The Nederlands Dans Theater company | State Theatre

Contemporary dance has never been the most popular kid in the performing arts schoolyard of Australia. “There’s not enough increase in general public coming to dance shows,” said Kage Physical Theatre co-founder Kate Denborough on Radio National’s Artworks program in April. Denborough might have eaten her words had she observed the sold-out nightly shows at Melbourne’s State Theatre throughout last week.

The State Theatre burst at the seams with a wide demographic of old and young dance appreciators wanting to feast on works from the world-renowned Nederlands Dans Theater, proving to be Melbourne’s biggest arts event of the year. Could this mean that modern dance is making a comeback?

Mainstream society seems to favour verbal communication and information over silent expression, making dance an unfavourable medium. But now we look at commercial shows like So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing With The Stars — even, dare I say, Glee — and can only wonder if B-grade television is responsible for reviving the nation’s interest in dance. “Dance is back,” Sydney choreographer Shaun Parker assured Artworks presenter Amanda Smith.

The Arts Centre spent three years working towards bringing the NDT troop to Melbourne and the public’s response has been glowing. Benjamin Harkarvy founded NDT in 1959 and enticed dancers from the Dutch National Ballet to join him in new explorations of movement and conceptual endeavours.

Perhaps audiences are drawn to the mysticism and uncertainty surrounding modern dance shows. Before the curtain went up on opening night, an excited audience buzzed and waited in anticipation to absorb NDT’s obscure aesthetic and crack its endless possibilities of meaning. Silence swept over the crowd — bar frequent coughing by audience members battling the cold — transfixed on the stage as Bach’s Allemande tinkered softly against a ringing harpsichord.

In the first performance of the night, Double You, a single male dancer appeared on the starkly lit stage in front of two giant copper pendulums swinging out of time with each other. The choreographer, Jiri Kylian, created a dance that invoked the grace and discipline of ballet and also rebelled against the traditional form of dance. Moments of obsessive, sharp and unexplainable movements along with loose, slinky-like behaviour surfaced as the performance developed.

The second performance was the clear highlight of the program. The Second Person featured 24 dancers on stage dressed in wilted-looking business suits, trying to break free of their predictably drab existences through erratic movements. The group huddles together and walks across the stage, guiding a faceless wooden mannequin over imaginary hurdles and desert-like winds. Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite intended to express the eternal trade between the individual and collective in the grand vocation of self-discovery.

The final act, Silent Screen, relied on digital projectors to convey its epic narrative of life, love and despair. Lending from silent movies and incorporating dancers’ shadows into the projected images, confusion between three dimensional reality and shadowy backdrops began to blur. While the visuals were entertaining to watched, they became distracting and the narrative dragged a little as it hit a few too many climaxes towards the final moments.

But, perhaps contemporary dance’s mystical power takes its strongest effect after the performance ends. One leaves the show in a strange state of satisfaction and uncertainty as questions about the choreographers’ intention hover about unanswered.

For those who missed out this year, let’s hope we won’t have to wait another 15 years for the company’s next return.

The details: The Nederlands Dans Theater company played five shows at the State Theatre.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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