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Nederlands and St. Petersburg Descend on Downtown; Weilerstein Shines in Shostakovich

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Friday, March 25, 2011, at 05:10PM
Nederlands Dans Theater Joris-Jan Bos

Nederlands Dans Theater

We were all flabbergasted – 31 years ago – when Nederlands Dans Theater touched down at the Music Center, in its U.S. debut. Here was the company that spoke about humanity in a world-wise language, with great, dark eloquence mostly -- as only those who’d been through wars on their land could -- but sometimes also as sly, sophisticated parody.

Back then the company brought the vision of Czech choreographer/director Jirí Kylián and, oh boy, did he provide that Euro-sense of reality – Kafka, Kundera – the stuff dealt to us in unprotected life. His dances had visible narrative threads of intellect sewn into the neo-expressionist movement. He even went for big-time music, tackling Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night,” for instance, which carried on, somewhat, where dance-maker Antony Tudor left off.

And the dancers? Well, they were paragons of inconspicuous discipline and hard-edged training, but always on display was their soulful depth and knack for unblinking irony.

Some of this, but not all, has changed in the three decades since the Nederlanders came to Downtown proper. Now the company has new direction and new choreographers. It’s a sleek organization on a grand level with every kind of technology and expertise at its disposal. Yes it still gives off a certain adult Europeanism that has only small influence among American troupes. And it still comes clothed in dark street attire – the dancers wear loose, slouchy suits and shirts and skirts. After all, these are the people we pass on the avenue, not entertainingly costumed figures á la Gaga.

Bracing is the word that comes to mind for both works on the program, each one high-powered and rife with metaphor. Crystal Pite’s “The Second Person” lures us into an intimate encounter with a woman’s soft voice as she instructs a puppet on its identity (a newborn facing life’s onslaught of joy, fear, desire, love, despair?). Dancers fill the shadows in lurking movements, a couple takes the spotlight, then others do – all to a sound score that underlines each move with an amplified thud or crunch or click. Finally, to stark strummed chords, comes an exquisite swarm configuration – dancers melded seamlessly together like a flock and smoothly moving with inexorable group momentum. Simply stunning.

For different reasons Paul Lightfoot’s and Sol León’s “Silent Screen” also was powerful. There were the compelling visuals of a giant black-and-white film projection – first the seashore, with figures walking out of the picture onto the stage, then a snowy forest, with a young girl in red enlarging as she walked toward the camera. The mystery compounded, of course, with the momentous Philip Glass score, recognizable from the movie, “The Hours.”

Referring back to that feature film, Lightfoot aptly quotes Virginia Woolf in his program note: “One never realizes an emotion at the time. It expands and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” That surely explains his piece. My only quibble is that Glass’s music becomes the drama, at times; his choreography might even seem inexpressive without it. But, throughout, the Nederlanders are supremely gifted dancers. Mesmerizingly so.

And you could use the same adjective for Alisa Weilerstein, who played the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, across the street at Disney Hall. That she’s a stellar artist is not a surprise by now, but that she could evoke the voice of the composer himself and allow us to hear his pleadings (with Stalin), his agitated conversation -- in the very notes and how she played them -- was revelatory. I kept thinking of “Testimony,” the composer’s journal and how she projected, throughout the score, his terse, bitterly despairing comments. Hers was a rare and transfixing elucidation, delivered by way of gorgeously tapered phrases, down to the finest thread of a wail and with the glassy disembodied-ness of abject resignation.

For their part, the St. Petersburgers sensitively supported the effort under Vladimir Temirkanov. And they gave us a Brahms Fourth Symphony that featured a wondrous gracioso – nothing starchy or regimented, so that each new entrance in the opening movement had sections gliding in layer upon glistening layer. You could hear the age-old glory in this virtuoso band.

Yes, the Russians came.

And conquered.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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