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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
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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