Last week the Boston Ballet kicked off its spring season at the Boston Opera House with three works by Czechoslovakian choreographer Jirí Kylián. Born in Prague, Kylián trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and the Prague Conservatory. His choreographic career started under John Cranko at the Stuttgart Ballet in 1970, before moving to the Nerderlands Dans Theater, where he became director in 1978.
Fully appreciating Kylián’s work requires both concentration and open-mindedness, for the choreographer has no interest in spoon-feeding his audience and dislikes providing written commentary on his work. “He doesn’t believe audiences should be told what to see or think,” Roslyn Anderson, a former dancer with Kylián’s Nederlands Dans Theater, told the Boston Globe. “He loves that one person sitting next to another can see something totally different in the same work.”
This disparity of opinion was in clear evidence during Saturday night’s performance, a sure sign of the program’s creative range.
The evening started with the haunting 1997 piece, Wings of Wax, which is performed beneath an immense, bare tree, its crown stretching above the heads of the dancers. A spotlight slowly circles the tree, suggesting a rotating planet. The presence of this artificial sun and the title of the piece, references the myth of Icarus, who attempted to escape the island of Crete with wings made of wax and feathers, but drowned when he ignored his father’s instruction not to fly too close to the sun. Knowing Kylián’s intense concern about environmental issues, global warming in particular, it’s hard not to see the reference to Icarus and continual presence of this rotating “sun” as a warning and contemporary take on the Icarus myth.
This dance for eight, set to music by Philip Glass, Heinrich von Biber, John Cage, and Johann Sebastian Bach, uses entrances and exits, as well as coupling and separation, to great effect. The dancers circle and embrace each other with fluent, organic movements. The shadows cast by the tree and rotating spotlight give us a sense of the passage of time.
The second work on the program, the 2006 Tar and Feathers was the newest piece and also the most experimental. Judging by the reactions of those sitting around me, the work presented some challenges for a ballet audience more accustomed to pointe shoes and fouettés than dancers in socks growling like wolves and popping bubble wrap on stage. But Tar and Feathers was my personal favorite of the night.
Both the choreography and set are structured around weight and weightlessness, a likely reference to black, sticky, gravity-laden tar versus light, fragile feathers. In the final moments of the work, when one of the dancers exits the stage slowly walking over the shiny, black vinyl floor and a sheet of bubble wrap, the idea of weight and air converge. The unusual movements, growling sounds, and anxious popping of the bubble wrap through the piece speaks to the age of anxiety in which we live, as well as our primal natures. After all, it is these animal impulses that lead to mob mentality, the root of tarring and feathering.
“My work is a metaphor for the ‘Unbearable lightness’ and the ‘Unbearable weight’ of our being on our tiny planet,” Kylián says on his website. “Our life very often resembles a person with a ‘Lead weight’ chained to his ankle, and yet holding a flying ‘Balloon’ in his hand, soon to be torn apart by the two contrasting forces.”
Kylián has an absurdist streak, and it’s on full display with Tar and Feathers. In addition to music by Mozart, Dirk Haubrich, and Tomoko Mukaiyama, Kylián’s recorded voice recites Samuel Beckett’s last poem, “What is the Word,” throughout the performance.
what is the word –
folly from this –
all this –
folly from all this –
folly given all this –
folly seeing all this –
The inability to express ourselves is another central theme in Tar and Feathers. Such existential angst may not make all viewers comfortable, but “comfort” isn’t the point.
The sight of Tomoko Mukaiyama improvising on a ten-foot high Steinway piano adds an element of drama to Tar and Feathers. Twelve years ago this classically trained performer began working as a visual artist and now creates installation pieces in concert halls.
The towering piano is spider-like and menacing, much like a giant Louise Bourgeois sculpture. Kylián “needed someone who was, first of all, not afraid of heights,” Tomoko told the Boston Herald. The piano is also tilted at an angle. “It’s a funny feeling,” she explained. “It’s quite scary.” Wearing a long, futuristic-looking gown, Tomoko not only improvises on prepared piano while hovering 10 feet in the air, she also stands and plucks the instrument’s strings at various points in the performance.
According to the Boston Globe, some of the dancing was also improvised, a critical element that really should have been mentioned in the program. Here is an excerpt from Karen Campbell’s article in the Globe:
Kylián’s highly detailed work is tricky for any ballet company. And unlike the classical vocabulary, it demands a super-flexible torso as well as the willingness to sink significant weight into the floor, often off-balance, at high speeds, and in constant motion. Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo, who danced 20 Kylián ballets during his 14 years with Nederlands Dans Theater, says the choreographer always encourages dancers to “do more, take a risk, take it so far you are on the edge of falling off.”
Danced well, Kylián’s choreography flows with a seamless, organic quality, and Breen Combes, who has danced in six Kylián works with Boston Ballet, says it has been instrumental in laying the foundation for the company’s competency in all contemporary work. For her, it also adds a vital component to the troupe’s wide-ranging repertoire, and that repertoire “is really one of the main reasons I’m here,” she says. “In the dance world, people are extremely jealous. The fact that we do a whole Kylián program the week before opening ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is unheard of.”
She calls “Tar and Feathers” the most “far-out” Kylián ballet she has performed, a work about grappling with one’s inner demons and struggling to express something that just won’t come out or comes out wrong. “This is more confrontational, aggressive, making the audience view dance from their own perspective rather than sitting passively. It’s meant to shock and make people think about things in their own life.”
One of the more challenging aspects of the ballet for Breen Combes has been the improvisation. “At first, it’s very frightening when someone gives you six minutes to do whatever you want. It’s so far outside our comfort zone. As classically trained dancers, you are taught to be upright, place steps just so, project a certain way. This is more internal. It’s about you as a human trying to be yourself and work through all these emotions. It’s liberating in a way.”
“And it builds you as a dancer,” she adds. “It’s a rare ballet that lets you grow as a person.”
To be given this type of freedom as a dancer, is no small matter, and it adds a level of collaboration and risk that is essential to our understanding of the work. It’s too bad the audience wasn’t told that dance improvisation was part of the performance.
The final work of the night was Symphony of Psalms (1978), a choral composition by Igor Stravinsky, which was commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary Season in 1930. The live music, including vocals by the New World Chorale, founded and conducted by Holly MacEwen Krafka, was a welcome addition, though I wish the chorus had been more forceful at various points.
Sixteen dancers share the stage, occasionally pairing off or removing themselves from the rest of the group by lying on the floor or standing on top of the wooden chairs bordering the space. There are a number of memorable moments in Symphony of Psalms when the dancers mirror each other’s movements. The split second delay creates a domino effect that is splendid to watch.
The fact that this dance occurs in front of a striking mosaic of 76 Oriental carpets is not insignificant. Choreography, like the design of a carpet, has its own architecture, and yet freedom is allowed within the limitations of an arranged pattern. Dancers are not dissimilar to wool threads. A weaver, like a choreographer, will choose certain materials, certain colors, and make choices about warp, weft, and design as a piece takes shape. Each individual thread, or dancer, is unique, but also contributes to the larger whole.
The spiritual significance of Persian carpets echoes the Biblical text used by Stravinksy, and the old saying that “a Persian rug is perfectly imperfect, and precisely imprecise” springs to mind. (Many traditional, hand-made Persian rugs have intentional flaws to convey the belief that only Allah is perfect.) While there may be a perfect plan in the mind of the choreographer, it can never be fully realized, for humans, dancers included, are flawed.
Without question, the star of the Boston Ballet’s All-Kylián program is the set design, from the haunting upside-down tree, to the spider-like piano and glowing, icy, bubble-wrap boulder, to the mosaic of Persian rugs. The original set designers, Michael Simon, William Katz, and Kylián himself deserve credit for their originality, and Boston Ballet’s Kees Tjebbes a nod for technical execution.
Boston Ballet now has nine Kylián pieces in its repertoire. The Ballet’s Artistic Director, Miko Nissinen, has admired Kylián’s work since he first saw a Nederlands Dans Theater performance in Finland in 1976.
“Kylián is one of the foremost contemporary choreographers,” Nissinen told Campbell at the Globe, “and I’m so happy that he trusts us with his work, including work that he hasn’t let out to other companies.” According to Campbell, Kylián suffers from a fear of flying and has never seen Boston Ballet live. “His works have such a heart-to-heart communication that speaks to you at such a profound level, this emotional tidal wave that is so powerful,” says Nissinen. “We all in dance believe in the transformative power of this art form, and he exemplifies that.”
On his website, Kylián writes the following…
“When you decide…to share an evening with us, please bring three things along with you:
1. Readiness for adventure
2. Open and receptive mind and heart, and
3. Plenty of time”
These are ideal conditions for any exchange between artist and audience. If only this were a requirement for all viewers attending museum and gallery shows, concerts, readings, and performances.
“National theatres…,” writes Kylián, “will have no chance to survive unless they understand that they are not only ‘national museums.’ They must create a climate in which new artistic developments take place and unconventional ideas can be conceived (next to all the classics from the past) no matter how much risk is involved! Only then they will truly come to life, and serve the people.”
While Kylian is referring to the kind of national theatre that dominates in Europe, risk and the embrace of the unconventional are also needed in American cultural institutions.
I applaud the Boston Ballet for taking a risk with this contemporary, avant-garde All-Kylián program. This is the kind of programming that has the potential to engage younger audiences and make dance relevant to a new generation. This was my first performance at the Boston Ballet, and if they continue to support this type of contemporary, edgy work in the future, I’ll certainly be back.
The Boston Ballet’s All-Kylián program closes March 17th. You can purchase tickets here.
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