Nederlands Dans Theater, Berkeley

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Scene from NDT’s “Whereabouts Unknown”
Photo by Joris Jan Bos

NDT: ‘Whereabouts Unknown’ and ‘Silent Screen’

Nederlands Dans Theater
Cal Performances
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Calif.
March 18, 2011

A shirtless man draws with a branch in sand. Wizard? Archeologist? Artist? As grains of sand yield to his rendering, a formation of female dancers emerges upstage. Dressed in black leotards, they arrive like a ghost ship from another time; they are the history of place, the unknown past imagined. They are the conjuring of the man’s sketches. His stick seems to stir up traces of their existence, as they—like a formation of flamingos in unison, like a procession of ancient hieroglyphs parading the sides of a pyramid or on blackened cave walls—create sharp fluttering lines with their arms and heads.

So begins “Whereabouts Unknown” (1993), one of many masterful works by internationally acclaimed choreographer (and the company’s former artistic director) Jiří Kylián, who in the late 1970s catapulted the Nederlands Dans Theater into one of the most influential companies of our time. Already 18 years old, “Whereabouts Unknown” is Kylián’s mesmerizing exploration into the “roots of human ancestry,” the dance between past and present, and is itself a timeless piece of dance-theater.

Its minimal staging—a mound of sand, a floating aerial sculpture, simple lighting and costumes—allows the innovative, often tribal, choreography to flurry. Dancers move across stage like a scattering of African herds; tumble gracefully into a sand pile like a burial ground of artifacts, hunt with the fervor of Greek goddesses, carry African carved tribal masks like hunter baskets, or whirl hunting spears in the wind. Never trite, always freshly interpreted and full of dynamically complex movement, the choreography at times seems to orchestrate the lush (Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Charles Ives) soundtrack—rather than being its puppet.

Dancers meet this ghostly narrative with its consistently dramatic tension, technically challenging sequences and pace with effortless ease. In particular, Lydia Bustinduy’s seasoned talent, with her sharp linear structure and crisp articulation, singles her out even when she’s in the corps of tribal dancers, and Bastien Zorzetto’s robust perfection—almost humorously sloppy—is totally captivating and refreshing in his relaxed, matter-of-fact style.

“Silent Screen” (2005), an homage to silent films by NDT resident choreographers Paul Lightfoot and Sol León, opens to the oohs and ahs of a visually struck audience witnessing three large video scrims with a black and white seascape. In front of this ebb and flow, three larger-than-life human silhouettes stand with their backs to us. The sound of the ocean plays like a soothing lullaby, both haunting and spacious, preceding the ravaging Philip Glass score from “Glassworks” and his soundtrack from the film “The Hours.” As Glass’ score consumes the stage, two of the dancers turn to face the audience, vibrating and gyrating, as the third silhouette—a man within the film—walks ominously towards the sea.

Dancers Jorge Nozal and Parvaneh Scharafali quickly take equal command of the stage with their own intensity and syncopated interactions and gestures, their mouths slowly, silently screaming open in the overly dramatic style of silent films as the seascape behind them becomes a snow-dusted forest. At this point with everything so stylized, one wonders how other dancers will be introduced, because anything short of magical would destroy the visuals. Then the forest scene becomes a room with a window. A man in profile walks past it and then suddenly appears stage right.

In another dramatic moment, another man, also silhouetted, walks up out of the orchestra pit, followed by a shorter woman in a black dress. Her dress train is slowly revealed to be endless, eventually filling up the width of the stage, carried in Noh Theater fashion by others in black. She continues her procession toward the back of the stage as the man dances in front of her, now facing the audience. She is the object for his movement to juxtapose and the force that moves him with her until they are both swallowed up by a descending curtain—the tip of her hem receding like a black wave beneath it.

The indelible images and artistry of “Silent Screen” (created in 2005 and presented here in its U.S. premiere) are likely to remain life-long impressions, spiritual mementos from great theater; however, it is still the dancing and the choreography that will remain equally impressive, which is what makes NDT the essence of great dance, modern ballet, and contemporary theater.

Check out this rather out-of-focus video clip to see a segment of “Silent Screen” where just the choreography is dropping jaws:

David Moreno

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