Nederlands Dans Theater’s second programme of its 50th anniversary touropens with the swansong from its long-reigning choreographer, Jiři Kylián,as artistic director of the company.
For pure dramatic impact, Mémoires d’Oubliettes, like a goodhorror film, haunts you in the most satisfying way. From its title, wegather that these are not good memories – oubliette being a dungeon or placeof imprisonment, from the French word ‘oublier’ meaning ‘to forget’. Thissense is heightened by the terrifying score comprising original compositionby Dirk Haubrich and Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question.
In a more literal manifestation of the horror idea, the audience isstartled by the sudden appearance of the dancers from the shutter-likecurtains. The music’s every jolt is responded. When they walk in a line ontothe stage, hand in hand, they look ecstatically happy; you know somethingwill inevitably go wrong, just as you know what will happen next when ayoung couple is happily singing in their car in an episode ofCasualty.
But this horrible something never quite materialises; what we getinstead is a series of surreal imageries. Against whisperings of Beckett’sWorstward Ho, and with some creepily manic laughter, someone fidgetsuncontrollably; another has a handkerchief in her mouth, which is ripped offby yet another, like a mad dog.
Elsewhere, there’s a gender swap: a man isin a tutu, covering his partner’s mouth as if hiding a secret. Perhaps mostperplexing is the recurring motif of tin cans. We see someone run across thestage in a boa made of cans; someone sweeps cans from the floor as othersdance. At the end, masses of cans fall from above, and our protagonistescapes just in time. Mémoires d’Oubliettes is supposedly inspired by’things that have been imagined but never realised’ – and Kylián’s piecefeels like lots of underlying ideas that never become fully-formedthemes.
Meanwhile, Studio 2, as a piece of physical expressionism, isengaging and high in energy. Choreographic duo Lightfoot León made thispiece for NDT II, the ‘second’ company that houses dancers under 23. Notthat you could tell these are less experienced dancers; the manner in whichthey attack the chorography is admirable.
Seven dancers, in various duets and trios, appear to tempt and seduce ourcentral figure, the magnificent Riley Watts, whose contorted yet veryballetic movements never lose your attention throughout what, at 30 minutes,is a rather long piece. An opening couple in black appears in vain todistract Watts, while the appearance of another duo, less serene than thefirst but more athletic, seems to overpower him as he falls to thefloor.
So there are a lot (and I mean, a lot) of développés à laseconde, and the slow second half loses its opening panache somewhat,and the elevator-style entrances can look a bit daft, but Studio 2 islifted into something memorable from its superb dancers. More fast-pacedaction and less of the agonised, drawn-out développés, please.
NDT’s programme two closes with Kylián’s 1978 piece, Symphony ofPsalms, set to Stravinsky’s composition of the same title. And really,the near-euphoric quality of this piece of religious music makes it hard notto be absorbed into the dance. The movements of the eight couples, light andairy in style, at times reflect the theme, with arms reached out and palmsout, or in open fifth position.
But all is not as it seems, as their open, curved arms are pulled up intostraight parallel, and their open chests are closed in suddenly, theirbodies trembling. There is also a hint of fanaticism suggested as the 16dancers, packed closely together, move in a line. Different couples andindividuals falter and lag behind at various stages. But before we can workout what any of the stumbling couples mean, they are seamlessly incorporatedback into the main group again, as if all is forgiven. Perhaps that is thepoint: it doesn’t matter.
With the remaining chords of the choral music still playing, the dancerswalk to the back in a line, as if they had found something they had beenlooking for, and we are left staring at the huge backdrop composed of,bizarrely, rugs. Perhaps they say something about the company itself:there’s a certain class and grandness about it, but definitely an acquiredtaste.