Jiří Kylián: The Master Choreographer

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Writing a retrospective on a ballet choreographer can be a tricky thing if that choreographer is still active, but Jiří Kylián has achieved a “living legend” status once given to such figures as Leonid Massine, Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine and Roland Petit. In his case, the reasons for this are not a large body of work that is consistent in its style and vision, but rather a body of work that is, and remains, diverse and surprising.

Much of this has to do with Kylián’s first love, which was the circus. For whatever reason, he found himself unable to become a circus acrobat but instead trained as a classical dancer. He was good enough to find work but in his own mind never good enough to do what he wanted to do with his body, so he found other dancers who had skills superior to his own and began working as a choreographer.

kylian0003Kylián’s work is extraordinarily diverse, incredibly physical and deeply human all at the same time, and in his most recently-issued DVD, Forgotten Memories, he sits down for a rare in-depth interview about his own creative work. I must say right off that although I received a copy of this DVD for review I was unablt to watch it because all they had left for distribution was a Blu-Ray disc, and I don’t have a Blu-Ray player, but fortunately the enclosed booklet was exceptionally detailed and included several revealing quotes from Kylián. In addition, I have two regular DVDs of his work to judge from, Hans Hulscher’s 1991 film The Choreographer (Arthaus Musik 102 212) and Car Men (Arthaus Musik 109278), and in addition I have watched online such Kylián choreographies as Birth-Day, which is as wacky and funny as Car Men, and the very profound Petit Mort.

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Petit Mort

The amazing quality of Kylián’s work is that he was one of the first modern choreographers to combine classic ballet moves with the kind of dance that was being created by such experimental groups as Mummenschanz, Pilobolus and Cirque du Soleil. Kylián has repeatedly said that his primary goal as a choreographer is the desire to explore “what it is to be human – our mixture of spirituality and physicality, truth and masquerade, our dazzling existence as a combination of strength, power, emotion and transience – as well as part of society, the cosmos and the circle of life.” Pretty profound thoughts.

kylian0002Essentially, Kylián’s ballets are divided by this emphasis on either the comic or the symbolic. What is interesting to me is that he often dovetails deeper and darker feelings into his funniest and silliest ballets. Car Men, produced in 2006, is perhaps the most famous example. Filmed at a coal mine in the Czech Republic, an extraordinarily barren landscape that promised absolutely nothing, Kylián invented a ballet on the spot. Using junky old car parts, he created a comic masterpiece in which Sabine Kupferberg, his life partner, portrayed the eternal temptress Carmen as a junkyard vamp who gets run over by speeding vehicles and teases Don José while constantly flirting with the “toreador”—a scruffy-looking guy who smokes cigars and wiggles his eyebrows (and a few props) to show his pleasure in seeing her. The dark side comes from a mysterious black sedan who approaches Carmen in the dead of night, stopping just a foot or two from her body as she contemplates who or what could be the mysterious driver and what his or its designs on her are. It’s Kylián’s way of mixing comic farce on the level of the Keystone Kops with something more tragic—and more human.

Kylián’s fascination with and deep knowledge of music is one of the keys to his work, just as it was to Balanchine, but whereas Balanchine’s ballets were nearly always abstract (a rare exception was his setting for Mikhail Baryshnikov of Prokofiev’s The Prodigal Son), Kylián’s work nearly always connects to some emotion or emotions. A perfect example of his setting of Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, from as far back as 1975 (filmed in 1983). The ancient Breton legend was of a submerged cathedral in the city of Ys, but Kylián reduced it to the conflict between self-imposed rules and laws and the constant urge to defy them.

And yes, his choreography calls for some of the most exceptional flexibility one can demand of the human body. This, too, he remarked on in the interview: “Dancers and choreographers are very fragile…very breakable and – we are an endangered species. Because we have decided that we will declare our body as a work of art. And it takes a lot of courage to actually open up and show yourself ‘naked.’”

Among his more famous ballets are Bella Figura, Gods and Dogs, Vanishing Twin, Petite Mort, Symphony of Psalms and Silent Cries, the latter a solo tour-de-force danced by Kupferberg. In this, Kylián used Debussy’s Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune. the same music that Vaclav Nijinsky used for his own ballet on that theme back in the 1910s, but here the dancer is half-hidden and trapped behind a dirty pane of glass, pressing her to reach inside herself to express her own humanity. She has become his muse, similar to the way Margot Fonteyn was Ashton’s muse for two decades. But of course other dancers have worked with Kylián over the long span of his career, and several of them have high praise for his artistry. Manuel Legris, now director of the Vienna State Opera Ballet, called Kylián “one of the greatest choreographers in existence, on account of his boundless imagination…He was always a source of inspiration for me during my career as a dancer with the Paris Opéra…He develops highly personal things.”

Kylián keeps you riveted on what is going on onstage, but he uses space in a highly personal way. Most previous choreographers in classical ballet were almost obsessed with “filling space” in a symmetrical way. Kylián often plays with both symmetry and perspective. His dancers complement each others’ moves, but can also blend together as one—a technique borrowed from Mummenschanz and Pilobolus.

Kylián retired from the Netherlands Dance Theater in 1999 in order to go freelance and pursue projects on his own, yet remained the ensemble’s artistic advisor and house choreographer for another decade. As the filmed interview reveals, Kylián is relatively shy when talking about his work because he doesn’t really like talking about himself, and because he puts so much of himself into his ballets he remains for many a shadowy figure. A paradox. But to be honest, most great choreographers don’t really like to talk about themselves. Ashton didn’t, and neither does Petit. If you really are a great and dedicated artist, you never really feel that you’ve accomplished what you want to do. In all his life, Ashton only praised two of his works—two among dozens. The great artist knows that he has come close to his goal, but never quite achieves perfection, and it is that striving for perfection that keeps them going.

These are highly recommended to all lovers of dance.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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