NOWHERE in the performing arts is the process of aging more apparent than in the dance world.
Whereas actors often perform as long as they are given work, and musicians tend to become more skilled with experience, dancers are more likely to be overlooked by the time they are 40. Just as they are reaching a kind of emotional maturity built on life experience, a maturity that can translate into great expressive power and presence onstage, they are thought to lose some of their youthful virtuosity. Especially in the ballet world, careers that should gracefully end with a grand victorious flourish acro ss the footlights, too often simply fade away, as the mature dancer is relegated to character roles or dismissed altogether.
Jiri Kylian, the Czechoslovakian-born director of the Nederlands Dans Theater for almost two decades, is committed to the idea that it needn't be this way. In 1991, he founded Nederlands Dans Theater 3 (NDT3), a chamber company of floating personnel that showcases the special talents of world-class ballet dancers over age 40 in repertoire choreographed especially for them.
On Aug. 16, the company made its debut at Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass. (hot on the heels of its United States debut at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.) in a program featuring four outstanding soloists -- Martine Van Hamel, Gary Chryst, Sabine Kupferberg, and Gerard Lemaitre.
The NDT3 program itself said a lot about aging, with a focus on grief and little evidence of the joys of maturity. The most obvious piece was Martha Clarke's ''Nocturne'' (US premire), a ''theatrical presentation of deterioration: a contemporary representation of a 'dying swan.' '' Wearing only a long white tutu, her face covered by a mask of gauze, Kupferberg seemed gnarled beyond recognition. Her lithe body appeared grotesquely deformed, hunched over and barely moving, one harshly angled arm discreetly covering her bare chest.
Hans van Manen's ''Evergreens'' (US premire), for Kupferberg and Lemaitre, was less heavy-handed, showing a couple maintaining grace and composure in the face of diminished abilities. Here Kupferberg's collapsing swan was offered the encouragement and support of a jaunty Lemaitre, his squeaky patent-leather shoes carrying him about the stage with a Fred Astaire-like joie de vivre. The couple's subsequent duet was a study in support and acceptance.
Clarke's ''Dammerung'' (1993), danced to the stark lieder of Alban Berg, was a stunning work of fear and desolation. Dressed in an old suit and fedora, Chryst was an astonishing presence as a man haunted by his past.
A backward glance dissolved into a thunderous fall to the floor. Despairing gazes heavenward melted into cowering crouches. Staggers, limping runs in a circle, an extraordinary diagonal crawl with arms and legs rigidly locked, and the ethereal presence of Van Hamel -- part angel, part ghost -- led to a powerful, omnipresent sense of anxiety. Robert Israel designed the costumes and a gorgeous twilight set.
The most physical work on the program was also the most delightful. Ohad Naharin's ''Off White'' (1992) turned the marital bed into a wrestling mat, complete with dives, throws, pins, a lot of very clever acrobatics, some wildly released energy and impressive comic timing. Chryst and Kupferberg were superb.
Kylian's ''No Sleep til Dawn of Day'' (1992), set to the ''snake woman's'' lullaby from the Solomon Islands, was a riveting work for Kupferberg and Van Hamel and 16 chairs that began as an exercise of sculptural shapes against a beautiful play of light and shadow (lighting by Joop Caboort).
The work congealed into one long phrase performed in unison -- rocking a child, a silent scream to the heavens, a fascinating gestural sign language created with the hands in reference to the face. In a striking match of music, movement, and lighting, the phrase repeated and repeated, getting tighter and smaller as the music faded and the light dimmed.
The concert ended with Paul Lightfoot's lighthearted quartet ''Susto'' (1994), which featured a frolic beneath a stream of sand pouring from a large suspended cone. No matter how clever the movement, one couldn't watch without thinking: ''How do they keep the sand out of their eyes? And how do they get all that sand out of their hair?''
* The company's US tour concludes at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York (Oct. 17 to Oct. 19).