21st Century Zeitgeist

Paul King and Walter Jaffe of White Bird Dance meet us at the stage of the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall once again to introduce Nederlands Dans Theater 2. It’s been over a decade since this group, better known as NDT2, performed here in Portland. We can feel the gleam visible in their eyes as Paul and Walter ready themselves and the audience for a series of spellbinding, contemporary dance numbers.

Born in 1978, NDT2 is the well known child of parent-company Nederlands Dans Theater, a world-leading name in contemporary dance. However, “world” leading doesn’t quite fit as I’m now convinced they are of another galaxy altogether. The mission of NDT2 is to breathe vibrancy and youthfulness into contemporary dance of the 21st century. Six choreographers fuel this gift of a performance with one common goal: translate a newly collected language of contemporary dance, music, art and reality into the literal zeitgeist.

“I New Then” by Johan Inger

The voice of Van Morrison crackles against the black air. “The Way Young Lovers Do” opens Johan Inger’s piece I New Then, as nine dancers (4 female, 5 male) float back and forth across the bright stage. It’s daytime in the city streets now, fresh acquaintances are bountiful. I can see the thoughtful yet simple composition in the costuming. Dancers are adorned with washed-out, flowing skirts and slacks reminiscent of 40’s fashion. I struggle to describe their bodies gliding from one end to the other as either kitschy or whimsical. However, the mischievous slaps of hands to thighs, semi-contortionist vibes along with other new, playful movements promotes both sentiments. It’s “not a group in unison, but sprouting individuals rebelling against the group,” that I see as my mind and eyes struggle to fixate on just one of the many characters.  It’s utter chaos and my attention span is grateful.

During the first intermission I remain seated in attempt to process. The choreography provides both lighthearted and emotional heaviness that I’m still trying to actualize. Part of me was overwhelmed with the confusion of it all and the other felt like I was witnessing history in the making. And then…

"Shutters Shut" by Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot
“Shutters Shut” by Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot

Gertrude Stein’s “If I Told Him” makes its short appearance in the piece, Shutters Shut by Sol Leon & Paul Lightfoot. This features a male/female duo of dancers dressed like pantomimes in modern black and white leotards. The only color is a smear of crimson that meets two lips. They represent a portrait of Picasso, drawing it solely with Stein’s words and their own bodies as they react to her inflection and pace. The poem is a verbal portrait in response to the unflattering one painted by Picasso of Stein back in 1905. They seem to poke fun at him along with Stein and leave the audience giggling into the curtain call.

I’m hypnotized by these four minutes. In its briefness, NDT2 has managed to carry art, history, and literature on the shoulders of a Lichtenstein motif through a comedic movement. I’m beginning to understand their eccentricity as we travel through the performance timeline. Unsure of what to expect, I stir anxiously awaiting my next impression.

And Sara debilitates. She is the indigenous, Nordic goddess of all that is uninhibited. All that is wild and true fevers, unsettled in her belly. She captures our human form as she “revolves around memories, dreams, emotions, inspiration, loneliness and sorrow”.

"Sara" by Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar
“Sara” by Sharon Eyal & Gai Behar

Somehow, this isn’t the first time I’ve met her but I’m delighted to make the acquaintance again through the eyes of Sharon Eyal, Gai Behar and Doug Letheren. Even with the somber lighting we can see the outline of their stark, bright bodies set back on the stage. A group of seven dancers appears naked, eyes ghostly glazed in synthetic, cataract-like lenses. They flaunt animalistic movements at one end while on the other drifts a strayed female. The sound of her voice chills me to the bone as she mouths the words to the Knife’s “From Off to On”. Moonbeams wave in amber tones across their bodies. Imagine night-swimming, submerged, the light refracting on the water’s surface. From beneath, you open your eyes to these bended rays; an abstracted, eerie beauty.

During Cacti we experience our first and last taste of classical music for the night. We hear from Hayden, Beethoven, Schubert and others. Our dancers appear almost bare-chested, black-capped and in short black pants. Together, bodies are readied like a human orchestra upon their white platforms as they begin to respond to the sharps and flats of the music. Swipes of a violin startle them into position. Along with the music, sounds of breath echo vertebral movements through the group. Moving me too, I’m literally brought to the edge of my seat. Alex Ekman consciously gives us this visual stimulation in order to “challenge the audience to reflect on the way in which art is perceived.”

"Cacti" by Alexander Ekman
“Cacti” by Alexander Ekman

The platforms serve as the dancers’ playthings. They are raised, dropped, rolled and jumped upon, and even hidden behind of until they are collected and stacked. The reflected light on the monument of platform squares creates scattered, geometric shadowing that I know isn’t an accident. Each dancer adorns this colossus with their own emerald cactus potted in white. The mention of color might seem simple, I know, but the amount of life that it injects into this already energetic show is surprising.

In the end, the audience is called upon. “What does it mean?” a voice speaks. “I’ve decided this is the end,” he continues. He’s questioning himself though, as the dancers appear again, slowly inching forward with their clown-like expressions and cacti in hand. He’s toying with us, yes, but he seems just as unsure as we are and it sets a tone of inclusion. We are made to feel a part of it.

Secretly, I’ve always dreamt of becoming a dancer and as I age that vision is carried with me, maturing as if I’ve actually been pursuing it this whole time. I imagine my dance would resemble a collaboration of the movements seen here as it represents a collective of art, language, experiences and personas of past and present.  NDT2’s balance of cellular control is blissfully calculative yet freeing. Each atom within them is not without purpose or utilization. It’s a familiar language they tell this shared story through. It’s one we all speak but don’t practice enough to claim fluency in. If dance is the body’s prose, Nederlands Dans Theater is our proof of poetry.

Jen Scholten

By Jen Scholten

Jen remains curious and inspired by all ventures unfamiliar and unconventional. A transplant from Grand Rapids, Michigan, she continues her creative discovery in an artistically inclined community of dreamers. She functions with a background in photography and an insatiable desire to express her swirling thoughts through wordplay.

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