Mémoires d'Oubliettes / Studio 2 / Symphony of Psalms

Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT)
50th Anniversary Tour
Sadler's Wells

Studio 2 production photo by Rahi Rezvani

One tries not to miss a visit from the Nederlands Dans Theater. Not always loved by critics, style over substance the usual criticism, but I am rarely disappointed. The sleek swift elegant dancers are always a pleasure to watch whatever the choreography. Their technique is outstanding.

Many talented dancers and choreographers (Ohad Naharin, Nacho Duato) have come out of Jirí Kylián's stable, whose long reign since 1975 defines the company, which combines classical training with contemporary choreography.

NDT II, made up of dancers aged 17 to 22, where the dancers are given three years to make their mark, feeds in to the premier NDT I. Sadly, NDT III for dancers over 40 is no more. And this is a loss.

The director's baton has now passed on to former company dancer Jim Vincent with Paul Lightfoot and Sol León as resident choreographers and Johan Inger and Crystal Pite as associates. That's the update.

Celebrating half a century in existence, NDT brings three new works and three not so new to Sadler's Wells as part of their 50th Anniversary tour in an all too brief programme in two parts.

It would seem I was fortunate to miss Programme One - Subject to Change (2003) choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (NDT II); Whereabouts Unknown (1993) by Jirí Kylián; dissolve in this (2009) by Johan Inger (both for NDT I & II) - as most critics received this offering indifferently to moderately well.

However, I was lucky to catch Programme Two - Mémoires d'Oubliettes, a new piece by Kylián, his final one as Resident Choreographer (NDT I); Studio 2 a new work by Lightfoot and León (NDT II); and Kylián's classic 1978 Symphony of Psalms (NDT I) - for which I am grateful. The dancing as always was superb.

To Dirk Haubrich's original score with fragments from Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question and Samuel Beckett's Worstwood Ho, Kylián's new Mémoires d'Oubliettes was wonderful, the dancers magnificent, the choreography demanding, intricate, intriguing. A charged work of intense precision with an irreverent wit underneath the sombre surface. Space for our thoughts, but not for any blinking of an eye.

The monochrome stage design, looking back to flickering grainy old silent movies, has a breathtaking simplicity that only complex projection, lighting, stage and video design can accomplish. Kylián has said that sometimes he doesn't know what the piece is about or how it comes about, but here the title spells it out. Words within the title tumble out: mères, emoi, oubli, restes. The remains of a fragile life?

Three couples in white outfits enact Beckettian dramas. One sweeps the detritus away - crushed silver cans that tumble from the sky. Fractured sound, fractured memories. Marionettes buffeted by unknown forces and desires.

Movement triggers movement. The shredded backcloth slants and ripples. The music tempo picks up, the tympani pounds, unreadable shadows play on the walls, life pulsates Figures come and go, like the sounds they ebb and flow. Solid positions are held, but the hand trembles. A couple in black - he leapfrogs over her, but she attaches herself to his back. Is she inescapable death?

Kylián opens and closes the evening with works for NDT I. His 1978 Symphony of Psalms to Igor Stravinsky's Symphonie de Psaumes: A la Gloire de Dieu has eight couples dancing the symphony's internal drama. The first movement represents love, the second hope, and the third faith.

Against a wall hung with colourful prayer rugs dancers in puritanically simple outfits display human tenderness and pity - women take the weight of the men on their backs, men cradle their fallen women, and couples face the unknown together.

Purging ecstatic dance, religious rites, men and women move in formation and jubilant duet to an urgent beat. The mystery and frailty of humanity theme seems to bind Kylián's two works, the solemn old and the exuberant new. Better to have gone out on the new.

Lightfoot and León's Studio 2 for NDT II separates the two Kylián pieces. And do the youngsters work hard. The cheers from the audience were proof of their appreciation.

Lightfoot and León also do their own stage and costume design (here in collaboration with Joke Visser and Hermien Hollander) - an integrated artistic vision. But what it's about I cannot tell. Just sit back and enjoy the dance and Arvo Pärt's mesmerising music. And muse on the technicality of the staging with its ramps and mirrors that tilt and reveal the dancers in 360º.

Not only do the eight dancers, five men and three women, two trios and a pair, have to remember their dance moves, but they also have to contend with a rising ramp and a mirror that becomes a low ceiling mapping the stage. The dancers appear and disappear as if entering and leaving the space ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Unsettling perspective, frenetic choreography, unusual lifts in a gripping duet, classical arms and deep pliés, and resting yoga poses, serious and funny - a surreal but joyful mystère.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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