Nederlands Dans Theater is in town, the excitement is palpable in the air for what is their first engagement in New York in nearly a decade, and NDT’s resident choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot are on hand to provide an evening-length concert by combining two shorter works, Sehnsucht and Schmetterling, both of which were originally presented in 2010.

Medhi Walerski & Parvaneh Scharafali in Sehnsucht © Rahi Rezvani
Medhi Walerski & Parvaneh Scharafali in Sehnsucht
© Rahi Rezvani

A game of contrasts is set from the opening moments of the first work, as a cramped, Martha Graham-esque male figure, isolated in an eerie moonray of light, is revealed on stage, only to be immediately pitted against the image of a surrealistically designed room, a cube with forced-perspective walls which seems to float upstage, housing a restless couple. The cube, I should say, is definitely a co-star of Sehnsucht, an ingeniously designed piece of scenery that defies the laws of gravity as it permanently embodies multiple dimensions – a door does not match the orientation of the adjacent window, nor the table with a chair and a lamp hanging above it, that appear to be leaning sideways, that is, until the entire room begins to rotate in wheel-like motion. Fortunately, the choreographers (who are also credited as scenic designers) know better than to allow the theatrics to upstage their work, so the dance that happens inside feels well integrated – an expertly crafted pas de deux between the dancers and the scenery. Back to the contrasts: while both areas of action are confining in different ways, the movement of the solitary dancer downstage (evidently, the choreographers’ favorite soloist, the charismatic Silas Henriksen) is more deliberate, measured in an almost agonizing sense; whereas the two occupants of the room upstage engage in acrobatic, rapidly shifting couplings. There is a sort of a tidal progression to the couple’s entanglements, the alternation of coming together and being torn asunder, a metaphoric representation of a romance on the rocks. A code of sorts is also at play in this work – even though the two dancers in the Magritte-like room appear to be a couple, the man is dressed in black, and the woman wears white. On one level, the black could indicate the griminess of passion, the white embodying a pure, more idealized romance; on another level, the white could identify the woman in the couple as more of a match for the soloist downstage, suggesting a soulmate connection that was either never consummated, or a past flame that was never extinguished. Either way, a sense of longing – indeed the approximate translation of the work’s title – tangibly pervades the piece.

The space gets architecturally reconfigured in the second movement of the piece, creating a different kind of claustrophobia on the stage. The walls come down, obscuring the white room, and enclosing the two main protagonists engaged in an antagonistic relationship, surrounded by the corps de ballet. But let us not be fooled by the appearance of convention here – what makes NDT’s dance makers’ work so refreshing it the innovation they bring to the classical form: irreverent bodies, unbridled theatricality. Even the corps is intentionally rendered androgynous, both men and women being topless.

It is in its final movement that Sehnsucht’s highly theatrical set-up fulfills its dramatic potential: the work ultimately folds in on itself by returning to the earlier “white cube” set-up, exploring the separation and the sense of longing that binds the man and the woman in white in spite of their physical separation. But, apparently, their union is impossible, and in its final moments the man recoils into the contracted position from which the piece started – looking like a wounded spider with its legs drawn in to protect his core.

Curtain? Well no. NDT is irreverent even to theatrical convention: as the lights go up and the audience cheers on, the dancer remains in position even as the stage technicians walk out and begin tearing down the set. There may be a time for the audience to have a break, but there is no proper intermission on the stage. As the changeover continues, the dancer rises in slow motion and proceeds to exit with an equally excruciatingly slow pace. There is not so much as a clear ending to the first piece, nor a clear beginning to the second: the two works bleed into each other. Indeed the protagonist of Schmetterling (“butterfly” in German), a petite Asian woman in ghostly white make up, appears on stage while the curtain is slightly raised behind her to reveal the workers feet, busily preparing the stage for what is to come next.

While love’s travails are ostensibly the unifying thematic element between the two works, the approach to the subject matter is distinctly different. The drama (underscored with classical music) in Sehnsucht is contrasted with the comedic touch that is present throughout Schmetterling. Again, in its trademark defiance of convention, NDT brings an element of clown and mime work to this piece – with most of the bare-legged cast wearing black trench coats and berets, one can almost hear a Parisian “ohhh... l’amour” out there. (And, possibly, a touch of butoh – through the ghostly presence of the aforementioned protagonist, Ema Yuasa.) The work is structured as a series of vignettes – solos, duets, and group sections – punctuated by humor and energized dancing set against the backdrop of contemporary pop/rock music. The scenery (again designed by Leon and Lightfoot) is a receding set of rectangular portals that, as the piece progresses, gradually peel off, one by one, to reveal a stunning diorama of a desert sky. Again, it is greatly satisfying to observe the extent to which the architecture in NDT’s work is organically integrated with the dancing. With its off-kilter approach, the company truly brings much-needed fresh air to the form, reaching into some deeper, murkier physical and emotional truths than most of the ballet out there: while they are working within that genre, they are utterly unafraid to get their hands (or should I say feet?) dirty, in the best sense of the word.