NDT are going to continue to be the darlings of Euro-zone dance for some time to come. They made a strong statement to that effect with their mid-week programs on Dance at the Music Center. The company also continues to venture ever more purposefully in the direction of theater with a powerful dance component in its current staging of new works, and less toward dance with theater as their name implies. The company has regularly relied on a kind of franchising of its style and expression with dance makers like Crystal Pite and Lightfoot/Leon (they were the choreographers for the Los Angeles programs) and the broad net of NDT dance alums who now supply the new works and ideas for full scale choreography that was once Kylián’s alone.
The two works on this program Silent Screen (Lightfoot/Léon 2005) and The Second Person (Pite 2007) do have things in common. They are both dark in the psychological sense and in the sense that the stage is often obscured and darkened. The dancing, too, is powerful, complex and imbued with the fierce committed demeanor we have come to expect from NDT. Both works eventually cycle back on themselves with The Second Person making the more powerful case for the return in a transformative finale and tableau that was as unexpected as it was disturbingly eloquent. It is the era of big idea works made whole cloth and designed to blow the top off your thinking and your senses.
Silent Screen makes its statement with film as an integral component. The extended prologue puts two dancers against a three section split screen. They interact with a third figure. It is unclear at first if he is part of the film or a third on-stage dancer. Eventually we see him walk away from the couple towards the on-film sea. The brief interactive illusion was powerfully wrought. Unfortunately the idea is abandoned early on and doesn’t return until the piece concludes but by then, it’s too late to claim any real sense of continuity.
Silent Screen has a smallish cast, ten dancers, who navigate the lengthy piece. It is more consistently filled with movement that looks like dancing but is also overly filled or even stuffed with frantic gesture and action that never seems really to say anything nor is it finely tuned to Phillip Glass’ music ( the prologue was an exception) which was often over amplified It felt more like a musical assault than an accompaniment. There is better out there in the minimal mode but Lightfoot and Léon like their Glass and they gave us plenty of it.
There is no real story to Silent Screen. The two principal dancers, Jorge Nozal and Parvaneh Scharafali give powerfully danced and acted performances. We understand from their gestures and facial contortions that they are on a journey that houses plenty of pain. We don’t know much more and perhaps the suggestion is that we fill in the blanks as we see fit. Ema Yuassa and Brett Conway, as the couple in white, are magnificent in a complex pas de deux with plenty of dangerous partnering included. Medhi Walerski is also a standout as the third entity on stage. Is he the man walking to the sea in the initial film sequence? Possibly. There are finally more questions and uncertainties than answers.
The movement itself blazes with speed and athleticism throughout and is endlessly inventive but sometimes there is almost too much of it. The final profile of the two main dancers against a white screen left little doubt that Silent Screen had ended, maybe more from exhaustion than a resolution.
In The Second Person, phalanxes, and ranks and files of twenty dancers offer up a meditation on the suppression of individuality and the crushing monotony of repetition in daily life. Identically suited dancers (in grays and blacks, and accessorized with heavy framed glasses) manipulate themselves and beautifully articulated and naked puppet, Bunraku style, through much of the piece. The choreography eventually cuts loose with lots of terrific dancing for soloists and pairs of dancers, giving almost everybody a chance to rail against the claustrophobia of sameness.
The piece is infused with indelible images, including the opening, as a crush of dancers escort the puppet across the stage against a howling wind and an obscured, clouded sky. The lighting by Kees Tjebbes was terrifying and filled with dark beauty. It made you feel that you were in a real place and not a captive of the stage. In the final sequence a dancer returns as a stand in for the puppet. Her limbs and body are manipulated as the group moves toward center stage. We feel finally that a surrounding embrace of humanity powers a sense of relief. It was a moving conclusion and one you could believe in.
The music by Owen Belton was more powerful than the text and voice sections. They tended to drain away significance with trite iterations ( this is how you fall, hip, shoulder, neck, head etc.) that might have been better danced in silence. ButI particularly liked the brief musical section set to a scratchy Irish aire played on the fiddle and a few accompanying strains of Irish mouth music. It provided an unexpected context and connection that linked the world of the music of isolation with the Pite‘s main themes of alienation and going it alone.
Pite’s movement leans heavily on the notion of brokenness, with dancers crumbling to the floor as their supports are taken away or their legs give out yet it didn’t come across as heavy handed. She also gives her dancers lots of flailing and full-throttle determined movement to show that they do have backbone and legs to stand on, too. It was a combination of opposing forces you could admire.