Nederlands Dans Theater 1 at Sadler’s Wells
Our Arts contributor, Bonnie Buyuklieva, writes an extended review of NDT 1’s recent mixed bill, which stuns, thrills and moves in equal measure.
The Nederlands Dans Theater 1 – more affectionately referred to as NDT 1 – was founded in the early 1960s at a time of social and cultural change. Formed in the Hague and aligned with what the Dutch called ‘ontzuiling’ (literally translated as ‘depillarisation’), NDT 1 started as and still seems to be the renegade child of a more traditional Amsterdam dance scene. The rather awkward number in their linguistic-compound-of-a-name serves to distinguish the core NDT troupe from several other sister companies that have been formed over the years.
Unlike the troupe’s unimaginatively derivative name, their performance is far from plodding. This mixed bill itself is collection of four shorter pieces that span a wide choreographic and theatrical range, most of which last between 15-35 mins. Such was the quality of these performances that an extended review of each piece is necessary.
The first piece, ‘Shoot the Moon’, which was choreographed by NDT’s artistic advisor and director Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot, felt like an exposé of life and loneliness in a facelessly dense metropolis. Danced inside the confines of a generic apartment block, this sense of documentary-like surveillance and loneliness felt even more true. The music by Philip Glass (Tirol Concerto: Movement II) sets a distant mood for a surreal, out-of-earth perspective that could well have been the soundtrack to a time-lapse video of clouds in the atmosphere or some other manifestation of nature. Instead, León and Lightfoot juxtapose the music with scenes of wildly grunting and hissing couples who perform choreographies of clash and concord, as well as some (mainly male) solos of forceful grace and solitude-crazed convulsions. The calming piano serves to normalise the array of scenes that reflect the tensions of human relationships and the urge for belonging.
The performance is set on a rotating stage, which consists of three bare rooms, identically plastered with heavy flock wallpaper and connected to each other with a single door and window. Dickhause, Tessarini and Lau’s turning walls give the impression of immense scale that works well with the urgency of Glass’ string accompaniment. Together the set, music and movement create a sense of timelessness: the dancers’ moments of passion and toil are just specks of dust in an indifferent universe.
The scene of the performance also includes two screens that project live video close-ups of the dancers on stage. This proves an excellent use of film by Mudde and Jones. The cameramen amplify the carefully executed choreography, which included facial expressions and a shot of the tips of a dancer’s fingers. One could only wish the choreographers had taken advantage of the camera more, as it brought out the finer details of their work.
The second piece, ‘Woke up Blind’, was choreographed by Marco Goecke and performed to music by Jeff Buckley (notably a live recording of The Way Young Lovers Do). The music progresses from acoustic guitar and drunkenly reminiscent rambling, to shamanic singing and chanting. This soundscape, set against a dark bare stage, is reminiscent of nighttime in a far-flung desert. This desert-like atmosphere is accentuated when some speckles of light appear on the pitch-black backdrop, making it feel almost sacral. The scenography reminds one of the intense and somber atmosphere of the interior of Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Museum.
Against this scene, the dancers shudder and quiver like wild beasts naturally going about their usual animal tasks. This is in stark contrast to the occasional threads of controlled ballet that is woven in. The genderless attire of the dancers adds to the abstractions of the piece: the men are topless and the women are fitted in tight, nude-toned tops, whilst both wear the same colour and cut of trousers. Gecko’s choreography, therefore, has no obvious narrative; it is simply expressive and abstract. Although intently bizarre and beastly, ‘Woke up Blind’ ends on an unexpected and endearingly human finale.
NDT 1’s third piece, ‘The Statement’, is choreographed by Crystal Pite and performed on a bare stage but for a single long table and a suspended black volume, which also provides overhead lighting. The space is exactly what one would expect had Mies van der Rohe ever thought to design a war-room. Minimalist and similar to the style of what has come before, ‘The Statement’ could not have taken a more radical turn from what the NDT 1 had showcased so far.
Pite’s piece feels like the love-child of an American action movie and Dr. Strangelove. The soundtrack to the choreography is an absurdly serious dialogue between four characters who discuss an unclear crisis. This situation is a result of a ‘necessary evil’ following the greed and exploitation ‘of a broken system’. Although the dancers don’t speak, their movements are cartoon-like and uncannily synced to the voices of each character. The opening of the piece felt like a comedic, albeit goofy, blend of internet gifs.
The statement from the title refers to the need for someone to face some unclear (but undoubtedly unpleasant) consequences for whatever has happened. Pite’s piece is structured around the characters’ need to shift the blame and responsibility for this unnamed crisis onto one another, whilst the self-devouring system remains strong. Jonathan Young’s script is complete with references to being ‘on the record’, a fear of ‘upstairs’, and longing to just ‘tell the truth’. Visser’s use of lighting is superb; with this alone the stage is transformed into different scenes. This includes one that quite literally reflects discussions happening under the table, instead of around it.
Pite flawlessly translates Young’s universal narrative into dance. Most of her choreography revolves around the table. For example, dancers slither across it with their ears pressed against the surface as if the weight of a top-heavy system is forcing them to keep their heads down. As the narrative progresses and discussion turns into argument, Pite’s choreography is literally all over the circular table: dancers chase each other madly around its periphery to reflect a situation that has spiraled out of control or stand on it towering over one another. The complexity of the situation is conveyed beautifully as the dancers form a human chain that breaks at its weakest link – a beautiful metaphor for human error in a series of unfortunate events. Crystal Pite’s choreography is best described as immaculately controlled chaos. The ensemble of narrative, scenery, lighting and dance made ‘The Statement’ the undoubted highlight of NDT 1’s showcase.
If one came for contemporary dance, the final piece by León and Lightfoot will satisfy even the toughest takers. ‘Stop-Motion’ is a celebration of movement and abstraction with intense choreography that ticks every box in the book. One can see the stylistic similarities to ‘Shoot the Moon’ by the same creative duo; however ‘Stop-Motion’, which debuted almost a decade later in 2014, definitely feels more mature and refined.
The piece is set against an empty stage and is performed to somber music by Max Richter. Although bare, the scenery was perfect because the eight-strong troupe occupied the space beautifully. León and Lightfoot are no strangers to group figure arrangements on a large scale. Their use of space remains impressive (even when only a subset of the dancers are on stage) because of the grandeur of the choreography and the use of multiple points of focus.
Accompanying the flawless movement of the dancers was the use of soft, effortlessly free-flowing fabric. What seemed like black silk rippling behind a running dancer gave a sense of liberation and wildness. In addition, a magical vision of expressive opulence was created when the stage was covered in white powder. As the dancers stepped on the powder ephemeral motion lines were fleeting visible on the stage floor.
León and Lightfoot include several short duos. Notably one with two danseurs and that between Wu and Credell. Unlike classical ballet, where the usual steady-timed pas de deux is often a rather vanilla show of courtesy, these duets were partnerships based on geometry and balance. The movements felt graceful and independent, yet connected: as the routines progressed the dancers seemed to unfold and blossom like petals of a flowering rose.
The only shortcoming of the piece was the video projection of Saura Lightfoot-Leon, the daughter of the choreographers, which seemed rather redundant. Although beautifully filmed in its own right, it felt contentless and out of place. If video had to be included, it should have been used to amplify the magic that was happening on stage.
NDT 1’s mixed-bill at Sadler’s Wells undoubtedly shows a wide range of style and composition. Given this wide spectrum, one is pushed to ask philosophical-sounding questions such as, ‘What is dance?’, ‘Where does it begin and end?’, ‘What differentiates it from other movement-based forms of performative art?’ Although very distinct, all four pieces were united by a modern and elegantly minimalist scenography and choreography, which begun well, but ended with impressively strong finales.
The Nederlands Dans Theater 1 – Leon & Lightfoot / Pite / Goecke was performed at Sadler’s Wells from 26th-29th June. For more information click here: https://www.ndt.nl/en/home.html