Everyone should see a ballet by Jirí Kylián during their lifetime.
When I first moved to Oslo to study at the University, I didn’t really hang out at clubs or rock venues like my fellow students. Instead, I went to the Opera. There was something slightly strange about that, especially since I came from a tiny village in Northern Norway where Opera was something foreign and exotic and had little to do with everyday life. But my mother sang in the Opera Choir in the nearest town and my sister danced ballet, so when my parents visited us when we were students in Oslo these were the things we would go to see.
A lot of what I saw at the Opera seemed old fashioned to me, namely the traditional operas and the classical ballets, where the women were always graceful and the men always manly, even in tights. It was a kind of puppet theatre with real people. But then, in the late 1990s, I saw the first performance by the Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián, That was when I fell in love with dance.
“A great choreographer should not only communicate with the typical ballet audience, the people who think they are the only ones who understand dance. He should be able to communicate with everyone, make ballet accessible. To really touch the audience deep inside, move them through motions, “said Jirí Kylián when I interviewed him in 2011. Let me just say: I don’t think I’ve ever understood Kylián’s ballets. For me it’s always been more about the ideas they stir, how they resonate with my own life, the way they make me reflect upon certain things. One of the things that made a huge impression on me early on were the flat hands, the blunt feet. It was so radically different from everything I had seen in ballet before, where every movement seemed to extend into the sky. As a student I sat in the audience with a feeling that it really was possible to do things in a new and different way.
There is a movie about Jirí Kylián called Forgotten memories where he talks about growing up in Prague after the war, at a time when his mother was a renowned ballerina. He danced himself for many years, first at the National Ballet in Prague and then at The Royal Ballet School in London, but eventually he realized that he would never be as good as his role model, Rudolf Nureyev. Instead he decided to express himself through the bodies of others. His wife Sabine, who is also a dancer, has been his artistic muse and co-creator during all his years as Artistic Director of The Nederlands Dans Theater and until today.
This is the first time that Kylián’s six Black & White ballets are performed in one night in Norway. It makes the pieces we’ve seen before feel new and fresh, with elements such as sculptural freestanding dresses, apples and swords binding the ballets together. Beyond that they also show how varied Kyliáns choreography is; both dark, merry, epic and intimate. The last time these ballets were performed together, it was as far back as in 1991. He doesn’t put his work in the hands of just anyone. Kylián has described his long term cooperation with the Norwegian National Ballet as “the most faithful and fruitful relationship I’ve had with any ballet company.” He requires a lot of his dancers, but he also clearly cares for them. To demand a lot of someone is, after all, just another way of expressing a belief in them; a way of telling them they can do things they might not think themselves capable of.
Over the years, Kyliáns ballets have brought me comfort, they’ve put me at ease, they’ve inspired me and made me laugh. When I go to the theatre, I know there’s always a chance I will be disappointed. – we’re talking about art, after all. But Kyliáns work has never disappointed me, not once, no matter how tired I was when I got to there. Wether I have been stressed out about an exam, a deadline, a fight or a child I couldn’t put to sleep, the performance has managed to take me away from all his. And yet it is all there on stage in a different form, this confusing, chaotic life, with all it’s beauty, frustrations, impossibilities and humor. Or as Kylián himself puts it towards the end of Forgotten memories: “The subject of being born, dying and doing something in between.”
Mesteraften Kylián: Black & White is performed at the The Norwegian Opera & Ballet until 10 May. Jiri Kylian – Forgotten Memories is avaliable in iTunes or at Amazon.com and is also shown every Saturday at the Opera House in Oslo until May 7th.