Donald Hutera in The Hague with Nederlands Dans Theater 2

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Donald Hutera

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The Premiere

That evening the Lucent Danstheater is, in typical first-night fashion, packed out with an appreciative audience of colleagues, friends and company supporters alongside the general public. There’s also a group, about three dozen strong and all connected to the Dance Consortium, which has come from Britain expressly to see Lightfoot and Leon’s NDT2 premiere. But first we watch the duo’s 2005 septet Postscript. Set to Philip Glass’ Strung Out and Metamorphosis One & Two, it’s an excellent example of their brand of dance-making: an unrelenting, almost calligraphic flow of movement. It’s followed by Spit, a collage of pre-existing work freshly reassembled by the Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. (He was responsible for Minus 16, one of the biggest hits in NDT2’s history and a firm favourite with audiences everywhere, including the UK.)

The programme culminates with Sleight of Hand, the most recent in a string of dances by Lightfoot-Leon that happen to begin with the letter ‘s’. (Others include Silent Screen, Signing Off, Safe as House, Subject to Change, Shutters Shut and the Olivier-nominated Sh-Boom; of these, the first two featured the music of Philip Glass.) It lasts just 20 minutes. Although relatively brief, this new work for eight dancers was conceived monumentally. The setting, also by Lightfoot-Leon, is impressive. Black cloth walls surround a space dominated by two fantastically tall people, one of each gender. They are, by virtue of their lofty height, authority figures silently mouthing words to the accompaniment of their own gesticulations. Below them they observe a mysterious dance-drama involving a couple — their children, perhaps, or maybe their younger selves — and a lone man in grey. In one of the most effective bits of staging, a few dancers slowly stride up onto the stage from the pit as if ascending from the underworld. Yet another Philip Glass score — the second movement from Symphony no. 2, to be specific — surges beneath the action and carries it along.

Sleight of Hand is a fancy enigma that weds the domestic and the Gothic, or a chamber piece expanded into a shadowy but psychologically charged spectacle. It could be about family, and is almost certainly about memory. So much can be read into it. As interpreted by the members of NDT2, the trademark Lightfoot-Leon style seems both effortlessly cool and, at times, ferocious. The movement, both spidery and stretched, tends to travel through the entire body as if spreading up through the floor and passing out of the dancers’ limbs.

Working Methods

The following afternoon Lightfoot (tall, thin, muscular, bearded and English) and Leon (small, dark, stylish and Spanish) find time to talk, in a serious yet playful manner, about themselves and the methods used to create their dances. How do they view their partnership? ‘It’s a natural division of the talent of each one of us,’ says Leon. ‘We never talk about it. We don’t need words, and we never plan anything.’

‘We don’t make any rules,’ Lightfoot interjects.

‘It’s like a conversation inside the brain,’ continues Leon. ‘That’s where the excitement comes in. Very often you don’t understand it. Naturally you give space if the other one is coming up with something. You just follow and get inspired by it yourself. But we’re very different as human beings, so we made a deal not to interfere too much with each other. Just being together, one from the dark and one from the light, gives us each a different way to do what we do.’

‘We make the work on ourselves,’ says Lightfoot, ‘on our own bodies. We do work with the dancers, but this is just one of the areas where we’re control freaks – physically.’ Ultimately, he says, ‘People can’t really differentiate too much between “Where is he, where is she?” in our work. We know. It all interlocks, but it’s too unclear to say exactly where.’ He cites an amusing example of how easy it is to get the creative attribution wrong. “In Holland they would sometimes say about our earlier work, “Oh, the English humour.” But it was Sol’s jokes they were referring to!’

Gambling on Change

The journey that Sleight of Hand took to reach the stage was no laughing matter. Originally A Man in a Room Gambling, by the English composer Gavin Bryars, was meant to accompany the dance. A mere two weeks before opening night, however, the choreographers decided to scrap the score and many of the ideas (about gambling and life) that had arisen with it. Leon describes the pressures, and eventual pleasures, involved in the process like so: ‘You’re really unhappy with the music and it doesn’t matter how, but you have to change the whole piece. Not just the music, but the whole concept. It’s like being on a train. “Whoa!” I was very upset, but it gave me such a force. The next day everything came out because of this push I felt.’

Lightfoot wasn’t unduly surprised by the huge turnover in concept. ‘It’s always like this,’ he confides, ‘like a chemical combustion of ideas and elements.’ He’d felt the need for it, too. ‘We were working in sections – we always work in sections – and one day we sat down and put them all together. Sol was silent and the hairs on my arms went straight up. I just knew this was not going in the right direction. The connection wasn’t right.’ Researching in the library while NDT2 was off on a short tour, he came upon Philip Glass’ Symphony no. 2. It clicked straightaway for both him and Leon. ‘I adore Glass,’ she says. ‘His music is like a river. It just goes. It makes you be with him.’

‘I would’ve loved to have changed our musical concept earlier,’ confesses Lightfoot. ‘It’s just so difficult to find music that hits the nail on the head. There’s music that I love but then, as a choreographer, I think that it’s never going to be able to be a ballet. And if this piece had been to the music of several different composers, I think it would’ve lost strength.’

Some things about Sleight of Hand didn’t change. Leon had been very clear about the tall people all along, Lightfoot reveals. ‘They’d been her starting point. Immediately what’s so beautiful about the tall people is when you put a normal sized person next to them. The game we’re playing with perspective began from there. The idea of using the pit was Sol’s, too. Then you have three levels. When the dancers come downstage you get a distance between them, as if everybody’s growing and shrinking. The masculine and feminine figures connect in all directions. Everybody connects.’

Only Connect

Did they ever.  Although it may have been a challenge to be thrown an entirely new take on Sleight of Hand so close to its premiere, the dancers of NDT2 rose to the occasion. ‘Normally we do this kind of thing with NDT1 and it’s great,’ admits Leon. ‘Everybody loves that. But I was afraid, because they’re very young in NDT2 and to be in process like this can be such a stress. So when we did new things I begged them, “Please, I need your help. You came here to do something. This is the moment, right now.” Everybody was so mature. They responded amazingly.’

‘They had to grow up fast. “You’ve got to do this now because we’ve got to fly like the wind.” I mean, we made a 20-minute dance in about ten days total. That’s two minutes a day! Yes, we had lots of movement information from the piece that we’d just taken apart. Still, to re-conceptualise it and bring it together so quickly…I’m really thrilled. And when I saw it last night I felt proud. Whatever the ballet is, whether you like it or not, the dancers are going to get so much out of it. But we always push them. And they’re unbelievable. When Sol and I were their age, and what we were doing at NDT2…Well, all I can say is that the level’s just rocketed and the performances have such class.’

Role-ing Along

When it comes to the dancers in their pieces, Lightfoot and Leon are highly selective. ‘Every piece of casting is special with us,’ he explains. ‘We’re just very particular about who we’re going to work with.’ This pickiness has increased over the years as the pair moves further into the creation of dances with a more pronounced dramatic and theatrical content.

‘They don’t make ballets with roles any more,’ Leon complains. ‘I adore roles. I don’t like groups. It really annoys me. I feel that today dance should not be about groups, but individuals together. So to give the dancers in NDT2 the opportunity to get into roles must feel really new for them.’ She speaks about Jin Young Won, the 19 year-old Korean who plays the tall woman in Sleight of Hand, a part originally inspired by the Queen of Hearts. ‘Everybody knows about queens. But this girl is completely pure, and it’s very different culturally the way she was educated. I had to find out how to connect with her. I knew there would be something inside. So I decided, “Let’s talk about your grandmother and how as a child you saw her.” She was very beautiful. I was like, “Okay, sing a song for me from when you were a child,” and she did a beautiful song. I said, “Can you make me a poem of this?” Slowly, in this way, I was making her go into her character.’

Lightfoot riffs happily off of this subject. ‘You would never say what this ballet is about. You gather immediately that it’s not a narrative piece. But, like Sol, I’m really getting into this idea of characters.’

Silence is Golden

Another of their key influences has been the cinema. ‘We’re both film freaks,’ says Lightfoot.  In terms of the new ballet, Leon mentions the Nicole Kidman ghost story The Others. More generally, she says, ‘For three or four years now we’ve really been inspired by silent movies.’ What exactly is the source of that inspiration? ‘The technique and quality of the performances. The way that the movement goes dynamically is like a conversation in acting.’

Here Lightfoot picks up the ball. ‘That’s what’s so beautiful about silent movies. As dancers we’re so close to that type of acting. They can’t speak, and yet they express themselves physically so well. The way they over-dramatise is brilliant.’

‘You know what I love?’ asks Leon. ‘It’s not the big expressions.’ Here she grimaces hugely. ‘It’s what comes after.’ Now her face is neutral, blank, composed. ‘They were so technical. You can touch their technique! That’s class. I’ve been trying for years to teach the dancers to get a little bit more of that theatrical expression in their faces. I think it touches people to see something extreme, because when you over-express something you get to the other side of it.’

Ticket to the Top

Silent film acting isn’t all that Lightfoot and Leon rate highly. ‘When people say that they are free artists,’ she says, ‘they must first have the substance to be free. Sometimes when they say they’re free, they’re just repeating their own patterns.’ What she’s alluding to is the sometimes contrary relationship between modern dance and ballet.

‘You find so many contemporary companies not taking classical dance seriously,’ says Lightfoot. ‘In NDT we have dancers who are animals, but all of us know technique.’

Leon, too, warms to the topic. ‘You cannot be contemporary if you are not completely disciplined in classical technique. With top technique you can make a style, and one that comes from your body.’ Here her words begin to take an autobiographical turn. ‘I was always a dancer, a creator, but I didn’t know. There are no labels for this in Spain. I come from a country where everyone is naturally a dancer. I adore it, but it’s not art.

Family Matters

‘I adore my family, too,’ she continues. ‘When you live away from your country and your roots, the roots become very strong. Whatever your personality is, your genes and your flesh are still very close to that of others who are the same as you. You are changing only very slowly. My father has a tree of the family. All of these people… How slowly it goes from there to here, from them to you, just a step. And you can’t escape it. You might criticise your father or your grandfather, but when you are 40 and have your own life you realise, “I’m the same, exactly the same!” When you have a child [a daughter, age nine], you talk to that child and remember hearing exactly the same words being addressed to you. Finally you understand your father as you scream at your daughter, “You’re not good doing this and this is not fair…” It’s like, “That’s what he told me!”’

These snippets of family history, and Leon’s insights into them, are no doubt at least indirectly a part of the background of Sleight of Hand. ‘I’m very inspired by reincarnation,’ she says, ‘and families.’

Think Mutual Passion

NDT is now a key part of the Lightfoot-Leon family. ‘Coming here to this company,’ Leon recalls, ‘it felt like home. Within the first hour I met Paul. It was great to meet someone with such a high passion as yours. We are not intellectual people. We are maybe too passionate.’

‘There is very much a pseudo-intellectualism in dance,’ says Lightfoot. ‘Someone like William Forsythe is a big influence in this. He’s an absolute genius. There’s a whole entourage of thinkers that has grown out of him, but they’re not geniuses like him. I don’t mean to put them down, but I’m very old-fashioned. I just like to get into the studio and get down to it. Now our work is more narrative than it used to be. We try to be more human and put a lot of heart into the work. You create your own stories. It gives you something personal that you can relate to.’

Give and Take

In the near future Lightfoot and Leon are chockablock with work in which they can make a personal and professional investment. In June 2007 they will present their first full-evening work in a converted gas factory in Amsterdam, as part of Holland Festival. They have also been working on a big project with street orphans in Bangladesh. About the latter Leon says, ‘The way they dance, I never saw something like that. The best ones improvise. We are working very simply with them: to count rhythmically, to walk on music. The power they all have inside. I saw how much they change. They look at you and you cannot walk away from them. I feel very selfish,’ she adds, ‘because you get much more back from them than you think.’

‘We’re going to try to make a performance with them and dancers from NDT,’ says Lightfoot. ‘Something to enrich their souls, their beings and to make them proud of themselves.’

Love and Pain

The special stamp that Lightfoot and Leon being to everything they do stems from their innate professionalism. ‘We were extremely dedicated dancers,’ she says. ‘Now when I watch a piece I’m more demanding because I know what it’s like to be onstage. But you know my own criticism? I love what I see because I know from where it comes, but I would like to get a little bit more brightness in our work. It’s dark because of the pain, the process. So I would like to get a little bit lighter.’

‘We had a huge light period,’ Lightfoot retorts, laughing.

Leon returns to the difficult, yet exciting, creation of Sleight of Hand. ‘When you have a situation of panic, you’re unconscious — the most important root of your soul — comes out. If you use the brain to create, it’s never going to come out. Never. But my point is, do I really want to do this?’ And now she’s laughing, too. ’Because it’s painful. And I don’t know how healthy it is to do it.’

‘It’s always stressful,’ Lightfoot says, ‘but I don’t find it unhealthy. It was fascinating, it was intense, but at the same time it was like water off a duck’s back. It wasn’t physically painful.’

‘That’s the difference of going on the same train of making a piece together. We’re very different. His energy and speed is like that. My energy is not at all like that. But I’m the one who’s being pulled. And when you are pulled, you’re the one that screams!’ Here they both laugh raucously, like the long-time — and highly creative — couple that they are.