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Nederlands Dans Theater I

Program 2: ‘Symphony of Psalms,’ ‘Click—Pause—Silence,’ ‘Walking Mad’

Ahead of the Curve

by Mary Ellen Hunt

March 27, 2004 -- Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, CA

When Nederlands Dans Theater (I, II or III) comes to town, many people, myself included, go running to see them, because whatever it is that they do, it’s always interesting. A quick check amongst friends revealed that none of us even checked what the program was on their recent stop at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley courtesy of Cal Performances. From the expressions I heard after the first show, which had three outlandish -- and to some, actually offensive offerings -- probably more people wish they had checked. But I’ll go out on a limb here and say that given another four years, maybe Kylian won’t look so crazy to us.

The truth is that whenever NDT comes to town, they bring something mind-blowing. The last time they here, in 2001, they brought works that had been on European stages for years, but which, to many viewers here, still seemed shocking and over the top: bodies suspended in glass coffins, an upside-down tree encircled by a spotlight-pendulum, light-studded gowns that stood up on their own. Way back when they first started, the concept of a bridge between modern and ballet seemed like a nutty thing to do. I have a hunch that maybe, just maybe, the introspective and quietly shrewd Jiri Kylian is always just a few small steps ahead of the avant-garde of dance and, for that matter, us.

In any case, NDT’s second program had more of the type of works that I suspect many ticket-buyers had hoped for. With a visually luscious masterpiece from his early years, a humor-filled novelty piece by one of the company’s former dancers, and a starkly expressionist tribute to a retiring dancer (also by Kylian), the program had a little something that could appeal to everyone.

Arguably, most accessible was Kylian’s 1978 “Symphony of Psalms,” to the music of the same title by Igor Stravinsky. Set against a rich overlay of suspended tapestries, eight couples swell and crash ritualistically in waves that sweep across the stage. If the canons didn’t fire off in the precise, yet fluid manner that we have seen from NDT in the past, the ballet still had power, particularly in the unison work. At the start of the quartet section, Medhi Walerski and Stefan Zeromski, leapt boldly into their duet, confidently taking up the stage, and arriving together exactly where they wanted to be spatially and musically.

I’ve only recently learned that Kylian is a cat person. It makes sense – those feline balances, the swift and insouciant swipes, and the capriciousness of the average cat is written all over “Click-Pause-Silence,” the second work on the program. Created in 2000, this austerely modern ballet takes its cues from the compositions of Dirk Haubrich, who has become something of a regular collaborator with Kylian. In a quick conversation with Glenn Edgerton, he noted that Kylian was inspired to create the piece for one of NDT’s long-time dancers, Else Schepers, just before she retired from the company. Wondering how one keeps memories of the people that one meets, he thought of the analogy of a photograph. Said Edgerton, “There is a click, a pause, and then….”

Dancing Scheper’s role was the elongated and sublimely eloquent Nancy Euverink. There was something almost disturbingly supernatural in the way that she and the trio of men partnering her (Vaclav Kunes, Patrick Marin and Zeromski) seemed to know exactly where each other would be. A dancer would launch himself precipitously across the stage and another dancer’s hand would drop right onto him as he came to rest.

As with many of Kylian’s more recent works, his dazzling choreography takes on a separate life, becoming an expressive soul placed in a theatrical shell. Partway into “Click-Pause-Silence” a scrim rises to reveal a mirror and a television, which plays video of the same dancers who are onstage practicing the piece in rehearsal. As the piece builds to a crescendo, the mirrors spin, the TV spins, the dance turns from fast and powerful to legato and back, and then, it seems suddenly as if only shards of the ballet are left -- short, staccato, broken, phrases of movement left over from the longer piece. Then slowly each dancer fades away into the dark space, leaving us to wonder what substantially remains of any work, or any life, or any relationship, or anything really.

The final work of the evening, Johan Inger’s “Walking Mad” gave us the sort of humorous romping at which NDT excels. With hints of Maguy Marin, Matts Ek and Saturday morning Looney Tunes, Inger’s complex, physically taxing choreography elicited the first laughs of the evening.

Staged around a massive and versatile wooden fence which the dancers swung, broke apart, and flattened throughout the work, “Walking Mad” broke little new ground, but nevertheless, allowed us once more to marvel at the company’s command of stage illusion. Even when we understood how a certain effect -- a tilt of the fence, a shift in the balance between two dancers, a blind toss or a daredevil leap into unseen space -- might work, the illusion like the dancing, remained compelling.

As is almost always the case with NDT, we are happy to suspend our disbelief and -- in the words of Bill T. Jones -- we agree, dancer and watcher, to hold onto the illusion that someone flew for a moment.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin

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