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Dozens of Cultures in One Dance Company

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Nov 11, 2016

Nederlands Dans Theater brings new work to New York


Bringing his company to New York means a lot to Paul Lightfoot, artistic director of Nederlands Dans Theater. So plenty of thought and careful planning went into the program of four dances the company performs at City Center from November 16-19.

He had a lot of work to choose from. NDT, based in The Hague, is an incessantly creative enterprise; its ready-for-anything dancers eagerly apply their prodigious technical skills to a wide range of contemporary choreography. "NDT's structure puts so much focus on new works; we're creating about ten world premieres a season," says the British-born Lightfoot during a recent phone interview. "I wanted to get the real strong voices of the moment out there. It's a constantly evolving company."

He and Sol Léon, who choreograph as a team, are the "house choreographers" and provide much of the repertory. (Both danced with NDT before transitioning to their current roles.) Two of their pieces bookend the City Center program, which also includes the most recent efforts by two of NDT's associate choreographers, Crystal Pite and Marco Goecke. Both of the latter artists have an ongoing connection with the troupe, rather than flying in for a one-time gig.

"They sign a contract for a period of time, usually three years, and choreograph once each season for the company," Lightfoot says. "It's a way of establishing more of a relationship. They get to know the dancers."

The quartet of choreographers is a typically international one – Léon is Spanish, Pite is Canadian, and Goecke is German – that mirrors the multinational roster of dancers. Between the 28-member main company and NDT 2, the 16-member junior ensemble, 22 countries are represented. "Right now, Americans are winning the nationality race – we have eight between the two companies," Lightfoot quips. However, he adds,"we audition all over. It's very important to me that it stays diverse, that there's no pattern. I think that's vital to the kind of company we want to be – to include all those different cultural stories. All of their ideas and histories are coming with them. That's part of the tapestry of the company."


Pite, who has her own Vancouver-based troupe, has become a major figure in recent years. Many companies covet her works, but she's selective about her freelance projects. A couple of her dances recently seen in New York feature inventive massed groupings, but this time around, she's created "The Statement," a more intimate work for four dancers.

"Crystal has been working with NDT for ten years – first as a guest choreographer, then as an associate," Lightfoot says. "She's a meticulous woman, very focused. She's really at the top of her game. I think she's one of the most important voices in the dance world right now. She asks a lot, and makes people give so much more than they're even aware they're capable."

"The Statement" incorporates a dramatic text by a playwright, Jonathan Young. Before arriving in The Hague, Pite had Canadian actors record the text, which is heard during the piece along with a score by her frequent collaborator Owen Belton.

"It's very much a satirical look at the world we're living in," Lightfoot says. "It's set in a business meeting room. Allies and enemies are formed and broken within the play. It seems lightweight – almost comical – at the beginning, but it's a very dark work."

Goecke's choreography has been seen only sporadically in New York, but he has a busy European career. Lightfoot is clearly impressed with the German's distinctive approach. His quirky (and at times grotesque) movement style is evident in "Woke Up Blind," performed by seven dancers and set to songs by Jeff Buckley.

"I find his work completely original," Lightfoot says. "You like it or loathe it. No one can turn away from it. I think, quite often, contemporary ballet or modern dance can be very wishy-washy and unclear. With Goecke, within 30 seconds of the curtain going up, you'll know for sure what you're watching."

Lightfoot and Léon's co-choreographed contributions to the City Center program include a 2001 piece – "Safe as Houses," with a Bach score – and the 2014 "Stop-Motion," which features music by Max Richter and a projected film of the choreographers' daughter Saura – plus other intriguing visual effects.

Lightfoot says the work draws on themes of environmental destruction, but was also inspired by the particular moment they observed in Saura's life. "She was 15, and we saw the little girl go away and a young woman being put in her place. The film of her is projected throughout the piece. It's almost a premonition of transformation, of things that won't be the same anymore."

NDT is self-presenting at City Center – an expensive and financially risky proposition. "It's worth it. I think it's extremely important for us to be seen in New York right now," says Lightfoot. He'd like to find a way for NDT to perform here more regularly. Given the prodigious rate at which the company presents new choreography, there would be plenty for New Yorkers to keep up with.


Susan Reiter frequently covers dance for TDF Stages.

Photos by Rahi Rezvani. Top photo: A scene from "Woke Up Blind."

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.