The Battle

This September, the Netherlands commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. Allied forces in 1944 advanced right up to the Rhine, but were stopped at the Rijnbrug (the 1977 war drama by Richard Attenborough, A Bridge to Far, is about this famous military operation, Operation Market Garden). Roel Voorintholt, artistic director of Introdans put together an evening-length dance programme, called The Battle, to mark this momentous occasion. The Battle premiered at Stadstheater Arnhem on Friday 27 September.

Not a history buff? No worries. A short documentary film shown at the beginning of The Battle gives you some of the highlights. But for most of the programme, its message is more subliminal, with works revolving around themes associated with battle: conflict and loss, endurance and resilience.

The battle theme gets its most literal treatment in Missa Brevis, a dance piece made by José Limón in 1958 and based on the eponymous music by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who made his ‘short mass’ during the Second World War in occupied Budapest. Its link with the Battle of Arnhem is pretty straightforward: the silhouette of a church ruin at the back of the stage recalls the fate of the Eusebius church in Arnhem, which was heavily bombed during the war. (Interesting fact: the very first performance of Limón’s Missa Brevis took place in an abandoned church). A group of dancers are huddled together, gently swaying from side to side. One dancer (Salvatore Castelli), clothed in black, stands alone.

This opening tableau is the strongest part of the piece. From the moment the dancers actually start dancing Missa Brevis gives away its age (the piece is over sixty years old). As a piece of dance history the choreography is invaluable – Introdans has also performed The Green Table by Kurt Jooss in the past – but the choreography itself feels stuffy and stilted. The choreography follows the music – which includes solo voices, choir and organ – too faithfully. When a female voice rings out, one female dancer is lifted up, when the male choir sings, the male dancers move. The dancers follow orderly formations and predictable patterns, different variations on poses of devotion. The muted choreography feels reserved, like the artwork in a church you can appreciate from afar. Pretty to look at, but not exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff.

Thankfully, what Missa Brevis lacks in excitement, Qutb by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui offers in spades. Larbi Cherkaoui originally tailormade the performance for Natalia Osipova, star dancer at the Royal Ballet in London. Tonight Yulanne de Groot follows in Osipova’s footsteps (there are three different casts), flanked by Alberto Tardanico and (again) Salvatare Castelli. The three of them are wandering around a desolate landscape, sole survivors of an unseen apocalyptic event.

The scenes in which the three of them move together, enveloping each other like one living organism, are breathtaking. Their movements are haunting, sensual, raw. Like human survival laid bare. The moments when Castelli carries both De Groot and Tardanico are especially awe-inspiring.

This may be the best Introdans-performance of a work by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to date (the Introdans repertoire includes a few other pieces by Larbi Cherkaoui, including Orbo Novo, Loin and parts from In Memoriam). Acquiring this piece for Introdans was a bit of a gamble, but it really pays off. Not having a prima ballerina for the female role is actually freeing. It makes the three dancers more like equals, even though De Groot is the definite stand-out. Casting Tardanico as the third dancer was also a smart choice. His long dark hair becomes a character of its own.

The Hunt by Robert Battle (artistic director at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company) also makes good use of Tardanico’s luscious manes. Here the battle is only just beginning. Six male dancers (yes, Castelli is in this piece as well) are getting ready for war, whipped up into a frenzy by the percussive music of Les Tambours du Bronx. Their bare breasts are puffed up, their black culottes are flowing. The men stamp their feet and drum on each other’s chests. It’s hard not to get swept away by the raw energy and pure testosterone. These boys are ready for action!

Yet the biggest surprise of the night, and the glue that held everything together, was Alma, the world premiere by Cayetano Soto. Alma was preceded by a short dance film with the same name made by Soto and filmmaker Inge Theunissen, who also made the introduction video at the start of the evening.

Voorintholt asked Soto to create a new choreography with only the female dancers – since the males were all busy getting sweaty in The Hunt – and to keep the battle theme in mind. Like Missa Brevis and Qutb, Alma is more about the aftermath. What happens when the war/Apocalypse is over? His choice of music is telling. Soto chose Dido’s Lament (‘Remember me, but forget my fate’) the most famous passage from the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, about the tragic tale of Dido, who committed suicide after her great love Aeneas left her to do other, manly, things.

The music may be old – 1688 – the dance is anything but. Seven female dancers are lying on the ground, their bodies seemingly cut off midway by a big black piece of cloth (Soto did smuggle in a couple of men at the beginning, fanning incense into the audience). The women stir, get up, start moving, but something about their movements is off. Their styling is simple yet sleek – the female dancers from the musical Chicago come to mind – but they move like broken mannequin dolls, irreparably damaged by some unknown catastrophe that came before. Still, they endure.

I can certainly appreciate why Voorintholt decided to close the evening off with the testosterone laden fireworks that is The Hunt and to place Alma third. But narratively speaking, it would have been more interesting if the last two pieces had been reversed: starting with the men getting ready for battle, ending with the women dealing with the repercussions. While the men in The Hunt are all energy, all nervous excitement, the women in Alma are more contemplative.

This juxtaposition reminded me of a brilliant monologue by actress Kristin Scott Thomas in the second season of the tv-show Fleabag (which in the Netherlands can be seen via Amazon Prime) on why men seek out war (and pain), and women don’t. If you get the chance, please go see it, or at least Google the speech (which ends up being an impassioned argument for menopause).

Here’s an excerpt: ‘Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny. Period pain, sore boobs, child birth…We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out (…) They create wars so they can feel things….’

In short: men go to war, women pick up the pieces.


Seen: September 27, Stadstheater Arnhem

Photo: Hans Gerritsen.

Choreography: Missa Brevis - José Limón / Qutb - Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui /ALMA - Cayetano Soto / The Hunt - Robert Battle.