sensual, even voluptuous, on the other. You will have never seen anything like it, I’m sure. It’s magical, with an appeal that cranes through all age and taste barriers.

Kylian brings uncommon intelligence to dance: deriving a whole, new vocabulary for a single, short work, in lesser hands, might mean tortuously peering through a window into the tediously experimental; the sort of thing that’s often ascribed as ‘choreographic research’. Research is well and good, but one doesn’t want a new anti-cancer drug let loose on the public without due diligence. But Kylian’s language, while shockingly unfamiliar is, at the same time, attractive and accessible; relatable. As I said, uncommon intelligence.

Even the lighting concept, superbly realised by Joop Caboort is Kylian’s. Jake Visser’s subtly decorated black costumes render the dancers as beetles, or spiders. Perhaps Kylian, who’s more than a bit of a fatalist if his blog is any indication, would compare and reduce us to insects. After all, we prey on each other and copulate, just as they do, but with delusions of grandeur; pretensions to rising above our station as animals. Are we really as upright as our posture? But one doesn’t have to hold a magnifying glass to the work, looking for meaning. It stands tall on aesthetics alone and is superbly staged by Lorraine Blouin. At the end of the day, it’s enough to assume Kylian is delving into the world of dreams, sweet or otherwise. This is journey into the unconscious, where anything’s possible. The apples remind us, persistently, of the sensual world we crave. It’s suggestive, in almost every sense.

The second piece, Sarabande, is also vintage Kylian, staged by Stefan Zeromski. It draws on the music of JS Bach: Suite 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin; BWV1004 (1720); otherwise known as Sarabande. It’s a melancholic setting, with a baroque elegance. To begin, the lights swell, briefly, to reveal what, at first, looked to me like motionless priests, in full regalia. But when the soundtrack begins, it’s not Bach we hear (we have to wait for the dying minutes of the work for that), but heavy breathing and other vocal and percussive effects.

Six black gowns are suspended over a corresponding number of performers, prostrate on stage, having seemingly fallen onto it, as if emerging violently from cocoons. Their fingers and hands convulse. It could be a death rattle, but seems to be more about metamorphosis; transcendence; entering a new phase of life. They could be baby birds (of prey), pterodactyls, or some other real or mythical creatures.

There’s a sequence of seemingly pained, ritualistic behaviours, including loud vocalisations. All the while, the garments hover like gods. Vertical; horizontal; slinking, bending, performing supermans: whatever the performers do is in tribal or familial unison. They leap, twirl and, apparently, verbally communicate. Their T-shirts are partially removed and raised above their heads, like sheaths. They become bat-men. They curl and wither; unfurl and extend. There are haka-like, momentary rampages, interspersed with relative stillness. It’s an on-off, unpredictable rhythm. One breaks the line and seems to fly. Now, he’s a big-winged bird: a pelican, or albatross. There’s chest-beating, collective shooting and high-camp affectations before the ensemble breaks into a pseudo-Cossack machismo. They point at something on the ground and, suddenly, all but one recoil in horror.

Now their pants are around their ankles and they move like The Tramp, in a comical waddle. Yet another sequence and one is separated from the herd, stretching, with sleek, panther-like menace, in a subverted, downward dog-type pose. It’s an exercise that’s extended into sultry sensuality. It’s like an act of consummation, for one. Shortly after, the first strains of violin are heard, volubly. With them, the beasts are transformed into beauties. The character of the movement mutates, too: from coarse, staccatoed bursts of tortured strangeness to the most breathtakingly balletic, lyrical kind conceivable. Group dynamics give way to an inspired individualism, with performers taking turns at soloing. Without warning, the dancing becomes more masculine, drawing, again, on a vocabulary known only to Kylian. It never falls short of surprising, bold, inventive, or quick-witted. Finally, the group is still and laugh out loud, exhausted. They seem, at once, deranged and Druidic. It’s all quite weird. Completely wonderful. And, it seems to me, a shimmering chronicle of the life of a man, from embryonic awkwardness, through terrible twos, peer-group-pressured teens and into maturity.

We need an intermission to break the spell of Kylian and wipe our imaginative slate clean in anticipation of work by current artistic director Paul Lightfoot and choreographer Sol Leon, beginning with Sh-Boom! Named after the Keyes, Feaster, Feaster, McCrae and Edwards’ doo-wop song (subtitled Life Could Be A Dream) of the same name that features, among numerous other war and postwar popular songs, it seems to refer to the essential absurdity of the human plight, which we habitually choose to ennoble with ironic solemnity. Lightfoot and Leon’s choreography couldn’t be more divergent from Kylian’s. This, despite the fat Lightfoot has been with the company fro twenty-eight years and, thus, witnessed, for example, the creation of the first two ballets in this programme firsthand. Chalk and cheese or not, there’s (at least to my mind) an implicit, common-ground cynicism and sobriety masked by a sense of the ridiculous: a recognition of futility, leavened by fun. What other possible response can we have to our tenuous temporality?

While Sh-Boom! has a surface sheen that’s pure entertainment, emanating from a pastiche that’s part ballroom, vaudeville, cabaret, musical and such, there’s a pervasive sense of seething and darkness; the darkness immediately preceding the vintage of the accompanying songs, one presumes. There’s the spectre of a toothy, grinning, puppet-like MC, who speaks unintelligibly, if forcibly, which could allude to Hitlers little and large throughout the ages. It’s purely interpretive on my part, but I also suspected oblique references to the bad old days of demeaning blackface “minstrels”. Maybe, too, a comment on how we immerse ourselves in showbiz, celebrity and a deluge of pop culture as fizzy and fatuous as sugar-laden sodas. Still, it’s all good fun and, given our destination, we shouldn’t take it too seriously. In any case, this is a for in which the NDT shows just how extensive its performative skills base is: it’s certainly as much focussed on theatre, as dance.

With Shoot The Moon, one could stage a cogent and persuasive argument that the best was save till last. One is held and caressed by the music of Philip Glass from the first swell of strings and tinkle of piano. On its own, it’s enough to bring you to the brink of tears, but in concert with the Lightfoot-Leon vision (they’ve even designed the decor and costumes) it’s crushingly emotive. Tom Bevoort’s noir lighting completes a cinematic aesthetic: this could be a Bergman movie. It’s voyeuristic, if looking into our own lives, hearts and minds, via the lives, hearts and minds of others, can be. We see different rooms. Walls between people. Distances between people. Secret compartments of souls. Here is love. Loneliness. Despair. Coming together. And falling apart. Push. And pull.

The fine line between pleasure and pain is palpable, not least by way of what must stand among the most expressive, sincerely felt (not merely conceived) choreography ever translated to a stage. As its title implies, Shoot The Moon charts the fateful journey of intimate human partnerships; the improbability of making land, as against being lost at sea. It’s not only almost unbearably beautiful, it speaks quivering truth.

NDT is a legend in its own lifetime. And will most probably and most deservedly remain so for lifetimes to come.

The details: The Nederlands Dans Theater played the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House on June 12-15.

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