Nederlands Dans Theater II, or “How I officially became a Kylián fanboy”

I was psyched to see the Nederlands Dans Theater II on the schedule for this year’s season of the Celebrity Series after having been dumbstruck by the two excerpts the Boston Ballet did of long-time NDT artistic director Jiří Kylián’s Black & White Ballets a few years ago. I should also mention that on the strength of those performances the Boston Ballet was given permission to stage the full Black & White Ballets this season. The Globe’s preview of those performances is an interesting read, although The Globe’s actual review, by Thea Singer is more factual than insightful. Jeffrey Gantz’s review for The Phoenix is much more illuminating.

This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that I specifically avoided seeing the Boston Ballet’s production because, much as I enjoyed the excerpts I’d seen them do previously, I was eager to see instead a group Kylián has worked with (and no doubt still continues to work with) closely. It’s always been true that the difference between a company that is intimately familiar and comfortable with the style of a choreographer, especially one with a vocabulary as unique as Kylián’s, and a company that is not can be striking. In fact in The New York Times’ review of Boston Ballet’s Balanchine program Macaulay focuses on that issue and acknowledges that “Boston Ballet’s repertory is one of the most eclectic in the country”. But he then goes on to say:

    To serve so many masters, you need rare and complex schooling. In “Jewels” many aspects of Balanchine style were missing.

He adds further detail to illustrate his point and concludes:

    Boston Ballet faces the choice that many ambitious companies do. It’s possible to dance repertory old and new, in styles orthodox and anti-orthodox, but unless there is a consistent standard of high academic discipline, many performers will start to dance classical ballets blurrily.

Phew! So with all that out of the way, on to the actual review. It seems that neither of the NDT troupes makes it to the States that often, so although the performance was by NDTII, the younger group of dancers aged 17 and 22, I was quite looking forward to the occasion. As is the Celebrity Series’ custom, they don’t list the actual works that are going to appear on a programme in advance, which seems completely bizarre to me because clearly the majority of performers excel in particular areas within their discipline and not in others. But anyway, for not entirely farfetched reasons I assumed the programme would be heavy on the Kylián.

But, alas, only one Kylián work was featured, “Sleepless” (2004) for three couples, but it was a good ‘un and “well worth the price of admission alone” as they say. It has all of Kylián’s trademarks, including humor that is simultaneously grotesque, surreal, whimsical, and absurd, as well as moments that are surprisingly touching. Names such as Goya, Dalí, and Magritte instantly come to mind with his work, and this piece was no exception. Kylián likes to use props, and the piece features six large rectangular vinyl panels that at various times expose disembodied body parts or amputate them or combine them in playful ways. Kylián also plays with the space between the panels, which at times open up like expansive views into an infinite void or hungry maws or an ocean to sink into or places to retreat to. Singer’s review in The Globe is much less complimentary, and she found the piece to have “a tinge of misogyny”, which I find puzzling since the pairwork seemed quite in tune with his usual interest in subverting classical positions: a woman is hoisted up from behind by her waist, her frog-like legs opening and closing like a machine; a man presses his hand against the forehead of his female partner; a man lifts his partner up with his head between her legs. The second and third duets lost a little steam, but overall the piece was wholly enjoyable and, as with pretty much every other work I’ve seen of his, made me immediately want to see it again. I’d say this was the piece that sent me over the edge and into “official Kylián fanboy” territory. 😉

The rest of the programme featured works of husband-and-wife team (in my limited experience, never a good thing when it comes to choreographers) Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. The only piece that Singer liked was a short bit of fluff of theirs called “Shutters Shut”. Set to a poem by Gertrude Stein the piece is a very literal visualization of the words of the poem, which although entertaining and presented in an appropriate, rather vaudevillian style, was lightweight and not particularly noteworthy.

Their other two pieces were certainly more ambitious works, although also more irritating. The first piece of the programme was “Said and Done” to music by Bach. The piece was extremely heavy on what I presume is some sort of reworking of hip hop/popping movement in which a gesture begins at a source and then ripples through the body. Popular dance elements rarely (if ever) translate well into classical dance, and this was no exception, and the work quickly grew tiresome. The black feathers raining down was just about the last straw.

The final piece, “Sad Case”, set to Hispanic songs, was little better. The piece, with the dancers in white body paint and spotlights that moved in between movements to watch, a la Pixar’s anthropomorphized desk lamp, was meant to be grotesque and vulgar and comic. But although the dancers were fully committed to the work, with its mimed belly laughs and commedia dell’arte-esque slapstick, everything just felt strained and decidedly unfunny and unmoving.

All in all although on the surface the works of Lightfoot León (as the duo is known) seem to share many of the motivations and characteristics of Kylián’s work, they somehow just come across as pale imitations at best. In general the company performs well and have an athleticism that leaves you completely worn out just watching, although it’s clear that they’re young dancers and, as one would expect after only a year or two in the company, many of them haven’t completely internalized the demands of Kylián’s (or even Lightfoot León’s) vocabulary. Still, it was certainly an enjoyable evening and of a quality of choreography and performance we certainly don’t get to see in Boston often enough.

Well, I didn’t mean for this to be a huge treatise, but as a Kylián fanboy I must proselytize to the masses. The main NDT troupe is actually going to be in Chicago this June 16 and 17 and will be performing works by Lightfoot León, Kylián, and Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. NDT’s website is a bit hard to navigate: even though you can set the language to “English” in the top-right corner of the page it seems that not all the pages have translations and you can’t directly link to anything. But there are a fair number of video clips and if you dig a bit you can find some of Kylián’s works.

Fortunately Kylián also seems to be decently well represented on DVD. The DVD of Black & White Ballets is unfortunately out of print (although Netflix has it), but Amazon has several other DVDs including one of performances from 1984 that’s actually going to be released this coming week. If you’re really looking for a copy of the Black & White Ballets and have a region-free DVD player, this Austrian website has that DVD as well as a 4-DVD boxed set. You can also find a load o’ clips on YouTube, including this excerpt from the fantastic “Fallen Angels”.

Viva Kylián!

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