the Nederlands Dans Theater blows Berkeley away

By Griffin Goldsmith

Gracefully askew

The performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater at Zellerbach Hall October 23rd and 24th was mind blowing. The lighting, sets, music and choreography were all synchronized to a motherfuckin’ t. Sorry for the profanity, but they were just that good. The first dance, sensucht (yearning, longing), begins with a man, a blond Norwegian, standing alone and beneath a floating cube. Let’s refer to him hereafter as “Blond.” Inside the cube is a room with a table, chair, window, door and two dancers. This is a stunning image of separation and you wonder how the two stage spaces will reconcile over the course of the dance. It seems impossible. In fact, everything about the set-up seems impossible, especially when the cube rotates ninety degrees and the dancers inside it have to respond to this radical change in physics. That they do it in elegant coordination with each other, as if this were the most natural thing in the world to do, is one of the wonders of this spectacular troupe and beautiful dance.

In this tumbling room is the lovely Parvaneh Scharafali and a brown-haired Frenchman, Medhi Walerski, hereafter referred to as “Brown.” The way both performers navigate the complexity of dancing in the rotating room is a study in grace and precision. The piece focuses on the physical interaction between them, and through that relationship you catch glimpses of some kind of story, albeit an elusive one. What that story’s relationship has to do with the lone man is one of the tensions and mysteries of the piece. If you believe in the power of design, then this is the troupe for you. The dancing is not only beautiful, but also a function of the set, especially for the dancers in the cube. For them, form must follow function in the most radical of ways. Yet like some nagging detail to an almost completed project, there is always the free man.
And then there's Blond
The dancers in the cube begin in close proximity to each other. Through the clever use of the window, we see that the female dancer is longing for someone else—perhaps it is the lone man beneath her. As the dance progresses the distance between the couple grows and culminates in the exit of both dancers from the cube. Outside the cube, the man confronts the woman. The fact that it happens downstage and out in the open makes it seem more dangerous and unpredictable than their pas de deux in the tumbling room. That’s quite an accomplishment in how we comprehend chaos or unstable situations. In fact, now that I think of it, the dancers seem much more comfortable in the cube than they seem on the stage proper. It is as if the confines, for all the absurdity of dancing upside down or sideways, gives them a sense of order.

What’s really wacky is that for this outside-the-cube showdown, the rest of the company enters. The tension spreads to all the dancers, while retaining a primary point of interest in the two smitten boys, Blond and Brown, and we see a personal conflict become a public spectacle. I guess that’s how they all end up. In the end Blond is victorious, kind of. They return to their original positions, Blond downstage and Brown in the room with his woman. Whatever happened in the full company dance, the relationship between the man and woman has changed from the first moments of the dance. He pathetically attempts to win her back, but his attempts are futile. They cannot even look each other in the eye. In a single defeating gesture, the woman exits the room.

I feel as if we're not in the same room. Is this true, my love?
Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot have done an efficient and beautiful job conveying emotion and narrative through their choreography. With each movement and new use of the set, they are able to convey visceral and tangible feelings. This style eliminates superfluous movement and keeps the dancers incredibly focused. For example, when Brown’s lover denies him, the scene is absolutely heartbreaking. He attempts to embrace the woman, but she refuses him and he turns away reeling in a state of turmoil. A shadow cast from the window heightens his distress—in this dance, the walls can talk.

The second act schmetterling (butterfly) starts with a change in set. Enormous curtains recede upstage until the last two curtains, almost touching, leave a four-foot gap between them. The set provides a multitude of different entrances for the dancers throughout the piece. This is fitting to the musical design, as the songs range from the neo-cabaret love songs of Stephen Merrit’s Magnetic Fields to the hyper romanticism of a full symphonic orchestra going hard on the strings and woodwinds. With each new piece of music comes a new micro performance. The energy is high and the dances are witty. As the dance progresses one notices that the curtains are ever so slowly growing farther and farther apart until the stage is wide open. We begin with a slight glimpse of another world and then suddenly we’re confronted with a massive landscape. Here the dance reaches its climax, with the company gracefully occupying a new terrain. You feel free, but then you ask yourself, “free from what”? The confines of that gap produced so much fun and this new landscape, although vast and promising, is strangely barren.
Oh my God, we're free!
The contrast between these two pieces makes for a stirring emotional journey. Starting with a real and touching love triangle, we enter a world of humor and loss, but then suddenly find ourselves in an empty landscape warily approaching the sublime. The last image leaves us with the time and space to reflect on the skillfully executed spectacle we have just witnessed. If you are ever blessed with the opportunity to see the Nederlands Dans Theater, you will find yourself moved, thrilled and inspired in the most severe manner possible.

When they come, you go!

©The CCA Arts Review and Griffin Goldsmith

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