Nederlands Dans Theater 2's new UK tour provides a varied programme of fresh and interesting dance, demonstrating the company’s virtuosity and range.

I new then (2012) by Johan Inger, once a dancer with NDT opens the evening, with two men, in silence, in a single spotlight, one a shadow of the other. Sharp, fast and tightly controlled gestures are punctuated by moments of stillness. The unison gradually breaks and others appear. Guitar works with double bass to begin an extended sequence of 1970s Van Morrison songs. The music meanders: soulful, laid-back but with rhythm always moving forwards. It wraps around you.

<i>Mutual Comfort</i> © Johan Persson
Mutual Comfort
© Johan Persson
The nine dancers travel along with it, not creating a coherent group but (as the programme says) “sprouting individuals who rebel against it”. One man walks, with tiny steps, going nowhere. A couple stare at each other, perfectly still except when each discards, in turn, an item of clothing, much to the (amusing) distress of the boy left behind. Individuals step in and out of a forest of poles along the back of the stage. There are interactions and encounters, but nothing entirely makes sense or becomes a story. The dancers are outstanding, with precise control and huge energy, portraying a vast range of motion. It fits the music: intricate, enveloping, enjoyable but without powerful highs and lows.

The first of two shorter works that follow is the UK premiere of Mutual Comfort by the Romanian choreographer Edward Clug. This is a highly technical quartet, built on staccato piano tempered by cello (specially composed by Milko Lazar). Bodies are held in tension, with sudden, jerky changes of position to create angular, complex poses, and modified classical phrases (such as a kneeling pirouette). It is all energy and twitches with nothing languid or smooth. Alice Godfrey, Katarina van de Wouwer, Miguel Duarte and Hélias Tur-Dorvault show exceptional precision and power. Watching Mutual Comfort is exhausting, fascinating but, for me, not fully engaging.

There are three men (Gregory Lau, Benjamin Behrends and Paxton Ricketts) in Solo by Hans van Manen.  This is a dazzling exhibition of skill, speed and strength, responding to a fierce violin solo (The Correnta and Double from Bach’s Suite no 1). They take it in turns, only one on stage at a time, independently tackling the explosive turns, jumps and positions. It’s a ballet dancer showing off, but too challenging for one to sustain. As tempo and intensity increase, the style becomes more fluid and they begin to extend exits and entrances, watching each other. It ends with the three together, in faultless unison, so fast and perfect that it makes your head spin. Bravo!

The stand-out piece is Cacti by Alexander Ekman. This has everything: eighteen dancers on stage; a set made of blocks, moved and manipulated by the cast; sophisticated mobile lighting; costume changes, cacti and a dead cat. There are clever voice-overs, for reflective narration and to share performers’ inner thoughts. We are bombarded with images and emotions as a voice repeatedly asks, “ but what do you see?”, suggesting  deeper meanings and motives. 

<i>Cacti</i> © Johan Persson
Cacti
© Johan Persson
At first, the ensemble are a “human orchestra”. Each stands on a block, strongly lit, as if a highly animated statue on a plinth. In strong unison, then singly and in sub-groups across the stage, they dance, breathe, stamp, click and slap to provide rhythm for the score (a complex orchestral arrangement of Haydn and Schubert). Suddenly, the blocks are lifted to become walls; heads bob along the top, as if swimming, and bodies appear in between, playing hide and seek. They make the boxes into a hillside and disappear, leaving it as backdrop for a sophisticated pas de deux. As the couple dances, we hear what they wish they could say to each other, commenting live on what they are performing. This is often hilarious (“you always get that wrong”), but also profound, as the duet itself is sublime and the comments down to earth and so deeply human. Everyone then reappears, as “ivory statues” draped on and around the blocks, each making an artful pose with a cactus in a flower-pot, while the narration says that this moment is the heart of it all and asks again, “what do you see?”

Cacti is witty, original, entertaining and spectacular as well as cleverly-crafted and beautifully performed. It mocks its post-modern concerns and ambience, which only makes them more intense. I loved it.

NDT2 is an excellent company, well suited to this varied programme and at its best in the uplifting finale. The tour continues around England (and Edinburgh) through April and May.