Paul Lightfoot and Sol León have each spent over 30 years’ with Nederlands Dans Theater: as dancers; as a resident choreographic duo; and, for almost a decade, Lightfoot has been artistic director with León as his artistic advisor. Both are moving on and if it isn’t hard enough to say goodbye to a place that has been home to their dreams and ambitions for so long, then that farewell has an added pathos, taking place in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic with tours and live shows cancelled for the last six months’ of their tenure.
Lightfoot and León have marked the occasion with two new works made separately (but in such close proximity that each credits the other for support), both of which were launched as film premieres simultaneously in mid-July and are freely available via the NDT website (www.ndt.nl) or YouTube.
They have chosen very different ways to mark their departures with contrasting trajectories that are made clear in their respective titles. Lightfoot’s Standby (the words uttered just before the curtain rises) is all about dance and dancers, being a modern refurbishment of Harald Lander’s famous class-based ballet, Études; while León’s parting gift is altogether more personal. She Remembers is unashamedly nostalgic and devastatingly sentimental. It reflects upon the passage of time and the ageing process, partially viewed through the parallel life of the couple’s daughter, Saura, whom we see as a toddler on the beach, a child taking a curtain call with her parents; and in the end as a young adult sitting on the stage, alone in a spotlight, staring whimsically up into the flies. Unsurprisingly, Saura shares her parents’ artistic genes and is due to graduate from RADA, this year.
Whereas Lightfoot used the whole 42-strong ensemble, León chose to share her goodbye gift with just five dancers who are also leaving NDT this year: Jorge Nazal, Marne van Opstal, Roger Van der Poel, Meng-Ke Wu and Sebastian Haynes. Their individual personalities are stamped onto the end of She Remembers with each in turn performing exaggerated facial gymnastics, filmed in black-and-white against an office wall in which the word “OUT” is prominent.
Standby is sub-titled as “a ballet inspired by the limitations and possibilities of social distancing” and each of the dancers was allocated their square metre of space (in the rousing finale the squares become visible as individual lit boxes). Only those who live together were permitted to touch and there are several able to do so. Standby is 45 minutes of exhilarating pure dance split into 18 sections, two less than Lander’s Études but – apart from omitting the 8th and 9th parts of the original (“Mirror Dance” and “Ensemble”) each section largely mirrors the titles and sequence of the Études, although the Mazurka and Tarantella have been reversed. To complete the structural harmony, Lightfoot uses the piano studies of Carl Czerny, in the orchestral arrangement by Knudåge Riisager, as did Lander.
Lightfoot’s work extends and expands upon Jiří Kylián’s legacy for NDT and Standby is full of a similar quirky humour with beautiful classicism that then takes unexpected turns. Kylián is acknowledged in She Remembers, coming on stage for that aforementioned curtain call for Lightfoot, León and daughter, Saura, to present a bouquet and grab some hugs, only the dancers are covered in chalk and Kylián quickly steps back, careful to avoid messing up his clothes. It’s a funny vignette that seems to say a lot. Standby has a poignant dedication to NDT’s ‘beloved maestra’, Irena Milovan, the Croatian ballerina who helped to pioneer ballet in Chile, who passed away earlier this year.
The whole NDT ensemble is superb, not least in that tightly performed expanding group dance that builds to a rousing conclusion with the fast-flowing energy of the final section (Grands Sauts) and I loved that Lightfoot kept the dancers’ obvious joy in completing this exuberant, unified section in the film – it reminded me of the end of Bill Forsyth’s excellent Playlist (Track 1, 2) for English National Ballet. The quicksilver movement of Jon Bond in the consecutive Coda and Petits Sauts sections was extraordinary – here is a dancer who exudes power and delicacy in equal measure; Austin Meiteen and Auguste Palayer danced a sensitive same-sex Pas de Deux Romantique; Cesar Faria Fernandez and Roger Van der Poel were finger-clicking bookends that opened and closed the work; and Surimu Fukushi and Jianhui Wang were embossed as arresting presences in two of the sections.
She Remembers opens with van Opstal in a tutu, awkwardly dancing with her long hair combed forward to cover her face before embarking on an enigmatic pas de deux with Haynes. A young child’s face (Saura?) is superimposed onto the duet and then we travel back through her eye to a harrowing solo by Wu. The work is set to beautiful music – a soupçon of Handel but mostly Max Richter including the title track, from The Leftovers, which has a potent poignancy. With fastidious attention to detail Lightfoot has created a playlist of the music in both works on Spotify (go and listen for some gentle vibes).
I loved León’s filmed dance theatre and what it means. Her absorbing reflection on life’s journey is desperately sad and strikingly uplifting; full of moments dripping with meaning: one powerful image has a barefoot, half-naked ballerina in a tutu (filmed tastefully from the back) lying in a pool of photographs. Visual spectacle permeates every one of these 25 minutes of memories, and we can only but guess at the secrets held within.
The professionalism and creative flair of both works is of the highest order, requiring the participation of many more people that I have words to credit. If there have been better examples of substantial dance films made during these trying times then I have yet to see them.