by Byron Woods
Nederlands Dans Theater
Through March 30
You can tell Memorial Hall Box Office tries to be forthright about the merchandise it sells.
Across the face of my front row balcony ticket for the performance by the Nederlands Dans Theater, a big black box is printed. In it, the words “Possible Partial View” appear, in white.
But since no similar warnings were printed on what were my original tickets for the show — fifth row from the front of the orchestra — this review necessarily begins with something of a consumer advisory.
If your tickets for tonight’s performance are in the center bank toward the front of Memorial Hall — in rows E or F, say, between seats 21 and 35 — you may very well want to exchange them. If you don’t, you might experience what I did last night, and subsequently have to enact some choreography of your own in the audience during the performance: an impromptu seated version of what I've wound up calling “The Dance of the Broken Windshield Wiper.”
A significant portion of Crystal Pite’s choreography in The Second Person, which opens the program, takes place on or adjacent to the floor of the Memorial Hall stage, as dancers crouching, seated or positioned on their sides or backs explore and excavate the area closest to the ground. In addition, most of Willeke Smit’s eerie puppetry, with figures that might be three feet high, also takes place in that zone.
The problem is this: At least the first six or seven rows in Memorial Hall appear to be unraked — that is, set on a surface with no appreciable incline. As a result, in order to catch a glimpse of anything happening near the stage floor, dance-goers five and six rows back from the stage (in what, no doubt, are usually premium seats) wound up repeatedly craning their necks and upper bodies back and forth, looking for a break among the heads and shoulders of the crowd dead ahead of them.
Voila: The Dance of the Broken Windshield Wiper.
The experience was so frustrating I asked to be reseated during intermission — which the Memorial Hall staff did, to their credit, with professionalism and dispatch. But by then, half of the program was over: a difficulty if one’s job depends on actually seeing a dance work in its entirety—not just the top four feet of it.
My advice: Check your tickets before the performance. Avoid my experience if at all possible.
More on the individual works, after the break.
At first, the title of choreographer Crystal Pite’s THE SECOND PERSON suggests a possible reference to film noir—an allusion to The Third Man, perhaps. That impression is only reinforced by a reel of early images that spill off the stage. Beneath the ominous skies of a black and white cityscape backdrop, an anonymous, official-looking phalanx of about 20 people, uniformly clad in dark suits, gray shirts, dark ties and eyeglasses, walk as a group—quite purposefully—from place to place about the Memorial Hall stage.
Suddenly, out of their number comes an individual woman or man, who stays separate from them long enough to communicate a brief solo. Then, just as suddenly, the horde spirals about the soloist and seemingly spirits her or him away — not entirely unlike a cloud of locusts.
The message is clear. The crowd giveth; the crowd taketh away.
But actor Kate Strong’s spoken word component to composer Owen Belton’s soundscape gives a part of the game in the title away.
For a moment, don’t think Orson Welles. Remember elementary school grammar instead.
In English, the pronoun for second person is the word “you.” And for the duration of Strong’s discourse, you, dear audience member, are ostensibly its subject. It's a literary trick much older than its most famous iteration: the opening of Rod Serling’s prologue to The Twilight Zone (all together now: “You’re traveling through another dimension”). Authors use second person to place the readers in the world of the story, and make us its chief protagonist.
“This is your voice,” Strong slowly intones at the start of the work. “Here you are again. Welcome back.” What’s potentially even more discomfiting? The words appear to come from a wooden puppet, standing behind a miniature mike stand, downstage left.
As a series of individuals (and, occasionally, couples) pull briefly out of the roil, the speaker narrates a slideshow of sorts—not of coming attractions, but ones already past. A picture of you, remembering something as a young woman or man (with the word “young” inflected just so, to indicate that you are young no longer). A view of your hand, reaching back; the shape of your head, neck or mouth.
In some cases, the spotlit person embodying the description is standing, smiling or waving. At least once, we see instead a crumpled figure on the ground. In any case, each description ultimately concludes with something of a warning: “Look,” the narrator says. “The light is changing.” In Pite’s world, time is always passing; memories are always fleeting; and the face of a friend or a lover is always slipping, back into the crowd.
Nederland Dans Theater’s fabled technique is repeatedly foregrounded here. An early solo boasts crisp isolations as a dancer releases a series of leg, arm and wrist joints, swiveling jaggedly downward to the floor, breaking the body into constituent parts. Semi-calesthenic group sequences pair speed with precision, while later solos vigorously sculpt all the way to the outer limits of the dancers’ kinespheres. In joy and desperation, dancers project arms, legs and torso toward all extremities; their limbs slicing and arcing through space in various bids for an almost unimaginable form of independence.
Gradually, Belton’s soundtrack becomes increasingly mechanized. Syncopated samples of car doors opening and closing form the rhythm track, as the hypnotic drone of car engines, heard from inside and outside, are punctuated occasionally by the rush of automobiles approaching, or passing by. As we hear, motion is implicitly continuous in this world. And that fact has its own implications for the kind of relationships we see depicted.
But it’s the repeated appearance of Smit’s puppets, their stand-ins—and, ironically, the most legato of the evening’s moves—that raise some of the greatest questions here. For, even with spoken words this specific, a number of narratives can be read into The Second Person.
Without giving too much away, Pike’s thought-provoking coda suggests a cubist take on the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge, footage in which unseen currents sculpt sea grass underwater — or the video feedback that results when a camera is turned on a television projecting its feed and someone steps into the picture. Depending on how one reads Pike's central metaphor, any of these images might well be relevant.
Is The Second Person more concerned with who exactly might be pulling our strings in this part of the century—or with the fact that those strings, the ones that actually connect us to communities, friends and lovers, seem to be thinning and fraying? Is Strong’s “you” ultimately a narcissist—one whose only real relationship is with themselves? Or do we view here a critique of the velocity of contemporary life, in which only the wisps of memories form an imperfect refuge against the crush of the crowd?
More provoking—instead of thought-provoking — was SILENT SCREEN, Paul Lightfoot and Sol León’s lengthy 45-minute filibuster that closed the evening.
The satire on contemporary trends in multi-media performance that the choreographers have mentioned in their earlier interviews is pretty clearly on display in the work’s initial sequence. Three solitary figures face away from us, looking out to sea as they stand on a stark, stony shoreline, shown in black and white film footage that's projected across three screens spanning the entirety of the stage.
But the iconic moment quickly devolves into something more akin to a high-end watch or jewelry commercial, as dancers Jorge Nozal and Parvaneh Scharafali abruptly initiate a series of so-slick dance moves that not only have no perceptible relationship to the filmed environment, but could never possibly be performed on its rocks. The accompanying music is by—who else?—Philip Glass.
Yes, it’s a knowing critique, if one that seemed to go over most of the audience's heads. Unfortunately, too much of what followed it seemed filler by comparison.
A montage of images suggests a parenting subtext when a child in a red coat (the only appearance of color in the film) approaches the two dancers on screen. A time-elapsed close-up on her face—and an even more extreme close-up on her eye takes us into trippier territory: water emptying down a drain, a room bedecked with old wallpaper and a deep space starscape.
Before these are swept from view a third dancer, Medhi Walerski, enters on stage, provoking a crisis of undiscernible origin. For too much of the next half-hour, these and other expert dancers trade admittedly bravura moves—for the most part, seemingly just because they can.
Yes, breathtaking, world-class technique was extensively displayed — in a section that repeatedly amounted to little more than an insanely advanced dance recital. Spectacle, we are reminded, becomes numbing when it ultimately serves no narrative or theatrical purpose. The opening trio's extended stage time fell into this category, followed by the overlong, slapsticky, but otherwise seemingly content-free quartet of Carolina Mancuso, Iván Pérez, Bastien Zorzetto and Roger van der Poel.
Gratifyingly surreal imagery in a dark sequence featuring Georgi Milev restored our interest in the proceedings, before Nozal, Scharafali and Walerski intriguingly probed various junctures of a relational triangle toward the end.
But again, the question of narcissism arises out of the images and movement we see. When dancers’ characters are so clearly disconnected from footage of the natural world surrounding them, is the underlying point that their — and our — only environmental concern is with our own coolness factor? Is the pristine — but emotionally null — choreography between Celia Amade and Brett Conway (in a center piece that’s a seeming non sequitur to what came before and after) merely the arid, visually sterile depiction of relationships where individuals remain too self-absorbed? Is the final Nozal, Scharafali and Walerski trio a portrait of the inevitable outcome when narcissists try to relate to anyone beside themselves? Of these questions, only the work behind the last question truly sustains our interest.
After the sequences above, Lightfoot and Leon literally hit the rewind button, somewhere between 20 to 25 minutes after they should have, closing a work whose technique, we must confess, dazzled us much more consistently than its choreography did.