Let’s get one thing out of the way, even as someone who can’t claim to know much about dance, I can confidently say Nederlands Dans Theatre have created some of the best pieces of theatre you’ll see all year. The evening is made up of four distinctly different works of varying lengths (from 15 to 34 minutes): Safe as Houses, Woke up Blind, The Statement and Stop-Motion. Each performance is also broken up by an interval to allow for set changes. While it doesn’t have any impact on the enjoyment of the show it does slow down the flow of the evening. The first intermission, in particular, seems unnecessarily long. Angels in America this is not.
First up is Safe as Houses by NDT’s very own house choreographers Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot. It’s a perfect curtain raiser, set within a space surrounded by billowy white fabric with only a wall in them middle of the stage. The beginning is relatively subdued, as three dancers in black suits come on, their limbs swinging like human metronomes with increasingly hypnotic precision. Before the performances settles into routine, the initially innocuous wall comes to life, revolving around the stage like the hand of a clock. This first surprise is when the show really comes to life as the dancers glide on, one after another, seemingly out of thin air.
Though the wall risks coming off like a cheap gimmick, it successfully heightens the tension within the performance, acting as an elegant obstacle. The dancers don’t merely dance around it, they dance with and against it too. And though the piece might be classified as ballet it often feels more like a magician’s disappearing act, more than meeting the expectations placed on an internationally-acclaimed company while also delivering satisfying surprises.
If Safe as Houses could be described as having the restraint and poise of a period drama, Marco Goecke’s Woke up Blind is pure film noir. Utilising the most stripped back staging of the evening, the piece appropriately situates itself within darkness, with only a few lights looming in the distance. The defining feature of the piece is the irresistible music of Jeff Buckley, specifically You and I and The Way Young Lovers Do. Rather than merely underscoring the performance, it’s the very heart of it.
While the choreography here might be called minimal, Goecke finds power in these small and often violent gestures rather than relying on sweeping movements or grand theatrics. Refusing to merely coast on Buckley’s talent though, his dancers manage to embody the mournful and pained quality of the song and lyrics, simultaneously restrained, erotic and full of desperation.
The Statement by Crystal Pite is in many ways the standout of the evening. Where most contemporary dance relies on the abstract to convey meaning, Pite uses a script by Jonathan Young to create something narratively complex and literal. In stark contrast to the rest of the show, which is predominately mood and idea-driven, it revolves around a corporate thriller narrative. We witness as four characters scheme, oppress and operate under a corrupt American office space. The ingenuity with the script is, rather than having the the lines read live, it’s cleverly pre-recored, allowing the dancers to dance alongside it, rather than encumbered by it. The dialogue essentially becomes a translation of the dialogue and vice versa. Each and every syllable of the script is mirrored by a wildly unnatural and shockingly perfect movement.
What really elevates the concept is the way it juggles humour and self-awareness with seriousness and terror. It’s probably no accident that it evokes shades of American Psycho, this is a chillingly effective satirical horror of corporations and the banality of evil. A genre-defying and rule-breaking piece of dance that is likely to be the most inventive 20 minutes of anything on you’re likely to see on the screen or stage.
Coming full circle, the final performance of the evening is once again by Leon and Lightfoot, and feels the biggest in scale, epic in spirit and scope. Stop-Motion is both dedicated to and features their daughter Saura in the video projection which hangs over the piece. In many ways, it falls into what you might expect from a company like NDT. That is, it’s big, beautiful and looks expensive. But, for all its ambitions, it often feels like it overreaches. In a programme filled with surprises, often subverting expectations, Stop-Motion feels rather conventional by comparison.
The main feature is that of a princess or damsel in distress, in both the video and on stage. It feels like an attempt to overarch the piece with a grand and operatic narrative, though the actual story is never clear. Where the centerpiece of each previous performance (the wall, Jeff Buckley, the script) felt essential, the video feels shoe-horned in. What it lacks in cohesion it does make up for in wonder though. From the elegant flowing costume of the central figure skirting around the stage to the dust scattered into the air, you’ll find it impossible not to be impressed. The final moments, as the set strips itself bare is particularly exquisite, and the perfect way to end the show.
This diverse tetralogy of works is both a feat of curation as it is sheer talent, inspiring awe, excitement and even laughter in equal measure. For those questioning whether or not to see the show because the dance isn’t their usual cup of tea, you’ve got nothing to fear. Even at its most abstruse, the pure grace and beauty of the human body in motion will have you captivated. This is dance that is accessible without compromising its integrity, for aficionados and the everyman alike.
Nederlands Dans Theatre plays at The Civic until 2nd July. Details see Auckland Live.