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Flash Review 2, 2-26: "I Want My NDT"
Rioting for Nederlands in Berkeley

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2001 Christine Chen

BERKELEY -- Nederlands Dans Theater returned to the Bay Area this week for the first time in over 20 years and gratified the Berkeley audience with the technical virtuosity of its dancers and the accessibility of its program. The second of two programs, presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Theater Friday and Saturday, featured Jiri Kylian's "No More Play," "Petite Mort," and "Bella Figura" along with a work from Paul Lightfoot's oeuvre, "Start to Finish." Though he recently relinquished his position as NDT's artistic director, Kylian's artistic impact and presence still looms strong -- his highly specific, duet-laden choreography dominated the program, and the company of dancers seemed as finely tuned as ever.

A heavy downpour, a Cal basketball game, and a relatively on-time curtain at Zellerbach combined forces to set me off on the wrong foot in my viewing of the show. After scouring the campus area for parking, I eventually realized that basketball fans had filled up every parking space and every lot within a one-mile radius. I finally found a space many blocks away, and my friends and I ran through the deluge and arrived at the theater at around 8:10 p.m. (for an 8 p.m. curtain) dripping wet. At the door we were told that we would not be admitted to the theater until intermission and would therefore miss the first two pieces, but that we were welcome to watch the show (without sound) on the video monitor in the lobby. I tried to play my "but I'm press...can't I at least sneak in after the first piece?" trump card, but to no avail. At this point there were at least 30 others who shared our predicament and who had crowded in front of the 12-inch screen. By about 8:20 PM, a congregation of about 100 latecomers had amassed, and, as they had paid between $32 and $52 a pop, they were getting MAD! Feeding off of the energy of the group and the growing collective mentality that they were being wronged, individuals grew more confident and brash and started to lash out. Some yelled at the helpless ushers, others asked to speak to someone in authority, many demanded refunds, a few tried to silence those who were making a fuss, and I watched the scene with disbelief and amusement. No one seemed to be watching the video screen anymore. One woman who actually arrived early but left the theater to go to the bathroom was not let back in and was particularly outrageous and irate ("I have f***ing diarrhea...! This is not right.... This is not right!"). Eventually the angry mob proved too much (old school activism works well in this town, as Berkeley-ites are not above fighting down and dirty until they get their way), and we were allowed to enter into the standing room section during the pause between the first two pieces. Above the din and distraction of the rain and the crowd, I managed a few glances at "No More Play" in which I was able to discern several duets and a sense of Kylian's structural use and manipulation of the space through lighting. The lights often delineated and isolated triangular or rectangular sections of space within which a male/female couple partnered in a sensual but rigorously balletic movement style.

Standing sardine-style in the back of the theater with the other smugly self-satisfied yet still discontented latecomers, I strained to watch the 1991 "Petite Mort," which began without pause after the 1988 "No More Play." The title is a euphemism for "orgasm" in French, and the dance, like the play on words in the language, centers around ideas of sex and death. The piece begins with an evenly-spaced group of men waving around their fencing foils, then rushing from upstage to downstage and back with a huge silky piece of fabric which billows over the stage. They return to their positions and continue to whip their swords around, but this time they have a female partner to negotiate with as well. As with the first piece, there is a lot of heterosexual duet work, high extensions, swoopy lifts and meticulously placed "M" and "W" arms. ("M" = hunch over, fly arms out like a bird and curve. "W"= extend arms with palms up, bend elbows to 120 degrees and flip palms to 90 degrees.) Set to the highly refined and familiar Mozart piano concertos, the piece also provides a critical look at several repressive symbols of European culture. At one point, a group of women scurries in wearing ridiculously enormous ball gowns. They swoop around the space without appearing to move at all, their gently content faces gliding above their elaborate, fixed dresses. The punchline comes when they step away slightly from the dresses to reveal that their rigid costume is indeed a separate, stand-alone (literally) entity. The women dance with and around their gowns, embracing them, ducking behind them and wheeling them around. To sum up: The men have their virile swords, the women are saddled with their confining dresses, and men and women dance together in passionate duets. One recurring (sexual?) image: Man with "M" arms hunched over woman on her back with "W" arms. The piece was lovely to watch for the flawlessly executed dancing, the flashes of cleverness and satire, and the production values of the fabric and the dresses, but seemed a bit sterile and, perhaps because of the lighting and costumes, overly beige (blech).

The next (and only non-Kylian) piece on the program was Lightfoot's 1996 "Start to Finish." While not a Kylian piece, it contained many of the same elements: the safe humor (guy falls off the stage, watches TV), the manipulation of production elements (a light boom hovers a mere 6 feet above the stage, flashing arrows point to the action), the movement (clean and seamless), the endless partnering, the lighting and costume choices, and the (hetero)sexuality and nudity. Lightfoot draws the action into the theater realm a bit more than Kylian, however, and his movement style is also little more abandoned and thrown. His characters fall into and out of line symbolically and literally as they are allowed brief moments of individuality in solos amidst the deluge of duets. With music ranging from Purcell to The Cranberries and from Handel to live drumming, the action is purposely disjointed and oddly fascinating -- but goes on a little too long.

"Bella Figura" contained some of the more poignant images of the evening. Kylian's premise in this dance created in 1995 was basically to question the different aspects of performance and the performance space. What is performance? When does a performance start? When does it end? Can you perform a rehearsal? How do the stage/curtains/lighting define the performance space? What are costumes and how do they define who we are? Where does life end and art begin? Typical modernist questions more relevant in the '60s, but Kylian pulls off a few engaging moments nonetheless.

The curtain rises while the house lights are still on and we see the dancers warming up (ugh, cliche alert!). Slowly they transition from rehearsal to performance mode. Swatches of curtain rise and fall in stunning geometric patterns systematically revealing and veiling different parts of the action: A dancer is enveloped in the black fabric of the curtain and writhes as her partner accompanies and lifts her from behind the curtain; several strips of curtain descend, leaving a small square opening where a couple dances; dancers line up side by side downstage and the curtain is lowered into their arms. Men and women appear topless in the same long crimson red skirts. The action occurs primarily in duet form and the quality is mostly fluid and graceful with the occasional accent. A much needed change of pace occurs in the Vivaldi section, where the movement quality and overall energy changes from a continuous, controlled bound flow to a more quick and quirky movement style. After awhile the music ends (symbolic flames burn stage right and stage left) and the dancers keep dancing. They eventually stop and walk off stage. Black out. The performers were at once perfectly technical and fully committed to the movement. Their phrasing was commendable, and still, the sameness of it all lulled me into a glazed state.

Overall, the dancing was inarguably sublime, but the evening seemed long and repetitive, even with my late arrival and the entertaining episode in the lobby. The numerous duets began to blend together and the perfection of the dancers started to become banal. The choreography relied heavily on tried and true punchlines to manipulate the audience into nervous laughter on cue ("Oh, that guy fell off the stage...I understand, that's supposed to be funny, ha ha") and never really challenged us to look at much more than the beautiful bodies in space. Even so, much of the packed Zellerbach audience was roused to its feet, and NDT enjoyed many (many!) curtain calls.

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