Jiří Kylián and the Naked Art of Dance

The Czech choreographer, Jiří Kylián, made an international splash with his full piece ballet “Sinfonietta,” choreographed to the music of his compatriot, Leoš Janáček. It was performed at the Spoleto festival in Charleston, North Carolina in 1978, and helped establish him as one of the most ingenious and creative forces in dance. The piece is reminiscent of American influences, (think DeMille’s/Copeland’s “Rodeo”) but with choreography that conveys freedom for all mankind with a definite note of Eastern European flair.

Petite Mort by Jirí Kylián, Interpreted for Netherlands Dance Theatre

Jiří Kylián’s early works brought us non-narrative, dramatic dances, which featured a balletic style pushed to extreme limits with subtle references to folk. But this was only the beginning, since then, Jiří Kylián has advanced dance to its most communicative possibilities. His work addresses the body’s ability to speak without betraying itself, where words can be manipulated and distorted, in dance distortion remains an honest communication that says what it means to say. As perhaps the oldest art form, dance expresses emotion and feeling in a language that does not require words. The movement is the words. The body its naked interpreter. Kylián’s work is very sensual because his choreography is about the inside, and about the body as an instrument of inner movement, naked in its ability to perform it.

Jiří Kylián began his dance career at the age of nine at the ballet school of the Prague National Theater, and then the Prague Conservatorium. He had studied acrobatics so that he could work in the circus, but thankfully, that was not to be. In 1967, he was awarded a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, which changed his life forever. In London, he was exposed to contemporary culture gone wild- it included the Beatles, western films and modern choreographers like Merce Cunningham and Twyla Tharp, along with the classical duo of Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. Here he was exposed to important choreographic developments, which landed him in the Stuttgart Ballet under John Cranko’s tutelage for several years. After seeing his “Return to a Strange Land” in 1973, the Nederlands Dans Theater began an artistic relationship with Kylián, who then choreographed “Viewers” (1974) for them. This brought about his co-directorship at NDT in 1979, a full directorship in 1999, and the creation of almost 75 dance productions for them, until he stepped down in 2009.

Perhaps because his formative years were under a communist regime that stifled personal freedom, his use of imagination and movement conveys an inherent paradox (also the name of his first work in 1970), which is often a study in contrasts aimed to transmit the complexity of human experience. Thus, Kylián’s work combines classical technique with modern methods, soft music with strong steps, serenity with aggression. Polished and elegant balletic lines can be followed by percussive and sharp movements and then a series of modern, spasms and twitches giving way to a pas-de-deux so beautiful that it brings tears to your eyes, only to morph again into something else. This binary of opposites operates in a dialogic way, capturing the interaction of emotions that are not only felt, but spoken through dance and expressed with breathtaking precision. His dancers will work on pointe for vertical speed or barefoot in order to cover a lot of space, it depends on the subject he chooses, but technique and rigorous detail remain key.

One of the choreographic features of his dances is the way the steps match the music, step to sound, the one giving life to the other. The choreography and the music in his pieces are in a deep conversation with one another through the movement of his dancers. And what a conversation it is! Kylián studied music and composition as a child, and this shows in his selection of melodies and composers, beginning with Janáček, and moving to Bartok, Mahler, Debussy, Britten, Haydn, Mozart, J.S. Bach, Schoenberg, Webern and contemporary composers such as Foss, Part, Cage and Reich. It has been said that, for Kylián, nothing happens without music, and that would be because for him, it is always about a dialogue between movement and sound.

Kylián’s choreography escapes definition. He has incorporated folk, classical, modern and jazz into his work, as well as experimented with the interaction of voice and movement. He deals with the big questions in life: What is life? What is it to be human? – through his choreography, speaking through the body and its expressive ability. Based on his extensive musical reading and attunement, the movements he creates articulate the notes, and the notes articulate the movement. Take for example, “Bella Figura” (1995) in which the bodies of the dancers absolutely enunciate the harmony and melody of the music. Each note interpreted by movement so sublime it astonishes the senses. This piece speaks not only to the beauty of the dancers, but to the need to put on a performance, a ‘bella figura in the Italian sense– a good presentation. The piece begins with the dancers practicing their steps, so that by blurring the lines between rehearsal and performance, Kylián asks us to consider where the performance starts and ends, or if there is such a thing as a beginning or end– are we constantly performing in life?

A keen observer and interpreter of human dynamics, Kylián choreographed several pieces based on a visit to Australia in 1980, where he was able to witness an aboriginal dance event, which was made into a documentary. He asked one of the men why he danced, and the reply was “because my father danced and he taught me, and I have to teach it to my son.” A simple answer that, for Kylián, captured the power of dance to communicate and connect, to transcend and engage generations, to maintain and instill tradition. “Stamping Ground (1983), “Stepping Stones” (1989) and “Dream Time” (1983) were borne from this experience. His interest in the power of dance to speak across cultures and generations also led him to choreograph “The Moon Princess or Kaguyahime (1988), a dance production of a Japanese fairy tale. Humor also figures in many of his pieces, both as a way of demystifying experience and connecting us at a “gut” level. “Symphony in D” (1981) and “Six Dances” (1986), as well as “Birthday” (2001) are all meant to elicit an in your belly kind of laugh that opens you up to experience.

The duality expressed in Kylián’s work, as well as his interest in the irrational and absurd, is perhaps best expressed in his Black and White Ballets, which contain, to my mind some of his best pieces. With this program, Kylián’s artistic view and style move toward abstraction and the surreal with his use of symbols and metaphor, which he considers an “economy of means.” Of his choreographic method he has said:

Getting to the essence takes a tremendous amount of work; one distills until one gets there. My notebooks are packed with information, designs, associative material. I finally absorb it all, throw it away and begin to choreograph. The material is slowly pared down until a cube emerges that may seem abstract, but that wouldn’t have its particular qualities if one hadn’t drilled down through all the strata to the point in which one was actually interested.”

No More Play” (1988) traps dancers in the game of life, “Sweet Dreams” (1990) is really about life turned nightmarish, “Fallen Angels” (1989)–an ensemble piece for 8 women– questions whether it is possible to be an angel and fall, incorporating the view of women as capable and sexual, aiming toward perfection and failing, capturing the many facets of the female psyche. “Sarabande” (1990) -an ensemble piece for 8 men- plays with the stereotypes of masculinity and what it means to be a man.

My personal favorite, and the dance I chose for the video of this article, is “Petit Mort (1991) which is danced to Mozart (the Adagio from Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 23 in A major, KV 488, and the Andante from the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21 in C major , KV 467). Here we have quintessential Kylián: the choreography literally slices through the beauty of Mozart’s music, bringing its own aesthetic with its strength and vulnerability. It includes six men, six women and six foils. The foils have the function of being actual dance partners, and at times, seem more unruly and obstinate than a partner of flesh and blood. The piece is about life, passion, aggression, sexuality, and yes, the “little death,” a phrase the French use for ‘orgasm.’ The dancing is absolutely fantastic.

Kylián’s artistic vision has molded the way Nederland Dans Theater continues to perform. He is responsible for the establishment of three different groups within their structure: NDT 1, the world famous, main company; NDT 2 ,a young experimental company made up of dancers aged 17 to 22, and NDT 3, for mature dancers and performing artists over 40. For Kylián, they represent “the three dimensions of a dancer’s life.” In this regard, he has also worked with the same piece of choreography for all three groups, adapting it to each and counter-posing their interpretations. This is truly magnificent to watch, as each generation lends its own aesthetic sensibility to the movement.

At 65, Jiří Kylián continues to invent and create through movement. He has begun a series of movement and vocal experiments meant to teach dancers at CoDarts Rotterdam, about the interconnection between the two art forms. Some of these involved coupling a countertenor with a ballerina (both extreme art forms), a rap singer with a break/hip-hop dancer (both forms of urban culture), an overtone singer with a Kung Fu master (as forms of meditative practice) and a Gregorian chant singer with a contemporary dancer (oldest to newest forms). These experiments with voice and dance came about from his belief that they are both “naked” arts, since they do not require an object for expression, they are themselves the expression, nude and exposed, bare, uncovered and revealed.

In the impossible profession of dance, Jiří Kylián has forged a significant link in a chain of aesthetic expression that will continue on. He has created works that incorporate his classical training and tradition while transforming their language to incorporate the lived in the here and now. In the end, it is the ultimate vulnerability of the body that speaks through movement, it is the dance that outweighs life’s struggles because it reveals our connection to each other through some basic truths that must be spoken without words. They must be felt, they must be known. Kylián’s work extends the chain of what is between us, and in so doing soothes our soul– we are never alone, but always in conversation.


In the course of his career, Jiří Kylián has received
many international honors and awards, including:

  • Officer of the Royal Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau (1995)
  • Honorary doctorate of the Juilliard School (New York)
  • Arch-Angel Award (Edinburgh International Festival, 2000)
  • Sir Laurence Olivier Award for Psalmensymfonie (London, 2000)
  • Nijinsky Awards for best choreographer, company and work (Monte Carlo, 2000)
  • Benois de la Danse in Moscow and Berlin
  • Honorary Medal from the President of the Czech Republic
  • Chevalier du Légion d’Honneur (Paris, 2004)
  • Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement’ (Venice Biennale , 2008)
  • Medal of the Order of the House of Orange for Arts and Science (The Hague, 2008)
  • VSCD dance award Zwaan 2008 for Gods and Dogs (NDT 2) for best production and dance achievement
  • Prix Italia 2009 (together with the NPS broadcasting company) for Wings of Wax
  • Lifetime Achievement Award for dance and theatre (Czech, 2011).
For more on  Jiří Kylián’s work go to: JiriKylian.com

List of works from 1973 to 1998:

  • Viewers (1973)
  • Stoolgame (1974)
  • Blue Skin (1974)
  • La cathédrale engloutie (1975)
  • Transfigured Night (1975)
  • Torso (1975)
  • Nuages (1976)
  • Elegia (1976)
  • Symphony in D (1976)
  • November Steps (1977)
  • Ariadne (1977)
  • Kinderspelen (1978)
  • Sinfonietta (1978)
  • Rainbow Snake (1978)
  • Symphony of Psalms (1978)
  • Mša glagolskaja (Glagolitic Mass) (1979)
  • Dream Dances (1979)
  • Soldatenmis (1980)
  • Overgrown Path (1980)
  • Forgotten Land (1981)
  • Nomaden (1982)
  • Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (1982)
  • Svadebka (1982)
  • Stamping Ground (1983)
  • Dreamtime (1983)
  • Curses and Blessings, with Christopher Bruce (1983)
  • Wiegelied (1983)
  • Return to the Strange Land (1984)
  • Valencia (1984)
  • L’enfant et les sortilèges (1984)
  • Heart’s Labyrinth 1 (1984)
  • Heart’s Labyrinth 2 (1985)
  • Piccolo Mondo (1985)
  • Silent Cries (1986)
  • L’Histoire du soldat (1986)
  • Sechs Tanze (1986)
  • Heart’s Labyrinth 3 (1987)
  • Frankenstein! (1987)
  • Evening Songs (1987)
  • St joris rijdt uit (1987)
  • Kaguyahime (1988)
  • No More Play (1988)
  • Tanzschul (1989)
  • Falling Angels (1989)
  • Sweet Dreams (1990)
  • Sarabande (1990)
  • Un ballo (1991)
  • Petite Mort (1991)
  • Obscure Temptations (1991)
  • Stepping Stones (1991)
  • As If Never Been (1992)
  • No Sleep Till Dawn of Day (1992)
  • Whereabouts Unknown (1993)
  • Tiger Lily (1993)
  • Double You (1993)
  • Arcimboldo (1994)
  • Bella figura (1995)
  • Anna and the Ostriches (1996)
  • Compass (1996)
  • If Only … (1996)
  • Trompe-l’oeil (1996)
  • Wings of Wax (1997)
  • A way a lone (1998)
  • One of a Kind (1998)
  • Indigo Rose (1998)
  • Doux Mensonges (1999)
  • Click-Pause-Silence (2000) Nederlands Dans Theater I
  • Birth-day (2001)
  • Blackbird (2001)
  • 27′52″ (2002) Nederlands Dans Theater II
  • Claude Pascal (2002) Nederlands Dans Theater I
  • When Time Takes Time (2002) Nederlands Dans Theater III
  • Far too close (2003) Nederlands Dans Theater III
  • Last Touch (2003) Nederlands Dans Theater I
  • Il faut q’une porte (2004)
  • Sleepless (2004) Nederlands Dans Theater II
  • Toss of a Dice (2005) Nederlands Dans Theater I
  • Chapeau (2005) Nederlands Dans Theater II
  • Tar and Feathers (2006) Nederlands Dans Theater I
  • Vanishing Twin (2008) Nederlands Dans Theater I
  • Gods and Dogs (2008) Nederlands Dans Theater II
For a comprehensive list of choreographed works see: http://www.euronet.nl/users/cadi/Repertory.html
(Netherlands Dance Theatre web site).

Bill Hayward (Gallery 2)

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