Nederlands Dans Theater’s brand new work “Standby” is a dance of irresistible energy, galvanizing athleticism and touching poignancy; it’s also an ingenious and masterly realized work of art created in the time of pandemic. Choreographed in just three weeks and captured exclusively on film to be streamed on the company’s website and NDT’s YouTube channel, “Standby” is described by its creator, Paul Lightfoot, as a ballet inspired by the limitations and possibilities of social distancing. “Can we connect without touch?” With this brilliant dance, the choreographer answered this question affirmatively.
The English-born Lightfoot has dedicated more than 35 years of his artistic career to the Nederlands Dans Theater, first as a dancer, then as resident choreographer and since 2011 as artistic director, bringing the Hague-based dance troupe to the forefront of the world’s contemporary dance. Over the years, he and his creative partner and wife, Sol León, who is NDT’s artistic advisor, created nearly 60 works for the company, cultivating and honing its unmistakable boundary-breaking dancing style.
A 40-minute-long tour de force of nonstop movement, “Standby” was choreographed and filmed at the company’s home stage at Lucent Danstheater. “I stripped the space to see its bones and workings, as well as to use “Standby” as a homage to this most sacred and glorious space, so influential to the development of the company,” wrote Lightfoot in the notes to the dance.
The choreographer had to comply with a strict Covid-19 health-safety protocol while making the ballet. “We marked the floor into squares of three meters to lay a base for the structure. Only people who were able to physically touch each other were the dancers who lived together in the same household,” described Lightfoot the working process.
“Standby” takes its structure, premise and music from “Études,” a one-act ballet created by Danish dancer and choreographer Harald Lander that premiered by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1948. The music for the ballet was written by the Estonian-born Danish composer Knudåge Riisagers, who conjured a dazzling orchestration of piano etudes by Carl Czerny, infusing the seemingly mundane technical exercises for piano with buoyancy, sparkle and color.
“Études” was originally conceived as a tribute to the dancer and the dancer’s daily studio training, depicting a progression of ballet exercises from simple barre routines to more complex sequences of steps and combinations, including a pas de deux, a pas de trois, and a pas de six, all culminating in the ensemble display.
In his piece, Lightfoot follows the same idea and concept, taking the audience through a series of exercises from a daily ballet class to show “how we incorporate the tools of our trade using all 42 members of the company.” As such, “Standby” presents a tribute to NDT’s immensely talented dancers as it showcases in many marvellous ways their prodigious virtuosity and unbound artistic expression.
The ballet is divided into 18 distinctive short sections, with each section having its own title, usually named after a ballet step. Despite its brevity, each part of the ballet establishes its own unique imagery, character and mood. Yet watching the piece it feels like “Standby” unfurls as a continuous flow of movements, with intricate and utterly engrossing solos, duets and ensembles seamlessly unfolding before our eyes.
The NDT dancers are phenomenal. They all have tremendous technical skills (their sky-reaching arabesques and whirling turns will leave you breathless), unique flexibility and plasticity (watching them in action, you will wonder if their bodies are made of rubber), superb stage presence and stamina. And they all possess impressive ability for dramatic expression.
I loved every moment of this ballet, which opens with a finger-snapping solo of Cesar Faria Fernandez in “Overture” and ends with a rousing number in “Grand Sauts.” Yet I particularly enjoyed the two sassy all-female quartets in “Tendues, Fondus, Frappés, Grand Battements” and in “Relevés” for their winning nonchalant demeanor, exceptional musicality and comic timing. Prince Credell was both poignant and mischievous in his physically-charged yet humorous solo in “Ronde de Jambe.” In “Adage,” which brought on the stage three contrasting duets, Marne van Opstal and Donnie Duncan Jr. were uniquely memorable for the touching sensitivity and ardor of their dancing. The same can be said about the performance of Austin Meiteen and Auguste Palayer in a vulnerable same-sex “Pas de Deux Romantique.” In the whirlwind “Pirouettes,” Boston Gallacher and Surimu Fukushi impressed with their remarkable suppleness and bracing abandon of execution; and Jon Bond, a dancer of exceptional physicality and charisma, was an unforgettable presence in “Coda” and “Petits Sauts.” The casts of “Tarantella” and “Mazurka” were superb; and “Grand Sauts”—a grand ensemble finale, featuring a spectacular interplay of light and movements—left me in awe.
Atmospheric, playful, whimsical, humorous and thoroughly enjoyable, “Standby” feels like a breath of fresh air in the current situation of uncertainty, gloom and anxiety. In the times, when our usual lives have been interrupted, upended and put on hold, when we found ourselves suspended in some form of “standby”—in the state of waiting and hoping and just trying to cope with a new normal in our personal and professional lives. This inspirational dance is Lightfoot’s love letter to his company. It’s also his farewell note: the 2019/20 season, during which the NDT celebrates its 60th anniversary, is the final season with the company for Lightfoot and León. They are departing the NDT at the end of this summer.