The house was packed to the rafters at Montreal's Theatre Maisonneuve last Tuesday; it seemed the entire city turned out to witness Nederlands Dans Theater make its return after a twenty year absence.

The company probably needs no introduction; it has one of the best reputations in the international dance world with a rich repertoire of 600 pieces from Hans Manen, Marco Goecke, the great Jiří Kylián and current resident choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon. The dancers – 28 in total from all over the world – consistently display technical virtuosity and a deft sensitivity to the work. 

<i>Sehnsucht</i> © Danilo Moroni
Sehnsucht
© Danilo Moroni
For Montreal's Danse Danse season, the company presented a darkly theatrical piece by NDT associate choreograher, the Canadian luminary Crystal Pite, sandwiched between two works by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León. All three works dished out their fair share of heavy themes; grief, longing, desire served with a side of pathos. As Lightfoot himself notes in the program, “We live in a world that seems to be going slightly mad, so we take our responsibility as artists to use performance to reflect on that even more seriously than ever.”

The first piece, Sehnsucht was inspired in part by the German language. The word sehnsucht means a sense of yearning, and describes a deep emotional state of missing something intensely. You might expect the music to connect more literally with this theme; Shubert, Schumann, Wolf, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven all composed works based on Goethe's poem "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt", for example, but instead Lightfoot and Leon chose other Beethoven pieces; the last two movements from his 5th Symphony and sections from his third and fourth piano concertos.

Lightfoot and Leon's Sehnsucht opens with a couple in a starkly domestic scene bathed in warm light. They are like dolls inside a box that's been set into the backdrop, a box which actually rotates on its axis as the dancers try to compensate to stay upright and make sense of their new world with each new twist. It turns their partnering upside down, literally, but each time they find a way through, counter balancing against the chair, the table, a wall. Another dancer (the incredible Prince Credell) stands downstage, his body communicating passionate despair as he pines for the woman inside the box. Suddenly the stage is flooded with a dozen dancers laying themselves bare with wide open écartées lines and some strong allegro. They function like a Greek chorus; their purpose seems to be to amplify the emotions of our central characters as they perform in sweeping, but unfortunately not perfect, unison. 

Crystal Pite's In the Event was more contemporary in style, and explored how a community of people reels in reaction to a terrible tragedy. A crowd of people huddles around a fallen body, checking for vitals, gnawing with sudden shock and disbelief. This ritualistic checking of the body becomes abstract; they create and recreate the moment of trauma with some electric partnering. The dancers make waves of grief with their bodies, undulating through various stages of mourning. The backdrop is like a giant swath of incandescent tinfoil embedded with glowing lightning that rumbles to life alongside the percussive music, a new composition by Owen Belton. This was dance theatre in the truest sense of the word. Perhaps a little heavy-handed in parts but very powerful, and a successful work.

<i>Stop-Motion</i> © Rahi Rezvani
Stop-Motion
© Rahi Rezvani

The last piece, Stop-Motion by Lightfoot and Leon, began with a projection of their daughter Saura trussed up in black Victorian garb. The choreography was all cleanly-prised limbs very spare – continuing along the well-worn choreographic path of Kylian. But beyond the first few minutes, the video element felt intrusive; it had the effect of dropping a giant television set into the proscenium arch. The dancers did their best dancing under and around it, but I would have preferred to concentrate on the dancing once the artistic premise of farewell and transformation was established. The text felt a little overly-dramatic and consequently Stop-Motion came off a little overwrought. But near the end of Stop Motion, the cyclorama lifts and the lighting rig comes down to head height. The dancers are resplendent in joy and sweat and dust. It was a beautiful moment, and reminded me of why I love this company; their balancing act between the gritty reality of life and the ephemeral/poetic is singular and astounding. No one else does it quite like NDT.