Nederlands Dans Theater 2 Oregonian Review

White Bird’s presentation of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 at the Schnitz showcases Europe’s most ambitious, talented young dancers (review)

Hand-play, lip-syncing, spoken word and facial gestures ran amok in the Arlene Schnitzer concert hall Wednesday night, as the Nederlands Dans Theater 2 hit Portland on its way from New York to San Francisco.

NDT2, up-and-comers who are vying for a spot in what’s widely regarded as the most prestigious contemporary dance company in Europe, is a misleading title, since these are among the most ambitious and talented under-25-year-olds you’ll ever see.

The spirit of this junior company is to experiment with upcoming choreographers as well as youthful talent, but the current tour is almost exclusively made up of NDT alumnae, choreographers with a rich history of working with the company.

Johan Inger’s “I New Then Now” started the evening with two men, dressed in street clothes and gesturing in unison like mimes before the familiar, yellowed atmosphere of Van Morrison’s music washes over the stage.

It’s easy to get caught up in pop music on a dance stage when it has lyrics and the tune is familiar, but it’s a mistake here to link the songs too closely to the choreography. There were a few literal moments, a fall when Morrison sings fall, an explosive shoulder pop or two when a guitar kicks in. But it’s more the uniquely Morrison feeling of immediate nostalgia that Swedish choreographer Inger draws out. It soothes and focuses an audience’s many gazes and makes the dancers’ outlines so intimate they’re already inside your head.

These young people have mastered the utterly quiet quality of effortless tumbling that only the most experienced dancers normally grasp, and the music emphasizes their constant brilliance. The story is beside the point, although it’s a complete package: a group frolics while one is left out; another dancer, searching, finds him behind bars and they become lovers, then she’s trapped too. In the end, everyone gambols about in their dance underwear. A penis joke or two was thrown in (and, big surprise, got a belly laugh).

This easy story was the last of its kind for the night, as heavy self-referentialism and grimaces took over. First came “Shutters Shut,” choreographed by the duo Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot, NDT1 alumnae and current artistic leaders in the NDT2 company. It’s a literal miming of the Gertrude Stein poem “If I told him,” four minutes of drudgery that makes the dancers look ridiculous.

Powdered white, wearing red lipstick and stunning jester-themed leotards, Spencer Dickhaus and Imre van Opstal performed choreography as hard and unflattering as it was devoid of agency for its performers. It’s not as fresh as the 90-year-old poem, and there’s little in the post-modern sentimentality that took over the rest of the evening to recommend the philosophy continuing so whole-heartedly into the 21st century.

After a somewhat excruciating pause in the dark, “Sara” came in as the finale before the finale. It’s a collaborative piece by Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal and DJ Gai Behar, although the music is a composition by Ori Lichtik. It’s lovely, sparse techno, and the dancers, clad head-to-toe in skin-colored bodysuits, moved as one animal, with facial gestures like licking and teeth-baring to match. The trance was broken only when a ghostly voice, both male and female, began singing and the dancer in front lip-synching. She was the tail tip of the animal, or the whisker perhaps, testing the air for the rest, but her jaw, elongating to mouth the words of an abstract song, distracted from the studied and minute aspects of Eyal’s choreography.

Then there was the actual finale, a lengthy number for 16 dancers by Alexander Ekman, another Swede who danced for NDT2 and has been creating choreography for this company and others for several years. First performed in Norway in 2010, “Cacti” replaced Sol Leon and Paul Lightfoot’s 2003 “Subject to Change” for the Portland and Scottsdale legs of the tour.

Irony was more lighthearted here, with voiceovers of critical analysis gently poking fun at the thoughts running through everyone’s heads: the audience, the choreographer, critics and the dancers themselves. The steps poked particular fun at classical music, mimicking its rhythm uncomfortably closely, but there was a sense of crowd vitality and optimism that made this choreography’s inherent skepticism more intriguing than close-fisted.

A central duet involved Casia Vengoechea, a New Yorker whose swanlike limbs and total commitment make her shine in every arrangement, and a voiceover that described the pair’s thoughts as they approached each aspect of their dance. We’ve seen this before, in popular culture and elsewhere, but it’s charming nonetheless.

Finishing with a comical threat, the lights lowered too far toward the floor of the stage; the dancers approached, eyes blazing; cacti were illuminated and a voice begged what we presume to be Ekman’s thoughts: “is this how it ends?” Not quite. After the intricate and precise set of bows, complete with lighting cues, we’re still free to hope these dancers will perform on their own terms someday.

— Celina Russell for The Oregonian/OregonLive

Nederlands Dans Theater 2 Oregonian Review