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Nederlands Dans Theater

'Wings of Wax', 'Signing Off', 'Tar and Feathers'

by David Mead

April 2, 2008 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Since its founding almost fifty years ago, Nederlands Dans Theater has quite rightly established itself as one of Europe’s leading contemporary dance companies.  For its latest visit to London, Artistic Director Anders Hellström programmed three works –two contrasting works by Jiri Kylian and a poignant piece by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon, that between them ranged from the very beautiful to something rather more surreal and on the edge.

Kylian’s “Wings of Wax” is a spellbinding, simply magical work in which eight dancers dressed simply in black dart on and off a stage dominated by a huge tree hanging upside down with its roots in the air, which is a neat way of showing us what is happening in the clouds.  The title refers to the legend of Icarus, who flew so high that the sun melted his wings.  Most of the action takes place under that tree and in the rays from a spotlight that traces a huge circle as it slowly orbits around it.

Kylian skilfully creates ever changing partnerships as the dancers, dressed in simple, tight, dark-coloured costumes, melt into and reappear from the darkness.  Periodic twitches and sharp angular movement are punctuated by classical arabesques and pirouettes that really give the feeling the dancers are flying.  Best of all is one section where the four women walk in super slow-motion as the men soar around them, covering the whole stage in a series of fast phrases, turns and leaps.  It all makes for a whole that is hugely balletic and wonderfully musical – the score is a clever tapestry of excerpts from von Biber, Cage, Glass and Bach – representing Kylian at his best.

Choreographic duo Lightfoot and Léon’s contribution to the programme was “Signing Off”, made in 2003 immediately before they decided to take a sabbatical from the company.  Danced to excerpts from Phillip Glass’ “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra”, it’s a very intense work that reflects the pain and expression of saying goodbye.  The opening section is accompanied by black flats that fly in and out, suggesting doors closing and new ones opening.  The later ones, especially, are again very balletic and beautiful, and danced in front of two billowing, huge, dark drapes that cascade like a waterfall.  The end truly does suggest finality as two women leave the dance and are slowly swallowed up by the blackness.

Having soared to the heights, “Tar and Feathers”, the most recent of the three works, brought us back to earth with something of a jolt.  Much of the publicity for the work has focused on the centrepiece of the set, a piano that stands high above the stage on legs several metres high on which Tomoko Mukaiyama plays Mozart.  And it is the best thing about the piece.

The starting point for the work was Samuel Beckett’s last poem before he died, “What is the Word?” in which he seems to be looking back, glimpsing things past in his mind, searching for meaning and wondering if life was folly.  Kylian himself recites sections during the piece.  The work reflects this, as the dancers deliver a mix of frozen images, silent screams and sudden outbursts.

Yet at other times everything is relaxed and pleasing.  At one point a group of dancers appear as some strange, yet mildly amusing, clown-like backing group.  By then though, I didn't really care any more.  Maybe like Beckett, Kylian is striving for something of an understanding that is out of reach.  For a while it is fascinating, and you do wonder what it all means.  But therein lays the problem, because whatever is in Kylian’s mind is out of the audience’s reach.  Maybe it was out of his too.  Not so much on the edge as over the edge.

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