Dancers measure their lives by the clock. It takes them years to master a movement vocabulary and, beyond that, years of experience to hit their stride. Very often, however, as they're reaching a peak interpretively, their bodies are beginning to weaken. Careers tend to end by age 40 or even 30.
One man trying to help dancers at both ends of the spectrum is Jiri Kylian, artistic director of the Nederlands Dans Theater. Besides the main company (NDT 1), which made a sensational impact when it appeared here in 1994 and 1996, Kylian created two related companies.
He formed NDT 2 in 1978, to help younger dancers, 17 to 21, ease into the rigors of professional life. He created NDT 3 in 1991 to provide performing opportunities for outstanding dancers past the age of 40.
Both of these companies will make their Orange County debuts Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
Creation of the two companies was "inevitable," Kylian said in a recent phone interview from company headquarters at The Hague.
"A professional company and a school are two very different entities. The main company, being a company of soloists, it was very hard for younger dancers to adopt to this kind of pressure where they have to hold the stage on their own. So it was inevitable to create NDT 2, which is really a bridging company.
"It proved to be a system that functions extremely well because the dancers you saw last time on the stage of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, about 90% came through NDT 2."
As for NDT 3, which shares the bill, "If you've been a ballet director for as long as I have been, 23 years, you will have had to say goodbye to some very fine people," said Kylian, 50. "That happens many, many times simply because the repertory demands a certain amount of physicality those dancers could not carry on their shoulders any more.
"It caused a lot of unhappy situations and, later, I realized, unnecessary situations because those people--many of them, not all--are extremely gifted stage personalities. They have worked with many choreographers in their careers. Now we're able to use the potential that they have.
"They are really fantastic people, dancers of stature, not just old people. They're people who have something to say. That's what is important. Not every dancer beyond 40 can join a company like this. We look for special people."
At home, the three companies take class together, but Kylian has created only one work--a full-length piece--requiring all three, "Archimboldo," as a celebration in 1995 of his 20th anniversary as artistic director of the troupe.
"The interaction between the companies was very sparkling," he said. "To see those youngsters with all their questions, [and] the others trying to come up with answers--hopefully they have the answers--was very exciting.
"But [the work] happened to be untransportable because we built bridges over the audience--like big spider legs going into all different directions--onto the stage, like the stage was the combining point."
Where did he get such an idea--or, in fact, any of his ideas?
"I am a very eclectic choreographer," he said. 'My inspiration comes from many corners. There is no way to make a pattern for it.
"Obviously music is extremely important. It always has been; it always will be. But it's not always necessarily the spark, the core of the inspiration. Sometimes it's a painting or a personal situation I got myself into."
But he prefers not to talk about his works. "I'm not too good at that."
By the same token, he doesn't pay much heed to other people's opinions.
"To be really honest, I try not to read critics," he said. "My own criticism is so difficult already. I'm so hard on myself, I don't need an extra load.
"I don't mean to be rude to the critics. They have a very hard job to do," he continued. "Many critics are extremely serious, but many take the job very superficially. It damages. It can hurt you. I'm tired of being hurt. I'm too old for that."
Though Kylian oversees a virtual cradle-to-grave dance empire, he does not insist that the companies dance only his work.
"I have invited, in the course of 23 years, about 60 choreographers to work with us and many of them many times."
That will be evident in this weekend's programs, which includes Kylian's work and others by Hans van Manen, Ohad Naharin, Johan Inger and Paul Lightfoot, whose "Start to Finish" received its U.S. premiere when the main company danced at the center last year. At all four performances, NDT 2 and NDT 3 will alternate on stage.
"Partly, it was a tradition in the company," he said. "It was always a company with multiple influences. But that is not the only thing. It goes back to the time I was with John Cranko, when I was a dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet, and John helped me. He promoted me; he gave me chances.