Articles from Ballet2000

Jirí Kylián, the poet of dance

Jirí Kylián, the poet of dance

Despite having gradually and serenely retired from creation, Jirí Kylián remains one of the greatest and most influential choreographers of our times. In the course of a long career, his works have been performed in theatres and by companies all over the world, appreciated for the clarity, musicality and poetic quality that distinguish both his abstract ballets and those on grand themes

Jirí Kylián is a choreographer. This short and sweet definition might in itself suffice to place him in a category of his own, a rare one these days.
He is a choreographer in the real sense of the word, meaning an architect of the body moving in time and space, to sound and music.
He is also a dramaturge in his own right, something that is also rare today, in the sense that he himself constructs the internal logic, texture and design of his ballets on the basis of a coherent, well-designed, well-thought out and well-danced score of movements/steps/gestures. He is the author of both the source idea and of its realisation.
His dancers drown technique within an “organic” fluidity so that we forget it as we absorb only wonder and spellbinding naturalness.
Beauty isn’t fashionable among artists of generations subsequent to that of the great 70-year-olds like Kylián; but the fact remains that, alongside the research work and experiments that are necessary to young creators at this moment in time, we do still need repeatable and transmittable “works”.

Paris Opera Ballet - Alessio Carbone, Dorothee Gilbert, Alice Renavand: "Bella Figura" c. Jiri Kylian (ph. Ann Ray)

That’s how it is in Jirí Kylián’s case and little does it matter if his works are narrative (more or less, but never in a flat or unsubtle way) or “abstract” ballets (always however in an enthusing interaction with the music, never nestling on it); what does matter is the pleasure they give to those dancing or watching them.
The aesthetics of “ugliness”, in the best sense of the word (for example that which has been attributed to the Tanztheater of Pina Bausch), is foreign to him. Kylián doesn’t represent the ugliness within the soul which, instead, he exorcises using his cosmopolitan humanism, thereby fighting off and overcoming it.
His has been an adventurous life: he fled from his native Czechoslovakia which had been invaded by Soviet Russia and arrived in swinging London; the next fundamental chapters in his biography were as a dancer in John Cranko’s vibrant Stuttgart Ballett (where John Neumeier and William Forsythe were also dancing), his discovery of Australian aboriginal dance, and his move to The Netherlands. Here he settled, unsheathing energy and character to lead three companies: Nederlands Dans Theater 1, 2 (junior) and 3 (senior) – the latter, for older dancers, being the most innovative of the three..
And so Kylián’s works started to be acquired by the world’s most prestigious theatres (Bella Figura from 1996, to give just one example, has been staged by more than 50 companies), which have provided the settings for this out-of-the-ordinary biography with its joys and sufferings, endured with bittersweet sensitivity, gravitas and also humour, never forgetting to look with attention to the problems and hardships afflicting the world’s inhabitants who are always fighting for their lives and loves.
Jirí Kylián stepped down as director of the NDT in 2009 and has lately been dedicating himself to projects that are dear to him, especially film work (with an eye on the silent movies and golden oldies, including slapstick comedies): Car Men with the NDT3 senior dancers, set in a mine in the Czech Republic (directed by Boris Paval Conen in 2006); East Shadow, dedicated to the tsunami victims and filmed in Japan, a country Kylián loves on account of the purity of its artistic aesthetics; Between Entrance and Exit (2013), Schwartzfahrer (together with Jan Malir, 2014), Free Fall (2016) and Scalamare, filmed near the monument to the Fallen Soldiers in Ancona, Italy (2017).
Knowing how to tread one’s personal/public path is an art: Kylián is the living proof that if one steers clear of being excessively self-centred and self-referential, one is able to make clever and creative choices and become wiser as one matures.
Kylián has remained faithful to his collaborators and partners, dancers, costume and set designers, whilst wending his way amidst ever-diverse musical choices, from his fellow-countryman Leoš Janáèek at the onset of his career (Sinfonietta) and Toru Takemitsu (Kaguyahime), to Igor Stravinsky (Noces); from the baroque (Bella Figura), to the atmospheric music of Claude Debussy’s Après Midi d’un Faune (which he used for Silent Cries where we see his favourite dancer Sabine Kupferberg, “emotion personified”, behind a large pane of glass); from Mozart (Sechs Tänze, Petite Mort, Birth-Day), to the modern music of Steve Reich and Anton Webern for his short ballets of the Black and White series, to the unfailing Bach for Sarabande, recently staged by Aterballetto.
Kylián has about a hundred works to his name; the more recent ones in his post-2000 phase have a decidedly more contemporary lighting/staging look, with the following notable examples: Sleepless, Tar and Feathers, Gods and Dogs (all to compositions by Dirk Haubrich, based on Mozart), and Toss of a Dice (music again by Haubrich).
An updated profile of this choreographer (who was recently elected as a member of the French Académie de beaux-arts, amidst fitting celebrations) cannot fail to include his creations for the Paris Opéra (Doux Mensonges, 1999, Il faut qu’une porte, 2004), in Japan (When Time takes Time with the Saitama Arts Theatre and NDT 3, Blackbird, Far too Close), as well as his collaboration with the Ballets de Monte-Carlo (video Oskar for Jean-Christophe Maillot and Bernice Coppieters, and a revival of Chapeau, to music by Prince, inspired by the Queen of the Netherland’s colourful hats).
After stepping down, as mentioned above, from the laurels and responsibilities of being director of the NDT, these days Kylián chooses his commitments and personally looks after his website, the place to visit to learn all about his ballets, films and foundation; established in 1988, headquartered in Prague but with a transnational character, the foundation’s mission is to ensure the quality of Kylián’s works throughout the world.
With that desire for freedom of action that comes in the fullness of years when objectives have been achieved, Jirí Kylián can now choose how to spend his time.
His friend Mats Ek and his colleague William Forsythe have done the same, shedding the burden of leading a company and creating choreography while at the same time having to take into consideration all professional/human factors relating to budget, production, distribution and relations with the dancers.
Just as Forsythe has left his Dresden/Frankfurt group in the hands of the “Forsythian” Jacopo Godani, so Kylián has left the NDT to the Paul Lightfoot-Sol León couple who are products of the troupe.
Furthermore, Kylián has left his hallmark on his magnificent dancer Nacho Duato (he himself recognises this with pleasure), and especially on Duato’s early choreographies to music from his native Spain.
But Kylián is “one of a kind”.
His touch is seductive, which is something present-day anti-dance enthusiasts don’t like. But seductiveness isn’t a ruse, it’s a natural gift. He is classical, but not solely. He has been considered a master of “modern ballet”, with touches of character, but this is an inadequate classification for a style that is original and distinctive, where multiple components are dissolved and amalgamated into his choreographic art.
Jirí Kylián’s dance vibrates and flies gently in the air, is subtly veined with an exquisite and ever-present eroticism, it uses the dancers’ bodies and faces to send out expressive messages; it’s a long way off from being a concrete, realistic dance, but nor is it in any way an “abstract” one.
Not even Merce Cunningham’s (albeit deliberately anti-narrative) works are.
Kylián’s portfolio of “sellable” works guarantees their living presence on the best stages, such as that of the Opéra de Lyon where he has been in a three-year residence as associate artist, enriching the home-troupe’s repertoire with One of a Kind, to a string of music ranging from Gesualdo da Venosa to John Cage (2017), Falling Angels, to Steve Reich, No More Play and Bella Figura (2018), the latter also being revived alongside Wings of Wax and Gods and Dogs in 2019.
Kylián’s dance slides into music, wraps itself in it, never mundanely leans on its tempi, rhythms and cadences: on the contrary, it responds to the notes and sounds while they are actually in-the-making, not after it hears them.
This dance/music immediacy, devoid of the slightest subordination, gifts the listening spectators with something akin to distilled grace which – in the darting bodies of the dancers, usually highly visible in their basic costumes created by accomplice Joke Visser – comes across as Kylián’s most penetrating trait.
Men and women are given equal prominence, a characteristic that (over and above the male/female roles in the story-ballets) is rare among the great “pure” choreographers who have notoriously shown a preference – Balanchine for ballerinas, Béjart for male dancers, to name two examples.
Another undeniable reason for admiring Jirí Kylián and his oeuvre lies in the way it is true to itself, in its sincere adherence to its marvellously subtle and discreet self-awareness. Is he aware he has gone down in history? If he is, he doesn’t show off.
All of which makes for an elegant model of straightforward and sensible, inspired and genuine, behaviour proven over the decades, as Kylián the artist persists in his “sane insanity”.
Elisa Guzzo Vaccarino