Nederlands Dans Theater – Sehnsucht, Schmetterling – San Francisco

Nederlands Dans Theater in <I>Schmetterling</I>.<br />© Courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater. (Click image for larger version)
Nederlands Dans Theater in Schmetterling.
© Courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater. (Click image for larger version)

Nederlands Dans Theater
Sehnsucht, Schmetterling

Berkeley, Zellerbach Hall
23 October 2013

For more than thirty years I have always looked forward to seeing Nederlands Dans Theater, both for the dancers and the choreography.  After Jiří Kilián left as artistic director in 1999, the company has gone through frequent changes of directors and choreographers with mixed results.  This visit by the internationally acclaimed troupe met half of my high expectations – the dancers were as spectacular as ever.  And in stark contrast,  the choreography, by Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, was abysmally disappointing.  It’s getting more and more difficult for me  to find new, refreshingly different ways to voice this truth.  More and more companies suffer from an abundance of talent on one hand, and on the other – it appears there are two left feet tripping over each other.   I have frequently referred to it as the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome (ENCS).  People still rave and the emperor is still naked.

The concepts for each ballet on the program are fine, but the terpsichorean execution is so far afield from the heart of the ideas that I wince.  Sehnsucht (Longing) could have been a very moving piece, especially with its title.  But it is something akin to translating Dostoyevsky using the vocabulary of Dr. Seuss. “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.” Sehnsucht‘s power is diminished when the gestural choreography and face-making ends up looking like a parody or caricature of the real emotions that are intended.  The disconnect between a few classical steps and the modern ones also stops the flow of movement beyond a few measures of music; missing is the greater arc reflecting a long singing phrase.  The dancers do their best to overcome these obstacles, but imagine how they would look with material that allowed them to soar.

The limited scope of dance steps in the first ten minutes will be as much as you get for the entire evening, in both Sehnsucht and Schmetterling (Butterfly).  These prodigious, expressive dancers surely rate language on the level of the poetry by Blake or Neruda, or visual lines found in the drawings of Rembrandt or Matisse.   Without a doubt, Kilián is a very difficult act to follow.  The difference between him and the current choreographers, León and Lightfoot, is that Kilián was always challenging himself, pushing himself in new directions — witness the stylistic range from Return to a Strange Land to Last Moment.  I don’t doubt León and Lightfoot’s sincerity, but rather wonder if they are the most suitable to carry the immense legacy left by their predecessors (Kilián, van Manen, etc).  They are perfectly suited to the current trends in choreography and scenic design, but a far-reaching vision and a unique artistic voice have not yet emerged.

Nederlands Dans Theater in Sehnsucht.© Courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater. (Click image for larger version)
Nederlands Dans Theater in Sehnsucht.
© Courtesy of Nederlands Dans Theater. (Click image for larger version)

The set for Sehnsucht, by León and Lightfoot, is a gigantic rotating cube that is furnished as a room.  The door, window, skylight, table and chair are on different walls, so that one element functions in the right orientation each time the cube turns.  At first, it seems very clever, but after a while, it becomes simply a gimmick.  When the characters’ world metaphorically turns upside down, we don’t need a literal representation of it.  The far greater challenge to the imagination of both choreographer and audience would be to demonstrate the events and narrative through the steps themselves.

The format of Schmetterling is the old let’s-put-some-cute-steps-to-a-popular-song routine.  Tried and true, but boring, too.  Yes, the crowd enjoys it.  Stellar performances by the matchless dancers, but to what end?  I often wonder if I’ve become jaded, then on further reflection I think that styles of choreography have become jaded, lifelessly dragged on long after their initial successes.

I do hope that Nederlands Dance Theater is just going through a long period of readjustment and will soon find an artistic director who has a broad vision of the company’s past and its potential for future growth in positive directions.

About the author

Aimee Tsao

Aimée Ts'ao, a San Francisco dance writer, has appeared in Dance Magazine, was dance critic for the Bay Area Reporter and was the senior ballet editor for the Dance Insider Online. She lets her previous incarnation as a professional dancer (ballet and modern) imbue her perspective and hopes you like the resulting flavour.

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