The sublime Nederlands Dans Theater, whose image was burnished to an unmatched brilliance under the masterful artistic hand of choreographer Jiri Kylian, made its first triumphant return to the Bay Area under the leadership of its new artistic director Paul Lightfoot October 23-24 at Zellerbach Hall with an evening of work by Lightfoot and artistic advisor Sol Léon. Yet it would be wrong to say that the company came without the work of the choreographer whose dances have defined the company and shaped the course of contemporary dance -- Kylian was there in the liquid weight of movement, the lapidary contours of the lines, the effortless speed with which the company artists cut through space and achieve a poignant stillness.
Though listed as separate works in the program, Sehnsucht (2009) and Schmetterling (2010) read as a continuous narrative, an impression encouraged by the stark black-white-gray palette of sets and costuming and the overlapping cast, as well as by the choreographed intermission that bridged the pieces.
Sehnsucht opens on the mysterious tableau of three persons, a man in white (Silas Henrikson) crouched almost minerally on the floor, a man in black (Mehdi Walerski) and a woman in white (Parveneh Scharafali) occupying the elevated set piece built in the abstract lineations of a cramped house, door, window, desk, chair each subject to a separate gravity. The reason for this becomes clear when the room rotates around a central axis, stopping to present walls as floors, windows as doors, the raked perimeter inviting the viewer into a space as claustrophobic as a dollhouse.
The two inside do not interact with the one outside and do so only minimally with each other, not making eye contact even while partnering and frequently occupying orthogonal planes. Intimacy and narrative are implied though unfulfilled by the house, the duet, the kiss. The exterior of the house is a zone of light and darkness indicated by the window, a shadow on the wall occasionally marking the silhouettes of the dancers, a void when they reach limbs through it. Walerski leaves the house through the door, reappearing in a regiment of men and women in black pants led by the radiant Henrikson, dancing an extreme homage to classical ballet: a corps in grids, a male trio, an adagio woman and a bravura man.
The steps and lines are classical, favoring attitudes and long extensions a la seconde. It would be ballet, and it would be blank, but for the relentless pace, the virtuosic physicality, and the obvious personality of each dancer. Walerski returns to the house. Scharafali exits through the window. Henrikson returns to his original position, compacted on the floor, a dreamer in a squat as the house recedes.
He remains there as the lights come up for set change, marked by thick legs that stride in workman's boots and jeans, hands that rip the tape from the floor and roll out new marley. It seems a mistake at first, but the legs multiply, black clad, echoing the legs of the corps just seen occupied in purely utilitarian action, and Henrikson stays stoically on the ground, receiving applause as he is finally permitted his exit. He is trailed by Ema Yuasa, pale as a ghost in a white dress and red coat. She simply walks on demi-pointe with the sure slow steps of a sleepwalker, creating stillness where she goes. Her fingers melt through the air in front of her. She assumes natarajasana, the dancer, and falls to the floor. She rolls over a shoulder, flipping the coat over her head, sculpting space in a brief, unemphasized reference to Martha Graham's Lamentation. She hyperventilates, delivers a flurry of kisses to the space on her right. Her fingers stream, trembling, to the floor, crinkle up like claws. She gestures like a mechanized cellist, like a pendulum. She takes natarajasana again and does not fall. It is useless to describe what she does, as her exquisite presence is purely absorbing, utterly entrancing, deeply personal in these abstract gestures in a way that all that came before her did not attain.
After she exits, Walerski crosses the stage in the opposite direction, hinging open a space with his hands. "What?" he mouths at the audience as he stalks out to the sound of rain. This marks the beginning of Schmetterling, or rather, indicates the indefinite borders of a piece that covers life in epic and outspoken strokes in the way that Sehnsucht described it in quiet miniature. The curtain opens on a long nested hallway of black walls in the lightest puff of fog, Walerski in its center. Yuasa enters in white, powdered to a crackle, hunched, aged, debilitated. They dance together, and it's almost macabre, Yuasa as the frail figure of something dying, small, and desiccated next to Walerski's robust form. She passes through a Munch scream, a misery, an exhilaration, laughing, crying, age, youth -- with the rapidity and subtlety of an eyelash tilting. The duet ends with the two huddled in the small end of the hallway as the sound of rain fills the stage again, parting last at the fingers, which might be sad, except the appearance of body parts and then bodies in the interleavings of the hall suddenly overpopulates the space with the humor of a Scooby-Doo chase.
Schmetterling is funny, and the humor has the sting of the quickest wit. Blink or breathe and you might miss a tongue fluttering out from the side of a mouth, a hand darting uncouthly between someone's legs, the toes of a foot waggling saucily as the leg itself stretches a full perfect 180 degrees.
The trickster-swift Menghan Lou bounds and falls and rebounds and whirls with playful good nature before he poses like a wili from Giselle as the long-limbed dancer in front of him sashays in an exaggerated runway strut. In constrast, Myrthe van Opstal dances like a woman in shock, eyes blind as she's lifted by her partner. Schmetterling is more than funny, combining the impulse of pops and locks and the bright ferocity of voguing with the smallest gestures and mood shifts and the largest, flashiest technique, the schizophrenia of modern life and every tic and shock of the postmodern world flashing by, not as illness or disorder but as necessity.
As the company flies through solos and duets and trios, the black walls of the set gradually vanish, slowly exposing a photo-realistic landscape curving around the whole long edge of the stage--clouds that might be dimming or gleaming over a mountain range and a meadow. "Nothing matters when we're dancing," bleats the irony-laden score composed of Magnetic Fields songs as a line of dancers parodying or merely referencing Pina Bausch's Seasons march across the stage, descending apparently unwittingly as the orchestra pit is lowered, and the piece reveals an ecological message, reinforced by the last painful duet between Yuasa and Walerski. The landscape is drawn back, accordioning shut, showing the void--our loss, the blackness after Arcadia, the supreme isolation of the human position in the cosmos. A single dancer stands, chest and arms arching upward, to the audible sound of his own breath, futile and noble as the beat of wings.
Cal Performances presents Nederlands Dans Theater at 8pm October 23-24 at Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley Campus. Tickets are $30-$92; call 510 642-9988 or visit calperformances.org.