Nederlands Dans Theater
Shadow’s Whispers: From England With Love, Baby don’t hurt me
The Hague, Zuiderstrandtheater
Live streamed 15-17 February 2020
“It’s complicated to speak about titles,” choreographer Hofesh Shechter said in a taped interview during intermission. He could have been talking about more than just his premiere From England with Love. The evening program’s title – Shadow’s Whispers – speaks to hushed and hidden and confusing things, certainly the creative impetus for the works, but the performance itself was bold and urgent.
Being human is complicated, too. Sexuality, aging, confidence, identity, place, gender, conformity, community, perfection, and confusion weaved through the program. The choreographers and dancers asked us to look longer and harder at these universal human experiences we keep whispering about.
In sibling choreographers (and former NDT 1 dancers) Imre van Opstal and Marne van Opstal’s premiere Baby don’t hurt me, vulnerability is front and center. Each of the seven dancers in briefs and bralettes takes their turn sharing intimate stories – from Scott Fowler’s discomfort in public speaking to Lydia Bustinduy’s hitting-a-nerve share “apparently I’m old, and that is a problem, especially for a woman” to Kyle Clarke’s heart-sinking statement that “maybe some people think that I’m disgusting and a freak.”
They dress and gather for a family portrait with unconvincing smiles in front of a magnificent light design – a thin vertical tower of light tubes with spots rigged the length of it. The light beams turn into branches, cascading to one side or flaring out – a huge light tree over a peaceful mossy green floor resembling a 1970s carpet.
The duets are striking. In a full suit, Fowler counters his shyness with hypermasculine gestures, like a one-man song-and-dance shtick in place, masking a silent rage. “Look into my fucking eyes!” he erupts while Boston Gallacher, still in their briefs, devours the space without pause like a graceful untamed animal, spiraling and extending and lunging over the mossy field. “Maybe there isn’t a word for what I am,” they shared earlier. The two set up the performing artist’s struggle – the real me versus the stage me.
An ethereal voice sings “baby don’t hurt me no more,” conjuring the old Haddaway song, as Chloé Albaret dances her story – validation from men and through sex, but really needing love. In one arresting moment she’s in a headstand, supported only by Donnie Duncan Jr.’s hands at her knees, turning her slowly. Lifting, dragging and swooping her around, he holds on to her by any body part, palpably driving home the loss of self.
The intense group work, anchored by repetitive high-knee jogging in unison all over the stage in starker lights and a driving beat, makes clear how tiring all this hiding is under costumes and personas. Clarke falls away from the group crawling, crying, alone. The more she moved, the more performer gave way to human. The gestures are poignant – flexing her biceps, asking sweetly “am I pretty?” then sighing and rolling her eyes in disgust, fake smiling as she mimics a clapping monkey toy. The sway of her free-flowing dress alone carries sorrow. Such weariness in simply wanting to be free.
Particularly moving is Bustinduy. The dancers are her dressers, her prop handlers, her furniture. She asks us to imagine we are the perfect woman. “Giving birth is easy” she lies with a smile. Her costumes change from suit to Renaissance gown to sparkly dress and the group rips off the last one. Distressed, she tells them they can touch her, it’s okay, she’s a woman. We see her again in the ending scene, crouching in stark light as if staring into a mirror, vainly and grotesquely stretching her face. What a brave experience for the dancers, these co-creators, to dance their stories as themselves.
The costumes change after intermission to proper school uniform – pleated skirts and navy-blue shorts, ties, knee socks and sweaters, crisp white shirts and backpacks. The dancers in Shechter’s From England with Love cluster in a triangle under heavenly white light. Classic English orchestral music leads them in an épaulement prayer. I couldn’t help but think about Alvin Ailey’s Revelations and its intro song “I’ve Been ‘Buked” with the lyric “there is trouble all over this world.”
With a smile on his face, Shechter mentions in the video he’s just poking the bear a little bit. “It’s an interesting moment to torture European audiences with British culture and see what happens.” But he says he has no agenda, it’s abstract. He’s merely creating from energies, from confusion – his own and the country’s. I can’t add clarity to England’s state of affairs, but I can empathize with confusion in one’s country. From the United States with Love would also be a complicated title. Shechter says he’s not preaching, just bringing questions. No explanations in the program, just a color photo of the Houses of Parliament.
Scenes are dark and rainy or bright and full of hope or filled with confusion, sensuality, or raging hopelessness. Through all of this mood shifting, the group work in unison grounds everything – that feverish, wild quality that I wish lasted forever. Over the moving English song “If Ye Love Me,” percussion instruments are layered, which begs for a folk dance, some other place to get lost in. Someone hollers a joyous rallying cry and the dancers let go. Lea Ved, Jon Bond and Jianhui Wang shine in Shechter’s style – raw, human, loose. They fully surrender to the experience, and the depth of their commitment keeps my eyes on them.
But enough with the stiff uniforms. Backpacks get shed and the the pressure cooker is ready to explode. The music shifts dramatically to raucous raunchy rock as the onstage camera spins to Bond, now in a pleated skirt with his preppy tie tied in defiance around his forehead. Classmates circled around him are all unbuttoned and untucked, more skin and bras showing. It’s deliciously naughty.
Bond swaggers down the middle of two lines of seated dancers – a futile attempt at order – and pulls down his shirt to reveal his nipple, gives a slow-motion middle finger then seductively puts it in his mouth. He reaches under his skirt, grabs a tie at the crotch, and waves it without a care. And madly throws backpacks. Wicked and indignant.
Later there’s a cracking, like an avalanche of breaking glass sending the tribe of the prim and proper into a frantic state. Paxton Ricketts mimes holding a teacup and, of course, it’s simply thousands of afternoon teacups breaking.
The ending is as the beginning, backpacks back on, dancers bathed in the same heavenly white light. All seems in order minus the bras showing. Birds chirp in the silence. Hurry along children, off to school. As if stepping on shards of teacups they pause, return to center, and end in first position. Their hands rise, but the lights go off before we know if they’re waving goodbye or asking more questions.