New York — "I always try to look for different ways of expression, different corners of the soul. If you find some obscure corner, some hidden place that you haven't found yet, it's interesting to investigate and find what's behind that door."
Jiri Kylian, whose distinctive and influential choreography has made him a leading figure in the dance world for more than 25 years, was discussing what motivates his choreography these days.
Kylian's long, fruitful association with the Nederlands Dans Theater, for which he was the artistic director from 1977 to 1999, continues in his current dual capacity as artistic advisor/resident choreographer. The works that brought him his early recognition there had a fluid sweep and featured supple, expansive movement that required the articulation of ballet training but also the expressive torso and connection to the ground that modern dance training provides. They were usually set to powerful classical scores (Janacek, Stravinsky, Haydn, Mahler) and had a visceral impact on audiences. But Kylian's approach and focus have been evolving continually, and his newest dances are refined, precise works in which he meticulously sculpts the stage space and draws one's attention to details and nuances.
"He's taking away all the extraneous parts and coming more to the essence of what he's trying to focus on. It's more refined," observes Glenn Edgerton, a former Joffrey Ballet and NDT dancer who is now the NDT's executive artistic director.
Local audiences this week will have an opportunity to experience Kylian works representing the full quarter-century arc of his choreography. Nederlands Dans Theater will perform four of his most recent works plus his 1978 "Symphony of Psalms" when it brings two programs to the Orange County Performing Arts Center beginning Tuesday. Meanwhile, American Ballet Theatre's season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion includes a pair of middle-period Kylian works set to Mozart.
NDT's opening program showcases the Kylian of the moment -- all three works are from the past two years. Each is set to a score by contemporary German composer Dirk Haubrich, with whom Kylian collaborates closely. The most recent, "Last Touch," is a mesmerizing study in infinitesimal movements, as the inhabitants and objects of a Victorian drawing room come into focus, shifting and evolving through events that, moment by moment, become tender or sinister or dire. Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice likened it to "a silent Strindberg play performed at a Butoh dancer's pace."
Kylian actually had another 19th century playwright in mind, he revealed when he took time for an interview backstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where NDT opened its current tour. Tall and lanky, Kylian, who turned 57 last week, has a Hamlet-like, slightly mournful intensity. You expect him to be dressed in black, but on this day he sported casual rehearsal clothes, a pale gray T-shirt and tan cargo pants. "It's very Chekhovian, the whole atmosphere," he said of "Last Touch." "I was brought up on Chekhov. He was the inventor of lyrical drama, and that's basically what I created, subconsciously."
Early on, he thought the dance would open with an image from a specific photograph or painting, and the near colorlessness of the stately room and its six inhabitants creates the image of an old sepia photo. "I researched so much, you would not believe, and I came to the conclusion that nothing would give me the opportunity to say what I really wanted to say, using an existing image. As I was thinking about it, I dreamt one night about this room. I just saw it in front of me, and I made a fax from my dream. I didn't know where I was going to take it. What would happen was all written in the stars. I had a wonderful time working on this piece; it was one of the best working times I ever had in the studio. We worked in the cellar, in this obscure place in the building, where nobody goes."
Kylian cites the influence of a very different playwright on the genesis of "Claude Pascal," which juxtaposes two separate realities. Three black-clad couples perform typically tensile, almost clinical Kylian duets as they appear through openings in the walls of mirrored panels at the back and on one side of the stage, while four elaborately costumed Edwardian figures play with props and mime exaggerated activities, also mouthing the often absurdist text by Kylian that is incorporated in Haubrich's sound score.
"I was reading a lot of Ionesco at the time, and I adore his work," Kylian revealed. "This work also has to do with being photographed. You just wonder what was in the mind of the people who took photos of themselves 130 years ago. The photographer comes, says to smile, and everybody stares into the camera and smiles because that's what you do for posterity -- no matter if somebody's mother just died, or someone had a miscarriage." The work's title is "just a name I picked" -- although there was an obscure composer by that name.