Dutch National Ballet
Sadlers Wells Theatre, London, UK
May 15-19, 2001
I avoided reading the newspaper critics' version of events on the topic of Dutch National Ballet in London. I would have been distraught if any of them had said a word against any aspect of DNB. My only disappointment on the opening night and the performance of Programme 1, consisting of all Hans van Manen choreography, was the thought striking me that my innocence, or perhaps my ignorance, had gone - I would never be on the threshold of seeing DNB for the first time. When I went to see Programme 2 the following night, I saw my innocence had indeed gone and if any of those critics had said that the rendition of Balanchine's The Four Temperaments was "solid", "predictable" or "paled into insignificance next to the van Manen pieces", I would have agreed. And then came three of the four van Manen pieces from Programme 1 again - Kryzystof Pastor's Do not go gentle could not be performed as one of the key dancers was injured. Although I still do not know what I am missing in Pastor's work, I was given the opportunity to re-live the unbridled enthusiasm I had felt the night before for van Manen's handiwork. Of course, none of those words conveys very much about the performances I saw, but I thought they were important to say since clearly the London audience is not familiar with the strengths of this company - the theatre was not full on the two nights I went to see DNB perform, although the audience gave an extremely good reception. Perhaps the advertising had been less than was needed to entice an audience to a company that has not been to London for 10 years.
The Artistic Director of Amsterdam-based Dutch National Ballet is former Royal Ballet principal, Wayne Eagling. Hans van Manen, who has been choreographing since the 1960s, was resident choreographer to DNB from 1973 to 1987, after which he returned to Netherlands Dance Theatre where he had been co-artistic director from 1961 to 1970 (first with Benjamin Harkavy and then with Glen Tetley). The thread running through all of his works in the two programmes was the exploration of the drawing together and drawing away that occurs in the "boy girl" relationship, achieved through a modern choreography based on classical lines, and danced in ballet shoes by the men and, with one exception, pointe shoes by the women. It may sound repetitive to have all works examining the same theme, but as we are all aware, relationships are complex creatures and there are many facets that, if explored through dance with restraint and poise, are absolutely absorbing to watch because they comment on something so personal to us.
The opening piece, Adagio Hammerklavier (1973) to Beethoven, was described in the programme to be a piece on the "disharmony in relationships caused by unfulfilled desires". As various of the three pairs of dancers (men dressed in thick footless tights and women in simple blue chiffon dresses) curled up on the floor in self-protective melancholy, I could see that van Manen achieves emotional depths by encouraging restraint in the dancers - I have often cringed at the gratuitous over-use of rolling around the floor that I have seen in other modern choreographies. For van Manen, less is more.
Two pas de deux from van Manen's 1997 work, Three Pieces for HET (1997) turned the heat up a notch. The curtain opens on Belgian-born Gael Lambiotte, wearing a black slinky thong under see-through body stocking. There is no other way of describing his costume. French-born Sofiane Sylve wears a sheer black dress over a leotard. The first piece we see, but the second of Three Pieces for HET, is high-energy, set to music by Estonian composer, Erkki-Sven Tuur. The next piece is set to Arvo Pärt's Psalom. As the drama builds in the music, partly achieved by the repetition of the same motif, Sylve backs on to the frame of Lambiotte, (keeping her back to him as if she is submitting, but, only just, or maybe wants to submit, but can't quite) just at the point that he begins to move backwards; he takes her firmly and, sliding her legs along the floor, draws her towards him. She darts a tender glance towards him but then quickly switches her head away. He performs for her as she walks around him, circling him. They dance and lock arms. He pursues her as she walks away. They are drawing together and drawing away. The piece would be lost, of course, if the dancers were not one hundred per cent. engaged with one another - Sylve, when moving backwards, is completely confident that Lambiotte is really there, waiting to catch her or support her. The piece ends with each dancer's head resting on the other's shoulder in final acceptance and submission while they hold hands in a show of togetherness. The piece is as dramatic and emotional as the film Brief Encounter.
In Twilight (1972), Canadian-born Nathalie Caris dances in high heels with Albanian born Alexandros Altin Kaftira, to piano music by John Cage. The piano is on stage. Obviously the shoes limit what Caris can do to express herself and ultimately the shoes will come off when she really needs to express her emotion. She then dances with full grace, abandon and speed. Whilst watching this I pondered my own wearing of high heels. Yes, they do give poise and make the woman look in control, as her movements are ever so slightly reduced to an elegant slow motion because she cannot move with speed without appearing ungainly. The calf muscle is more pronounced, and the leg shapely, as my grandmother would say. One is in control, slightly distant from the man and probably more on eye-level. Caris challenges her partner and they tease each other. He falls, face to the floor, and moves backwards on hands and toes as she strides confidently towards him aware that her heels coming down heavily on the stage show her power over the man lying at her feet. He assumes a defensive position on the floor and she walks around him, now not knowing how to respond. She reflects for a moment before making the grand gesture to remove her shoes to allow her to express herself more freely, with more temper and emotion. They move fast and with abandon and then seem to come to deadlock, or is it truce, as they take hands and, both facing the audience, move back and forth as if in a medieval court dance while the lights go down.
Live (1979) was the crowning glory of both evenings. The piece starts on stage with Sabine Chaland, dressed in a short, bright red dress, being filmed moving, gesticulating and dancing by a cameraman dressed in black. The music is a number of pieces all by Lizst. Her image is projected on to the large screen at the back of the stage. After seeing the Monte Carlo Ballet use screens in the recent work Oeil pour Oeil, I am sceptical about the use of film on stage. In that piece, the use of multiple screens confused and distracted and forced the audience to switch their eyes rapidly from screen to stage. However, watching this one much larger screen reminded me of the advantages of watching ballet performed in the Clore Studio of the Royal Opera House. (This is the studio space that can accommodate a reasonably sized audience to view new and experimental works.) You are 'up close and personal'. Every muscle is seen working and the dancer's performance breaks down in to a sum of beautiful working parts. The cameraman brings us up close to the foot turning on the 'X' marked in white on the stage. Chaland strokes the X with her pointe shoe and we see the ribbons buckle and the calf muscle flex. We see the total effect on stage and the detail on screen. The choice of dancer is obviously important because now she is screen actress as well as being under the microscope for technique, and her facial expressions are integral to the performance. Chaland excels - her stiking, wide-apart eyes and sensuous smile tease the camera and so, the audience. Gael Lambiotte joins her but soon Chaland is filmed leaving the stage, down a passage into the foyer of Sadler's Wells. She and Lambiotte dance in the foyer and in the shop and we now see the dancers only through the eyes of the cameraman. After exploring various parts of the theatre, Chaland puts on a raincoat, opens an umbrella and walks out into the street. Rosebery Avenue looks romantic in the rain as black London cabs dance past our eyes in effortless choreography and the silhouette of Chaland appears and disappears between the traffic passing across screen. Was it true or rumour put about by theatre staff that Chaland had to cycle back in order to be on stage on time for her applause?
As I said before, the performance of Balanchine's Four Temperaments was solid and very much akin to the recent performance of Agon by the Royal Ballet - solid, but not inspired. However, since more of the full complement of dancers of the company is involved, we get to see that they are in harmony and work well as a group and do not just excel at the dramatic individualistic performances afforded by van Manen's work. What is striking about this harmony is that it is achieved among dancers of so many different nationalities, and therefore training.
I want to see much more of this company.
Edited by Marie.