Dutch Delight

“Vier letzte Lieder”, “Frank Bridge Variations”, “Suite for Two” and “The Second Detail”
Dutch National Ballet
Sadler's Wells Theatre,
London, UK
November 8 — 11, 2006

by John Percival
copyright 2006 by John Percival

After too long a gap, the Dutch National Ballet arrived back in London with a great programme and great dancing: so enjoyable that I had to rush back for a second sitting. Let me say at once that they received some very sniffy reviews in the national papers — which to my mind tells more about the standards of criticism nowadays than it does about what was on offer. Audience response was very warm and word-of-mouth praise later brought in good houses. I was set thinking about how much we used to see of the two major Dutch companies — how often, even, I was able to pop over to Amsterdam or The Hague to catch them — and also how much their example influenced British ballet by bringing about the transformation of Ballet Rambert and thereafter a whole wave of contemporary troupes. Not bad for a small country that had little ballet until after World War Two, but once they did start they produced some remarkably gifted, original and enterprising practitioners.

My recent experience of Netherlands Dance Theatre hasn't, perhaps, fully lived up to past memories, but that could change, and on this showing the National Ballet is as good as ever. Cleverly, artistic director Ted Brandsen chose a programe representing different stages of the company's history. Brandsen came to the post three or four years back, following ten years as a dancer in the company and then periods as a freelance choreographer and as director of the West Australian Ballet. Interestingly, these London performances were as notable for fine music as for choreography.

Rudi van Dantzig was a founder member of the National Ballet and became its first native-born director. He tackles a richly expressive score in his Richard Strauss ballet “Vier letzte Lieder” and probably carries it off more successfully than any other choreographer; only a man of his warm humanity could make dances that truly live up to this sublime music. Each of the four songs is led by a different couple and explores a distinct mood, yet they all match well and the dancers are brought together first and last by the Angel of Death (feelingly played by Rubinald Rofino Pronk. The cast was uniformly good, but Altin Kaftira stood out for his superb partnering of Larissa Lezhnina in the prominent third song. The American soprano Camellia Johnson joined with Birmingham's Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the company's musical director Ermanno Florio for the score. It was a happy touch that this ballet showed in its designs (simple costumes, a backcloth of clouds over low hills) the work of Toer van Schayk who spent his career with the National with equal distinction as dancer, designer and choreographer.

A contemporary and frequently a colleague of Van Dantzig, Hans van Manen has divided his career between the two major Dutch companies and often made ballets for other companies too. I would say that he is the best choreographer in Europe today; this programme featured the “Frank Bridge Variations” which he made last year to Benjamin Britten's score. It proved to be one of his finest creations. Several British choreographers have shown ballets to this music; Frederick Ashton's “Le Reve de Leonor” was rather comic, Walter Gore's “Eaters of Darkness” entirely tragic, John Cranko's “Variations on a Theme” and David Bintley's “Night Moves” both adopted varied moods following the score, but all were essentially dramatic. Interestingly, Van Manen uses no plot at all, yet his dances for five couples do bring out all of the score's emotion. And what varied dances they are: passages of amazing speed, others almost still; startlingly brilliant sudden jumps and turns, vivid use of arm gestures, duets of exploratory coolness. There is humour too, notably in some of the exits with their unexpected timing and detail, yet others are touching in the relationships they suggest. A cast led by Igone de Jongh and Alexander Zhembrovskyy, Ji-Young Kim and Sefton Clarke, do the ballet full justice. And here, too, the RB Sinfonia played thrillingly.

The company's latest resident choreographer, Krzysztof Pastor, made a work for premiere in London. This was “Suite for Two”, danced by Ruta Jezerskyte and Cedric Ygnace to Bach's second cello suite, played on stage by the Dutch soloist Quirine Viersen on (I assume) her 1715 Guarnerius. I couldn't see that Pastor's smooth invention entirely related to the music during the first movement, but there was no such problem in the rest of the ballet, where the dancers really seemed to draw inspiration from the musician.

Supplementing these ballets created for the company was “The Second Detail”, a survival from the days when William Forsythe actually made ballets, not (as today) propaganda shows. Originally given in 1991, it was mounted for the Dutch last year, staged by Glen Tuggle. Its mixture of classicism, jazz and showbiz combines into a challenging ensemble, which this cast danced with delightful attack, polish, wit and spirit.

Almost thirty of the company's 75 dancers took part in the performances I saw, and the impression they left was that for them to carry off four such varied and demanding ballets so accurately, stylishly and meaningfully demonstrates a company of the first quality.

Photos from top, all by Angela Sterling:
Marisa Lopez and Steven Etienne in "Four Last Songs."
Igone de Jongh en Gaël Lambiotte in "Frank Bridge Variations."
Marisa Lopez and dancers of the Dutch National Ballet in "The Second Detail."

Volume 4, No. 40
November 13, 2006

copyright ©2006 John Percival



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