Jiri Kylian fled his native Czechoslovakia in 1968, literally on the last train out after the collapse of the "Prague Spring" of Alexander Dubcek.
The experience left a lifelong mark, and after the then-21-year-old dancer found sanctuary in Stuttgart with John Cranko's Stuttgart Ballet, he began choreographing in the sparse, expressionistic style that has since come to characterize his work as director of the Nederlands Dans Theater.
His ballets for the Holland-based company often depict communities devastated by undefined loss, estranged and struggling to cohere. These works, which he has developed since taking the company's directorship in 1978, have touched audiences--and choreographers--far beyond central Europe. But, ironically, because the cost of touring is so high, Kylian's work has become known in the United States mostly through other companies. American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet, among others, regularly dance "Forgotten Land," "Return to a Strange Land" and "Sinfonietta."
Nederlands Dans Theatre last appeared in the United States in 1987, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The last Los Angeles date was in 1980. Now, in an exclusive West Coast appearance today through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, the company will dance Kylian's full-length "Kaguyahime" and shorter repertory.
The new work is even more lean, he says, but he insisted in a recent phone interview from his home in the Hague: "I am not a political choreographer. I don't believe politics should be conveyed through dance. Other media in art convey that much clearer and better. Dance should remain dance. Music is about music. Dance is about dance."
Still, when the opportunity presents itself, the choreographer does allow his pessimism about the human race to surface. "Kaguyahime," a classic Japanese folk tale he says is "almost like Shakespeare," for instance, tells the story of a beautiful moon child who comes to Earth and through her matchless beauty unintentionally wreaks havoc here.
"It is a fascinating story of someone who wants to give love and peace and instead seeds hatred and wars. That's what (human beings) are about. We keep doing this over and over again--Yugoslavia, Haiti, all over the place. We will repeat that way. Human beings don't have an ability to improve."
Similarly, "No More Play," one of his repertory pieces on the mixed bill, was inspired by "a tiny sculpture by Giacometti that looks like a little board game no one knows how to play."
"Yes, like life, exactly!" he exclaims. "That's what it means to me. We come to life. We only assume as we make our moves that we understand the rules. We finish our life. By the last sigh, \o7 maybe \f7 we have understood something. It is a very abstract work. This is what it means to me."
"My work has changed very drastically" since the Met appearance, he added. "I used to use music that was mostly written by people who could have been my grandfather, people who had their roots in the romantic era and who did everything possible to break that, but still had their roots there--Janacek, Ravel, Schoenberg. I have changed that. I use a lot of contemporary music (now), but also baroque music because I feel we really are the children of the baroque. Our real roots are in the baroque time."
He also has "very drastically" changed his movement vocabulary. "I cannot begin to describe what it is. It would sound ridiculous. It has become much more eclectic. (And) it's much more difficult for the dancers!"
The new pieces are "very Spartan--stark, very little costuming, very little color. In fact, I went back to the essentials: music, dance, light and space, which is very complicated. All (of the essentials) are very complicated.
"But it's actually only dealing with the essential things you need. All the unnecessary things were chucked out . . . . I call my (new) ballets 'coloring books.' I expect the public to put in their own colors. I'm talking about their understanding, their emotional coloring. In that way, I expect a lot of active participation of the audience."
Even the choreographer participates. Kylian said he "always" revises his ballets. "I fundamentally don't understand my work. You can quote that. I start understanding what my work is about maybe a year after the premiere, and I revise whenever or at any time I am not satisfied with it."
\o7 * Nederlands Dans Theater will dance Jiri Kylian's "Kaguyahime" today, Wednesday and Thursday at 8 p.m.; and shorter repertory Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $18 to $55. (714) 556-2787.\f7