Tonight as it gets cold
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.1
Like snow falling on exposed skin. Bare and burning. The crunch underfoot, sharp. Open to interpretation, suggestive of so much. So much said and unsaid. Reading, not between the lines, but between the musical notes, and the body. Always, the body. For in all three pieces, from the opening of Sol Léon & Paul Lightfoot’s “Sehnsucht” (2009) through the snow of Crystal Pite’s “Solo Echo” (2012), and finally, Léon & Lightfoot’s “Stop-Motion” (2014), they are above all about the human vessel. How it moves, responds, feels. What it is to be human. To create in the face of opposition. To use the body as a means to begin again.
In winter, three pieces evocative of the season and its slap across the cheek. Senses, awakened. On a wild night, blown into the theatre on the heels of a strawberry moon, a salute to the long, dark nights. And a welcome return to the Melbourne stage by Nederlands Dans Theater, who last appeared here in 2011.2 Breath, bated.
Offered forth. Greedily accepted. My feet, thawing. The woman in the row before me, a recently discarded (faux fur) coat draped across the back of her seat like a giant black bear skin. I am reminded of the costumes we wear in anticipation of winter’s bite. And the costumes we wear, to shield ourselves, from feeling, largely. Protective layers, in every sense. A shield to isolate ourselves, more often than not, in what feels an increasingly uncharitable world where we place our own needs above others.
In a time when the news of the world writ large on tiny devices in our palms tells the contrary. Grief and heartache. Humans are capable of causing one another such horror. To a bewildering, head-hanging degree, it is wearing to the bone, the atrocities committed again and again. To one another. To the planet. And there you were, to remind me that amidst all of the destruction: a brilliant counterpoint. I had not been looking for, but I found, overflowing, a much needed celebration of all that is marvellous about humanity. It is there in the night’s music of Brahms, Beethoven, and Max Richter. Melancholia, under-the-skin. And breathtakingly arresting.
It is there in all twenty-four NDT dancers who are by turns hooked and gutted, untethered and liberated, linked, giving, and utterly glorious. Soaring across the stage, as if puffed by fire bellows. Arms arc back echoing the soundless flight of an owl. Sweeping, snapping. A full rotation of the ball and socket. This hypnotic effect, so fast and delicate.
And it is the fabric that runs through the works of Sol Léon and Paul Lightfoot, and Crystal Pite. In a period where art feels as though it must justify its very need to be here, this is the antidote to (feeling) helpless. Measured through a moment of connection and the mark it leaves: this is renewal. Whether you give yourself over to it is irrespective: it will continue as steadfast as the lines of Mark Strand, which Pite has sewn into the dark longing of her “Solo Echo.” The natural drive within all of us to keep going, to propel ourselves forward. And as we slowly plough through the pain, there is the reward of lying down “under the small fire of winter stars.”
Pite’s choreography shows me how a sound ripples from foot to crown. A surge within, seeking exit or connection with another. And as one dancer lay on the snow, the sole of her foot resting, fixed, upon the back of another dancers’ ankles, the weight of all things, dragging. The emotive cause and effect, this interdependency, heightened by the cello and piano sonatas of Brahms (Allegro Non Troppo from Opus 38 in E-minor and Adagio Affettuoso van Opus 99 in F-major). Open-mouthed, the dancers momentarily appear to emit from within the deep cello throb. Inwardly restless, propulsive, and magnificent. Later, as the seven dancers become Strand’s ‘continuum of snowflakes’ soon to ‘evaporate into the air,’ the shared human experience Pite imbues in all of her pieces.
As Pite expresses, “I don’t necessarily want people to understand my exact intentions in a work but I do want them to feel that they’re inhabiting it. There’s a proverb, ‘if you talk to a man about himself, he will listen for hours’, and I think that’s key. If people feel represented onstage, they’re going to be leaning in.”3
Finally, there returned, Léon and Lightfoot’s daughter, Saura, grown up from when I first saw her projected in “Silent Screen.” “Stop-Motion” was the work I wanted never to draw to a close. Created for two reasons, but transformation is at the root of both. “Firstly as a way of capturing the transformation of our daughter, Saura, who was 15, leaving the child and becoming a woman. Me and Sol were watching and thinking it was happening way too fast” And secondly “Stop-Motion” is “based on the destruction of our theatre,” explains Lightfoot. “This piece is about holding on to your integrity and spirit in the face of destruction and change, about standing up for what you feel is right.”4
Dedicated to Saura, “Stop-Motion” captures the fragility of people and place and nature. It is as beautiful as it is breaking; indescribably so, and owing in no small part to the visual spectacle of the dancers gliding through the swirling debris of 20kg of flour. The stage, cavernous, the smoke and mirrors revealed to be just that, smoke and mirrors, and yet, undressed, it has never looked more exquisite and full of potential. As the building keys of Max Richter’s “He is Here” transform into “November’s” rainfall, the dancers reaching movements push through mourning into new possibilities. “The destruction of habitat, and how the human spirit is the most important thing we have. And wherever we are and whatever we do, that reigns supreme.”5
Strand once expressed that “much of what we love about poems, regardless of their subject, is that they leave us with a sense of renewal, of more life. Life, on the other hand, prepares us for nothing, and leaves us nowhere to go. It stops.”6 Really, he could also be talking about dance. Dance is renewal.
Faith restored, I head home, warmed and grateful.
- Mark Strand, “Lines for Winter” from Selected Poems (1979) accessed on Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/50977
- When Nederlands Dans Theatre last performed in Melbourne in July 2011, they presented Jiří Kylián’s “Double You” (1994), Crystal Pite’s “The Second Person” (2007), and Sol Léon & Paul Lightfoot’s “Silent Screen” (2005)
- Crystal Pite in interview with Judith Mackrell in the Guardian, “In ballet, girls are less likely to be prized for being mavericks,” May 13, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/may/12/crystal-pite-girls-ballet-choreographer-prized-mavericks
- The Nederlands Dans Theater, designed and built by architect Rem Koolhaas in 1987, was demolished late 2015-early 2016 at the behest of the Hague municipal government. The theatre is currently being rebuilt as part of an expansion programme for a larger cultural centre. Paul Lightfoot in interview with Jane Cornwell in the Australian, “Nederlands Dans Theater’s Paul Lightfoot: always on the move,” June 11, 2016: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/nederlands-dans-theaters-paul-lightfoot-always-on-the-move/news-story/123552b6b85cd9fca68a1b7742001851
- Lightfoot in interview in with Catherine McGregor, the Spinoff, “Dutch Courage: Choreographer Paul Lightfoot on bringing the fearless Nederlands Dans Theater to NZ,” June 13, 2016: http://thespinoff.co.nz/sponsored/13-06-2016/dutch-courage-choreographer-paul-lightfoot-on-bringing-the-fearless-nederlands-dans-theater-to-nz/
- Mark Strand, Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/mark-strand