Nederlands Dans Theater
At Place des Arts
In Montreal on Tuesday
Montreal's Danse Danse has lately been signalling the international reach of Canadian choreography by showing how foreign companies handle it. In April, it was Édouard Lock's The Seasons, performed by Sao Paolo Companhia de Dança; this week, it's Crystal Pite's In the Event, given a smashing presentation by Nederlands Dans Theater at Place des Arts on Tuesday.
The 23-minute piece, which NDT premiered in The Hague last spring, combines hive-mind gestures that look automatic or instinctive, with dancing that posits individuals trying to express or understand themselves through movement. Pite has visited this in-between zone before, in pieces such as 2009's Emergence, but In the Event may be her most satisfying synthesis of the two attitudes duking it out in her work.
The piece begins with the hive mind, in a twitching tableau of people huddled over a prone body. The man nearest the floor seems to be mapping the body of the fallen woman, with obsessive quick movements of the hands that recall the abrupt movements of insects. She gets up and walks away, like a spirit on legs, and her departure throws the remaining seven dancers into a fraught, rippling sequence that's like the flexing of a human rope or chain.
Pite is fiercely economical in her vocabulary for this piece, which is danced to a terse percussive score composed by Owen Belton. The core movement is a wide-legged arching reach down to the floor. Performed by the group, this downward lunge has a wave-like look, echoed by the trembling of Jay Gower Taylor's silken, lunar-surfaced back cloth when a dancer drags a hand against it. As an individual move, the lunge points us toward the prostrations of grief and religion.
Pite plays constantly with the distance we're allowed to take from these personal or transpersonal doings. At one point, shadowy figures glide, pose and gesture from the other side of the illuminated cloth, which becomes a magic lantern, a theatre of mere outlines. But then we're given a pas de deux, which explores some of the same material as the group dances, but in ways that are subtly yet radically different. We can't help but invest in them as personalities: There is no hive of two.
The third of these pas de deux, the longest and best, is followed by a solo dominated by the automatic gestural style of the opening tableau. But just when we're beginning to think that Pite's two points of view may never fuse, she returns to the opening situation of the man feverishly charting that fallen body, which is no longer there and never will be again. He ends the piece alone, his helpless staccato gestures measuring the involuntary response to a very personal absence that turns the mourner inside out.
The program opened with Sehnsucht, a joint work by NDT resident choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot. Their movement style imports and transforms a lot from ballet, including leaps and lifts, and claims a big space for the body, with frequent full extensions of arms and legs. These qualities increase the challenge of the opening and closing thirds of Sehnsucht, in which a couple perform together in a box three strides wide. The box looks like a room, with a table, chair, window and door, but it's fixed on a stage wall, and rotates a quarter-turn periodically.
León and Lightfoot cleverly bring all features of the box into play, as resistance, as a place to hold on or even as an escape hatch. Sometimes the box turns during a lift. Forget about balletic suspension of gravity: This is gravity changing its mind in the middle of a phrase. The choreographers also make one witty break in the fourth wall, with the help of a cryptic character lingering outside. Unfortunately, they make the common mistake of playing their recorded orchestral score – several works by Beethoven – at least three times louder than a live orchestra would be.
The closing work on the program is Stop-Motion, another piece by León and Lightfoot, set to a suite of minimalist pieces by Max Richter. The dominant theme here is ambition: the choreographers' apparent desire to make a really big statement about something. What that might be, I can't say. The piece is a muddle almost from start to finish. Lacking the imposed resistance of the box in Sehnsucht, the choreographers' signature style settles into a permutational kind of dancing that is wearying to absorb. All sorts of odd doings are presented in portentous fashion, culminating in a slow-motion projection of an owl in flight. Any dance work that needs a bird video to make its point is not ready to be seen in public.
The greater pity is that these excellent dancers didn't have something more substantial to work on for 34 long minutes. NDT is a great company that deserves great choreography.
Nederlands Dans Theater continues at Place des Arts's Théâtre Maisonneuve through Nov. 5 (placedesarts.com), before travelling to Toronto for a single performance of a slightly different program, at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts on Nov. 9 (sonycentre.ca).