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DANCE REVIEW : A Showcase for Prowess of Nederlands Dans Theater


COSTA MESA — Jiri Kylian's introspective and often mysterious dances have always invited a wide range of personal responses from his audiences. Lately, however, he has created works specifically labeled as interactive: coloring books for adults that demand the creative interpretation of each viewer.

The challenging, magnificently danced five-part program by Nederlands Dans Theater that opened Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center offered many such opportunities for filling in the picture. However, Kylian left enough clues to his intentions that the evening achieved a greater coherence than you might expect.

To start, the company performed "Whereabouts Unknown" (1993), an extended group ritual in which the dancers carried and contemplated tribal masks, sometimes seeming to drink from them. Kylian's program note described it as a meditation on ancestral roots.

After intermission came four short coloring-book pieces punctuated and sometimes dominated by the presence of free-standing (or hanging) antique gowns: artifacts of a dead European culture that Kylian examined as an oppressive legacy.

In "No More Play" (1988), the actions of five dancers (most often divided into a male duo and a two-woman, one-man trio) represented what Kylian's note called "a game with extremely severe rules, which someone wrote in a long-forgotten language."

His "Petite Mort" (1991) grew openly satiric about that game and those rules by costuming his 12 dancers in vintage corsets and incorporating fencing foils in increasingly forceful juxtaposition to two of Mozart's swooniest adagios. Indeed, the series of gymnastic duets near the end seemed to push the music to the breaking point--seeing how far it would stretch to accommodate contemporary energies.

The breaking point came in "Sarabande" (1990), with Bach shattering into electronic fragments and the motions of the six-man cast amplified into a thunderous score. But if the old cultural forms no longer survived modern rhythms and actions, they persisted in social values--for instance, in the macho behavior that Kylian parodied here.

Rebellion against gender-specific norms became a major subtext in "Sarabande" and the women's octet "Falling Angels" (1989), expressed in both works by gestural statements about apparel: the men pulling down their pants, the women tugging repeatedly at their bodices. Dance has always defined a society's sense of itself; and the women's wry, alienated shrug in "Falling Angels" just might belong in a museum right next to those stiff ball gowns.

Of course, there's an essential problem with seeing the performance solely as Kylian's search for a sense of identity in a culture that he finds hopelessly decrepit. Such a view makes his work seem like a lecture and ignores the greatest glory of his achievement: the dancing of one of the world's finest companies.

Looked at another way, the program functioned as a dazzling showcase of dancers who can revel in subtle movement nuances one moment and blaze with flamboyant virtuosity the next. Although Kylian focuses on body-sculpture more than steps, his choreography is always intricately related to its accompaniment. As a result, his company has been schooled to a standard of musicality equal to any other, anywhere.

Especially when dancing to 20th-Century composers--mostly taped music by Webern, Reich, Ives and Arvo Part here--they give Kylian's stark, black-and-white dance-panoramas superb richness and depth as if they, too, were coloring his pictures moment by moment and, in the process, giving them warmth.

This triumphant engagement (something of a personal crusade for former OCPAC executive director Tom Kendrick) confirms Kylian as a modernist master and his company as one of the terpsichorean wonders of the age.

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