Nederlands Dans Theater
Thursday, March 29
UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill

It’s not even close to fair. Dancers around the U.S. work on shoestrings to create modest performances with minimal sets, and even some of the country’s most renowned modern dance companies struggle to make ends meet.

And then in waltzes some European company, basking in the glow of respect traditionally accorded to the arts in Europe and fat with state funding that attracts some of the best dancers in the world and affords gorgeous, imaginative staging. It’s not right.

What it can be, however, is inspiring, reminding dance aficionados of why we love the art form and what it can do. That was my experience watching Nederlands Dans Theater via Carolina Performing Arts. The company showed three superb pieces with virtuosic dancing and inventive choreography. Each created a distinct sense of place using creative lighting and sets.

The opening piece, Shoot the Moon, was made a dozen years ago by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon, the company’s resident choreographers. On a set composed of three wedge-shaped rooms revolving on an axis, the audience observes three couples as they move in and out of closeness. Oddly, there doesn’t seem to be much real intimacy between any of them; the men and women fight and ignore one another, and even their lovemaking has a violent quality. Only at the very end does a dancer perform a gesture of genuine tenderness.

That harsh tone is accompanied by a set that’s a study in black and white and shadows, and by dancing defined by lines and angles. Moving to a Philip Glass score, the dancers’ legs stab the sky and rotate like spokes on a wheel. From time to time, the choreography is startlingly unusual, highlighting postures—hunched shoulders or jutting rib cages—that are rarely seen in modern dance. But for the most part, the lines are clean, the vibe austere.

The Statement, the second piece, is wholly different. Created by Crystal Pite, whose show at ADF last summer won accolades, it’s remarkably original. Four dancers in business attire are gathered in a corporate boardroom to argue over who’s to blame for a recent debacle. The piece uses a voice-over to narrate each character, and the script is full of business jargon—“They’re sending someone down now,” “What’s our position here?” “We need to request an extension”—but we never learn what the crisis is.

That turns out to not matter. The piece is all about body language, showcasing crisp movements that are immediately familiar, almost clichés, but never over the top. It’s also about composition. Thanks in part to creative lighting, the four dancers form a tight group and create tableau after tableau, moving together and apart as if connected by taut rubber bands. The choreography is fluid and lush, almost the opposite of the earlier piece, and utterly mesmerizing.

The closing work, Singulière Odyssée, is a large ensemble piece set in a train station. It’s odd and moody, filled with metaphors that don’t necessarily add up to one certain meaning.

A single dancer stands out, a gangly redhead, dressed differently from the rest, somehow awkward and lovable. The others, however, feel almost inhuman; the choreography, created by Lightfoot and Leon, once again has a distinctive classical style, spare and emotionless. Early on, the dancers seem to be faceless travelers in an elegant European version of train-station bustle. At another moment, they appear like birds caught inside a drafty, high-ceilinged public space. And later, as commuters, they end a beautiful duet by barging through the space, bringing with them bright morning light and spinning autumn leaves.

The leaves wash in from the sides and then flutter down from above as the dancers finally gather in unison movement. The music rises and swells, then swells some more, and then still more. It’s a manufactured moment, like one of those movie scores meant to convey emotion, but it’s almost impossible to not be affected as the movers dance their hearts out. There’s an awareness of the passing of time. It feels like we’re collectively caught in a dream, all of us in the audience, and it’s one we don’t want to end.

Now that’s dance.