A woman in a black silk Edwardian gown drags a white cloth bearing a lit candle across a table at a funereal pace. White cloths drape the furniture and floor of a drawing room where a younger woman sits in a rocking chair reading, and a third woman takes many minutes to pour herself a drink. Two men sloooooowly play cards. As a third framed in a doorway walks toward the reader, you have plenty of time to wonder what he plans (he will put his hands over her eyes). And to wonder whether you’ll go mad if this keeps up. (You don’t.)
Jiri Kylian can still surprise us. Seeing his fascinating 2003 Last Touch performed by the Nederlands Dans Theater is like watching a silent Strindberg play performed at a butoh dancer’s pace. Like hearing a phonograph playing so slowly that you strain to follow the tune. In Dirk Haubrich’s score, a single repeated piano note persists beneath other snatches of melody, drilling softly into your brain. The performers’ behavior becomes stranger and stranger. Ivan Dubreuil’s head falls back (in a laugh?) and stays there so long you can imagine his neck is broken. Bare legs appear from under long skirts. Paula Sánchez takes the book from Vaclav Kunes, but he still seems to hold it. As the atmosphere in the room becomes more charged with eroticism and something like dread, Francesco Nappa puts the candlestick to the widow’s (Nancy Euverink) spine like a stethoscope, and the drinker (Natasa Novotna) falls interminably backward onto Dubreuil. An apocalyptic crash and a jolt in Kees Tjebbes’s lighting incite the only normally paced movement; Kunes rips a page from the book and burns it in the candle’s flame.
We can wonder who these people are, what they crave, and what is outside the window in Walter Nobbe’s fine set. What happened to the pictures that once hung on the wall? Kylian isn’t telling, only intimating, and at the end, he rewinds back to the beginning. Or is it?
Watching his Claude Pascal, made the year before Last Touch, you can see that one might have, in part, inspired the other. The three couples in Claude Pascal are more typical of latter-day Kylian tribespeople—black-clad, the men bare-chested, the women in briefs and corselets—kinkily limber, snapping and undulating their limbs, wrapping around each other in imaginative, cruelly beautiful images of support and counter-tension. However, their duets, one couple at a time (Rei Watanabe and Urtzi Aranburu, Simone Geiger and Lukas Timulak, Euverink and Stefan Zeromski), alternate with appearances by four people in period costumes by Joke Visser, who materialize through a wall of revolving doors that have one plain, one mirrored side. These four speak mundane or oracular sentences and wield props (a fan, a cane, two balls, and a tennis racket) in increasingly antic ways, their every isolated action punctuated by sound effects in Haubrich’s score. Toward the end, their speeches have to do with the elasticity of time and memory (“The future has just become the past”).
There is nothing elastic about time in 27’52”; the title affirms its length. But the space is another matter. The floor is not the shiny surface of Claude Pascal that the dancers (wearing socks) can slide on or the dustcovers of Last Touch. Instead, panels of flooring can be lifted at the corners, hid beneath, and dragged away bearing dancers. Three short overhead curtains periodically rise and lower. Haubrich’s music, spare and silence-filled, sometimes suggests breaking crockery or sticks dropped on glass, sometimes rumbles into explosion. Here again, the piece offers subtly differing dancing by three more superb couples, with Parvaneh Scharafali and Timulak returning for a second duet (she bare-breasted this time) and ending beneath the flooring as all three curtains fall with a crash. In the bleak dystopias Kylian has been making since the 1980s, he compresses human ingenuity, power, dreams, and rituals of society into what one man and one woman do together.
I’m surprised to read in the press release for Jennifer Allen’s Goodbye to Old Things—Solosfor Superheroines about heroines of myth and fiction and how their travails between life and death, real worlds and magic ones fused with a contemporary gallery of heroines. All this seeps into the dance only in terms of the enigmatic behavior it has generated. Unifying a series of eccentric overlapping solos is visual artist Jill Odegaard’s fabulous stitched, bleached landscape—hangings, rugs of stuffed canvas donuts, gardens of leaning fabric cones; the space alters as Odegaard moves more sculptures into place. Videos are fleetingly projected (a woman running endlessly, a theft that seems to involve Santa). The music (by eight cutting-edge rock bands and musicians) rasps against it all.
The strangeness of the movement, the subtle whiffs of ordeal and danger, are compelling. Gina Jacobs Thomas, standing on a “rug” within the audience’s area, emits cryptic summoning, swimming gestures, and small gasps. Identical rampaging twins with pigtails and red dresses (Heather Kravas and Lyndsey Karr), when idle, sit like dolls, legs stuck straight out. Amy Cox races here and there, even on the overhead balcony. The actions of Christina Clark and, especially, of Allen herself suggest shades of apprehensive sexiness, bravery, and determination. The piece is more complex—and odder—than I’m making it sound.