DANCE / A test of Dutch courage: Stephanie Ferguson on Netherlands Dance Theatre, in Britain after 17 years

IT WAS well worth the wait. After 17 years away from Britain Netherlands Dance Theatre stormed into Bradford this week with such theatrical power and technical muscle they make our own contemporary companies look puny. Perfectly controlled, disciplined and sharp, the company ripped through the four very different pieces in Tuesday's opening bill with such high voltage that we hardly knew what had hit us.

Artistic director Jiri Kylian says it was difficult to choose a programme to showcase the company's expertise after so long an absence, but he seemed to get the mix right with three of his own pieces and the intriguing The Vile Parody of Address by William Forsythe of Frankfurt Ballet. This was an oddball opener, the action beginning while the house lights still blazed. (Apparently it is usually danced as the audience files in.) As the lights dimmed, we focused on the set: a man standing with his back to us, holding a branch, beside a seated tramp, left; an Anglepoise-lit narrator reading gibberish in honeyed tones, centre; a shifting collection of dancers entering right.

The piece is a contrapuntal exercise for voice, dancers and a piano playing a Bach fugue. There's some extraordinary body language - feet upturned, heads swivelling like parrots, daring balances and almost drunken totterings. Brigitte Martin's fluid, seemingly boneless opening solo gave way to an exciting duo from Glenn Edgerton and the British dancer Fiona Lummis, beginning with a nudge, hip to hip, and developing into angular moves, arms and legs stiff like shop-window mannequins. The purity of the dancers was oddly juxtaposed with the surreal goings-on of the tramp, gouging his own eyes, sucking his fingers.

Kylian's Falling Angels was a tumultuous bit of choreography, fast, dazzling and stylish, with eight women dancing to Steve Reich's driving piece Drumming, played by Circle Percussion from Holland. This is inspired by Ghanaian percussion rituals; Kylian says the drums evoke dreams, and he lets his soul wander through the shifting rhythms and primal beats. The women enter, running in slow motion, Chariots of Fire-style, neat as Busby Berkeley babes in their black leotards, well-synchronised and slick, brilliantly lit in pools of gold by Joop Caboort. Fresh, ingenious, surprising, Kylian reaches parts of the anatomy other choreographers fail to stir. Shoulders shrug, bodies undulate, necks jerk and fingers splay out, speaking volumes.

The piece is packed with martial arts moves and sporty images - a relentless whirl of high-energy action. The women slither like snakes, glide, leap and tweak at their costumes. Fast and agile and great fun, these angels fall on their feet. Netherlands deliberately has no stars; all the dancers are soloists, and it shows here with some fine dancing from Lummis, Martin and Cora Kroese.

Kylian's newest piece, As If Never Been, is totally different, dramatically staged with a Greek chorus of five dancers perched on pillars moulded in human form (at first you think they are dancers doing headstands). Using a Beckett dialogue about estrangement as a starting point, danced to Orpheus and Eurydice by Lukas Foss, this is a daring, magnetic duet for Nancy Euverink and Patrick Delcroix as the lovers.

Scarlet thread shoots across the stage like a laser. Entwining brilliantly with the wool, never tangling, he reels her in like a fish on the line; then she takes control of the skein. Pushing the dancers to the edge - the company has a spate of injuries just now - Kylian's inventive genius runs riot in this piece, with its elegant contortions: Euverink spinning on the floor like a top, then soaring into arabesque; clinging to Delcroix like a koala or balancing improbably across his lap. At one point she started to climb the proscenium pillars like Spiderwoman.

The evening ended on a light note with Kylian's Mozartian frolic Six Dances. Although it is a witty collection of nonsense, Kylian says there is a more serious undertone - laughing in the face of global adversity. From wigs whisked off on wires, disembodied crinolines gliding round the stage to become costumes for the men, and disappearing heroines sliding into the wings, this is a gleeful romp. Timing is perfect and the whole thing ends in a cloud of wig-powder and bubbles. Mozart would have loved it. Individually talented, the Netherlands dancers make for such collective brilliance it's a disaster that we have been deprived of their company for so long.

Netherlands Dance Theatre is at Bradford Alhambra until Saturday (0274 752000).

(Photograph omitted)

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