It was about time a dance-maker exacted revenge on dance academics. In Alexander Ekman’s 2010 Cacti, a voiceover explains the alleged semantics of the choreography by resorting to theoretical clichés and the known modes of that mental self-pleasuring that many academics indulge in. As the vacuously pompous words bear little or no relation to the quirky actions, the contrast between the taped voice and the dancing becomes explosively comic. Later on, recorded voices are also used to let viewers peep into the minds of two dancers performing a duet, humorously highlighting the kind of artistically detached thinking performers frequently engage in while dancing.
As stated by the voiceover in the first half of the work, this is all very postmodern, but it is postmodernism that ridicules postmodernism in a way that is cleverly refined and never predictable. As someone who has been working in dance academia for the past 15 years, I almost choked with laughter. I was not alone, though: one does not need to be an academic to enjoy Cacti, as there is more to it than just a refined satirical solution. Ekman’s fizzy, mesmerisingly varied and perfectly constructed choreography is a splendid example of dance-making. As such, it provides a unique vehicle for the superbly talented dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 — the ‘all young’ company (17 to 23 years old) spawned in 1978 by Nederlands Dans Theater 1, which was created in 1959.
Cacti was a more-than-ideal conclusion of a triple bill that showed how, many years after the creation of the main company, whatever is produced under the Nederlands Dans Theater label is always first-class. For some such explosive fun might have seemed to be slightly at odds with what is believed to be the company’s traditional aesthetic. Still, humour and fun have frequently been central to the company’s repertoire, starting with Jirí Kylián’s irresistible though seldom performed Symphony in D.
Indeed, Kylián’s work is generally more associated with angst and inner turmoil, with narrative, dramaturgic and choreographic canons similar to those seen in Gods and Dogs, the second item on the programme. Created in 2008, this work stands out for its superb choreographic craft, a true labour of love that results in a now lyrically seductive, now provocatively jagged and angular, multilayered choreography. Few dance-makers in the history of ballet and modern dance have been able to tackle Beethoven’s quartet music as successfully as Kylián, a dance-maker who is bold enough to tamper musically with such a revered score and get away with it beautifully. The dark, somewhat displacing psychological undertones of the work might not be to everybody’s liking, but they add greatly to the multitoned shadings of a work that needs to be seen more than once to be appreciated in full.
Dark tones were also present in the first work of the evening, Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon’s powerfully dramatic Passe-Partout to music by Philip Glass. Here, too, superb choreography dominates a work which, while remaining plot-less, evokes images belonging to both Gothic literature and Strindberg dramas, beautifully framed by the shifting sets designed by the two choreographers themselves. Viewers are thus taken along rooms and corridors of a doomed house, where they can catch glimpses of an impending drama that never unfolds. It is a bold choice for a programme opener, but it is a damn good one, which highlights perfectly the unique sense of theatre that Lightfoot, the company’s new artistic director, believes so firmly and so reassuringly in.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 17, 2012