Jiří Kylián’s long association with The Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) asserted him as a galleon figure in the dance world. His ballets have been performed in Zurich regularly, as well as in numerous other ballet companies around the world. A retrospective of his choreography in all its colourful diversity is currently being presented here in a programme of works dating from the 80s and 90s.

Irmina Kopaczynska in Kylián's <i>Sweet Dreams</i> © Gregory Batardon
Irmina Kopaczynska in Kylián's Sweet Dreams
© Gregory Batardon

The first featured work, Bella Figura, premiered in The Hague in 1995. Even as the audience trickles into its seats, the stage curtain is open, and we see a warm-up session of some dozen dancers on stage, their short sequences and lifts, presumably drawn from what is to come. Then suddenly, like an insect trapped in a sticky flower, soloist Yen Han fights stage left with the heavy curtain, whose velvety bulk envelops her and leaves only her arms and legs free to protest. Breaking out and moving forward, her upper body is bare, and vulnerability is both written all over her face and embedded in her expressive struggle.

In small configurations, the other dancers, too, show their nervousness by shuddering their hands, raising or lowering a shoulder, quickly flicking a wrist. The profile of the interacting bodies is ever-changing, just as the actions of one person often affect those of another in ordinary life. In the programme notes, Kylián contends, in fact. that “the area between so-called art and artificiality, between our real living space and the fantasy world – this shady zone creates a tension that interests me”. Precisely that area is what Bella Figura explores.

Costumed in soft and voluminous red silk skirts in one scene, the dancers sometimes appear side-by-side like in a chorus line, but the more compelling exchange occurs in the smaller configurations. In a constricted space created by curtains beside and above them, for example, soloists Yen Han and Katja Wünsche enter into innocent conversation in one scene, much of it “spoken” through their elegant hands, which flutter like tendrils in a soft breeze. The precision of the group work is also compelling. Bella Figura, which gave the Kylián homage its name, translates from Italian as “a good impression”. Indeed, the ballet makes just that, seeming even to defy gravity in many instances.

Wei Chen, Yen Han, Constanza Perotta Altube in Kylian's <i>Bella Figura</i> © Gregory Batardon
Wei Chen, Yen Han, Constanza Perotta Altube in Kylian's Bella Figura
© Gregory Batardon

For Stepping Stones, which premiered in Stuttgart in 1991, three enormous sculptures of ancient Egyptian cats take their place side-by-side at the back of the stage. The “stones” the title alludes to are smaller votive objects assigned to each of eight dancers, each stone loosely resembling something like a gold-gilt EMI music award. John Cage’s edgy score for prepared piano makes a minimalist audio field at the start, under exciting staging by Michael Simon. His two huge triangles – a perforated grey first, a mobile of metal girding like that over a rock festival stage, later – alternate above the dancers to rein in the visual arena. Later, to music by Anton Webern, the dancers excel in balancing the votives on their shoulders, backs and feet; and show an almost Olympian potential for extreme postures, one dancer even holding her own handsomely while being hoisted upside down in a wide plié.

Set to music from Webern’s Six pieces for Orchestra op 6 b, the evening’s third ballet was Sweet Dreams, which NDT1 premiered in The Hague in 1990. Jake Visser’s dark and metallic costumes reflect the atonal score that is often foreboding, while Kylián’s staging highlights a simple fruit – the apple – as both prop and symbol. A vigorous crunch into one Granny Smith (of the hundreds let loose on stage) also plays a part, and we are obviously reminded of the expulsion from paradise. But beyond that, the fruits are used imaginatively, even humorously; they become a pair of binoculars, objects of devotion, or en masse, even a slippery slide. And Kylián’s choreography is equally multi-faceted, the movements among the four pairs as enigmatic and distanced, then intimate and highly emotive. Throughout, however, the choreographer draws on a seemingly endless catalogue of ways to intertwine the parts of the human body.

William Moore,Katja Wunsche, Wei Chen in Kylian's <i>Stepping Stones</i> © Gregory Batardon
William Moore,Katja Wunsche, Wei Chen in Kylian's Stepping Stones
© Gregory Batardon

The tribute’s last ballet, Sechs Tänze (“Six Dances”, 1986), was set to music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The piece took the audience into a brightly-lit set with Baroque period costumes. And here was black humour in a simple plot at its best: the foibles of relationships, exaggerated mannerisms, petty jealousies, inflated pride. The ballet’s voluminous petticoats, hooped skirts and white wigs echoed Mozart’s era and music, and the humour in all the action was infectious. And while the score was marked by predictable rhythms, the choreography was not without its stringent physical demands; that three members of the Zurich company’s fine Junior Ballet also danced superbly in this theatrical piece speaks reams for the promise of the ballet’s future achievements.

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