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Flash Review 1, 1-25: Same Old Story
Diamonds and Duds from NDT III

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2001 Rosa Mei

THE HAGUE, the Netherlands -- Given the artistic skill and depth of the current dancers in Netherlands Dance Theater III, what's disappointing about the "Vintage Blossom" program, featured at the Lucent Danstheater last week, is that apart from Paul Lightfoot's truly brilliant "Small Moves," the repertory is rather bland and gimmicky, not only shortchanging the dancers' abilities but over-sentimentalizing the whole aging process. Rather than staying true to the NDT III billing, "Top Performers in Dance Theater," the repertory degenerates into maudlin reminiscences of lost loves, cutesy gesticulation and corny use of props. Bring on the chairs, hats and handkerchiefs for Aunt Stella and Uncle Bob in the nursing home! It's not only unchallenging for the performers; it's downright demeaning.

But let's start with the good stuff. If your top ten list of favorite dance pieces of all time includes any of the following -- Balanchine's "Episodes," Forsythe's "Artifact," Kylian's "Stomping Ground," or Tharp's "Fugue" or "The Golden Section" -- you must scour the earth to see "Small Moves." It is a gem of a piece, equal parts poetry and Dionysian delight, with astounding complexity in phrasing and structure. Imagine time-lapse photography of ivy tendrils unfolding, with organic syncopation to the sound of Vivaldi's "Le Humane Passioni."

"Small Moves" meshes abstract phrasing and mathematical complexity with earthy sensuality. The dancers of NDT III, all strikingly nuanced performers, weave together and undulate apart, making sailor's knots with their bodies and then sloughing across the stage like communal mud creatures. The elder of this community, played by Gerard LeMaitre, stands alone naked with his back to the audience. You see the signs of aging -- the stooped shoulders, the wrinkled skin, the slight sag of the belly around the waist -- as well as wisdom. While others move frenetically about, he waits patiently observing, the spider at the center of a web. His gestures are less frantic, more human and weighted; his meditation summons both calm and resolution.

The NDT III dancers, all over 40, are as strong and exquisite as ever. Egon Madsen, formerly with London's Royal Ballet, Sadler Wells and Frankfurt Ballet, among others, slices through the air with quicksilver precision. He is the complete embodiment of flawless technique, elan and unwavering intent -- a diamond dancer.

Sabine Kupferberg, an original member of NDT III, becomes ever more brilliant each year. In her work with NDT in the eighties, when she was in her thirties, Kupferberg danced with warmth and graciousness, but without a particularly distinct style and never of the caliber of, say, Wendy Whelan or Nina Ananiashvili. In her work with NDT III, however, Kupferberg has carved a legacy for herself, not only defying the effects of aging on a ballet dancer's technique, but also demonstrating what sets a great artist apart from a merely good one. The slightest incline of her head, the lilt of her cadence, a small finger twitch -- everything reads with breathtaking clarity. I do believe that if she wanted to, she could be the first bravura ballet dancer to transition to Butoh without a hitch.

The current cast of NDT III -- which also includes "newcomers" David Krugel and Giaconda Barbuto -- seems capable of and game for just about anything. These dancers are actually so fascinating to watch that they can often make up for choreographic shortcomings.

Such is not the case for "The Third of 2," a duet by Patrick Marin that plays like unsuccessful sketches from the old Carol Burnett Show. Person 1 disappears behind a door as person 2 appears looking for person 1. Person 2 goes behind a door and person 1 reappears and so on. The dancers slo-mo mime to the theme song for "2001: A Space Odyssey" and later belt out the notes to 2001 while marching away, disappearing into a big green wardrobe. A man chases a hat on a wire. Hats are thrown onto stage. The old couple reminisces by playing a variation of "This little piggy went to market" with their feet and a hat. Granted, a few scrumptious morsels of dance pop up every now and then, but they end up playing like quality entreacts in a bad vaudeville show. The performers, Kupferberg and Lemaitre, deserve so much better.

Hans Van Manen's "Two Faces," an angsty pas de deux for Barbuto and Krugel, sandwiches lilting love duets between nightmarish sequences of tugging, pulling and swooning. I love you, I love you not. Conflict, pain, valorous love, and finally a dissipating denouement where the lovers separate walking slowly, steadily away from each other. It's Tony and Maria in tights, and it's painfully generic.

Jiri Kylian's "Trompe L'oeil" fares better as a showcase for his dancers' range than as a coherent piece of choreography. The short dance segments are arranged as a series of non-sequiturs ranging from coin-operated mannequins from the Gilded Ages to dancers popping in time to Steve Reich's "Clapping Music." Kylian knows how to craft stunning movement phrases for his dancers. Giving them a clever context, without being too corny (example: a dancer miming sneezing into a handkerchief), is a completely different matter. In a trompe l'oeil painting, objects are depicted with photo-realistic detail. In Kylian's "Trompe L'oeil," slice-of-life elements include a pas de deux where a man talks on his cell phone while turning his partner. The joke's over in five seconds. After that, it's just annoying. Kitsch aside, Kylian does succeed in parading the dancers' range and facility, creating crisp, clean lines here, noodly spines and slinking arms there, and knitting the whole thing together with clever footwork.

The "Vintage Blossom" repertory actually shares the same problem that many of the programs for NDT III have had over the past few years. You find real gems, such as "Small Moves," which showcase the performers as the virtuostic artists that they are, but more often, the repertory seems to lean toward sentimental gimmickry, forcing the dancers to "act" on cue and gaze skyward towards the Heavens -- the end of one journey, beginning of another schlock. When the repertory of NDT III begins to reflect a belief that aging does not diminish a dancer's ability to absolutely engage an audience (let's lay the mime and hackneyed sentiment to rest), the company will truly be making a profound social statement.

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