On Friday night at the Music Center in Los Angeles, Nederlands Dance Theater 1 thrilled; if it were possible, they’d have exceeded their reputation as the best that dance has to offer. A well-known name in contemporary dance, this performance was my first exposure to the company live. In Chamber, by NDT dancer and choreographer Medhi Walerski, and Same Difference and Shoot the Moon, by husband-and-wife duo Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, the world’s best dancers and three of its most innovative choreographers transformed the stage, taking the audience on three distinct trips. The evening was dance theater at its most contemporary, and the dancers occupied the full range of motion and emotion a human body might possess.
Chamber was a tribute to Rite of Spring, set to original music by Joby Talbot that clearly inferred Stravinsky; its dissonance, primal feeling, and unpredictable rhythms felt unquestionably familiar. Walerski’s adaptation featured three central couples, around which a corps of 18 dancers writhed and revolved kaleidoscopically.
Each movement appeared to derive from one that came before it, allowing the choreography to expertly unravel. In the beginning, a single dancer wearing a tuxedo and with glasses and a cane–rare props for contemporary dance–paced back and forth across the stage. He hummed, mumbled, and finally spoke: “fear, hear (or here), man, woman, nude” as the full company entered in a long line, dressed in dark, utilitarian jumpsuits. They abruptly disrobed, revealing sheer, skin-toned leotards for the women and nude shorts for the men. The still-androgynous yet newly exposed humans then treaded menacingly downstage, folding their garments in their arms, shifting side-to-side as they went. A duet began; mirrors came to my mind as a female dancer hovered above her male partner, mimicking his movements or perhaps directing them. Music and movement advanced to bombastic, ferocious heights–heights that were still ritualistic, calculated, and supremely controlled. Towering panels rotated to let dancers on and off stage, and with Jordan Tuinman’s eerie, powerful lighting, another world came to life. Very human, foreign, yet dreamily familiar.
Sol León and Paul Lightfoot’s works were no less transportive. For Same Difference, the stage acquired a curving bridge, a catwalk and a staircase that protruded into the house; dancers exited and entered through the house in this work, not quite interacting with viewers–we were not part of their world–but certainly affecting our space. Huge horizontal stacks of lights ascended and descended, piercing the foggy stage with searching beams. Black and stark white were the colors of the characters’ various costumes–“totally Fellini,” whispered my date, short hand for the surreal, fragmented nature of his cinematic work. Indeed, character development seemed integral: each dancer embodied a distinct idiosyncrasy or intention. A woman slunk forward wearing a single stiletto, a man in a white shirt seemed unable to stop talking in sporadic, multilingual bursts. Another woman, played by a male dancer, was either his mother or his wife, and seemed to swarm after him. One man portrayed a sneering soldier who shuffled across the stage supported by a cane, moving towards a beautiful young woman who had apparently been unlucky in love. They dancers didn’t seem to know each other–but slowly, individuals began to orbit into pairs. Speaking remained a component of the piece, as intricately layered as the choreography: the utterances themselves behaved like counterpoint towards each other and to the steps they punctuated.
The closing piece on the program was Lightfoot and León’s Shoot the Moon. This time the dancing was framed by a revolving set which depicted three patterned rooms, all connected by doors and windows. Two panels above the set displayed live projection that was being filmed behind the scenes. The work was a thorough investigation into home life and intimacy, and as the set carouseled from room to room, we met two couples and a lonely man, to whom one of the women, possessed by fascinating, discomfiting facial expressions, was desperately drawn. Emotions were wound tight in each of the rooms, communicating anger and despair, and the pleasure of an illicit, but possibly true, love.
Throughout the program, the dancers were technically flawless and completely mesmerizing to watch. When assembled in sections in Chamber, the group formed a powerful whole. Then, in the latter two works which focused on individuals, the dancers’ personalities seemed limitless, reaching well past the confines of skin. There was enormous energy onstage, but it was a highly controlled beast, perfectly shaped by the choreographers and manipulated by each member of the company down to every shift of weight, every gesture of the hand, and every arcing, sweeping lift.