A Young Company

April 23rd, 2009 § 0 comments

I vividly remember the first time I saw Netherlands Dance Theater perform, a truly amazing European dance company that travels too little in the U.S. The experience eviscerated my then teenage conception of “proper” dance, believing that traditional dance, or even worse that traditional ballet, was the apex we were universally training toward. Ballet teachers encourage their students to believe that those who choose companies outside the realm of ballet are settling due to a lack of talent. It always seemed odd that the dancers talented enough to learn the movements while granting them a unique life and character, were drawn toward “modern” companies. NDT dancers are not simply good dancers, they are the very best kind of dancers; precise artists who happen to use their bodies to express conceptual ideas. The style of the company is more lyrical and conceptual than Taylor’s, the choreography tends to be balletic rather than athletic, and the stories are conceptual rather than narrative.

All forms of dance consume (destroy) the body long before you would like, aging normally seems traumatic enough, and another interesting aspect of NDT is that they house not one company but three—NDT is the original, NDT II is for the young, and NDT III for the elderly—and each company serves different functions. Looked at cynically or practically, young companies usually exist to feed preferred dancers into the main group, and an elderly troupe is perhaps like Las Vegas is to singers; where dancers go to die. Thought about a little more creatively, however, three companies pulled from three different age brackets parallels people themselves at different ages; everyone has something a little different to offer. Thinking specifically of performers, the young can offer an energy and exuberance that age tempers, those in their absolute prime can offer a kind of athletic human perfection, and older performers are seasoned and experienced; they don’t make the mistakes you predict in others.

It was NDT II I saw recently at the Joyce Theater, a venue that puts you a little too close to the dancers. Reading through the playbill the dancers of NDT II are recruited from all over the world, with no two from the same country. It is an eclectic and young group, the age limit of the company ranges between 17 and 22. These two facts tell the audience a lot about the kind of company this is. The problem with last weekends performance, from an audience’s perspective, is that the troupe forces you to either defend or chastise youth, with the or being the difficulty. Watching, you can see how talented and competitive these 16 dancers are, even though they occasionally fall out of turns and stumble through difficult choreography. Mistakes seemed forgivable but problematic, as it is hard to admire an artist while making excuses for why they are not entirely convincing. The content of the chosen choreography seemed beyond the comprehension of the dancers, the music seemed off and the timing strained. It is impossible to blame NDT choreographers such as Jiri Kylian and Lightfoot/Leon for these mistakes, and almost as hard to blame the young company for dancing them so childishly. I questioned instead why those pieces were paired with these dancers, it seemed to be asking, counterintuitively, a young group to dance like an old one.

One short dance, at the end of the program, featuring two dancers paired with an amusing poem read by Gertrude Stein, seemed to suit the dancers. The program left me torn between admiration and respect for the dancers and the idea behind the company, and disappointment that NDT did not raise expectations by giving their young students dances they could do well. It seems, when they are 23 and a part of NDT itself, there is plenty of time to learn, understand, and express like an adult.

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