Nederlands Dans Theater
Carolina Performing Arts
At Memorial Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill
March 29-30, 7:30 p.m.

One could hardly blame the region’s dance presenters for attempting to build upon a substantial contemporary dance audience that’s been nurturedif it wasn’t created outrightby the American Dance Festival’s 32-year presence in Durham.

If it’s taken promoters like Duke Performances’ Aaron Greenwald and Carolina Performing Arts’ Emil Kang some time to fine-tune their offerings, they clearly haven’t settled for serving as the festival’s straight manor its echoin their dance seasons this year.

While Duke Performances’ two dance dates this year focused on Ralph Lemon and Merce Cunninghamartists whom the festival presented and then subsequently neglected, in both cases, for yearsCarolina Performing Arts seems to be doing some audience nurturing of its own. Along with showcasing conspicuous fusions of foreign, folk and modern dance (in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s delightful Shaolin summit, Sutra, last fall, and the anticipated April dates by the upstart independent modern dance troupe BeijingDance/ Lei Dong Tian Xia), Carolina has devoted the other half of its season to making the point that ballet can be every bit as iconoclastic and innovative as modern dance.

Even after a 2009 ADF season ostensibly devoted to choreographic fusions of the two genres, that aspect of the art form remains criminally underrepresented on regional stages. As a result, last fall’s return by Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet was a necessary and rewarding corrective next step.

This week’s engagement by Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) is a further one. Founded in 1959 by 22 artists who broke away from the Nederlands Ballet in pursuit of new challenges and aesthetics, the company rose to international prominence under the artistic direction of choreographer Jiri Kylián.

According to Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss, NDT “set the standard for contemporary work in Europe and beyond since the 1970s.”

Writing in 2009, Weiss continued: “While ‘dance’ is the given in this troupe’s name … it is ‘theater’ that gives the company its unique edge.

“Unquestionably, their … precisionist technique and gestural brilliance are beyond masterful. But it is the intensely audacious and imaginative vision of their choreographers … that lifts this ensemble to a stratospheric level.”

That’s the kind of praise you garner when you champion the early works of choreographers like Nacho Duato (now at Mikhailovsky Ballet), Ohad Naharin (of Batsheva Dance Company) and William Forsythe (who founded Ballet Frankfurt), as NDT has done during its first 50 years in dance.

“The theater aspect is critical,” artistic director Jim Vincent told the Indy in a Sunday night telephone interview.

“The dance, of course, is the driving force,” Vincent continued. “But what’s most important for these young or emerging choreographers is that they’re given the opportunity to establish their own unique and singular voices.”

Vincent joined NDT as a dancer immediately after completing his degree at what is now called UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. He stayed with them for 12 years. During that time, he notes, “one was always aware that people looked to the company to push the art form in new directions, to research contemporary dance in nonconventional ways.”

The company’s tradition of selecting and nurturing emerging choreographers continues with the program it presents this week at Memorial Hall. Resident choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol León and associate choreographer Crystal Pite are, Vincent says, “part of something that might be referred to as a school of sorts. Somehow they share a common vision, and yet at the same time have very individual perspectives into what that vision would be.”

Lightfoot and León’s 2006 work, Silent Screen, plays out on three screens and in live action on stage. But according to its creators, it began as something of a joke.

“It’s become the trendy thing to do; you get your music composed, show a video and you’ve got a production,” Lightfoot told Scotland on Sunday in 2006. “I wanted to do a parody of that and make a live silent movie.”

But after immersing themselves in the films of German Expressionismand claiming director Fritz Lang as a musetheir focus shifted. “Alfred Hitchcock said that the silent cinema was the purest form of acting,” Lightfoot told the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

“Everything must be done without words. When you see those old movies now, you can actually understand them as choreography.”

Vincent likens Pite’s The Second Person to the work of Laurie Anderson.

“She has an uncanny and unique way of breaking the fourth wall,” Vincent says.

“After the first powerful visual you hear a voice over a microphone that says, ‘This is your voice.’ Immediately, the work is about you; it’s a reflection of the people who are viewing the piece rather than the ones on stage performing it. I think that association is really important. It’s talking not at you, but with you instead. Pite has the ability to do that with your ears first, and then your eyes, and then your soul.”

While Silent Screen utilizes film, The Second Person incorporates another technology popular among local viewerspuppetry, which figures strongly into its main metaphor. Saying more would give too much away.

“There’s a constant change of environment, texture and dynamic in both pieces, in part because of the technologies,” Vincent says.

“They’re both incredibly engaging works that come from very different cultural backgrounds and mind-sets, in a sense. But all three choreographers are about engaging us as performers and audience.”

Silent film, puppetry and postmodern ballet combine in unpredicted ways next Tuesday and Wednesday in Chapel Hill.

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