Great dancers but something missing: Nederlands Dans Theater

Edinburgh Playhouse
August 23, 2017

Róisín O’Brien


A brief moment of crisis that I experience when one dancer routinely kicks their leg into second position (‘what is the point of doing that? What is the point of dance?’) is remedied later in the evening when a different dancer turns in second position. It is a beautiful turn, the leg clasped up high, the feeling slow, expansive, inevitable. This summarises my evening with the world class dancers of Nederlands Dans Theater: impressive movement but questionable choreography.

Shoot the Moon, first premiered in 2006 by NDT directors Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, is a contained depiction of relationships defined by struggle, secrets or miscommunication. A rotating set illuminates different rooms, dutifully patterned. Each room contains a story, with projections of the same scenes from different angles played over head. The piece became retrospectively more interesting when I realised the footage was live, and wondered at the filmmakers’ ability to run around the constantly moving set and not be seen. Phillip Glass plays predictably on and the dancers are exact: Shoot the Moon begins, happens, and finishes.

The missing door, by Gabriela Carrizzo, is a pastiche, a Bausch-inspired world of horror, with a glitching morbidity to the dancers’ steps. Here, the dancers are in a more theatrical mode, with movement as an aid to characterisation rather than an end in itself. Relationships are formed but the individuals do not latch onto each other properly; bodies malfunction and pause unexpectedly; dancers are dragged, pulled and manipulated against their will.

Nederlands Dans Theater in Stop-Motion by Paul Lightfoot and Sol LeónPhoto Rahi Rezvani
Nederlands Dans Theater in Stop-Motion by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León
Photo Rahi Rezvani

There is a particularly impressive scene where one of the many doors framing the set blows open and the dancers all flail and flutter about the stage, mimicking the lifeless paper blowing around them. The missing door’s most formally challenging moment is perhaps, however, its bow, where the dancers stay in character.  It’s a potentially disturbing set-up but I struggle to see what it is that has gone wrong in this world, and why or if I should care.

Stop-motion, also choreographed by León and Lightfoot (in what appears to me an odd programming choice) lives in a purer, more abstract plane. I relax into it more, although the length could prove tedious for some. The dancers are in predominantly white, silky costumes, close to lingerie for the some of the female dancers, and they move with a likewise ethereal, syrupy consistency.

Groups of dancers weave around each other, sometimes in sync, and pas de deux resist, though don’t deny, the simplistic ‘man lifts woman’ paradigm in favour of more intricate, varied nuances. Through all this, footage of León and Lightfoot’s daughter hangs serenely above. If The missing door felt like a VCR skipping, Stop-motion is the ultra high-def, slow motion image capture of the digital camera, with the always beautiful but overused music of Max Richter heavily sitting on top.

It is no doubt unfair to continually compare León and Lightfoot to Jiří Kylián, a previous director and chief choreographer of the company, but it is hard not to see his particular inflections and minor absurdities in some of the movements’ eccentricities. León and Lightfoot’s individual stamp is perhaps clearer in Stop-motion, where there is a crisper, starker monochromatic sensibility, rather than the lush, romantic hues of some of Kylián’s work.

With NDT2, you are buoyed up by their spongeyness and youth. I expected a solidity and gravitas from the older performers, but the choreography shows them as excellent dancers, nothing more. A confusing evening, with a lot of talent but something missing.