NDT in Sydney: Sweet Dreams are Made of This

Nederlands Dans Theater’s season at the Sydney Opera House is united by the dreamlike quality of a quartet of pieces whose titles all begin with the letter S.

On opening night (12 June) the crowd-pleaser of the program was SH-BOOM! choreographed by NDT’s artistic director, Paul Lightfoot, and his partner, Sol León.

The capital letters and exclamation mark announce with a shout the sheer energy of the piece that’s danced to eight schmaltzy, silly or jaunty songs, mostly from the 1950s.

I wonder if Lightfoot (born in 1966) recalled these songs from his childhood when he lived in the UK – a case of songs my father and mother sang to me?

SH-BOOM ends with Stan Freberg’s parody of the song, Sh-Boom: Life Could Be a Dream, in which Freberg instructs his vocal chorus to mumble in the style of R&B recordings of the time.

At the ‘mumble!’ instruction, the dancers stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths, a gesture that recalls the surrealism and nostalgia of Pina Bausch’s works based on popular songs of her youth.

Silas Henriksen introduces the ensemble of 10 in the role of a grotesque MC in a white suit with sequin trim, while Spenser Theberge, in a half white, half black suit, mimes the words to Freyberg’s other big hit, John & Marsha, in which the only words spoken are the names of John and Marsha, depicted as soap opera characters racked with angst.

The four other men in SH-BOOM! represent a goofy quartet in white undies and socks, overwhelmed by four, stern black-garbed women who, at one point, shine torches on a naked man who is both terrified and somehow pleased with himself in his final gesture of touching his penis, in profile, before he exits stage left.

SH-BOOM! ends with a flurry of white confetti that falls onto the stage and across the auditorium.

The ‘confetti’ is made up of tiny white slips of paper, each imprinted with the words: “Life Could Be A Dream”.

The words referred to the lyrics of the song but the elusive message – could our lives really be just a series of dreams? – applied to all four works the company brought to Australia.

Each expressed some aspect of our familiar dreams of losing, falling, chasing, hoping, or embracing.

Sweet Dreams, danced to Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, was replete with the trademarks of its choreogapher, Jiri Kylián – floor slides, the sexy manipulation of the women by the men, arms stretched to the side like a clamp about to close on its prey, side lighting casting a golden glow, and the simple, yet powerful, idea of a carried prop – dozens of green apples signifying sin, not in threatening way but as in a dream we don’t like to recount.

Kylián’s Sarabande is pure testosterone – six men sprawled under the domes of body-less crinolines come to life in a haka like display of their masculinity, as they shout, breath deeply, heavily, slip off their T-shirts, drop their trousers, and finally segue into the calming flow of Bach’s Sarabande from Partita for solo violin. Sarabande exemplifies these dancers style. Every one of them moves with fluidity, with each phrase blending seamlessly into the next.

Shoot the Moon, choreographed by Lightfoot and León, danced to a movement from Philip Glass’s Tirol Concerto, adds another dream-like aspect to the program. The score underpins the flow of the lives of couples who dance out their longings and losses in three wallpapered rooms whose walls revolve in this (somewhat earnest), carousel of pain.

The NDT dancers are powerful, energetic, sexy, individual, and unafraid. The former Australian Ballet principal, Danielle Rowe, a strong presence on stage, has lost none of her elegant line and poise in her transition from her ballet career to her new life in the Hague with NDT.

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Sweet Dreams, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sweet Dreams, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sarabande, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sarabande, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

SH-BOOM! Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Fernando Hernando Magadan and Danielle Rowe, Shoot the Moon, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Fernando Hernando Magadan and Danielle Rowe, Shoot the Moon, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sarabande, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sarabande, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sweet Dreams, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Sweet Dreams, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Fernando Hernando Magadan and Danielle Rowe, Shoot the Moon, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton

Fernando Hernando Magadan and Danielle Rowe, Shoot the Moon, Nederlands Dans Theater, photo © Prudence Upton