There is no question that Jiri Kylián is a major artist whose influence on dance in Europe over the past 30 years has been immense. During his years at the helm of Netherlands Dance Theater he built his company into one of the pre-eminent ensembles in the world.
Several of his creations are in the repertories of companies across the USA, Europe and in Australia. The majority of these one-act works are direct, deeply felt responses to great pieces of 20th-century music. Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Janácek's Sinfonietta, Debussy's Engulfed Cathedral and Martinu's Field Mass were among the first scores he chose to choreograph.
"One of the most incredible things about Jirì Kylián's choreography is his extraordinary musicality," says Houston Ballet's Artistic Director Stanton Welch. "He has a delicacy in capturing the inner spirit of the music, and that allows him to emotionally accent every part of the score."
Forgotten Land (1981) takes its inspiration from Benjamin Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem. Composed in 1940, while Britten was in America, it evokes the atmosphere of his native East Anglia and its tempestuous coastline. Yet it needs to be remembered that Britten intended this to be a true requiem: both a lament and a protest against the Nazi aggression then raging across Europe.
Britten composed his Requiem in three movements. There was also another tripartite starting point for Forgotten Land. It's a lithograph by Edvard Munch dating from 1908. It shows a plant with exposed roots and a long straight stalk that rises up to open into a large flower. The strange thing about it is that its blossom is anthropomorphic - the flower is also the entwined heads of three women. They depict a girl, a crone, and a woman in her prime. It's titled Alpha and Omega.
Both the music and the lithograph are echoed in the costume designs which are in black, red, and finally white. Forgotten Land was the first of Kylián's many collaborations with the Scottish artist John F. Macfarlane.
As is often the case in Kylián's ballets, all these influences are melded together seamlessly, but he refuses to transform them into a direct linear narrative. Emotions and relationships are evoked, but their interpretation is left open to each and every viewer.
"People take away very different things," says Welch. "There is a theme, but not a story. Everyone has their own experience, but they're always deeply moved. It's impossible not to be."
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1947, Kylián began studying dance at the age of 9 and finished his training at the Royal Ballet School in London as a scholarship student. He was then employed by John Cranko as a dancer for the Stuttgart Ballet. It was while he was performing in Germany that Kylián first tried his hand at choreography.
In 1975 Kylián moved to Holland where he joined Netherlands Dance Theater, then little more than a small regional company. He had already been a guest choreographer there and now returned as co-artistic director. In 1977 he was appointed sole director, a post he would retain for 22 years.
"He is one of the masters of choreography," Welch says. "His work is extremely contemporary, but also firmly based on classical structures and, even with all its modern invention, it is definitely not anti-ballet."
Forgotten Land was the first Kylián ballet Welch ever saw, and this was before he had even started his own ballet training. It had such a profound and lasting effect on him, that he knew it needed to be the first Kylián work he brought to Houston. "I chose it very deliberately. I wanted to re-create my very first experience with him for both the dancers and the audience."
Not only did Kylián's ballets take Netherlands Dance Theater into the front ranks, they eventually led to the formation of two sister companies. NDT2 began as an apprentice group intended to provide stage experience for young dancers before they were invited to join the main company. However, over the years, it has grown into a fully-fledged touring company in its own right. NDT3 looks at dance from the opposite end of the telescope. It showcases a select group of seasoned dancers who in other circumstances would have retired from the stage, but now continue to perform in a repertory devised specifically for them.
As the new millennium began, Kylián who just months earlier had retired as artistic director of Netherlands Dance Theater was asked to help commemorate UNESCO's International Dance Day 2000. His brief message is nothing less than his own artistic credo.
"Dance is a garden, maybe not big," Kylián stated. But then he went on to add that it is also "infinitely high and endlessly deep. There is a place for everyone. Set yourself rules in order to break them, in order to find new feelings, new realities, new dimensions."
An American who has lived in London since 1984, Allen Robertson is the dance editor of Time Out London and of the quarterly Dance Now.