Emily Molnar, artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater since 2020, presents the senior company as dance-theatre rather than contemporary dance. All three works in the touring programme shown in London are fragmented or ‘unfinished' (Jiří Kylián's description of his Gods and Dogs, made for NDT2, the junior company, in 2008). Molnar believes that what we see on stage is never complete: ‘Any work, like the artists performing it, is a living, breathing organism, changing with each day'. She wants the audience to enter into a dialogue with the performance, making of it what we will.
Gabriela Carrizo's La Ruta, the opening work, is a nightmare. Even the dreamer (Scott Fowler) struggles to make sense of it. Carrizo, co-founder of the Belgian troupe Peeping Tom, credits herself as director rather than choreographer of the piece, enabling the nine dancers to contribute themselves as figments of their collective imaginations.
The action takes place on a darkened stage, shrouded in smoke. Intriguingly lit by Tom Visser, the only clues are yellow lines denoting a motorway, a few rocks and the transparent shelter of a bus stop. The only consistent characters are the dreamer, dressed in everyday clothes, and a roadworker in red overalls and helmet, tending the bus shelter and an electrical junction box. Weird characters emerge sporadically: most meet a deadly fate to the sound of squealing tyres and metallic crashes. Corpses include a stag whose heart is transplanted into a bystander, a dying swan, a suicidal woman in white, an electrocuted woman in red and maybe the dreamer himself, petrified as a statue at the very end.
The soundscore is as incoherent as a bad dream, with snatches of Shostakovich among original music by Raphaelle Latini. The performers ignore the music as they writhe, tumble and scrabble acrobatically. In a surreal pas de deux, the ‘dead' woman in white is manoeuvred in perilous lifts, assisted by almost invisible wires from the flies above. The scene is creepily abusive – limp woman as victim.
What to make of La Ruta? Latin American magical realism (Carrizo is Argentinian), danse noire homage to David Lynch and Pina Bausch, or inexplicable melodrama?
The inclusion of Gods and Dogs as the centrepiece of the programme is a homage to Kylián, long-time director of NDT and its signature choreographer until 2009. It, too, is dreamlike, questioning the distinction between normality and insanity. A protagonist, Surimu Fukushi, ends up having a breakdown, losing control of his limbs and his mind. Above a shimmering backdrop of suspended strings looms a projected icon: hard to discern at first, it becomes the image of a ferocious dog – the black dog of a mental disorder or the dancer's despair of an unfinished career.
In this, his hundredth work for NDT, Kylián uses his familiar device of setting contemporary dance to snatches of classical music (Beethoven's String Quartet Opus 18 in F major). The balletic phrasing follows the music and its electronic interruptions closely, appearing harmonious. Solos give way to pas de deux as eight dancers emerge and vanish through the curtain of shimmering strings, sliding along the stage as though on ice. Sculptural shapes, performed slowly and smoothly, are interspersed with grotesqueries, including facial grimaces. Bodies interlock, limbs wrapped around each other in ungainly netsuke embraces, usually with the woman spatchcocked around the man. The choreography is ingenious and beautifully executed: audiences loyal to Kylián love it; others, such as the late critic Clement Crisp, shrink away in distaste at its distortions. Because of Crisp's dismissive reviews, Kylián came to believe that his work is unappreciated in Britain – though certainly not by sold-out Sadler's Wells audiences. I side with Crisp, while regretting that Gods and Dogs has the only choreography in the programme that displays the dancers' finely honed technique.
Crystal Pite has said of Figures in Extinction [1.0] that it is ‘knowingly incomplete'. She plans another two collaborations with Simon McBurney, director of Complicité theatre company, to complete a trilogy about climate change and the mass extinction of animals. Part 1 consists of a series of very short scenes commemorating the disappearance of many animals and natural phenomena – all our fault because we are both ‘perpetrators and victims'. There are voice-overs by McBurney and his six-year-old daughter, with an actor, Max Casella, spouting the conspiracy beliefs of an American climate change denier. The lip-synching dancer who embodies the caricatured denier, gesticulating vehemently, is a villainous hate figure.
The theme of human impact on the world is very similar to David Bintley's ‘Still Life' at the Penguin Café, made for the Royal Ballet in 1988 and now in the rep. of Birmingham Royal Ballet. Its attraction is delightful music by Simon Jeffes. Pite, however, uses a soulful composition by Owen Belton, with snatches of a soupy song by Perfume Genius. (Why does NDT so often mix and mangle music?) A corps of 21 dancers does the Pite thing, moving en masse as a single entity with occasional breakaways. Twelve swift scenes, introduced by numbered captions, include the Pyrenean Ibex, declared extinct in 2000: a male dancer's arms are encased in huge, curved horns that also suggest wings in flight. Fluttering fingers serve as feathers for endangered birds, flicking hands float as a shoal of fish. Hunched dancers on all fours evoke a mountain caribou herd that has died out in British Columbia. A subspecies of Asiatic cheetah that no longer survives in Iran is depicted by a puppet skeleton assembled into the outline of a hunting cat.
The reproaches about human culpability go on and on as the captions replace each other, faster and faster. The piece ends with a reprise of the child's innocent voice asking whether a bird she saw would ever come back: ‘Has she gone forever?' Though the effect is potent, the message is simplistic, preaching to the converted. There's no option for a dialogue with what's on stage: the programme notes are more stimulating than the production.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).