Netherlands company keeps audience constantly off guard

The curtain goes up in the dark on ``Heart's Labyrinth,'' the opening ballet of the Netherlands Dance Theater's (NDT) season at the Metropolitan Opera House. All you can see at first is a doorway outlined in neon light. Then, gradually, you make out a woman, high up and far back in the stage, picking her way carefully down some steep stairs. Her descent is dangerous, and it takes a long time. When she gets to the bottom, she pushes on the door to reveal a distorting mirror. She sees herself, all zigzags and bulges. Music starts playing (Arnold Schoenberg's Op. 34). At last she begins to dance.

Choreographer and NDT director Jiri Kyli'an is very good at bringing off creepy theatrical effects. You can hardly be indifferent to this woman after an entrance like that. What follows, though, is a litany of expressionistic despair without relief or hope. The woman and the five alter egos who succeed her are forever rushing into the arms of men, only to be flung aside, or wrenching free of a man's hostile embrace. Even the last, quietest episode in this panorama of devastated heterosexuality ends when the woman, unfulfilled, leaves her last partner and walks glumly back to the mirror.

``Heart's Labyrinth,'' with music by Webern and Dvorak as well as Schoenberg, elaborates on the unstable, unsatisfying, and unending quest for a partner, which Mr. Kyli'an seems to think is the main preoccupation of neurotic modern man and woman. His dancers seldom confront their partners face to face but wrestle obliquely or from behind, like animals. They race after each other, connect with heart-stopping impact, twist and twine around each other, spring apart again. Coercive though each move may be, it usually provokes a contrary response rather than a sympathetic one. The audience is kept constantly off guard in assessing these encounters. What you think you saw is contradicted by what you see next.

On the level of pure dance, Kyli'an's work is a feast, and the dancers execute it with great agility and daring, but it's more than that. Self-important program notes describe a nobler world of the suffering, aspiring beings these dancers represent.

``Silent Cries'' is supposed to be about the emergence of the artist. Set to Debussy's ``Afternoon of a Faun,'' it is a mime piece for Sabine Kupferberg, in which she scrabbles at a soap-smeared window that separates her from the audience, sometimes peering out, sometimes touching her own body as if to make sure it's real. When Kyli'an says in his program note that Debussy's music is ineffable and cannot be ``personified by human beings,'' he sounds naive. ``Faun'' will always be associated with Vaslav Nijinsky, and though the virtuosic Angst of ``Silent Cries'' unavoidably evokes Nijinsky's madness, it disregards his genius.

``Six Dances,'' according to the notes, is also both about the music and not about the music. This obnoxious attempt at profundity trashes Mozart by claiming the modern audience cannot possibly appreciate such music without the benefit of parody. Half-dressed dancers in powdery wigs clump around, punch each other in the stomach, make courtly gestures that turn into pratfalls. Plodding among these clowns are people in dark dresses and pants, depressed representatives of the 20th century, who stare at the floor for a long time and leave.

The most palatable piece on the program, ``L'Enfant et les sortil`eges,'' gained its charm from the famous Ravel score for an orchestra and seven singers, conducted by David Porcelijn. Later, in the lengthy program notes, I discovered to my disappointment that what looked like a clever divertissement - frolicking cats, jumping clocks, a flirtatious cup, and teapot - was a fairy-tale journey from childish petulance to wisdom.

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