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0 out of 4 stars

  • Nederlands Dans Theater 1
  • At the MacMillan Theatre
  • In Toronto on Thursday

Right from the first moments of seeing Nederlands Dans Theater 1, one feels the presence of greatness. The glorious dancers from Europe, Japan and South Africa make difficult movements seem easy with their superb ballet technique and impeccably trained bodies. Quite frankly, they could dance anything and look good.

Gilding the lily, however, is the repertoire NDT1 has brought for this first Canadian visit in 14 years - the first Toronto visit ever. The three works reflect both the fabled past of the company and its incredibly exciting future. On one hand, there is the iconic master, Kiri Kylian, whose reign as artistic director (1975-1999) put NDT1 on the map as one of the greatest contemporary ballet companies in the world. The new kids are resident choreographers Paul Lightfoot from England and Sol Leon from Spain (who form a husband-and-wife team known collectively as Lightfoot Leon), and associate choreographer, Canadian Crystal Pite.

Although it made for long intermissions long enough to produce some restlessness in the audience, the company did not bring work requiring just leotards on an empty stage. Under Kylian, NDT1 acquired a reputation for strong production values, and that tradition continues. Each of the three works has quite elaborate sets.

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Lightfoot Leon's Shoot the Moon (2006) was absolutely unforgettable. The expression means to try for the unattainable or achieve the impossible and both these elements are present in the dance.

Imagine turning pages in a storybook - this is the set, designed by the choreographers, in which three rooms are revealed by revolving walls. Each wall has doors and a large window. Above the dance space are two projections that show live-cam images of the dance below, but from different angles. For example, the audience sees the back of a man in a shaft of light through a slightly open door while the video shows his face.

The score is a minimalist piano concerto by Philip Glass, and the repetitive music underlines the angst-filled drama of love gone wrong happening in each room. There are five dancers who engage in both solos and duets, but their lives seem to be interlocked. They peer through the windows at each other or walk through the rooms while others are dancing.

The choreography is strong and ferocious. Limb extensions are dramatic, as are the tortuous bends. The dancers reach, strain and grab. They make slicing knife-cut motions across their bodies in their anguish. It is stunning choreography of acute heartache performed with unbelievably supple, fluid movement.

The work is also deliciously intriguing. Is it a series of love triangles, or aspects of just one relationship? Is one woman the common denominator? Or are these five people, singly, and together, symbols representing the abstract desire for more?

It is the wonderful mystery of the work, coupled with the phenomenal dancing, that is the greatness of Shoot The Moon . Karen Kain should run, not walk, to get a Lightfoot Leon piece for National Ballet.

With The Second Person (2007), the ever-fearless Pite has created a mammoth work for 25 dancers. A large backdrop of storm clouds designed by her dominates the stage, while Owen Belton's original score uses an industrial soundscape with distorted folk singing.

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The piece's signature is the use of stick puppets, manipulated by the dancers, that are tiny, yet realistic recreations of men. One puppet stands at a microphone in the corner, intoning a cryptic text written by Pite - different parts of the text aimed at different dancers like interior monologues. The other puppet is a member of the larger ensemble.

The herd is presented in genderless identical suits and glasses. Occasionally dancers break away, called from the crowd by a voice-over. What Pite has done is create a piece that, on the surface, looks at the power of conformity and the struggle for individual expression. We may all want to be a first person, but we can only come in second.

This being Pite, however, the layers are deep. Each of the individual dancers has a different personality. One woman doesn't like being isolated from her fellows, for example. One man is a show-off and clown. Throughout the work, the dancers shed clothing, but they don't shed the herd instinct, no matter how many individual breakouts there are.

Pite's always compelling choreography is filled with bodily distortions. There is nothing graceful, either in the group or the individual. Thrust, cut, slice, bend, roll - the movement is a kaleidoscope of bodies moving against their own easy physicality. The use of the puppets is ingenious, particularly the puppet that is part of the mass as Everyman. The way it is manipulated speaks volumes about inner turmoil as shown through jerky, staccato movements.

Pite's ending is a shock as well as a coup de théâtre. A female dancer dressed in flesh-coloured briefs becomes a live puppet, and the other dancers form three lines behind and beside her, as if they are the sticks manipulating her head and both arms. It is a cynical, yet wonderfully graphic statement about the forces of conformity in today's society.

Designer Michael Simon is responsible for the dramatic design of Kylian's Wings of Wax (1997). A large tree hangs upside down from the ceiling while a spotlight slowly circles it. The rest of the stage is enclosed by black curtains, and the dancers wear black body suits. The music, by baroque composers such as Bach, and modernists John Cage and Glass, is all of a reflective nature.

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In this gloomy world, brought to life by eight dancers, Kylian takes on the Icarus/Daedalus myth about flying too close to the sun. The urge of humankind may be to soar, but we are doomed to fail. There is hope in the ending as a couple appears to bill and coo. Perhaps happiness can be found in the simple pleasures of the Earth.

The piece embodies the utter beauty of Kylian's sculptured, melancholy-tinged choreography. The solos are thoughtful, interior snapshots of longing. In the duets, the lifts of the women indicate the desire to fly. The ensemble work, such as the whirling-dervish quartet for the four men, represents the bottled-up energy in our bones.

That Luminato has brought the great Netherlands Dans Theater to town is what an international festival is all about.

Netherlands Dans Theater presents its final performance tonight at 8 p.m..

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