Nederlands Dans Theater 1 returns to Sadler’s Wells for the first time since 2009 with two UK premieres – 2009’s Sehnsucht and Schmetterling from 2010 – both by the choreographic duo of Sol León and Paul Lightfoot.
Sehnsucht, we are told, has no adequate translation in another language, but it roughly means “intense longing”. And so we see a man (Silas Henriksen, high in nervous energy), topless with white trousers, seemingly looking back.
Behind him are a couple (Parvaneh Scharafali and Medhi Walerski), trapped in a box, a black hole of past memories. The mechanism – as well as the dancers – rotates like the passage of time, conveying different stages of the relationship. The window is put to good use – they reach out of it on the side, hide in it beneath them, or it projects the shadow of a solitary Walerski. There are some lovely partnering work and delicate lifts, and they show tremendous control as the centre of gravity shifts beneath them. But must we see her crotch so many times? This disturbing phenomenon seems to be increasing in regularity.
Sehnsucht also contains a raucous middle section – the dancers rapidly forming lines of attack is a great sight, but it bears no connection with the other section of the dance.
Having seen the conventional male/female pas de deux earlier, it’s refreshing here that the choreography is gender-neutral, and the costumes too – the men and the women are all topless. It’s tongue-in-cheek – the dancers often feign outrage by what’s on display. But, admittedly, it is a little distracting.
Jirí Kylián was a major figure in NDT1, and the dancers look most spirited when there’s a glimpse of his style – touches of lyricism punctuated by moments of angular strength – but they falter a little when it’s classical in the traditional sense. But it’s not devoid of clichés too, such as the arabesque held up by hand favoured by the dodgier end of the dance spectrum.
The middle section is set to the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. It’s a gamble – if you use such a recognised piece of music, the choreography had better be spectacular. But, here, it doesn’t quite match the symphonic richness of one of Beethoven’s masterpieces.
In Schmetterling, León and Lightfoot are concerned with the transitional nature of existence; a musing on life and death. This sense of a continuous path partly manifests itself in the interval, which sees several dancers take to the stage – unfortunately, many in the audience would have missed this.
The piece relies heavily on The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs, full of short, cute, folky pop. And Schmetterling, as is the music, is mostly light-hearted fun. It comprises brief episodes of relationships of all kinds, romantic or otherwise – an indignant man stomping around the stage, a smack of a bottom. The “old lady” who acts as a kind of bridge between the worlds – essentially a dancer hunching her back and hiding her neck – is bizarre though.
For some inexplicable reason, León and Lightfoot have interspersed these vignettes with sections accompanied by music from Max Richter. It’s as if someone had decided that there was too much fun going on and needed to inject some intellectualism. Most perplexing of all is the use of Infra. This piece of music was commissioned by the Royal Ballet for the Wayne McGregor work of the same name in 2008 (two years before Schmetterling), and is widely considered a modern classic. Why invite that comparison? It’s undoubtedly a deliberate contrast to the Magnetic Fields compositions but, for me, it jars and strips Richter’s gorgeous, heartbreaking music of its power.
There are some knowing nods to musical theatre, all the finger-clicking and high-camp catwalk – even if it is perhaps too dependent on the music to generate the laughs. And at times it borders on the saccharine, such as pop routine towards the end. But no matter. Schmetterling is tremendous fun and cements NDT1’s reputation as a company having a great time.