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A Modern Twist of Fate

Dance: Nederlands was not the goal for classically trained Paul Lightfoot, but 11 years later. . . .


On a starkly lit stage, a man walks toward the footlights, shouting and gesturing. So opens choreographer Paul Lightfoot's "From Start to Finish," a Nederlands Dans Theater work that American audiences will see for the first time this week when the troupe opens its seven-performance run today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Do we need to know what the man is saying to understand the dance?

"No, not necessarily," Lightfoot says, of the text that dancer Jorma Elo has improvised. "I don't know what he's saying.

"He is making sense. He's speaking in Finnish. It's distinguishable that he's speaking a language, not just making sounds. But it always remains a kind of an enigma."

Lightfoot, the hot 29-year-old dancer-choreographer was speaking from Atlanta where the company was dancing in the Olympic Arts Festival.

"When I choreograph," he continued, "I try to let people get very involved and let their personalities come out rather than imposing my personality. With Jorma, I wanted his character very much to come up. He's a man in a mad state.

"I asked him once, 'What are you saying?' He said, 'Here, I'm talking about breakfast. . . .' I didn't want to know anymore."

Born in Kingsley, England, and trained at the Royal Ballet School in London, Lightfoot had "no aspirations to dance" in the Netherlands' company, which is a highly acclaimed troupe but one that has abandoned the classics for new work that draws on modern dance as well as ballet technique.

"I knew very little about the dance world outside the Royal Ballet. I had strictly classical training. I was in a blinkered-horse situation."

But when Nederlands artistic director Jiri Kylian spotted him in a class and offered him an eight-week contract to dance in NDT2, the Nederlands junior company, he took it, packing up, at age 18, and moving to The Hague, where Nederlands Dans Theater is headquartered.

"It was a total twist of fate," he said. "Once I got there, I found the atmosphere was just brilliant. I had to go back to [the Royal] school to graduate. I didn't want to go back. I wanted to stay forever. It's been 11 years. It seems forever."

What he found in The Hague was "a hugely creative company," in addition to supportive choreographers Kylian and Hans van Manen. They encouraged him to create his own works, and his first ballet, "The Bard of Avon," was taken into the repertory of NDT2 when Lightfoot was 21. He made his first work for the main company, "Seconds," a year later.

"Now I have about 11 works in the repertory," Lightfoot said, "but I've made about 15. With every piece, I feel stronger and more encouraged as a choreographer."

So far, local audiences have seen only Lightfoot's "Susto," danced by NDT3 (a branch of the company that features older dancers) in December. Costa Mesa originally was going to get only one Lightfoot work--"Softly as I Leave You," but a planned Kylian premiere was canceled by the choreographer, who replaced his work with the U.S. premiere of Lightfoot's.

"Orange County rang up and asked, 'What's going on?' " Lightfoot said. "That's natural. Impresarios want to see Jiri's work. I think what he did was great. He's doing me an honor."

What is going on in Lightfoot's work?

When "Start to Finish" had its premiere at the Holland Festival at the end of May, critics commended its naturalness, crossed with surprises. According to the choreographer, much of his signature movement vocabulary--"extremely complex and absolutely unpredictable," wrote one observer--comes from the dancers he works with, and from one in particular. "I have lots of ideas and lots of images. But I work very much in collaboration with my girlfriend, [Nederlands dancer] Sol Leon. We collaborate a lot. Generally we gather our ideas as we go along."


With the new piece, he says, "we wanted very much to turn the aesthetic of the stage around. Normally, dancers enter and leave from the sides, and the dance is lit from the sides. We decided to play a game with ourselves--only come in from the back and leave from the front. [One dancer actually hops off the front of the stage.] The idea of the stage is that it's a cave or a tunnel, something you can't see the end of.

" 'Start to Finish' is this strange world," he added. "The key to the piece is that there is something lurking in the dark, something waiting in the corner.

"The title came to me while I was watching 'Dead Man Walking.' When they execute a man, they have these two buttons [on the lethal-injection machine]. One says 'start,' the other says 'finish.' I thought, 'How quickly a life can come and go.' That doesn't have anything to do with the piece. It's not a narrative piece."

Still, to create what one critic called a "fragile world of vulnerable human beings," he picked funeral music written by Purcell and Thomas Tollett, as well as an Albinoni Adagio, Handel's "Largo" and "No Need to Argue" by the Irish rock band the Cranberries, which plays while a couple watches television.

"The first three sections have this more abstract, surreal feel," Lightfoot said. "I thought it would be good for the work for it to break out into the here and now, and a TV is this very domestic object."

At the end, the eight dancers in the work remove their clothes and walk away from the audience. "I worried that that was kitsch," he said. "But it wasn't the fact of making them naked as [much as] removing the mask. It adds a creature quality. In the end, there is the man and the woman. There is something natural about it."

* Nederlands Dans Theater will give the U.S. premiere of Paul Lightfoot's "From Start to Finish" on a program that also includes works by Jiri Kylian today and Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday and Friday at 2 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The company will dance Lightfoot's "Softly as I Leave You" and other Kylian works Tuesday-Thursday, at 8 p.m. $18-$59. (714) 556-2787.

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