correction: An earlier version of this review said that Benjamin Harkarvy was the Nederlands Dans Theater’s first director; he was one of its first directors.
Almost 60 years ago, more than a dozen runaways from the Dutch National Ballet formed the Nederlands Dans Theater as a home for modern works. The combination of rebelliousness and traditional ballet proved a potent mix, and NDT rose to international renown as a showcase of such leading, late-20th-century European choreographers as Jiri Kylian, Hans van Manen and Nacho Duato.
That legacy of restless elegance courses through the dancers’ bodies still, as the company’s highly impressive Kennedy Center debut Wednesday night made clear. The three works on the program — two by Artistic Director Paul Lightfoot and his partner, Sol Leon, and one by the gifted Crystal Pite — may change the way you view your world.
In particular, their works expose, with a devastating degree of empathy, those unknowable types at the fringes of our daily lives whom we’ve mistakenly crossed off as uninteresting — the quiet couple who keep to themselves, or the middle manager who speaks only in buzzwords.
But first, let’s talk about the dancers.
They are not all Dutch. But they are all tall. Even the small ones. They have tremendous presence and physical reach. They slice through space and change directions crisply, with apparent ease. But they’ve also mastered dramatic stillness. For many minutes at the beginning of Leon and Lightfoot’s “Singuliere Odyssee,” one woman sat on a bench with her back to us. The set is the waiting room of the train station in Basel, Switzerland, and the space was empty but for a clock on the wall and the woman, who evoked such a sense of crushed expectations that you felt you were inside a short story.
Basel’s Central Station is also Europe’s busiest international border station. “Singuliere Odyssee,” created in 2017, soon became a crowded crossroads of longing and confusion and unseen forces. Some of the dancers walked backward through the doors as if pulled. There were periodic attacks of stasis. At one point a storm of autumn leaves rained down, carpeting the stage. (A nod to Pina Bausch, the influential German choreographer known for the profound yearning of her works, as well as the truckloads of dirt, flowers or rocks she added to them.)
Within such hubbub, the dancers often picked their way around the waiting room with delicacy and ticktock precision. The repetitive actions of sewing machines and sandpipers came to mind. We saw myriad views of life in postponement, but ultimately the creators took it too far, and the piece lost momentum midway through.
Yet what atmospheric richness, what dramatic intensity — in the best moments — and what an outpouring of meaningful expressive discoveries about the human body this company offered. In the first piece, Lightfoot and Leon’s “Shoot the Moon,” a dancer might slash around in a full-body tantrum, limbs flying, then suddenly reorganize herself into a series of serene, classical pirouettes that could make you weep. This work, and Pite’s “The Statement,” were potent and engrossing mini-dramas. Moving walls in “Shoot the Moon” created three rooms, rotating into view to show us micro-episodes of unquiet desperation.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen an arabesque look quite as beautiful as it did when one of these dancers struck the position in his business suit, his raised leg arcing high behind him as the creases in his trousers caught the light. My notes are peppered with the word “beautiful,” starting with the music, from Philip Glass’s “Tirol Concerto” for piano and orchestra, with the exceptionally fluid soloist Lisa Emenheiser. Beautiful, too, was the dancers’ technique, the sharp outlines and poetic tenderness of ballet, as well as a flung-out ferocity. This dance took on a haunted air. One turn of the set revealed a man who’d hung himself — or so it looked. Another turn, another suicide. Maybe. The mystery was delicious.
Pite’s “The Statement” brought Kurt Jooss’s iconic 1932 antiwar ballet “The Green Table” to mind. There is a table, for starters. And this, like Jooss’s, is a dark dance about military might and weak integrity. These four dancers, two men and two women, are navigating a bureaucratic coverup, and if that sounds overly dry or impossible to convey in dance — well, Pite’s immense perceptiveness and the dancers’ facility and commitment make it all perfectly clear and riveting. They are helped by a voice-over. Trust me, the words “This situation is going to resolve itself” have never felt so ominous. This work, like the others, makes art from unease. And it feels eerily real.
With every curtain call, the dancers applauded the musicians of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, and rightly so — they played splendidly throughout.
It’s bizarre that NDT has never performed at the Kennedy Center until now. (I last saw the troupe many years ago at Montgomery College in Rockville.) It has deep ties to this country; the American visionary Benjamin Harkarvy was among those dancers who fled the Dutch National Ballet to launch NDT, and he was one of its first directors. American dancers populate the company now, including a couple from the now-defunct Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet of New York. This creative powerhouse ought to return here, and soon.
Nederlands Dans Theater performs at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Friday. Tickets $19-$69. 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.