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Flash Review 2, 12-7: With Tankard in the Senior Circuit
Making 'Merry' with NDT III

By Joshua Monten
Copyright 2001 Joshua Monten

THE HAGUE -- Meryl Tankard's evening-length "Merryland" was premiered last weekend at the Theater Zwembad de Regentes by Netherlands Dance Theater's senior company, NDT III, as one of the closing acts in this year's Holland Dance Festival. The collaboration was a widely noticed event around here, a Tanztheater "Dream Team" of sorts.

Flash Bio of Meryl Tankard: an Australian dancer/choreographer who performed with Pina Bausch's Wuppertaler Tanztheater... formed her own Meryl Tankard Australian Dance Theatre ensemble in the 1990s... has also been a free agent for the past couple of years, travelling and choreographing for venues as diverse as the Lyon Opera Ballet, the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceromony, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Beautiful Game" musical, and, now, Netherlands Dance Theater.

And as for a Flash Bio of NDT III, the ensemble of highly-experienced, over-40 dancers based in The Hague: it would probably be easiest just to listen to the cast itself. In one unsettling and unabashedly auto-critical moment in "Merryland," the performers chat among themselves, quoting their reviews with brittle smiles and condescending good humor. "People say we are 'full of ageless grace,'" patiently explains the woman in the Little Red Riding Hood get-up (Sabine Kupferberg). "People say we are 'inspiring to young dancers,'" muses the muscly Tarzan in loincloth and feathered arm-bands (David Kruegel) with ersatz wonderment. The man in the giant white bunny suit, complete with floppy-eared hood (Egon Madsen), quotes the reviewer who observed "We 'really know how to bow'"-- which is met by the Ballerina-Bride's (Gioconda Barbuto's) uncomfortable rejoinder that "The New York Times said that we are 'rubbish.'" These newspaper tidbits form part of a larger pattern, whereby the performers look into their pasts, talk about their childhoods and careers as dancers, and remember the encouragement or discouragement they received over the years. The corny costumes they wear -- faithfully reconstructed from childhood photographs by a Joke Visser -- are some of the props which assist them with this imaginative labor.

Compared to many of the other styles of Tanztheater which one sees on Benelux stages nowadays, "Merryland" stands out for demonstrating a certain moderation: a moderato tempo, a gentle tone, an easy sequencing of episodes. It is not notably death-defying, frenetic, or absurdist -- although at times, to a certain degree, it acquires each of these qualities in turn. More often, however, the four dancers marshal their performing skills to achieve more understated effects, delicately reconstituting moments from their earlier lives. For instance, in one galloping folk-dance duet, Barbuto and Kruegel conjure the giddy first pleasures of a dance-school pageant: eyes on each other's feet (to make sure they get the steps right), wandering on and off the beat, huge grins plastered over their faces. In what is perhaps their first time on stage, they become immensely endearing eight-year-olds. Earlier in the piece, the dancers arrange themselves in a series of of tableaux vivants, forming the frozen cast of characters in some photograph from one or another of the dancers' childhoods. That person walked around the scene, giving the audience a tour --explaining, say, why the Christmas tree is sitting in the middle of the kitchen, or that her stony-faced brother is wearing a cardigan and she a pink dress -- before assuming his or her place in the picture. Each of the performers, in turn, made this moment a magical one. Sinking into a graceless posture and pressing his or her features into a grimace, each adult was transformed into a guileless, awkward small child who hasn't yet learned how to pose for the camera.

Other compromising childhood episodes are recreated in turn: chaotic Eurythmics Classes; a Christmas Pageant with the entire cast dressed as kitschy angels in giant white paper gowns and crooked golden haloes; the Audition, where silver-haired Egon Madsen performs a series of timorous, wobbly pas de basque while a committee of jurors commands him "Don't overcross your tendu!" "Lift from your chest, show your jewels!" "And RELAX!!" Also: a stomping, armpit-scratching Tarzan Dance performed in howlingly bad taste by David Kruegel.

The tawdry and sometimes maudlin quality of this hour-and-a-half long string of episodes belies the considerable craft with which it was created. Jan van Woerkom's lighting and Regis Lansac's background slideshow encase the performers in a gleaming environment. The extended use of silhouettes, and images such as Formica kitchens, autumnal trees, and bright blue and white skies (a la Microsoft XP, omnipresent here in a massive ad campaign), all lend the proceedings an air of coolness and gravity. "Merryland" is a connoisseur's dance, an album of carefully-chosen and preserved photos brought back to life.

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