Dutch courage till the end

Nederlands Dans Theater | Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
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The Independent Culture

Nederlands Dans Theater's closing programme for the Edinburgh Festival brought Arcimboldo 2000, named after the 16th-century proto-surrealist who transformed portraiture into seasonal salads and painted peaches as cheeks and foliage as hair. Created in 1995, but reworked this year, Arcimboldo 2000 calls upon the full power of the NDT conglomerate; 50 dancers from NDTs 1, 2 and 3, five choreographers, plus Jiri Kylian as the sixth.

Nederlands Dans Theater's closing programme for the Edinburgh Festival brought Arcimboldo 2000, named after the 16th-century proto-surrealist who transformed portraiture into seasonal salads and painted peaches as cheeks and foliage as hair. Created in 1995, but reworked this year, Arcimboldo 2000 calls upon the full power of the NDT conglomerate; 50 dancers from NDTs 1, 2 and 3, five choreographers, plus Jiri Kylian as the sixth.

It marks the end of Kylian's 25-year reign as artistic director (Marian Sarstädt took over last month). Sprawling and baroque, it is an insane party that throws together far more contrasted ingredients than coleslaw. Kylian conceived and tossed it together, just as Arcimboldo, in residence at the Hapsburg court, apparently devised and orchestrated lavish events for his imperial masters.

Arcimboldo 2000 sets out to bridge the divide between audience and performers, which was why the Festival Theatre's stage grew a catwalk projection, the dancers sometimes mingled in the stalls, and a part of the audience was seated on stage. Pre-starting time, there were mini-performances in the foyer and an invitation to tour the depths of the Festival Theatre, where mysteries lurked in narrow corridors and secret alcoves. We gazed upon an upside-down man, caught like a fly in silken drapes; a woman encircled by a mechanical flying bird; and other surreal, human sculptures.

Once in the auditorium for the performance proper, Edinburgh was clearly thrilled. Individuals oohed and aahed sportingly at a screen displaying video close-ups of themselves when they were in the foyer, and apparently didn't feel it was exploitation without consent. They laughed when tomatoes rained on the performers and the performers threw them back again. They chuckled at Johan Inger's modern wilis, man-destroyers who batter a victim with an outsize cosh and rip off one of his legs. They giggled at Kylian's three disco couples who displayed their bright outfits like mating plumage and ended up with the men ridiculously stripped to their boxer shorts.

One felt like a terrible grouch not to join in the merriment. As some compensation there were more composers (on tape) than in a week of Radio 3, and most of the dancing was beautiful. Paul Lightfoot did not set his contribution to bagpipe music as an Edinburgh homage, since that was already in the piece's original version.

The bulk of the choreography came from Kylian, and was especially created, apart from two sections repeating extracts from existing works. He gave NDT3's mature dancers a brief but interesting number, a trio of Sabine Kupferberg, Gérard Lemaitre and David Krügel weaving round each other. Otherwise NDT3 appeared as trick images in a video and as animateurs, all cute drollness guaranteed to give me a rash. They enacted a choreographed banquet, formed a silly music-making procession and led a deliberately pointless vocal elaboration about tomato salad.

Massed groupings of NDT 1 and 2 dancers brought visual drama, especially in the finale to Tchaikovsky's flamboyant Suite No 3, when the stage became a whirling mass of red, the colour of the opulent skirts worn by both the men and the women. But then came a voice-over reporting on conflict and tragedy to remind us of sombre life continuing behind the festive fireworks. It was the kind of right-on conscience-pricking that the real Arcimboldo probably did not include in his magnificent displays.

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