Culture & Conversation

Technical Brilliance, Emotional Depth

There is probably no living European choreographer more internationally beloved than Jiri Kylián. His non-narrative, dramatic ballets blending classical technique and modern expressionism are season favourites and repertory mainstays of established companies around the world. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens presents three of the influential Czech choreographer’s works in its Soirée Kylián at Théâtre Maisonneuve.

Kylián, whose 30-year creative residence at Nederlands Dans Theater led the Dutch company to international renown, is not known for the movement invention or formal experiments that defined the careers of peers like William Forsythe. Kylián’s signature, rather, is a singularly eloquent neo-classical style – lyrical, expressionistic and marked by a deep humanist concern.

NDT was the first European ballet company to institute a regular modern dance class, and Les Grands Ballets, with its mixed roster of dancers trained in classical and contemporary idioms, are well-suited to his movement style.

The program opener, Symphony of Psalms, is an early Kylián classic from 1978 that exemplifies the mesmerizing choral movement and use of deep space that are the choreographer’s trademark. Against a backdrop tapestry of oriental rugs and two framing rows of wooden chairs, 16 dancers soberly dressed in charcoal and pallid hues rush and plow against the full-blooded, dark liturgy of Stravinsky’s score. They travel urgently together in kaleidoscopic patterns, falling into strict lines, splintering into pairs or cascading their movements across the stage’s full dimensions.

The men are steely and efficient, while the women, as in many of Kylián’s works, are potent expressions of existential conflict: exaltation and grief, piousness and sensual abandon, heaven and earth. Voluptuous curves compete with sharp angles in their bodies; razor-straight legs shoot vectors far into space, only to be broken and pulled inward by a torso contracted, a foot flexed. One moment, penitent, the women tread forward with heads bowed, midsections curled and arms outstretched with palms and wrists exposed. The next, they hurl themselves over the men like rushing water over a precipice. The ensemble piece lasts 25 minutes and contains all the kinetic and spiritual thrust of Kylián’s standout early works.

Bella Figura, second on the bill, is the evening’s most nuanced and expansive piece and offers some of the best instances of Kylián’s supreme musicality and visually sumptuous partnering. Created in 1995 with music by Lukas Foss, G.B. Pergolesi, Alessandro Marcello, Antonio Vivaldi and Giuseppe Torelli, the ballet sets four couples and one woman in dream-like sequences cut and framed by moving curtains. Here Kylián’s fluid, neo-classical style is inflected with idiosyncratic wit, bouts of improvisation and a rich gestural language – small flicks of the leg, shoulders stuck in shrugged positions, hips flirtatiously jutted, hands softly quivering.

Unlike some contemporary ballet choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon who continue to have the boys move the girls around like furniture, Kylián creates complex trios and duets that are possible only through smooth-as-butter connectivity between partners and an egalitarian dialogue of force and surrender. No wonder this feels like real romance. Women and men lift, buttress and provide counterweight for each other, creating miraculous moving sculptures that redefine how bodies can interlace.

The first casts of Symphony and Bella work hard and attentively, and Émilie Durville and Robin Mathes each at times achieved the kind of sustained, through-the-body movement that makes the choreography’s technical challenges disappear into emotional depth.

The program closes on a jocular note with the irresistible audience favourite, Sechs Tänze, from 1986. The energetic burlesque set to Mozart’s Six German Dances follows the antics of eight chalk-faced, powder-wigged, very bird-brained aristocrats as they bobble and flounce around in their undergarments. Occasionally, headless black crinolines zip by on wheels. There is a critique of frivolousness to be found here, but for now we are content enough to delight in its froth. Ye Li and Lénaig Guégan turn in revelatory comic performances.

Kylián has made over 100 dances since 1970, and the fine craftsmanship, expressive range and awesomely accessible beauty of his works make Kylián programs some of the best recurring events in dance.

Soirée Kylián opened on March 18 at Théâtre Maisonneuve and continues through this Saturday. Information and tickets at the Place des Arts site or at the box office.

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