Nederlands Dans Theater 2's USA Tour

Nederlands Dans Theater prides themselves on being avante-garde and idiosyncratic, but at many times it felt like the pieces in Wednesday’s program at The Clarice Performing Arts Center were weird for the sake of weirdness, rather than a higher purpose. Luckily, the outstanding technique of NDT 2’s young dancers, all between the ages of 18-23, was so jaw-dropping that it made up for the puzzling themes.

Choreographer Edward Clug’s mutual comfort beautifully explored the intricacy of relationships and their hierarchies, probing both sexuality and polyamory between four dancers. Marionette movements to clock-like ticks in the music showcased the precise yet fluid movements NDT is known for. Dancers kicked their legs impossibly high and then held it there just long enough for you to see the strength behind their flexibility. Two men and two women flirted with each other, regrouping in various arrangements. A one-up-man-ship permeated the stage as they competed for each other’s attention. Right angles- hands, elbows, knees, feet- punctuated their advances. A brief pas-de-deux between the two men ended with them tenderly holding hands, until one of the girls possessively reclaimed one of the men. Left out of the hug, the other man went crazy trying to regain his lover’s attention. Still holding his hand, he desperately slapped his own face with it.

Sad Case with the Nederlands Dans Theatre 2. Photo Credit: Thomas Bowles

Sad Case was indeed a sad case, although it received shockingly enthusiastic applause. Originally choreographed in 1998 by resident choreographers Sol León & Paul Lightfoot, the dance hasn’t held up over time. Set to mambo music with Spanish voice overs, the piece felt vaguely racist. Why were the movements so exaggeratedly and unflatteringly sexual and animalistic? It felt highly uncomfortable. One man consistently walked around with his chest concave and knees bent in a way that can only be described as ape-like. Men repeatedly grabbed their crotches. Both men and women grabbed and emphasized their butts, wagging them to and fro, all while wearing creepy huge smiles a la Fosse’s Cabaret, sometimes accompanied by a manic laugh. It seemed like the kind of number Tina Belcher from the popular TV show Bob’s Burgers would choreograph (if you haven’t see the show, she’s an awkward teenage girl constantly fantasizing about butts, often dancing badly, which you can see here).

Truly beautiful movements in Wir sagen uns Dunkles by Marco Goeckep were overridden by very strange Voldemort-esque whispers, audible breathing, counting, unhinged laughing, and whispering of nursery rhymes like John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt. This was punctuated with lyrics like “you are one of God’s mistakes, you crying, tragic waste of skin” and “run away from all your boredom and whoredom.” Both songs are from the rock band Placebo, the first about heroin addiction and the second about death via capitalism. Dancers looked like they were trying so very hard to be perfect, as their port de bras crumbled into tremors, hands shaking as they moved into a prayer position. Watching felt like being stuck on the subway trying not to make too much eye-contact with the mentally unstable person losing it in your train car, while feeling guilty for being a terrible human being and not somehow helping them.

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM, also by León and Lightfoot, provided a much-needed comedic break in the show, full of laughs and feel-good 40s music. House lights still up, a man in a white suit walked on and off stage the edge of the stage as if being rewound and played over and over, his face lighting up with a smile as if seeing someone he recognized on the street each time. SH-BOOM plays with repeating movements and sayings while infusing different meanings to each iteration. Another dancer in a suit, half white half black, told an entire story by jumping back and forth between each suit color while saying only the names ‘John’ and ‘Marsha.’ There were some beautiful pas-de-deuxs and some group choreography that was fun, but again vaguely racist as the music shifted into the song “Sh-Boom” which is a parody of The Coaster’s song “Life Could be a Dream.” The parody version makes fun of rhythm and blues singers’ mumbling and unintelligible lyrics, having the singers (and therefore NDT dancers) shove rags into their mouths before singing. The show ended with confetti raining down over the audience, each a slip of paper that said “Life Could Be a Dream".”

If you see NDT, you are bound to be impressed by the dancing- the control they have over their bodies is other-worldly. They can manipulate their bodies in all planes and manners you would think impossible. The costumes were unobtrusive and primarily neutral colors, highlighting the dancers amazing physiques and allowing the movements to speak for themselves. Lighting techniques also complemented the dancers’ bodies, or helped tell a story like creating a chicken coop with a door and window on stage (the ‘door’ even opened!). However, the strange auditory components- from creepy laughs to horror-infused whispers- only distracted from the movement. The only piece without them was the first one, but I had no clue what they were trying to tell me or what purpose they served. With such first-rate dancers, we can only hope that NDT’s choreographers can keep up. According to NDT’s website, “every programme includes works of choreographers with a clear message: ‘this is who I am, and this is my aesthetical dance and figurative language’.” Future programs should really examine the messages they are attempting to send and weight it with what is really being communicated to the audience, focusing on maintaining an ability to create interesting pieces without being culturally insensitive.

Val OliphantComment