Few things mark the passing of time more acutely than the growth of a child. In 2006, when Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) last performed at the Edinburgh International Festival, a six-year-old girl loomed large on a screen during Silent Scream – a work by choreographic duo Sol León and Paul Lightfoot. Eleven years later, when the company returns, we’ll see that same little girl – only this time she’s a teenager. For most people watching, the change in young Saura will be irrelevant, but for León and Lightfoot – her parents – it’s a deeply emotional experience.
“As a mother, I’m fascinated by these cycles,” says León. “With Silent Scream, that was the first time I thought ‘This baby is going to go’, so I wanted to capture her forever. She was six at the time we filmed it, now she’s 19, has left home and is going to Rada in September.
“We hadn’t shown Silent Scream in a long time, but we brought it back recently and Saura came to see it. She was crying because she never understood before, and now she does. She was little, she was changing.”
This time, it’s Stop-Motion in which Saura appears onscreen, a work created by León and Lightfoot in 2014, which will play alongside the duo’s 2006 work Shoot the Moon and the missing door by Gabriela Carrizo of Belgium-based physical theatre company Peeping Tom. It’s a triple-bill of UK premieres that typifies where this most prestigious of dance companies is right now: deeply entwined in the work of its house choreographers, León and Lightfoot, but open to new, exciting and challenging works from outside.
One thing all of NDT’s works have in common is their ability to reach out to audiences with stories that are suggested, rather than told. León and Lightfoot, in particular, constantly strive to make an emotional connection with those sitting in the auditorium.
“We don’t make narrative work,” says Lightfoot, “but it’s not abstract either, so what is it? It’s work that is based on emotions, and that’s what we employ – our own emotions and the dancers’ emotions. We get under their skin a little bit and I always encourage the dancers to use their imaginations, because I don’t want them to just take my images or Sol’s images. And the chemistry that comes from that is, I like to think, what gives us the power to express things to an audience.”
English-born Lightfoot and Spanish León have been creating together since 1989, choreographing over 50 works during that time. It’s a professional partnership that has survived company changes, parenthood and even marital break-up. What endures is a mutual respect for their individual approach to making work, and a complementary set of strengths and weaknesses.
Sitting with them backstage at the Théâtre National de Chaillot in Paris, where the company is enjoying a sold-out run, it’s clear they speak with one voice – but each with their own distinct accent, literally and metaphorically.
“In every piece of art there isn’t only one layer,” says León. “And the fact is there are two of us and each of us develops work in a totally different way. Yes, we are together on this path, but Paul’s feelings, personality and wishes are very different from mine. So sometimes it’s not just about the different layers of what he says and I say, it’s what comes out of each conversation.”
“We’re very different, but we have similar guidelines,” agrees Lightfoot. “There’s no recipe really, but there are certain structures and formats that we both unconsciously follow. There’s an overlapping and layering – it’s like mille-feuille – it weaves like a tapestry and that’s what’s great: we never quite know what the picture is going to be.”
Those differences really came to the fore during the creation of Stop-Motion, which was choreographed during a time of company turbulence. Lightfoot was just 19 in 1985 when he travelled to The Hague to join Nederlands Dans Theater 2 as a young dancer. Two years later León arrived, just as the company moved into the Lucent Danstheater, its home for almost 30 years until local government plans to replace it were revealed in 2015.
Understandably, having spent three decades under the same roof, the proposed move hit both of them hard – but ultimately became one of the creative sparks for Stop-Motion.
“We were really in the thick of it at that time,” recalls Lightfoot. “The metaphor behind the piece was the destruction of the environment – of any environment. And in our case it was about our theatre, because the city had a plan to take it down and build a new one – and for us, it was like taking our nest and shredding it. There was a lot of resistance to suggestions which weren’t in tune with the integrity of who we are as a company.”
As is often the case with this creative duo, they responded to the situation in very different ways. In this instance, Lightfoot’s more explosive reaction was tempered by a more measured approach by León.
“When you have a very emotional experience and you’re in pain, the first instinct is to let everybody know about it – to fight, take revenge, make a noise,” says León. “But I said no, let’s do the contrary – just let it go and make something beautiful. So that was the seed of Stop-Motion.
“And what I love, is that now we are travelling with it to lots of different places and cultures, that all have a different type of conflict – and they all relate the piece to what is happening where they are. So what we found with Stop-Motion, is if you find the real, positive seed, it can actually be planted anywhere.”
A beautiful piece, filled with dynamic movement and emotive expression, Stop-Motion is danced against a backdrop of visual images (the teenage Saura dressed in an old-fashioned gown) and among a pile of white flour – depicting the dust that spread through the rehearsal room walls during the work’s creation.
“Again, there is never just one layer,” says León. “We were creating this piece in dust, so that was one layer. The other layer is a very important one, it’s family and where we were in that moment in our lives. Our daughter is in the film, it’s the moment when she’s going to fly away, but at the same time our parents are getting old.
“It’s kind of a circle, so I dressed Saura as my tatarabuela [great-great grandmother].”
Linking the two pieces together, Shoot the Moon – which captures the relationship of three distinct couples – was created ten years earlier, following conversations about León’s familial relationships, in particular the one between her grandparents.
“Everything we make is somehow related to where we are in our lives,” says Lightfoot. “And our work, without in any sense being autobiographical, is a bit like looking at a scrapbook.”
As Lightfoot says, the duo’s work is not their own lives writ large, but in every corner of every piece resides a thought, a memory, a moment. “We are so involved,” says León. “This is our life, this is our history, this is our work.”
*Nederlands Dans Theater, Edinburgh Playhouse, 21-23 August, 0131-473 2000 / www.eif.co.uk