Nederlands Dans Theater
Endlessly Free: Silent Tides, The Other You, SOON
The Hague, Zuiderstrandtheater
Live streamed 17-19 September 2020
Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT 1) was back onstage and in living rooms around the world for three evenings. In its first live performance since theaters shut this spring, the resolutely named program “Endlessly Free” delivered the company’s undeniable and reliable depth of dancers and dance makers. There was a beautiful constraint to the program – two works with two dancers followed by a quartet. It was intimate and heavy, authentic in its response to this moment in time. By the end, I sat motionless on my couch letting it all sink in and settle, feeling viscerally lost and found, caught in that tender dichotomous space the pandemic has opened – simultaneous joy and sadness, hope and despair, grief and gratitude, where dance stands still and moves forward.
This dichotomy of feeling was present from the moment I connected into the livestream. Watching the audience take their seats in the Zuiderstrandtheater assured me of the “liveness” and shared anticipation, yet it was oddly disconnecting and the sparse audience was a sad reminder of what has been lost.
Two weeks before dance left the stage, I felt like the luckiest woman in the world, boarding a plane from Houston to New York City on March 3, 2020. Two consecutive nights, March 4 and 5, I saw NDT at New York City Center. March 6 I was at The Joyce to see Ballet Vlaanderen (Royal Ballet of Flanders). March 7, Oona Doherty at 92nd Street Y. March 11, Scottish Ballet at The Joyce. Full theaters of coughing audiences. We didn’t know.
So, it was surreal six months later to be sitting in my apartment watching NDT, concerned with things one’s never concerned with in attending live performance – a frozen screen, a knock on the door, a barking dog. The afternoon light from the time difference wouldn’t let me replicate the Zuiderstrandtheater’s house lights going down.
A thin horizontal white line of light the width of the stage glowed behind a barely visible Chloé Albaret, standing in near darkness center stage. She woke me gently from my six-month sleep as the lights rose, revealing her in simple white pants and a bare chest. Medhi Walerski’s world premiere Silent Tides, created during the pandemic, was a shared vulnerability.
For all the metaphors of a thin line, the white tube took on the life of a third character, rose slowly, stopping just over Albaret’s head, rising to the top, appearing again at the bottom for Scott Fowler to step over, and traversing their bodies throughout. The work is a gift of grace, a tai chi prayer of unfolding waves, calm and breaking, a story of oneness and separateness, reaching and missing, legato and staccato. With Albaret’s natural expression of a million stories in her eyes, she carries ours, too. They each find the same pose, a respite, as if sitting and crossing a leg in the casual way men often do, arm resting on the imaginary back of a chair, waiting. Or waiting for each other. The ambient electronic score shifts to Bach as the stage is washed in golden light. She finds the space in his neck to rest her head. They connect arms, weaving through and winding around, a braiding of limbs while locking eyes. The longing for connection, their hands begin to find each other’s bodies. Endlessly free, like new lovers exploring or old lovers remembering, it is as intimate as it is nourishing.
The mood shifted with Crystal Pite’s The Other You, a duet created in 2010 as part of a full-length work The You Show for her own company Kidd Pivot. Two men in matching suits, Jon Bond and César Faria Fernandes, at first seem as one man and his other – his ego, his past or future, his haunt or hope, the one he can’t shake or change. The light is dim, with a soundscape of barking dogs, the hum of cars and honking drivers, heels clicking on the street, and rain. It’s film noir. It’s The Twilight Zone. It’s tense. Uncertain and in the dark, they move through unforgettable scenes and images dancing with a raw intensity I’ve not seen in a while, like caged tigers finally freed.
The man controls his own imaginary strings, the puppeteer and puppet as one. He walks to face his other, their palms connecting as if between glass. They crawl to each other, bristle and growl like two dogs ready to fight. The man’s mouth is open wide and silent as he twists and breaks the other’s neck, cradling him and trembling. They take turns holding each other by the back of their suit jacket collar, each a dog on a leash crawling, barking, growling. “Sit! Heel! Back!” each yell. The man stands, raises his face to the sky and lets out a primal, guttural scream.
A spotlight on him breaks through the darkness and Beethoven’s familiar Moonlight Sonata should have been a relief, but I’d already witnessed the cruelty. What began as so intimate and internal, one man and his ego, The Other You broke open the anguish and brutality of all injustices this year, this lifetime. Two men symbolizing other races, other beliefs, other countries, other choices, in a world filled with oppression and rage and the burden of being controlled and in control, of being tamed. Before the final fade, the other has left the stage, and we are left with the man alone, lying down, looking upward, mouth open wide, wondering who is endlessly free.
Before we got to the place where dance on stage without limits is gone, to the space where a full house is gone, the last work of the evening – Walerski’s SOON from 2017 – was a warning three years ago. Benjamin Clementine’s poetic songs “Adios,” “Then I Heard a Bachelor’s Cry,” “Pound Sterling,” and “Gone” with a prophetic lyric, “Before we all get to the knowing, all will be gone,” could have been the first four songs of the pandemic soundtrack. “Your tomorrow will be endlessly free,” Clementine sings with a heart-wrenching voice that pushes and pulls the tempo and surrounds the dancers’ cool, detached emotions. From the program notes, Walerski gives the voice the leading role, wanting the work to be an expression of “echoing Clementine’s vision of life.” The dancers are simply the vessel, a buoyant quartet here, a still and languid duet there, coming together as quickly as they disperse in the richly textured ensemble work Walerski weaves.
In lapis blue pants and open jackets, the dancers move within the boundaries created by a perfect marriage of set and light – a huge revolving arc with a spotlight at one end and a gold plate on the other. It seems a fitting interplay, this little planet of dancers washed in moonlight or the warmth of the sun, all orbiting in Clementine’s thick atmosphere of sadness and irony. Before we all got to the knowing, these dancers as stars, as fireflies, as the curtain lowered, were gone. Endlessly free.