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Ballet Vlaanderen

Intense, original and completely fascinating dance work, especially by choreographer Akram Khan, performed by the exceptional Ballet Vlaanderen company.

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A scene from Ballet Vlaanderen’s production of Akram Khan’s “Kaash” at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Filip Van Roe)

[avatar user=”Sheila Kogan” size=”96″ align=”left”] Sheila Kogan, Critic[/avatar]

Ballet Vlaanderen was founded in 1969 by dancer/choreographer Jeanne Brabants, and the present artistic director since 2015 is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is known for his own award-winning choreography. Under his direction, the Flemish company, based in two places, Antwerp and Ghent, is dedicated to creating innovative new pieces and bringing important works to the stage. Stylistically, the company bridges the gap between ballet and modern dance.

For their presentation at The Joyce Theater (March 3-7, 2020), Ballet Vlaanderen danced three pieces: Kaash, Faun, and Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue.


When members of the audience arrived at the Joyce there was a man standing on the stage with his back to the auditorium. Naked to the waist, wearing a long black skirt, he was as still as a stick and remained so while the audience arrived, chatting and settling down in their seats. He didn’t even appear to twitch a muscle. According to the program, this dance was about the Hindu god Shiva and life’s cyclical nature.

As the house lights dimmed, the sound of drums propelled a group of dancers to dynamically move in fascinating patterns. All became part of the swirling, ever-changing, powerful and passionate choreography of the brilliantly talented Akram Khan.

The title of this piece, Kaash, means “if” in Hindi, and Kathak, the Indian dance form, was incorporated into the modern dance vocabulary. The wonderful, original music by English-Indian composer Nitin Sawhney with its compelling rhythmic structure was a strong call to dance. Beginning with the strong beats from tabla and other drums, it also included pounding Indian vocals that used repetitive sounds rather than words.

A scene from Ballet Vlaanderen’s production of Akram Khan’s “Kaash” at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Filip Van Roe)

Khan designed imaginative patterns, using groups of dancers interspersed with some lovely or fierce solos. The dancers were gorgeous, well trained and highly skilled. Throughout, the sinewy use of arms along with Indian dance hand gestures (mudra) provided a dramatic flavor without telling a literal story. The beautiful movement was powerful and passionate, showing off the strength of the gifted dancers and the exceptional choreography.

Kimie Nakano designed the costumes: The women wore long, black skirts and ankle-length tights underneath, with form-fitting tops. The men were bare chested, also wearing long, black skirts and ankle-length tights underneath. All were barefoot.

The lighting designed by Aideen Malone created dramatic spaces and sometimes changed the entire atmosphere of the stage. The set design, a backdrop by artist Anish Kapoor, was like a modern, geometric painting.

British-Bengali Akram Khan has choreographed an intense, original and completely fascinating dance work. He is clearly one of the most talented choreographers of today. I would have gladly watched this dance all over again right then and there. Bravo!

Philipe Lens and Nicola Wills in a scene from Ballet Vlaanderen’s production of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Faun” at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Marc Haegeman)


Based on Claude Debussy’s Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune (“Afternoon of a Faun”) and the legendary choreography of Vaslav Nijinsky, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has created a new version of the infamously sensual piece. Using modern dance vocabulary, along with some gymnastics (handstands, somersaults, etc.), the two dancers, Phillipe Lens and Nicola Wills (the cast under review), were like two animals who discover each other in the woods. (The set designed by Adam Carrée included a backdrop of realistic trees. He also designed the effective lighting.) The erotic charge between the dancers informed every move, every entanglement and every emotion. The two dancers were incredibly strong, allowing for even the most difficult combinations to be executed with an ease and a fluidity that was remarkable.

Nitin Sawhney’s original, beautiful music was a riff on some of the familiar themes of Debussy’s famous Prélude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, and inspired by its languid, sensual motifs.

Hussein Chalyaan designed the minimal costumes that resembled bathing suits, permitting the dancers to move unencumbered.

Philipe Lens and Morgan Lugo in a scene from Ballet Vlaanderen’s production of Crystal Pite’s “Ten Duets on the Theme of Rescue” at The Joyce Theater (Photo credit: Filip Van Roe)


Matt Foley, Lara Fransen, Philipe Lens, Teun Van Roosmalen, and Nicola Wills was the cast of dancers whom seen on March 3. They performed the ten pas de deux choreographed by Crystal Pite. Danced to the 2002 film score composed by Cliff Martinez for the science fiction movie Solaris, this piece was the least effective on the program. There was a basic problem: the lighting design by Jim French included standing lamps that had blindingly bright lights shining into the audience. That kind of light is actually painful and it left much of the stage in the dark. Although the contrast of light and dark was dramatic, I was often unable to see any detail, or I needed to close my eyes to avoid the light  so that it was difficult to appreciate the movement. Dancers came and went, perhaps rescuing each other, but so much of the dance was literally in the dark that I couldn’t be certain what was going on.

The last moments of the performance were in the light, allowing me to see it: a man ran in exaggerated slow motion. He reached out for a woman, who pulled him along behind her, but he lost his grip over and over, and struggled to grab her hand again and again. The short distance between their hands created a dramatic space. With a final effort, he managed to grab her hand again. With that connection, she finally rescued him and, with relief, they moved offstage together.

Overall, the Ballet Vlaanderen is a terrific company with terrific dancers. In addition to short, modern pieces, they also stage full-length ballets. I would be very interested in seeing one of those productions, especially Akram Khan’s Giselle.

Ballet Vlaanderen (March 3–7, 2020)

The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-242-0800 or visit

Running time: one hour and a half including intermission

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