Jiri Kylian


From Martha Bremser, editor, Fifty Contemporary Choreographers (Routledge, 1999) pp. 133-137


Lesley-Anne Sayers (The Guardian) was a research fellow in dance at Roehampton University and a short-term fellow at Princeton University.

It has become the custom to think of great choreographers as those who are particularly innovative with the language of movement, who have provided what can be called a new language for dance. Jiri Kylian, then, is perhaps something of a throwback to an earlier age, one that was less thirsty for the ‘new’ then now; For if Kylian has a claim to greatness, it is not so much as a starkly original formal innovator but as a master craftsman contributing to the overall evolution of his art. Whatever his comparative standing, Kylian has undeniably strengthened the art of dance by building on its foundations, and will therefore hand on not just the products of an individual creative talent but an enriched heritage.

Jiri Kylian

Kylian certainly has something in common with all the most significant creators, and that is that his formative years took place at a special time and in a special place. The place was Stuttgart and the time became known as the ‘Ballet Boom’. Kylian joined the Stuttgart ballet in 1968 in the middle years of John Cranko’s emarkable directorship, when choreographers Cranko, Maurice Béjart, and Hans van Manen were providing lively new approach to ballet characterized by athletic, theatrical movement.

John Cranko, The Stuttgart Ballet, 1961-1973

Kylian began choreographing prolifically from 1970, occasionally working for Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT), a company that had come to the forefront of the contemporary dance revolution in Europe during the 1960s. Founded in 1959, NDT was the first European ballet company to institute a regular modern dance class and thus was a pioneer in the combination of classical and modern dance traditions within one company. In its early days its prime mover was Hans van Manen, whose choreography for the company drew on a wide range of composers including Stravinsky, Satie, Stockhausen and Cage. After van Manen resigned as artistic director in 1970, the company entered a period of decline and it was Kylian who brought it back to international prominence during the 1970s and 1980s.

Kylian brought to NDT the ethos of Stuttgart, an approach to ballet that was firmly based in the classical technique and neo-classical style. In addition, however, Kylian’s work teams with references to folk dance, which can add another textual level to the dance, like old dialect breaking through the sophisticated, highly evolved, and constraining balletic language he has adopted an made his own. His vocabulary is convoluted and dense; the vision from which he forms his steps and gestures is driven by expressionism but schooled in neo-classicism and informed by profound musicality.

Jiri Kylian Workshop, Brigitte Martin

Ballet’s straight, sharp leg extensions coupled with the contracted body of the Graham technique has made the female body a particularly potent expressive tool for embodying dualism and conflict, and this has been powerfully exploited by Kylian. Like many diverse choreographers working in ballet since the 1960s, Kylian uses the balletically trained body at its extremes. Yet his motivation does not appear theatrical or virtuostic, or purely abstract; it comes from within, from an emotion or idea which resonates outwards. Kylian Is a master of tension, providing potent, dramatic ballet, inventive and profound. He has proved himself prolific and diverse, one of the most consistently stimulating but also one of the most accessible of contemporary choreographers.

Jiri Kylian, Six Dances, Introdans |Photo: Viola Canina

Kylian’s normal métier is the non-narrative, dramatic ballet, though he has made ventures into other terrains such as narrative in L’Histoire du soldat (1986) and explorations of aboriginal rituals in Nomaden (1981), Stamping Ground (1983), and Dreamtime (1983). Just as you fix him in one rich interior, Kylian will undoubtedly show you another. in general, however, it could be said that Kylian’s vocabulary is informed by a basically modernist consciousness; certainly his vivid descriptive talent deals well with a range of human emotions and with a complexity that is unusual in ballet.

Jiri Kylian, Dreamtime, Introdans

As If Never Been (1992), for example, explores a sense of nihilism and despair. Two dancers are locked together in an internal drama based on dependency and exploitation. Against a background of silent, abstractly gestural commentators, who provide something of a Greek chorus, a hellish duet of mounting tension takes place—a kind of expressionistic paso doble. The woman is manipulated by her partner into various contorted shapes and exaggerated extensions, or thrown into passages of forced abandon, her legs flying around his head like windmills. The shapes they make together are typical of Kylian’s style and evocative power, such as when she wraps around his body and with her bony arms and legs gives him skeletal wings, or when he walks her up the proscenium arch and over onto her back to pose in the air like an upturned cockroach.

Jiri Kylian, As If Never Been, Nancy Euverink & Peter Delcoix

Kylian can deal equally well with classical sublimity. If Tudor’s Dark Elegies is ballet’s Paradise Lost, then Kylian’s Sinfonietta (1978) is surely it’s Paradise Regained. This is Kylian at his most optimistic and life-affirming. To the uplifting brass opening of Janacek’s score, Kylian sets six men in tights and billowing shirts against a painted landscape. With simple leaps, runs, and turns they announce and celebrate the musical theme. When only two are left on stage, they are joined by two women who, rushing across the stage, are stopped by the men and pose for a moment in a detached, halted run.

Jiri Kyllian, Sinfonietta, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo

Although the couples are interchangeable partners, often passed from one to the other, (in Kylian’s work there is very little sense of the dancers as individuals), the work is essentially romantic, sensual, and supremely lyrical. Undercurrents of folk rhythms run through the music and when they break out in the choreography, they momentarily add another dimension, taking away any sense of pre-Fall innocence from these otherwise joyous creatures. Overall the mood is wonderfully serene. One of the loveliest moments is perhaps when four dancers lie down center-stage, one behind the other, and in unison raise their arms in a slow, broad sweep that brings to mind the tail of a whale waving in the air before plunging into the deep.

Jiri Kyllian, Sinfonietta, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo

Kylian’s dancers can be classically sublime, as in Sinfonietta, and then again they can sculpt themselves into space in a way that has conflict and angst screaming out of the contortions; Kylian can uplift your spirit one minute, and set your teeth on edge the next. In watching his ballets, one enters a strongly defined world; the dancers are not characters as such, but they certainly embody ideas. What makes his work particularly accessible is that it is dramatically expressive, lyrical, virtuosic, and profoundly musical. He is renowned particularly for his use of late-Romantic composers but has in fact worked with quite a wide variety of scores and soundscapes.

Jiri Kylian, Gods and Dogs, Ballett Zürich

For example, Falling Angels (1989), set to Part One of Steve Reich’s Drumming (1971), consists of one basic rhythmic pattern which is varied only in terms of phrase position, pitch, and timbre. It is simple but labyrinthian and so dominating in its power and density, so overwhelming an aural experience, that one might think it would leave no room for choreography. Kylian shows us otherwise. Drumming is compelling because it is such a wildly inventive exploration of a single isolated and confined idea. The tension inherent in this combination of contradictory qualities is similarly exploited by Kylian; the choreography is tightly controlled, a mesmeric use of choral movement and repeated phrases but with an exhilarating sense of wildly creative energy.

Jiri Kylian, Fallen Angels, Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon

Falling Angels begins with a group of dancers slowly walking towards the audience out of the darkness; they are all women. They contort on the beat and retreat a couple of steps, all in unison. They look like a cross between the figures on an Egyptian frieze, in terms of their angular two-dimensional shapes and, with their red lipstick, fixed focus, strong projection and black swimsuits, something more Germanic — a Pina Bausch-style line-up with a touch of cabaret. They flash an angular figure of eight with a dreamlike flow of criss-crossing arms and legs. Hand slap, caress, cover, flick, move body parts, splay. Flat-footed jumps with bent knees recall Nijinsky’s faun.

Jiri Kylian, Fallen Angels, Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon

In spirit it is primitive, ritualistic; they look rather like displaying insects totally in command of their prey. Dancers break free, duets breakout, but the group always reclaims them. Contrasting moments of dramatic stillness create a surreal sense of space, even in the midst of this frenzied drumming. They are pious one minute, military another, but can then subvert it all with a fey lean to the side, hands draping diagonally across their bodies, or by flirtatiously pulling their swimsuits away from their flesh as if to taunt the audience.

Jiri Kylian, Fallen Angels, Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon

In a very different style we can find a similar musicality and mastery of choral movement in Kylian’s earlier work, Symphony of Psalms (1978), set to the driving rhythms of Stravinsky’s score. The music is concerned with praising God; however, Kylian’s choreography, sublime as it is, is rather more earthily sensual, set against a sumptuous background of Oriental carpets. Again he does far more than visualize the music; his dialogue with it brings out the music’s subtleties but then insists upon its own contrasting statements.

Jiri Kyllian, Symphony of Psalms, National Ballet of Norway

Perhaps most breath-taking of all in this work is Kylian’s use of deep space. Space is always emotionally resonant with Kylian; dancers reach out to it rather than simply stretch into it, but here the pleasure is also intellectual, a visual feast of layered movement. The eye moves from the lucidity of the dancers’ individual bodies out to the larger scale of the mass and back again. Curves counter angles in the body, mesmerizing flow counters stark shape (it is difficult to believe that so many parts can move in so many different directions), creating a complex message of joy and sorrow, sensual pleasure and anxiety, even within one movement. Kylian calls for a dramatic power in his dancers that can switch on and off whenever the piece warrants it; they must be detached but involved, expressive but not ‘acting’—everything is in the movement and apparently every muscle can be choreographed.

Jiri Kylian, Symphony of Psalms, Finnish National Opera and Ballet

There is in Kylian’s work a celebration of the creative spirit that spills over into a kind of joyous playfulness. His ability to be witty is well represented by two works set to Mozart, Six Dances (1986)…

 Jiri Kylian, Six Dances, The Alabama Ballet| Photo: Melissa Dooley

… and Petite mort (1991). These works are an amusing romp through the music of the great composer but are intended as more than merry dances of bawds and cuckolds. For all their foppish wigs, headless crinolines on wheels, swordplay and soap bubbles, there is a level of social comment without which they would not be Kylian but some other choreographer.

Jiri Kylian, Petite mort, Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon

Kylian’s moral consciousness and his intelligence are easily located within his work; he is accessible without being a popularist, and there is a depth to his ballets that makes them among the most rewarding to watch. His dancers are not presented as extraordinary performers to be physically admired for their virtuosity, but as expressive figures in a landscape or situation which has dramatic and social resonance. Judith Lynne Hanna notes that Symphony in D (1976) reverses the partnering conventions of classical ballet and challenges the status quo (J. L. Hannah, Dance, Sex and Gender: Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance and Desire, University of Chicago Press, 1988, page 213). Kylian’s social and political consciousness, however, runs deeper than simple reversals of the norm. Fallen Angels, for example, has been read as a profound examination of a struggling female psyche. (See Ann Nugent: ‘Two Radicals in Europe’, Dance Now, 1(4), Winter 1992/93.)

Jiri Kylian, Fallen Angel, Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon

There are a number of ways in which Kylian could be said to have questioned, and gently shifted, the norms of Western theatre dance. For example, the superficiality of an art form shackled to youth and good looks for its splendours is something that he has directly addressed. Recognizing the power of the older, experienced dancer, and the profound eloquence that can be the product of a career spent working with a wide range of choreographers, Kylian established NDT3 in 1991, giving a new lease of life to dancers whose career would normally have come to an end around the age of forty. This has been an important step in developing a deeper, more sophisticated appreciation of dancers.

Jiri Kylian, Never Performed, NDT3

In terms of his choreography, Kylian’s morality, spirituality, and bouts of existentialism can seem rather old-fashioned today, though his work is none the weaker for that. The sensuality and sexuality of his works can also appear a little dated when compared to many contemporary choreographers. Yet there are passages of his work where its tremendous physicality moves towards the starker terrain of a more brutal and violent eroticism, which has been explored more fully by choreographers such as Lloyd Newson and Michael Clark. Examples are the male duet from La Cathédrale engloutie (1975) or passages of Torso (1975). But it is doubtful that Kylian could simply explore images of today’s brutalized consciousness without intellectually commenting upon it and setting it in some form of moral and social framework. This is perhaps central to what makes him a great choreographer, as opposed to merely a strong contemporary voice.

Jiri Kylian, La Cathédrale engloutie, Introdans | Photo: Hans Gerritsen

Kylian’s work often presents us with a potent dialogue between classical (and perhaps also Christian) ideals and the contorted angularity of modernism. He can choreograph the divine light and equally well explore a fractured 20th-century consciousness full of angst and godless doubt. While not directly religious, his works often embrace the kind of duality that is a part of Christian consciousness: a sense of the double possibility of elation and despair, agony and ecstasy, heaven and hell, sacred and profane, order and meaninglessness. As bodies sink down to earth, eyes often search upwards. There are shapes that seem shot through with Christian imagery (for example, there is a photograph of dancer Bryony Brind hanging down from outstretched arms in a crucifixion-like pose from the Royal Ballet’s 1975 production of his Return to a Strange Land).

Jiri Kylian, Return to a Strange Land, Smuin Ballet | Photo: Keith Sutter

Above all else Kylian is a great humanist; he is not concerned with abstraction; he sites his ideas firmly within the human sphere. He presents human struggles, passions and prayers, elation and despair; he is a choreographer of potent dualisms lucidly expressed through his mixture of classical sublimity and contemporary expressionism. Although the medium in which Kylian works — this combination of classical and modern dance languages—is familiar rather than formally innovative, it is difficult to think of a more eloquent living choreographer.



L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Part Nine Chapter 5

A gentle flame, abiding and steadfast, the memory of that afternoon still glows in my heart. In our plush seats before the thrust stage, you, Lia and I, moved by the naked art of dance, were, for a while, a family. Yes, with Ingrid and Klaas visiting friends and Joost with his grandmother, we were parents to a fairytale daughter, and she was with us in flesh-and-blood. I was your husband, you were my wife; we lived happily ever after, for an afternoon.

We both loved Ravel’s music, and we both detested Colette’s libretto. How could she, such a master in mining ambiguity, produce a tale so devoid of contradiction? So linear, so flat, so singularly lacking in multi-layered meaning? Lia herself found the Child silly and the Mother ‘much too heavy’. And yet, thanks to the transformative power of dance and the magic of the music, my senses were heightened, Lia was held spellbound, and you radiated a beauty that left all possibilities open.

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Laurence Millet, 1887

Ding, ding, ding: Trumpet triads in driving rhythms set loose Grandfather Clock’s cymbal-crashing dancer; curves counter angles in striking kinetic images while the rich baritone of Clock’s counterpart laments the days when he ‘told the hours, each like the other, in this changeless house’.

What a wretched thought, ‘each like the other in this changeless house’! And this deathly desire posited as a virtue by a writer who celebrates life! No matter: The raw physicality of the dancer and the beauty of the balletic line negate this death wish. Lia beside me is wide-eyed with delight, her animistic thinking accords with mine. And you, my love, you who in your intimacy with the Queen of Sciences formalize space-time, are you too delighting in the destruction of the Clock?

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Mlle Jourdain, 1889

As Clock returns to his grandfather casing, trombone and contrabassoon bring on Cup and Teapot to dance a foxtrot. In vain the Child, braving Teapot’s threats, tries to interrupt the duet. Cheese grater and whip introduce a touch of ragtime, then, as mezzo-soprano and tenor sing trilingual nonsense, the Chinese Teacup dances a chinoiserie. When she leaves the stage with Teapot, the Child now regrets the loss of his beautiful teacup.

Things cannot feel and act: Lia knows better! She is a child attuned to the deeper stirrings of the world, she is a child uncorrupted by rationality: Enlightenment cannot override enchantment, no accumulation of facts can compete with her personalized concepts! To raise a child like that, would we be up to the task? We would, I’m certain of it! Instinctively, we’d validate the fantasy that allows her to bear feelings of anger, jealousy or frustration. ‘Now I am light, now I fly, now a god dances through me’: Are we not children of Nietzsche? Of course we’d be up to the task of raising a child like Lia!

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit

John Singer Sargent, 1882 (detail)


A novel by Richard Jonathan

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Nederlands Dans Theater at the Opéra Garnier

Sylvie de Nussac, Le Monde, 16 March 1991 | Translated by Richard Jonathan

I have seen many versions, both opera and ballet, of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, and I cannot recall a single really convincing performance. It would seem that this lyric fantasy by Ravel set to a libretto by Colette, first performed in 1925 by the Monte Carlo Opera, is one of those tantalizing banana peels that writers or musicians periodically toss onto the path of directors and choreographers. The great Balanchine himself took it on three times without ever being satisfied with the result.

Jiri Kylian, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, NDT 1984 (video part 1)

I lay the blame for this failure squarely on Colette’s shoulders, for Ravel’s score is a near-continuous enchantment, shot through with poetry, refinement and humour. But this story of a naughty child who rips up his books and refuses to do his homework, who sees furniture, objects and animals revolt against him and only escapes their wrath by making a gesture of kindness towards a squirrel, comes dangerously close to false naivety.

Jiri Kylian, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, NDT 1984 (video part 2)

It makes for ludicrous personifications: Armchair, Clock, Teapot, Chinese Cup. The best dancer in the world, stitched up in a plush costume, can never convincingly mimic that marvel of nature that is a cat. When will adults finally see that ‘recreating the wondrous world of childhood’ is a vain pursuit?

Jiri Kylian, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, NDT 1984 (video part 3)

I cannot, therefore, hold it against Jiri Kylian for having failed to enchant us with his L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, even though his choreography is top-drawer. Necessarily basic for the Armchair, the Teacup, etc., his choreography becomes more expansive and elaborate, with quite lovely pas de deux for the Shepherd and Shepherdess, the Prince and Princess, and especially, in the garden scene, the graceful variations for the dragonflies and the bats.

Jiri Kylian, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, NDT 1984 (video part 4)

I smile at ‘Professeur d’arithmétique, tique, tique’ and his big blackboard pierced by numbers, as I do at the amusing  trio of frogs. I don’t much like John Macfarlane’s décor, with its obligatory distorted perspectives (childhood again). The costumes are uneven. Brigitte Martin, with her mop of red hair and her overalls, really looks like a naughty nine-year old, and most of the dancers, as far as they can dance in their costumes, are excellent.

Jiri Kylian, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, NDT 1984 (video part 5)


William Forsythe, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated Ballett Zürich | Photo: Gregory Batardon

Mara Marietta