June 2013


Peter Conrad

Tiptoeing beyond tulips with Nederlands Dans Theater

The dance company redefines an art form

Three unexceptional words, defamiliarised by their spelling: Nederlands Dans Theater. The name, which it staunchly refuses to translate, defines the company’s identity. Blinking at the oddity, we’re obliged to reconsider what theatre, dance and the Netherlands actually mean.

In that first glance we should probably also register what Nederlands Dans Theater has chosen not to call itself – “modern”, “ballet” or “contemporary”. “Yuck, those awful words!” said Paul Lightfoot, when explaining the company’s unique brand of theatrical dance to me during its US tour in April. He began performing with NDT in 1985, graduated to resident choreographer, and is now artistic director. “We have women who drag their husbands to our performances, and the men are groaning because it’s ballet and into the bargain it’s modern, which makes it worse. Then after two hours they come out amazed, saying ‘Bloody hell, is that what it is?’ We hit them with everything, with the stage aesthetic, the lighting and the design as well as the movement – it’s total theatre.”

Indeed it is. In one of the programs I saw in New York, two dancers worked through a recriminatory pas de deux while trapped in a room that rotated in midair, forcing them to dangle from the window frame or cavort on the ceiling as their container revolved. In another, an androgyne – male from one side and female from the other, like a freak in a carnival sideshow – dashed back and forth, having sex with him or herself while uttering amorous yelps, and then puffing on a post-coital cigarette. The theatre for NDT is a playground of uncaged instincts, expressed by flailing arms, kicking legs, the occasional thrusting pelvis and a variety of non-verbal noises – grunts, coughs, hiccups, primal screams. Actors, by contrast, are mostly content to be talking heads; NDT’s dancers are alive in all their limbs and in every flimsy appendage, so that one episode in a festive extravaganza called SH-BOOM! – to be performed on the company’s visit to Sydney this month – concludes with a little flourish involving the painfully elasticised foreskin of a naked man.

“For us,” said Lightfoot, “dance is like a top sport, pushing the body to its limits. It’s not like classical ballet, where the muscular stress is shrouded and everything has to look effortless and weightless. We show the strain.” Take the case of Solo, a frenetically speedy and competitive relay race for three male dancers choreographed by Hans van Manen, who in 1959 rallied a group of drop-outs from the staid Nederlands Ballet to form the alternative company that became NDT. Mikhail Baryshnikov once asked van Manen’s permission to dance Solo on his own, without two colleagues to relieve him. “Go ahead,” said van Manen, “if you want to drop dead at the end.” The Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián – Lightfoot’s predecessor as artistic director, who recruited him as a teenager from the Royal Ballet in London – said that “our task is to search the extremities of our souls”. Bodily extremities are also brought into play at NDT: Kylián’s phrase makes me recall, with a twinge, the plucked prepuce in SH-BOOM!

The synergy between theatre and dance is unmistakable. It’s trickier to say what’s specifically Netherlandish about NDT, especially since, like Manchester United or Real Madrid, the company scouts for talent globally. At present it has 22 nationalities among its 46 members, and it absorbs influences from everywhere: Kylián was fascinated by the rites of indigenous Australians, whose sacred dances he alluded to in Nomads and Stamping Ground. This eclectic avant-gardism enrages some of the company’s critics, who regard it as un-Dutch. Clement Crisp of the Financial Times recently wondered how the sensible tulip-growers could endure something as “modishly vain and tiresome” as NDT. Shouldn’t they rise up against the interlopers, as their ancestors in the 16th century did against the invading Spaniards?

Lightfoot – it’s his real name, despite its allegorical aptness: even though he no longer dances, he is a nimble, long-legged, whiskery faun – laughed at the notion. “The Netherlands was a revelation to me. I was only 18 when I crossed the water to join NDT. I’d hardly been abroad before, and I was amazed to find a society that was so tolerant, so open-minded.” Back then, Amsterdam was a kind of wholesome, undecadent Berlin: the streets sweetly reeked of legally available narcotics, prostitutes in bondage gear did their knitting while they sat on wide-legged display in the brothel windows, and gay clubs catered to the wildings of male desire. “England is an island, and the mentality there is insular,” said Lightfoot. “Holland is a crossroads. The Dutch were always travellers, inquisitive about what was beyond their borders. Our company draws on that receptiveness and that respect for others. And it helps that there was no venerable institutional history of ballet, as there is in Russia or in London: NDT created something out of nothing.”

Kylián, who left Czechoslovakia after the Russian invasion in 1968, paid tribute to Dutch liberality in a piece entitled One of a Kind, which began as a tribute to the country. “We confer a kind of freedom on our audiences by not telling them what to think, allowing them to create their own meanings,” said Lightfoot. The title of Speak for Yourself – an alchemical wedding of fire and water, during which the dancers are drenched by a rainstorm – could be a mission statement. For related reasons, Lightfoot had qualms about performing Shoot the Moon in Japan. “It’s a domestic piece, but very intense: three couples in a carousel of alternating rooms, struggling with their relationships, a bit like a silent Pinter play. We worried because Asian cultures have different protocols about personal feelings, and don’t give so much away. But we had people coming to us afterwards and thanking us because the dance unblocked something – it set them free emotionally.” Shoot the Moon is one of the dances scheduled for Sydney, where its audience probably won’t require the same psychiatric softening up.

NDT has managed to remain radical for more than half a century: its vitality depends on self-renewal, and on a perio-dic redefinition of what it means – to use those “awful words” – to be modern and contemporary. “The company is a river not a lake,” said Lightfoot, who has a gift for such impromptu aphorisms. “We look at the past, but don’t stare at it.” That past breaks down into three distinct generations. “At first in the ’60s and ’70s NDT was all about making trouble. It was formed by a splinter group that left the national company in Amsterdam and set up an alternative in The Hague. That’s only 30 minutes away by train, so it wasn’t like going from Brisbane to Perth – but in the Netherlands you can’t go any further! The breakaway dancers didn’t want to be respectable, and it was scandals that got NDT noticed. Then came the golden era of the ’80s and ’90s when we were revered everywhere, thanks to Jirí. Now maybe it’s time for me to bust that up a bit!”

In the first phase, under van Manen’s direction, freedom meant liberation – assertive, cockily “out and proud” as the gay slogan used to declare. Van Manen emerged from a subculture that had always skulked underground; casting off discretion, he specialised in behaving outrageously. He grew up during the war, stealing food and chopping wood for fuel from the blocks that held railway tracks in place – a neat combination of scavenging and sabotage. Living in Amsterdam’s red-light district, he became a strictly platonic pet of the local harlots. He gave NDT its reputation for effrontery and raunch when he put a female dancer in high heels in a dance called Twilight, or when in Sarcasmen he had another ballerina appraisingly handle the groin of her male partner. The participants in his Kammerballett danced while squatting on stools: this, like Kylián’s stomping concussion of the earth, was a rejection of ballet’s traditional ethereality.

In the unshockable Netherlands, the initial cultural war was soon won. When Kylián took over, he incorporated a longer and more complex history into the company’s work. Having been born in Prague, he believed that “we are all children of the Baroque” – helpless legatees of divisions created by the Thirty Years’ War, which split Europe into antagonistic religious factions, but also the beneficiaries of a revolution in the arts that abandoned classical symmetry and favoured forms that were kinked, skewed, elegantly distorted. These aesthetic tastes made Kylián twist and contort the physiques of his dancers, as if they were figures in mannerist paintings: he calculated that the body has 275 hinges or joints, and freedom for him came to mean an almost rubberised flexibility, which he extended to the face by prescribing a range of clownish grimaces that Jim Carrey might envy. Two Kylián works are on the bill in Sydney: the surrealistic Sweet Dreams and Sarabande, in which six men act out the contrapuntal involutions of an unaccompanied violin sonata by Bach.

Lightfoot has brought to the company another style that suits another era – less flagrant and confrontational than van Manen, less embedded in Europe’s troubled past than Kylián, more personal and perhaps more self-indulgent or narcissistic. He always choreographs in collaboration with Sol León, who grew up in Spain and joined NDT soon after Lightfoot did. She was initially reluctant to take credit, so Lightfoot acknowledged her contribution by giving their dances titles that begin with S, on occasion – as in Shutters Shut or Silent Screen – doubling the compliment by alliterating. “It was a way of giving her a hidden signature,” he told me.

Lightfoot and León were partners on stage during their performing careers and also a couple offstage, which they no longer are (although they still live under the same roof in The Hague with their daughter). This intertwined but ambivalent history is reflected in their dances, which often concentrate on paired individuals tussling in claustrophobic spaces; critics have grumbled that they are treating themselves to public sessions of therapy. Van Manen derided the reliance on “anguish and suffering” as choreographic subjects: why not disregard the murk of romantic love and instead accept the frank urgency of eroticism? With Lightfoot and León, the problem of adjusting the minds and limbs of two separate human beings – which is, after all, what most dances aims to do – has returned to the agenda.

NDT began as a band of outsiders, rebellious and quarrelsome secessionists. These days, somewhat more cosily, it constitutes a family, with its dual choreographers, as León recently put it, “like Papa and Mama”. According to Lightfoot, the aim of their work is “connectivity”, which in 2007 led them on a detour to the slums of Dhaka in Bangladesh. Here they established an emotional accord with a gang of a hundred children who slept on the streets and used a windowless concrete bunker – laughingly called an orphanage – as their daytime fortress. “These are kids who get no hugs at night: the only time anyone touches them is to shove them out of the way. But they had a tiny cassette recorder, and we coaxed them to show us their moves. On that first day, we danced with them for four and a half hours. We went back every Christmas and during our summer breaks for the next four years, and raised funds to redecorate the place where they hang out. Others who worked for the company came later and gave the kids instruction in hygiene and hairdressing.” It was a project with noble, quixotic intentions, but it illustrates the limitations of NDT’s current ethos. Movement therapy alone is unlikely to save the wretched of the Earth. And does the West have nothing better than a course in coiffure to offer?

NDT’s proper audience, of course, consists not of Third World waifs but of metropolitan hipsters, for whom its fusion of dance and theatre remains invigorating, even uplifting. Ours is a digital age. To discharge essential functions, all we need is a couple of fingers to tap a keyboard or flick across the screen of a mobile phone; except for the brain with its electronic circuitry, the rest of the soft machine inside which we live is slowly becoming redundant. With its gyrations and athletic high jinks, its coilings and unfurlings and its top-gear gesticulation, NDT shows us what we can do with the body and reminds us why we can’t do without it. 

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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