writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Instinct and Process

Dialogue & Program A
Nederlands Dans Theater
Rose Cinema 2 & Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn Academy of Music
New York, NY
Wednesday, March 10, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by George Jackson
published 15 March 2004

In conversation, Jiri Kylian is engaging and mellow in an old fashioned way. As the Nederlands Dans Theater's eminence grise, he responded thoughtfully to questions from the well known author/dancer Deborah Jowitt, who introduced him, and from the audience that had come to hear them in this pre-performance interview/discussion. Several times Kylian rephrased a question to the question's advantage.

He left no doubt that his professional background was classical ballet technique and that his performers had to be ballet trained no matter what sort of movement he asked them to do. What Kylian admires about folk dances the world over is the way music and movement evolved together and became inseparable. Such integration is something he seeks to achieve with his own choreography and classical music. In the 1980s, Kylian became intrigued with the dance of Australia's aboriginal people and he'll always remember the answer one of them gave to the question why dancing is so central to their tradition. In effect, the reply had to do with continuity— "so that I could learn from my father and later teach my son". The choreographer chided American materialism for neglecting such spiritual processes as tradition and contemplation. He admitted, though, that Nederlands Dans Theater was extremely fortunate in the material resources at its disposal. These include its own building with a theater and rehearsal facilities, three companies (the regular or NDT #1, the junior NDT #2, and NDT #3 which is more a series of projects for senior dancers than a permanent group).

About his process, Kylian said that he relied on his instincts. Not that he doesn't study hard before he goes into the studio, consulting sources and looking up relevant topics. Instincts, though, are what guide him. Sometimes they tell him to abandon a piece, but not too often. Analysis of his work, he leaves to the critics. Cinema #2 was filled to capacity for the event.

The BAM's Opera House was nearly sold out for the second night of Program A by the visiting NDT #1, a company of 27 dancers. All three pieces shown were conceived and choreographed by Kylian in a relatively close timespan, the years 2002 to 2003, and had music by Dirk Haubrich and lighting by Kees Tjebbes. After seeing them, it made sense to consider them as a triptych although there was no umbrella title.

When we first saw ballets by Kylian, it was in the early days of his choreographic career. He had emerged from John Cranko's Stuttgart stable with work that seemed different to a degree. Already he favored elimination of several of the usual, detailed dance work structures. There was his tendency to avoid explications, transitions and repetitions. Some people saw his approach as a going back to basics, a purification, a saying no to expectations, a rejection of tokenism, a refusal to comply with formulas. Even those who didn't discern all that, as well as others who were suspicious of simplification, conceded that the Kylian ballets were fresh. Moreover, such pieces as Return to the Strange Land and Sinfonietta were based on ballet technique and, to an extent, developed it in new directions.

Then, Kylian became fascinated by rubbery motion. It wasn't the French plastique of the 1940s but a heavier, less balletically articulated manner of movement. Probably it hailed from the hybrid of ballet and modern dance that American choreographers John Butler and Glen Tetley had planted in the Netherlands. Kylian exploited it for duos, interweaving male-female pairs of dancers in drawn-out encounters. As it evolved, his handling of bodies looked to some eyes as if he were kneading dough. Soon, three of the dough ballets began turning up on the same program and his audience split, some becoming addicted and others allergic.

What is new about Claude Pascal, the opening work on Program A, is Kylian's return to more balletic movement. In the material he gives three pairs of dancers, balletic articulation is not inapparent—sorry, I can't say this more positively. He does not go so far as to give the three women pointe work. The choreography seemed produced by the yard. I could not discern why one passage preceded or followed another. There was no sense of beginning, middle or end. Movement was spun out like cloth for a long hallway rug. The dancers were dressed in classroom apparel that went a bit beyond basic by being color coordinated in a muted way. But, Claude Pascal wasn't just about dancing. There were also four figures in period costumes (pre-World War 1). They alternated with the dancers, posing, fussing with paraphernalia, speaking. What they said was rather incomprehensible in my part of the house but evoked a little laughter where it could be understood. Haubrich's music for the dancing and characterizations was a sparse electronic soundscape of drones and tones. More intriguing than either the action or the sound, I found Kylian's set: a reflective floor that mirrored people darkly and their shadows too. The floor was partially framed by panels that could be turned. They served as doors for the cast and as set changes since on one side the panels were mirrored and on the other plain. Sometimes, color washes of light were projected onto the panels' plain surfaces.

The dancers had vigor, not just in this first piece but throughout the program. One could tell one dancer from another but not discern any individual's schooling. Stylistically, this was anonymous ballet. The figures in period costuming had dramatic skill. Their characterizations could easily have been laid on with a heavy hand, but that didn't happen. They maintained their personas, neither overstating them nor—at this point—developing them.

Kylian elaborated the period characterizations in Program A's midpiece, Last Touch. There were now three women and three men in a handsome drawing room setting (by Walter Nobbe). The six characters (in search of a choreographer?) moved slowly, very slowly. Initially, two men were seated at a small table playing cards and the third was just entering the room. One woman (it seemed to be the same black gowned personage who had appeared in the first ballet) stood at a larger table, straightening a tablecloth. A second woman sat reading in a rocking chair. Woman #3 sat drinking, dressed toga-like in bleached tan dustcover cloth, the same material that was spread widely over the room's floor and some of the furniture. It made her too, like the room, seem to have been put on hold for a season, or about to be.

Much of the movement for these people was that of normal behavior, except for its slow pace. Gradually the men and women paired off, and then some moves became hyperbole, fantasy, but still they were slow. Suddenly, like lightning, something happened. Its nature was violent, its aftermaths were desolation, stillness, death. Then, ever so slowly again, movement returned, the figures came to life and resumed their original, peaceable, civilized postures.

The suddenness and speed of the violence in Last Touch was a shock, but not a surprise. Martha Clarke builds this type of living picture more subtly.

27'52", the last piece on the program, had something from the 1960s: quasi-starting with some of the cast already in motion on stage as the audience returned from intermission. There are no costumed figures in this work, just six dancers— again as in Claude Pascal—dressed by Visser in classroom wear. There were differences between the duets of that first piece and the three duos in 27'52". The movement in this final work was less articulated, closer to dough kneading and it took place in a stage design which featured a big white square of floor matting bordered by black. The white matting was sometimes lifted by a dancer at its ends or at internal slits and then let go. There were curtains too, cut short and suspended from above the stage, that were lowered and raised at unexpected moments. Much of the choreography seemed yardage again, only the final duet being distinct—as was its musical score.

The male-female pair of the last duo began by sparring. Both were topless. Magnetically they were drawn together and embraced. Then they died. He succumbed, his vitality ebbed. She entered the grave reluctantly but consensually. Their graves were formed by a third dancer holding apart slits in the white mat. When both of the pair had been buried, the raised curtaining came crashing down like falling sails in a shipwreck.

Music for the last duo was relatively lush and chromatic, based by Haubrick on two Gustav Mahler themes. What transpired between the two dancers suggests a Tristan and Isolde theme, reminiscent of Maurice Bejart's 1969 Les Vainqueurs.

In Part 1 of Program A, dramatic characterization and contemporary dance were presented separately, in alternation. In Part 2, dramatic characterization was developed into choreographed drama. In Part 3's last duo, there was, finally, a merging and we were shown dramatic dance. In this program Kylian's instincts seemed secondary. He belabored process.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 11
March 15, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson



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last updated on January 11, 2004