De Kunstkamer, the super-production celebrating NDT’s 60th anniversary, premiered on October 3th at the Zuiderstrandtheater in The Hague. An almost two-hour long statement in defence of this rare stronghold: a generously supported, stable, neoclassical dance company without hierarchies, premiering on a big stage, accompanied by a live orchestra… the whole shebang.
A Kunstkamer is a rare object, too. The name of the show, alternating short and sharp choreographic fragments signed by the four in-house NDT choreographers, stems from an equally rare publication, the “Cabinet of Natural Curiosities” assembled by Dutch zoologist Albertus Seba in 1734: a creative compilation of images aiming to display natural objects in such a fashion that would allow them to become something else.
Similarly, here the shorter-than-average ballets, snippets, mouthfuls by Sol León, Crystal Pite, Marco Goecke and Paul Lightfoot are roughly chained in a well-timed structure, all within a moving scenery and accompanied by a sophisticated and diverse light-design – individually devised per snippet. If the aim were to surpass the individual effect of every scene, person, or style, taking our breath away by an overload of collective fireworks… well, it worked. Or: it did during the first part of the show.
It seems as if Paul Lightfoot, also the company’s artistic director since 2011, has asked the other three to nuclearize their particular poetic universes into small capsules without spilling so much as an ounce of radioactive material in the process. Even though the scenes are dedicated to big names from the company’s history, Part 1 of De Kunstkamer is an outstanding showcase of their present strength. In 1995, Hans van Manen – nuclear choreographer par excellence – did a similar thing when he choreographed his Déja Vu for NDT in response to those stating that his style had lost in brilliance, becoming something of a cliché. He punched back with what is considered, still today, to be one of the best pieces in his oeuvre, using each and every one of the stylistic and poetic elements he was known for. “Never betray your craft”, he told a journalist at the time.
Today’s regular NDT-audience members will thus recognize every corner of this cabinet, while newcomers will be stunned by the magnificence of it all. And the dazzling starts with Léon and Lightfoot’s impressive stage design: a mobile, neoclassical-looking hall, with tall windows and several camouflaged doors as entries. Evocative as usual, the Lightfoot-León scenography allows for a loose storytelling framework, a bait for everyone’s imagination luring us into a labyrinth where no thread leads to any exit – and where that is exactly the point.
In the program, Sol León significantly quotes Benjamin Harkarvy, NDT’s original artistic director: “The essence cannot be written or spoken, my dear”. Her particular taste for misleading meanings builds choreographic dramaturgies that always have a noir, cinematic feel to them. She turns the bodies in movement into individual and expressionistic characters, playing with facial gimmicks or asking Jorge Nozal to speak in Spanish and French for no reason. León – stronger as a dramaturg than as a choreographer – theatrically highlights the dancer’s humanity for us. Supported by stunning projections and musical choices – Ólafur Arnalds – in a clear nod to previous works (like Shut Eye, for example) León takes us into dreamlike worlds where there is always a safe spot from where to enjoy what is happening. “Marne?” “Marne?!”, dressed as a red ballerina, Chloé Albaret’s voice calling out for her partner breaks the spell and brings us back to this moment with a smile.
Marco Goecke’s work, on the other hand, is anything but safe. If romantic ballet in the 19th century gently elevated the body of the ballerina to access the realms of the sublime, Goecke smashes the doorway to a fourth dimension to pieces and suspends the shards in time and space. Next to William Forsythe, he is one of the rare remaining choreographers defying the potential limits of a body in movement, unmediated by any screen or digital effect. Through speed, easy as it seems, his work conveys a feeling of vertigo that never ceases to impress. Within this cabinet, dressed in floral patterned skin tones, the NDT2 dancers bring back the fire and some images from previous pieces like Thin Skin. But instead of Patty Smith, they move to the voice of Janis Joplin. To nuclearize Goecke was asking for trouble. And together with the stunning dancers of NDT2, trouble he gave. Unmissable.
One of Crystal Pite’s stronger suits is her way of working with groups. She impresses with magnificent and precise, flowing chain-reactions. One dancer affects the next, the whole gathering of bodies breathes together, achieving that awesome effect of birds or fish moving together, although each and every one of them follows its own path. Her Vancouver Quartet, in the midst of Part 1, allowed us to marvel the intricate yet precise manipulations her visions ask for at close range. A well-placed and warm breather in the middle of the storm, with pianist Jan Schouten gently playing a Schubert andante live on stage.
Together with Lightfoot, Pite also signs the closing of Part 1, dedicated to Anders Hellström, the artistic director who hired her as an associate for NDT in the early 2000’s. Triumphant, on a fragment of Beethoven’s 9th played at full presto, her signature group compositions are here enhanced by the presence of all forty-six dancers of NDT 1 and NDT 2 combined. And the effect is magnificent. Simple chains and combinations, walking, moving around each other, but with a truly grand result. Only the NDT has the ability to showcase this kind of dance-power in a contemporary setting.
Because this is it. A sixty-year old dance company with forty-six dancers. No hierarchies and the economic ability to attract, train and maintain the best dancers in the world, and to create super-productions like De Kunstkamer. Always holding onto this goal: to push the boundaries of what a classically trained body can do, hiring those visionary choreographers who have something exciting to bring to the fore by means of their craft. NDT was revolutionary when it began and now – even though Lightfoot&León’s own work is often overrepresented in each season’s program – it still is a beacon in many ways, a lonely white rhinoceros at the top of the mountain.
PS: The white rhinoceros reference is not a random one: it parallels the closing, projected image from Part 2 of De Kunstkamer, a gloomy repetition of the first in which only Marco Goecke’s work stood out. One can only hope that this image, preceded by four projections of humongous, ghost-like dancing bodies in the background, wasn’t a victimist cry for help, as if the company were struggling to maintain its standards. Even if this were true, whining about it would be very unfair to the rest of the Dutch contemporary dance field, gathered during the same weekend in Maastricht for De Nederlandse Dansdagen (The Dutch Dance Festival) to collectively reflect on how to survive in today’s market-driven context. We are all white rhinos in the end, but NDT should try to pull up the pack instead of isolating itself on the cusp.
Seen: October 5, Zuiderstrandtheater, Den Haag.
Photo: Rahi Rezvani
Choreography: Marco Goecke, Sol León & Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite - dancers: NDT1 & NDT2.