Contemporary dance was very much an invention of the United States although there had always been bold innovators and experimenters in Europe at the beginning of the last century. It was with the foundation of the Martha Graham Company in 1926 that all the pieces fell into place and the rigidity and formality of classical ballet could be swept aside. But it was not really until the 1950s that things really became established with the Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey companies. Europe, more specifically The Netherlands, finally established its own company, Nederlands Dans Theater, in 1959. It is the sixtieth anniversary of that event that the company is now celebrating.
NDT has ranked alongside the American companies for a long time and is now, to my mind, the most exciting and innovative of them all. Their spectacular new production, Kunstkamer, brings the entire company together in a huge, remarkable and often breath-taking show. The ‘art room’ is a place of wonder and infinite possibilities, of imagination and the gathering of souls.
The inspiration for Kunstkamer came from the chance discovery of the book Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, written by Albertus Seba in 1734. The principle of l’objet trouvé was fundamental to the Surrealists, the magical powers of such items bringing exciting opportunities and stimulation from random, unexplored places.
Kunstkamer opened with a tantalising half-glimpse of a figure, almost from the Cabaret Voltaire, still and silent centre stage as the curtain slowly rose and then, after about two meters, quietly descended.
The first scene proper was astounding. If you imagine Samuel Beckett writing a ballet and then having Fritz Lang directing it, you might get the idea. It was like a sinister street from an expressionist movie with two giant diagonal walls, light pouring from the upper windows onto a howling man as he roared into the darkness soon to be joined by a young man pulling a piece of black and white chequered fabric on a rope.
Although the programme listed twenty separate pieces they all blended seamlessly together in the remarkable setting. After this first segment, Overture, the giant walls folded back, the false perspective creating a vast open space like a deserted palace ballroom or an abandoned ornate town square. Each of the three walls had eight doors which facilitated the constant comings and goings. This was the ever-changing art room, a magical space where anything could happen and everything was possible.
There was some fine solo work and some beautiful pas de deux, especially in A Second Déjà Vu which opened the second half, but for me it was with the ensemble pieces that Kunstkamer excelled, bringing together all forty-six dancers from both NDT1 and NDT2 and work from all four of the company’s main choreographers, Sol León, Marco Goecke, Crystal Pite and, of course, NDT’s Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot.
There was music ranging from Beethoven to Janis Joplin and from Schubert to Arvo Pärt – some recorded, obviously, some from Het Balletorkest in the pit, conducted by Matthew Rowe and some, live on stage, by a lone, white-tied and tailed Jan Schouten at a battered old upright piano.
As I said, although there were twenty segments they were all intertwined with characters re-appearing throughout like the, by now silent, howling man, the ballerina in the black tutu and the two characters with golden paper crowns on their heads – and at the end even the piece of black and white chequered fabric mysteriously made another entrance wrapped around one of the dancers.
Pre-finale, most of the company appeared on stage as a choir and sang a song, very beautifully I should add, followed by lining up for a set piece family photo, the pose echoed behind them with a photograph of the company from the 1960s projected on the wall. The final image of the show was the projection of a giant rhinoceros.
Kunstkamer could truly be described as a once in a lifetime opportunity to see one of the world’s leading contemporary dance companies in full swing, in all its glory. Unmissable. Michael Hasted Den Haag , 4th October 2019
Photo by and © Rahi Rezvani