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Dispatch from Amsterdam: Experiencing the Holland Festival

June 20, 2011 |  3:44 pm

Aside from its well-known marijuana coffee shops and red-light district, Amsterdam is something of a cultural megalopolis.  The city of less than a million is home to 51 museums, with some 200 Van Gogh and 22 Rembrandt paintings, including the latter’s famed “Night Watch.” And this canal-dotted city also lays claim to one of Europe’s great performing arts festivals.

Running June 1 to 26, the Holland Festival, directed by Pierre Audi and now in its 64th year, offers the best of opera, dance, music and theater in various venues throughout the city.  And while I didn’t get to Wolfgang Rihm’s latest opera, “Dionysos” (it premiered last year at the Salzburg Festival and has a final festival performance Wednesday in Amsterdam), I did get to hear Rihm’s maxi-textured music as part of choreographer Sasha Waltz’s “Jagden und Forman” (“Hunts and Forms”) in its Dutch premiere. 

Performed by the astonishing Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern, the composition is one Rihm has repeatedly rewritten since the mid-'90s and has updated for Waltz’s work, originally choreographed in 2008.  Under Franck Ollu’s crack direction, the two dozen musicians, who performed barefoot or in socks, accompanied the 14 dancers of the Berlin-based Sasha Waltz & Guests. 

Original music was integral, as well, to Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s, “Labyrinth,” half of a bill also featuring David Dawson’s “Timelapse/Mnemosyne,” with both works commissioned by the Dutch National Ballet and seen June 17 at the Muziektheater.  Home to the Netherlands Opera and Ballet companies, this modern building overlooking the Amstel River is not far from the Rembrandtplein, a former butter market where a 19th century statue of the legendary artist holds forth in a splendid garden.

Rembrandt, no doubt, would have approved of Cherkaoui.  One of choreography’s latest "It" boys (he brings his recently formed troupe, Eastman, to the Irvine Barclay Theatre in October), the 35-year-old Belgian-Moroccan dancemaker has fashioned a fluid, exotic piece of undulating beauty and controlled grace.  Set to Szymon Brzóska’s original score, performed live by the Holland Symfonia led by Jurjen Henpel, with Barbara Drazkowska on piano and Tsubasa Hori on koto, the hourlong opus soared on all counts. 

Flowing with solos, duets and gorgeous unisons, the work featured Nadia Yanowsky, Jurgita Dronina and Claire Lonchampt as solitary figures who infused arabesques and backbends with fervor and longing; rubber-legged Steven Etienne was Petrouchka incarnate; Peter Leung partnered Dronina with haughty grandeur; and Koen Havenith reveled in catch-and-release mode with Lonchampt.  Rikke Juellund’s silk fabric streamers, reminiscent of Alwin Nikolais’ iconic “Tensile Involvement,” also enchanted. 

Dawson’s hourlong piece took cues from Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” the dancers’ black robes and white masks making for spooky, yet sexy tableaux.  Gender bending surfaced in male kick lines, while Eno Henze’s videos added luster to an otherwise stark scenario. 

Amsterdam: Come for the frites with mayo, Brown Cafes (neighborhood watering holes named for their interiors’ dark wood), and Dutch pancakes, but stay for the arts in the city that has a jones for culture.

 --Victoria Looseleaf, from Amsterdam

Photo: Claire Longchampt and Koen Havenith, Dutch National Ballet. Credit: Angela Sterling