NDT in HD: The Good, the Great, and the Nightmarish

Written by Mariko Nagashima
 Nederlands Dans Theater in Silent Screen 
Photo by Jean Paul Lozouet
For the first time in its illustrious history, NederlandsDansTheater, the acclaimed contemporary dance troupe, captured a live performance in HD. Though Move to Move was broadcast live at over 400 cinemas across Europe back in May, it is now screening around the world and reached our corner of the globe last Monday, September 24, as part of the Ballet in Cinema program presented by SIFF. As the company hasn’t been seen in Seattle since a performance at the Paramount over a decade ago, this was a rare opportunity to see their singular combination of razor sharp technique and mercurial elegance. The program featured four works: Alexander Ekman’s Left Right Left Right, Silent Screen and Shine a Light both by Sol Léon and Alexander Lightfoot (the newly appointed artistic director), and Secus, an excerpt of Ohad Naharin’s full-length work Three.

NDT II in Left Right Left Right
Photo by Rahi Rezvani
The dancing itself was stupendous, the filming far less so. Live theater gives the audience the ability to choose what to focus on; the eye is drawn to whatever it finds most interesting in the moment. With film, however, the viewer is at the mercy of the camera. In Move to Move, transitions from close-ups to wide shots were distracting and cut off portions of the choreography. Prolonged footage of the audience in their seats and the light crew changing gels, coupled with Mister Roger’s-like interviews where dancers suddenly noticed the camera following them and said a few words, felt cheesy and made the film far longer and more tedious than necessary.

The first piece, Left Right Left Right, set on and performed by NDT II, the younger but equally talented second company, centers around the theme of moving from one place to another. With a stark white floor and a fleet of grey-suited dancers, the piece had an almost sterile industrial feel, yet the witty choreography balanced it out. The dancers strutted with goofy pelvic thrusts, and launched across the stage with leaps and swerves, often in perfectly flocking groups. Later, when the groups strode militantly on treadmills, we heard their thoughts on the piece: there was the wry, “It’s nice, I get to stay in shape, and summer’s almost here,” or the exhausted, “I want to go home.” The best, however, was the solitary woman in the red ball gown who continuously walked in slow motion around the stage: “Me, I love this piece. I injured myself the first week of rehearsal and now I get to walk around slowly in a red dress,” she said with a bemused but pained smile. The walking gradually morphed into running, leaping, and sliding off the treadmills, the dancers’ arms wind-milling as they skated, without actually going anywhere. A satisfying meditation on the multiplicity of locomotor skills humans possess.

Silent Screen, a piece inspired by the artistry of silent films, began with a well executed concept, but then became clouded by excesses and few discernable connections. A three-part screen surrounded a magnetic opening duet, sepia images with fuzzy edges playing across the screen built the impression that the dancers were characters in a film. They portrayed a variety of emotions: grieving, quarrelling, both lovers and parents. Their bold facial expressions complemented their exquisite dancing. Thoroughly engaging, this sequence could have stood alone as a piece, but instead the screens slid away and an entirely new set of characters entered. There was a trio of men in flapping black suit coats, a woman in child-like red, another woman in a billowing black dress that enveloped the entire stage and the crazed man who whisked her away, and an enigmatic bare-chested man who re-appeared at intervals. Though the trio was vaguely reminiscent of the Three Stooges with their nuanced physical humor and exaggerated facials, the other characters lacked development and context. The visual effects, like the movement itself, were striking and created many memorable images, but it lacked continuity and the monotonous Philip Glass music gave it a rambling feeling.

NDT in Silent Screen
Photo by Javier del Real
Leon and Lightfoot based Shine A Light. their second loose narrative of the evening, on the idea of children asking their parents to leave a light on to fend away their nightmares; the piece aimed to depict the harrowing dream world children often create in their sleep. It began and ended with a man whose long grey hair covered his face, á la the Addams Family’s Cousin It. Perhaps representing the Sandman, this grey apparition merely retreated slowly and returned to walk forward at the end, ponderously staying frozen onstage even during the final bows. More problematic, however, were the dream’s “monsters,” a group of four men, dressed as soldiers, who growled, hissed, and spoke a guttural gibberish amplified by hidden microphones as they slinked across the stage in a regimented line. This feeble attempt at being frightening only succeeded in looking the way it sounded, like nonsense. A couple, skimpily clad in black, also entered the dreamscape with an exacting if inexplicable duet; they managed several impossible looking lifts effortlessly, but never interacted with the “monsters.” All in all, Shinestrained to be different and riveting, but felt unconvincing.

The most engaging piece of the film was Naharin’s Secus. The dancers exploded across the stage as if electrocuted, instantaneous shape-shifters. The piece had a raw pedestrian feeling but often simmered with sensuality. A male duet was playful, passionate, and realistic, a clear-eyed portrait of contemporary gay relationships. In a heterosexual duet, brimmed with tension, the lights went black only to rise on them in completely different positions several times, shrouding their next movements in anticipation. In the final section three straight lines moved conveyer belt style; the dancer at the front broke out into movement that the next would loosely follow and elaborate on. These individual sections seemed to create windows into the dancers’ personas, making them real people, not elevated performers. Unfortunately, the video editing here was terrible, showing only one line of dancers at a time, which lessened the piece’s impact. Also notable was how the dancers made sense of the eclectic soundscore, their movement bringing out its many subtleties.

Despite some lamentable editing, Move to Move, was still an impressive film. NederlandsDansTheaterhas some of the world’s finest contemporary dancers whose remarkable power, technique, and presence is always astounding to behold. NDT will be producing another live broadcast this spring and hopefully Seattle can expect it to come this way shortly after.