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Dance: And Now, the Netherlanders

4 minute read
Michael Walsh

In this troupe, the choreographer is the star

Soldiers dropping one by one to the ground, doubled over in the agony of death. Men lifting a feather-light ballerina and unexpectedly groaning under the strain. A trio dancing to a mournful Sardinian folk song in the eerie darkness of an eclipsed moon. These are some of the images—tragic, comic, passionate—from the rich choreographic imagination of Jiri Kylian, a poet of many moods who works with movement instead of words.

In his three years as director, the Czech-born Kylian, 34, has made the Netherlands Dance Theater one of the most inventive and physically exciting companies around. At the Metropolitan Opera House last week, the multinational troupe (nearly half the 32 dancers are American) offered six Kylian works that enthralled the New York City dance audience, the world’s toughest.

Kylian immediately sets a specific tone and atmosphere. His work is often frankly emotional, whether it is the bleak despair of Soldiers’ Mass, the pathos of Overgrown Path, the slapstick comedy of Symphony in D or the heroic striving of Sinfonietta, the company’s signature piece.

The choreography is a harmonious combination of motion and music, which complement each other rather than existing in an uneasy alliance. Says Kylian, who studied both music and dance at the Prague Conservatory: “The minute I have total trust in the music, I go out of my way to find out why the composer has written what he has, and try to make my choreography equivalent to the music.”

This does not mean merely illustrating it.

In Dream Dances, set to eleven folk song adaptations by Italian Composer Luciano Berio, the dancers move explicitly to the rhythm of I Wonder As I Wander. But later, in Motettu de Tristura, the slow, sad music is a counterpoint to a dance of restless erotic energy.

Much of Kylian’s inspiration comes from his roots. Three of the works danced in New York (the company goes on to Boston and the Wolf Trap festival, outside Washington, D.C.) are set to music of Czech Composers Leos Janacek and Bohuslav Martinu. “I am very proud of my background and would never want to deny it, although I would never push Czech composers just because they are Czech,” says Kylian, who is still a Czech citizen. He is delighted at the prospect that his company will perform in Prague, his home town, next year.

Symphony of Psalms—danced to Stravinsky’s score of the same name against a huge backdrop of Persian rugs—was inspired by a boyhood memory. “There was a Russian Orthodox church in Prague that was always closed,” recalls Kylian, “but we could peek through a hole in the door and see that it was full of red rugs and religious flags.” That image stayed with him when he was working on the piece, immersing himself in Stravinsky, who was deeply influenced by Russian Orthodoxy at the time he wrote the music.

The Netherlands has no stars, although each member has at least one solo in the repertoire. Inevitably, some do stand out, like Marly Knoben, a little redheaded bundle of energy. At this point in his development, Kylian is more comfortable working either with large groups (Soldiers’ Mass, Symphony of Psalms and Sinfonietta) or in short vignettes (Dream Dances, Overgrown Path). He has difficulty sustaining a true pas de deux or developing a long line.

The company is very much an ensemble, but one with a distinctive profile. Kylian does not like the occasional criticism that his troupe is anonymous. Says he: “I don’t like to hear that we are faceless.

The dancers have very strong personalities that come through, but they take their personality and give it as a gift to the company. I find that very moving. We have built something together and we are proud of it. That sounds like the worst cliche of all time, I know. But it is simply true ” —By Michael Walsh

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