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Dance review: Nederlands Dans Theater at the Music Center

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What’s black and white and red all over? “Silent Screen,” the mysterious, alluring multimedia spectacle by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León that Nederlands Dans Theater performed with its usual brilliance on Wednesday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Americans like to think they call the shots on modern dance. But even without the visionary Jirí Kylián at the helm, the NDT company in its 52nd season sustains a matchless level of dancing power and choreographic creativity.

Resident dance-makers Lightfoot and León provide proof with a 2005 work that harnesses recorded music by Philip Glass to an action-plan that carries Jorge Nozal and Parvaneh Scharafali on a journey from beach to forest to interiors, cloudscapes, starscapes -- and back.

These environments materialize as film projections on three large connected screens, the edges slightly mismatched as in vintage Cinerama features. The opening offers a startling special effect: three dancers in silhouette against those screens with one of them suddenly revealed as a filmic illusion. But as the cast enlarges to 10, the panoramic imagery yields to pure, stark choreographic invention at the imposing scale and energy of the music.

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The duet in white for Ema Yuasa and Brett Conway is a highlight, at once heroic and intimate, technically demanding in its gymnastic density yet also suggesting that hearts and souls are on the line. There are weaknesses -- the small-scale, rather shopworn gestural vocabulary given Scharafali, for example -- but “Silent Screen” never proves less than accessible, exciting and imaginative.

Sometimes nearly subliminal and occasionally boldly assertive, infusions of red on stage and screen give the work its only touch of color -- though the most elaborate costume effect involves a black skirt stretching across the entire stage and then liquefying before our eyes. Are such inventions borrowed from/inspired by Kylián? Of course. But building from greatness leads to mastery -- and Lightfoot/León are clearly modern masters.

If “Silent Screen” flies by in 45 minutes, Crystal Pite’s “The Second Person” makes 35 seem endless. This 2007 creation should be a fabulous company showpiece -- 23 dancers in all, with 13 solos and duets. What’s more, those specialties are often sensational, especially the ones with a wild, quasi-folkloric impetus matching the polyglot score by Owen Belton.

No, it’s the cliche-ridden theatrical rigmarole imposed on those dances that quickly becomes deadly, especially the numbing spoken texts that cue the movement: “This is a picture of you.... this is you reaching.... this is how you collapse.” By the time Pite stages a memory duet (“this is where it happened...”), you’ve tuned out and all her playoffs between mass regimentation and quirky individuality count for nothing.

Although theatrical fragmentation keeps the best dancing merely fitful, one ensemble does come close to generating a deep kinetic intensity despite the odds. And Pite’s obsession with puppets-as-dancers and dancers-as-puppets does pay off strongly in a sequence that makes the whole company manipulate Scharafali, bunraku-style, through a lyrical, almost balletic finale.

But by then it’s way too late. “This is a picture of you rushing to the nearest bar,” you murmur, running for the exit. And that run just might be the most reasonable action since “The Second Person” began.
-- Lewis Segal

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Nederlands Dans Theater, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Casting may vary. $30-$120. (213) 972-0711 and www.musiccenter.org/events/dance.html.

Formerly The Times’ dance critic, Segal is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona.

Ema Yuasa and Brett Conway in the multimedia ‘Silent Screen,’ bottom. Middle: Anna Herrmann and Medhi Walerski perform in ‘The Second Person.’ All credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times. See more photos for the Nederlands Dan Theater presentation.


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