Arts: Nearing physical perfection

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The Independent Culture
WHAT A disconcerting turnout for NDT1's return to Sadler's Wells, the first London visit of the main Nederlands Dans Theater company in 24 years. The audience cheered and cheered; it's just that there were too few of them. Yet NDT1 is a sleek, super-powered engine, admired the world over. Few other companies can boast not one, but two top resident choreographers, or display 32 dancers of such uniform physical perfection, moving with a special mix of smooth plasticity and glittering precision.

Is it modern ballet or balletic modern dance? Who cares when faced with the heart-stirring beauty of Fantasia (1993) by one resident choreographer, Hans van Manen. He is a master of the subtle evocation of sexual relationships, contained within a limpid structure and described in spare brushstrokes. In Fantasia the men and women gradually come together as three couples, each with a pas de deux. The last is the longest, performed in solitude, except for a brief return by the other couples who pass by like fleeting memories.

Van Manen constructs part of his dance out of gestures, exclamatory semaphores that give solid form to the sforzando piano chords of Bach's music. Jiri Kylian, the company's other resident choreographer and outgoing artistic director (after two decades, he wants more freedom to create), uses gesture even more pervasively in Falling Angels (1989), effectively to produce a chain of linked action poses.

Eight women are spread flamboyantly across the stage, their muscles impelled by the thick fabric of Steve Reich's Drumming, played live by four percussionists. (The rest of the evening's music is taped.) The piece's blocks and lines tighten and slacken, sometimes throwing up individuals with their own movement obsessions. But otherwise the dancers are a unison tribe. They are primal shape-makers, stripped to their human core.

To this vision of physicality, Kylian adds the spirituality of Symphony of Psalms (1978). Here his mix of sharp angularities and deep curves become an expression of inner torment, fusing a layer of human pain to Stravinsky's ecstatic religious adoration.

Hands are extended as if to reveal stigmata; the tensely stretched leg suddenly retracts like the involuntary reflex of an impaled animal. But there is also a sense of community and the sharing of suffering in the gathering of the men and women into couples.

Kylian would probably deny he's created a house style, yet his boldly graphic contours and enigmatic, oblique themes have inevitably influenced NDT's younger choreographers. Paul Lightfoot's Shangri-la delighted the audience. I have no idea why its cast should struggle with a log, but Lightfoot has produced a fantastical comedy in which the burlesque movement and use of space has a Kylianesque boldness and sweep.

Lightfoot is English, a dancer and choreographer with the multi-national NDT for more than 10 years. And, at the final curtain, Kylian was keen to single him out, along with another English dancer, Fiona Lummis, and show them off to us in the audience.

Nadine Meisner