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Nederlands Dans Theater 2

'Passe-Partout', 'Gods and Dogs', 'Cacti'

by David Mead

March 6, 2012-- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Cheshire-born Paul Lightfoot may have only been in NDT’s Artistic Director’s chair for six months, but it seems he already knows where he wants to take the company. Of course, as former dancer and former resident choreographer he is hardly a new kid on the block, but it seems he already has a very firm idea of where he wants to take the company. Writing in the Sadler’s Wells programme he expressed a desire to “open up more of the theatrical side to the artists,” emphasising that the company is called Nederlands Dans Theater, not Nederlands Dans.

Although NDT2 has its own director in Gerald Tibbs, incidentally about to celebrate an impressive 22 years at the helm, Lightfoot’s view is bound to impact on the second company and its dancers, all aged between their late teens and mid-twenties. Incidentally, I hesitate to call them a junior company. They are very special, and if this London season was anything to go by they can more than hold their own with anyone.

The opening “Passe-Partout” made with regular collaborator Sol Léon certainly falls into the dramatic category. A passe-partout is a master key that will unlock any door, and there are doors aplenty here in the shape of a series of openings that rise, fall and move from side to side like an ever changing maze from which, it seems, there is no escape. A special mention, too, for Tom Bevoort’s excellent lighting.

The piece is reminiscent of much of Ibsen’s writing, Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”, or specifically in dance, Philip Taylor’s “Haunted Passages”, so brilliantly revived by Phoenix last year. The choreography is fluid and taut all at the same time, the expansive and beautiful dance interrupted by jolts and shouts. The central role is taken by the gorgeous Astrid Boons, clad in a high-necked black dress that seems to be as much a prison as the setting in which she finds herself. Her head is often turned to the back, as if hiding something, or trying to avoid the other five dancers who appear and disappear as if ghosts in her memory. Marne van Opstal was especially sinister. There are glimpses of a past, perhaps, as her dramatic gestures occasionally give glimpses of her midriff and breasts. “Passe-Partout” is gripping from start to finish.

Less satisfying was former NDT director Jiri Kylián’s “Gods and Dogs.” It is typical of Kylián’s later work in that he sort of opens the door to meaning very slightly, but inside all is so dark that it is hard to figure anything out. It was pretty dark on stage for the most part too, floor level spots forming giant shadows of the dancers. The focus is very much on duets and solos, the dancers making strange contorted patterns and shapes around each other. Above the dance is a video of a hunting dog, forever running towards us, getting ever larger. It all had a bleak beauty about it, added to by the light grey costumes, but was hard to get to grips with.

Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti” was another matter altogether. It’s a real programme ending piece that had most of the audience laughing and that’s guaranteed to send you home happy. It opens with the whole company stamping, slapping, moving and posing, each on his or her small platform, each with its own spotlight. They are like a human orchestra, only they are not all together. There’s a sense that they should be, but that each wants to escape and assert their individuality. All this is accompanied by text written by dancer Spenser Theberge that gently pokes fun at postmodernism and the present-day focus on collaborative art, and muses aloud on possible meanings. It is absolutely spot on; very clever and wickedly knowing.

The platforms are then moved around the stage to create a sculpture that is not unlike that made with Antony Gormley’s wooden boxes in “Sutra”, and against which Boons and Theberge dance a duet. Their timing was split-second perfect, and it has to be, because it comes with a quite brilliant running commentary that vocalises the dancers’ thoughts. “OK, this is the quick bit. Are you ready?”…“Please be careful here, please”… “Look out for my head,”…“How was that for you?”, and finally, “What happens next?” “I think we’ve finished”. Wonderful.

The cacti of the title finally get to make their entrance towards the end. Why now? And what do they mean? Don’t be silly, as a brief line in the opening text told us, this is all about postmodernism so there has to be a hidden subtext. Deciphering it is another matter. But quite frankly, who cares? “Cacti” is such a joy it doesn’t matter.

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