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Flash Review 2, 4-7: So Good it Hurts
In NDT-Land with Kylian and Inger

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2004 Aimee Ts’ao

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BERKELEY -- Three years after its last visit here, Netherlands Dance Theater presented two programs at Zellerbach Hall, March 24-28. It's difficult to say which is more acute, the anticipation preceding the performances, or the aftermath. I expect more from NDT than any other company and I am always left with higher standards for those other companies to be measured against. In fact, it is painful for me to see most other companies perform after an encounter with NDT.

I can still vividly remember Netherlands Dance Theater's New York debut in 1968. I was a young ballet student, with a rather eclectic background that included the avant-garde and found this young company, not yet ten years old, unbelievably versatile and exhilarating. The dancers, at home in ballets on pointe, modern pieces by Glen Tetley, and even a high energy jazz number, were very proficient both technically and artistically. I had never seen a company like it. Later, when I lived in Europe and had the opportunity to see it perform again, I was impressed at how rapidly the company evolved, constantly growing in new directions. Back in San Francisco, I could only follow now-former artistic director Jiri Kylian's choreography as it was performed by companies like San Francisco Ballet and the Joffrey Ballet.

SFB had performed NDT former resident choreographer Hans van Manen's "Black Cake" several seasons ago, but I had not seen it performed by NDT so could make no comparison. A few weeks ago I saw SFB dance his "Grosse Fugue" which I had seen NDT perform in London in 1973. The SFB dancers did an admirable job, but they need more power of execution and intensity in projection to equal the Dutch company's interpretation. With time they will likely achieve that.

In 2001, when NDT was last here, I had the chance to see six of Kylian's works and this time I was able to catch five more. I am still astounded by the breadth of his artistic range. Within his body of work there are several categories from pure dance to highly theatrical dramas. He explores movement and structure from many points of view and it is startling to realize that all this comes from the same mind.

The first program, which I see on Wednesday, March 24, consists of Kylian's "Claude Pascal" (2002), "Last Touch" (2003) (previously reviewed here by Stephan Laurent) and "27'52"" (2002). "Claude Pascal" is an interesting juxtaposition of elements. Four dancers, a woman, two men and a boy, dressed in black and white turn-of-the century (not the recent one, 1900) costumes stand and move in front of a long row of panels, reciting text that hovers somewhere between absurdist and terribly pretentious. I would have preferred that the words were pure nonsense or in an obscure foreign language that no one in the audience is likely to understand. These four disappear behind the panels, which rotate to reveal mirrors on their reverse sides. Now a contemporary couple, a shirtless man and bare-legged woman in a flesh bustier, dance a pas de deux. Both the choreography and the way it is danced are flawless. The effect is one of organic liquidity; there is never a misstep as one movement flows into another. The first group of dancers emerge from the panels for another round of text and gesture, followed by another evocative pas de deux by a second couple. The four period characters return for an almost Monty Pythonesque section involving the exchanging of props -- a fan, a cane, a ball and a racquet. Eventually, three of them leave their props with one man who slowly shuffles off. Finally, a third couple performs a duet before the piece concludes with more dialogue and a solo for a woman. The structure is not a mere alternating of the two groups, old-fashioned and contemporary; often several panels are left ajar and dancers from the other group are seen in the background or reflected in a mirror, or are standing or moving slowly at the side of the stage. The lighting by Kees Tjebbes, in this and in the other two pieces on the program, is magnificent, subtly highlighting what needs to be seen, or creating the exact atmosphere required for the moment.

The second Kylian piece, "Last Touch," is based on an idea entirely different from the one used in the preceding ballet. Imagine combining Chekhov and Kabuki to create an absolutely riveting slow motion drama. The last dance is "27'52,"" again in another vein. As with the previous two works, the music, by Dirk Haubrich, is haunting. Choreographed for three couples, this piece uses the set in a more jarring way. While "Claude Pascal" has panels rotating from gray to mirror and back, and "Last Touch" has the dancers move chairs, a table and a cloth that covers the floor, "27'52"" literally has curtains falling from above during the performance and the marley being moved on the floor, with the dancers actually wrapping themselves in it at times.

Three nights later, on Saturday, March 27, I see the second program. The first two ballets by Kylian, "Symphony of Psalms" and "Click-Pause-Silence," have already been reviewed here, so I will concern myself with Johan Inger's "Walking Mad." My first impression is that I've seen this type of piece before, but as it unfolds, I discover that there is more beneath the surface. A man wearing a bowler hat and raincoat -- how cliche -- climbs a ladder out of the orchestra pit, crosses the apron and lifts the curtain, which now rises to show a wooden wall. This wall is utilized in very imaginative ways. It moves forward and back, and splits as one section is lowered to the floor to become a mini-stage. Some of its panels open and shut like doors and people enter and exit through them. Dancers climb it and disappear over the top or step off it in a fall into the void. At one point it is angled to form a corner off-center and while a couple dances along it and in front of it, the lighting, designed by Erik Berglund, casts a double set of shadows, adding to the intensity of an already powerful encounter.

In the beginning I am put off by Ravel's "Bolero" as it has been used ad nauseam, but I gradually change my mind, as it really becomes a corny backdrop for all kinds of lunacy, a herd of men wearing dunce caps, or the general pandemonium of a silent movie chase scene. When the music suddenly stops and Arvo Part's "Fur Alina" begins, the tone of the work shifts dramatically and reinforces the weirdness of the combination of wacky humor and serious reflection.

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