Wit and dash from Nederlands 2

After more than a decade, the company returns to the White Bird series. It's been too long between laughs.

When the curtain went up Wednesday night on a pair of  Nederlands Dance Theater 2 dancers, standing motionless in a spotlight on an otherwise darkened stage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, I confess my heart sank.

This seems to be the choreographic beginning du jour. Every section of the Russell Maliphant Company’s program last month at Lincoln Performance Hall – like this concert, part of the White Bird dance season – started with some version of that stop-frame gambit. I spent that evening waiting for the dancers to move, travel through space, show some energy, express something other than gloom and angst. Not that the Maliphant dancers aren’t wonderful: they are. But the choreography? Not so much, though it had its moments.

Nederlands Dance Theater 2 in "Cacti." Photo: Rahi Reznavi

Nederlands Dance Theater 2 in “Cacti.” Photo: Rahi Reznavi

On Wednesday, however, it didn’t take long for my heart to lift. More dancers poured onto the stage in Johan Inger’s I New Then, which, as all good curtain-raisers do, announces who these dancers are (seven out of the company’s sixteen).  They are young and energetic, very.  This is NDT’s second company, and the training ground for the main one. They are men and women, and in this piece you can tell the difference: the women wear skirts, what a concept. They are beautifully trained, they have bodies so flexible that the movement becomes boneless, like a cat’s, and in a series of trios, duets and solos, they demonstrate fine-tuned multiple techniques, musicality (in this instance, to a score made up of songs by Van Morrison), distinct individuality as people and, Deo gratia, a sense of humor.

In fact, the entire evening (and it’s quite a long one) is laced with humor, ranging from the sophistication of I New Then and Shutters Shut to the satirical wackiness of  the closing Cacti.

According to program notes, I New Then is about five boys and four girls rebelling against a group. They don’t, it seemed to me, rebel so much as separate themselves; there is little of the aggression we associate with rebellion. At one point, following a tender duet with a man, one young woman expresses her individuality acrobatically, performing a deep backbend and then walking backward on her arms and legs. The mixture of techniques employed by the choreographer, pedestrian movement as they run and jog, the aforementioned acrobatics, African tribal dance-flavored separation of the joints,  places I New Then in the postmodern pigeonhole, nothing more so than the changing of costumes on stage as part of the “story.” That’s something I’ve not seen since the early Eighties, when such dressing and undressing was an integral part of David Gordon’s work. That section, the last one, was danced to Morrison’s Crazy Love, in which one couple, observed perhaps enviously by a man on the other side of a set piece resembling a chain link fence, tore off their clothes, with intense musicality and stylized lust.

One critic has complained that Shutters Shut, company artistic director Paul Lightfoot and resident choreographer Sol Leon’s Terpsichorean take on Gertrude Stein’s reading of her poem If I Told Him, is old-fashioned.  Performed on Wednesday night by Imre van Opstal, who is Dutch, and Spencer Dickhaus, a Juilliard graduate who hails from Minnesota, the pair lip-synched the poem, whose subject is Picasso, while executing jerky little syncopated steps to the sound and rhythm of Stein’s reading, relishing their own dancing as much as the poet savored words. Dancing to text alone isn’t new, of course (although some young Portland choreographers seem to think it is) but then neither is dancing to music, or electronic scores made in collaboration with the composer.  This little dance, only four minutes long, is a perfect illustration of  the equally old-fashioned saying that brevity is the soul of wit: it’s funny as hell, and I, and the audience, loved it.

Sara, an exploration of the spiritual and emotional state of a woman, and choreographed by Israeli dancemakers Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, may be the most overtly serious piece on the program. Nevertheless it contains not a shred of what Louis Horst, decades ago, called the “eyewash of angst,” something we are seeing far too much of in contemporary dance at the moment. Sara, program notes tell us, “revolves around memories, dreams, emotions, inspiration, loneliness, sorrow, caring and sharing, about life.”

The work is performed by seven dancers, this time four women and three men, costumed in flesh-colored body suits, to a lovely electronic score by Ori Lichtik composed simultaneously with the choreography.  It begins with six dancers in a cluster, and one, the Sara of the title, separated from them by a few feet of space, all of them dancing the same steps. Soon the choreography for group and soloist differentiates, and at times the group functions as a kind of chorus, commenting on what the soloist is doing. Some of the score, which includes some vocalizing, reminded me a little of Meredith Monk’s early work. Visually, the costumes made the dancers look at times like Cranach’s nudes (without the hats!), at times like Chinese clay warriors.  Sara was made specifically on this company; like Dennis Spaight’s Theatre Dances, made on the Jefferson Dancers, it is about the young dancers, and shows both their strength and their vulnerability with some highly effective inward turning movement.

Alexander Ekman’s Cacti closed the show with considerable wackiness and a lesson in dance history, its narration sticking needles in the pretentious nonsense often perpetrated by the academy in the name of dance theory. I’m tempted to call it a “kitchen sink” piece, because it has everything in it, but. That’s often a pejorative, but in this instance, everything seems to work. It begins with highly theatrical shafts of light and stage smoke, and a voiceover about technology versus art and the effect of technology on primitive cultures. One male dancer, moving sideways across the stage, refers at this moment to Nijinksy’s Afternoon of a Faun, a piece that was considered primitive (shockingly so) at its 1912  premiere.

The sixteen cast members then arranged themselves in rows, seated on platforms and looking like a gamelan orchestra – and again, according to program notes, become the unseen instruments they play.  This idea isn’t exactly new, either: think of Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, set to Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, in which the two principal women represent the two violins.  Nacho Duato, more recently, did this somewhat differently in his Multiplicity: Forms of Silence and Emptiness, also set to Bach, in which a dancer being a cellist “plays” a female dancer, who is the cello.  In Cacti the dancers stayed seated for quite a while, only moving their arms and upper bodies, but in time they got to their feet and rearranged the set pieces, in the course of which they did some explosive jumping.  The music changed, as did the lights, and the dancers went offstage and reappeared carrying a varied collection of cacti. It was an exercise in Surrealist art that summoned to mind that wonderful Picasso sculpture of a baby carriage containing a swaddled loaf of bread.

The ensemble movement is highly innovative and interesting, but the high point of Cacti is a little duet, inserted toward the end, two dancers rehearsing together, with what they’re thinking appearing in cartoon balloons over their heads that maybe echoes the rehearsing dancers in Jerome Robbins’ version of Afternoon of a Faun. “I can’t do this any more,” she says, and he says, “But what about the cat?” – so you realize there’s more than rehearsing going on with this couple, as a stuffed toy cat falls to the floor from the flies, with a resounding, literally boneless thump. The piece concludes with the dancers engaged in a final and interesting rearrangement of the set pieces, plus the cacti, which are an integral part of the absurdity.

It’s been more than ten years since NDT2 performed here, five years since they performed in New York, where they danced at the Joyce just before coming to Portland.  That’s way too long between laughs.

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