Who saves whom? From what? And how? With dance?
The 2023 Schrittmacher Festival concluded a guest performance by NDT2 with the program „Climb the sky!“ at Theater Heerlen
by Melanie Suchy
translated by Karoline Strys
Putting Crystal Pite’s well-known piece into NDT2’s triple bill, „Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue,“ which premiered in March 2022, provided it with a secret second overall title. „Climb the sky!“ is the official name of the compilation. Climbing the sky then becomes a rescue. Or the hope of salvation.
Climbing as the pursuit towards the top can be recognized in the last choreography of the evening, „Out of Breath“ for six dancers, created by Johan Inger for NDT2 in 2002. „Out of breath“ here does not refer to insanely fast or vigorously demanding ballet but rather to tension: holding one’s breath in terror or not being able to catch one’s breath. But not many moments in this piece let you notice that. It seems to lapse involuntarily, for instance when dancers jog around Mylla Ek’s curvy ramp object on stage or run behind it and reappear, first only the head, then the upper body is showing and then finally a whole person.
The thing itself seems like sinking concrete, with a slope and a cliff, yet also reminiscent of pedestrian mall prettifying architecture. It serves as a wall when the dancers lean their backs against it, hitting it with their hands, or when a dancer lifts his colleague and lets her walk horizontally against it. At one point, Demi Bawon simply stands in front of the wall while others bustle about. She seems to be expecting something, fearing something. Eye to eye with something that has no eyes, perhaps fate.
This stopping, sometimes slowing down or also the many backward walking or turning away, showing one’s back and the contrasting of nervous arm-rotation and standing or lying still suggest attempts to resist the course of time. Wanting to stop something that is about to happen. With nothing but will or feeling. In fact, the tip of the thing evades when the woman almost touches it with her foot: slides lazily backward a few inches.
It becomes moving when the woman, Demi Bawon, cannot grasp anything: She trembles, is shaken, opens her arms wide, come, come, she seems to be calling. Nothing is coming. Emptiness. She calls out again, arms raised high, screaming to the sky. Someone helps her as she tries to climb the hill. She does not get far. Then she takes the steep wall. At the end, she is – is it her? – looking back from the top, down. Without fear now. Saved, maybe.
Life, new life, living on
Canadian Crystal Pite created her „Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue“ in 2008 for the U.S.-based Cedar Lake Dance Company, a magnificent ensemble mainly choreographed by European artists. Founded in 2003 and alimented by a billionaire, it had to quit the scene in 2016, irredeemably. Pite’s work was part of the company’s last performance. Other ballets have since taken over the „Ten Duets“ as well. For NDT2, it is now like an entry door into the Pite world. For she has choreographed for NDT1 so far since 2008 as NDT’s associate choreographer.
These fast-paced duets in front of sparse and changing lighting from single spotlights mounted room-high are like an excerpt from a textbook: what works in pairs? Not why, but how: with hands clasped to hands, to one, to both, pulling, holding, pushing. Whirl around the other person, cross all the limbs, subvert. With arms, legs, head and again hands touching the other from all directions, poking, pushing, catching. Reach out or make delicate contact. Carrying, in the arms, on the shoulder. Briefly lifting. Picking someone up from the floor, grabbing them from under their armpits, lifting them up. Allowing oneself to be rolled over.
At times duet is simply a synchronous coexistence, a merging in motion. At times a hand touches and moves the opposite with a cushion of air between them, a distance that seems electrically charged. But the „Duets“, with the first endlessly pulling, then tippling, buzzing sounds of a film score by Cliff Martinez, do not degenerate into a list, but Crystal Pite brilliantly composes also the transitions, Ten ways of changing scenes. One duet partner walks out first, the second stays, becomes part of the next duet or watches from behind for a while. They walk, they run, they push spotlights. They stiffen as if frozen. Are released from it.
Considering the duet in the ballet under the aspect of saving, leaving behind the old-fashioned courtship of the gentleman, who has to support, turn, lift the lady, of course, is a good mental game. After all, dancing in couples already saves two people from loneliness.
The centerpiece of the evening was a new, but not eternal, choreography by Noé Soulier, who has been director of the Centre national de danse contemporaine in Anger, France, since 2020. Those who expected an oddity like the constant lunging, kicking and slowing down of the sports-inspired work „Removing“ are surprised with vocabulary that is distinctly balletic. Yet „About Now“ is similarly sketchy and flat on the spot.
Because it is about nothing. Only about doing. To a wonderful recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s „Art of the Fugue“ – for whatever reason – , played on grand piano by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the dancers show that they can stand on one leg, the other leg stretched out in front, behind, to the side, or sometimes angled this way, sometimes that. Or they roll, hop, tumble with a run-up. Arabesques with deeply bent standing leg. Deeply bent torsos, upturned chests. Hands patting knees, hips, upper arms. Or grasping something or spreading fingers, resting them, bending them. Like feet stretching or unfolding to „flex“ and become a hook for a hand. The elegance of classical ballet is enjoyed here. And then lowered and twisted a bit.
The arms repeatedly twisted backwards with their clawed hands remain in the memory. Reminiscent of oil-smeared birds. Who is saving them?