BLACK & WHITE BALLETS
Jiří Kylián, choreographer; Netherlands Dance Theater
ARTHAUS MUSIK 100 085 (DVD:101:00)
Falling Angels. Six Dances. No More Play. Sweet Dreams. Sarabande. Petite Mort
I was introduced to the work of Jiří Kylián several years ago, and I was so impressed that I almost went to extreme lengths to obtain the present DVD, which was out of print at the time. Fortunately, Arthaus Musik seems to be in the process of recycling several of their DVDs, and I almost whooped in excitement when I saw this title among their recent “new releases.” It was worth the wait; I am not disappointed. In fact, if I wanted to show someone what I thought was so terrific about this choreographer, this DVD would be Exhibit A. Kylián was born in Prague in 1947, left Czechoslovakia for good (like a lot of other folks) in 1968, went to Stuttgart, and, in 1973, ended up with the Netherlands Dance Theater. He stepped down as its artistic director in 2000, but I understand that he maintains an association with them to this day.
These six ballets all come from the 1980s and early 1990s. They were conceived separately, but Kylián later linked them together, “as a kind of work in progress,” according to Arthaus’s booklet. These studio-based performances (there is no audience) date from 1995-97, and despite the separation between the performances, there is a strong feeling of consistency and unity among them. At the same time, there is sufficient contrast to make viewing in one sitting entirely feasible, and even desirable, in order to experience the cumulative effect.
Kylián, even when he is being funny, likes to create a sense of unease.
starts with eight dancers in “Mozartian underwear” looking warily into the audience, to the accompaniment of an ominous rumbling. Suddenly, the last male dancer’s powdered wig jets straight into the air, and he shoves an apple into his mouth. Only then does Mozart’s music begin—the Six German Dances, K 571. The dancers’ movements are quick, awkward, and violent. There is a lot of shoving and tugging, and the women are dragged around by their dresses. At one point, they are even strangled with them. Between the dances, large black dresses, as if on dressmaker dummies, glide threateningly across the stage, like birds of death. (There’s even a mock decapitation, played for laughs, but still . . . !) At the end, bubbles float down from above, and the dancers retreat, looking nonplussed, or as if they had just been awakened from an 18th-century nightmare, albeit a nightmare dreamed by the Three Stooges.
The black dresses reappear in
, looking even more threatening. Initially, all we see are the dresses, as we hear the Sarabande from Bach’s Second Sonata for Solo Violin. This disappears, and the bulk of the ballet is danced to a horrifying soundtrack of manipulated screams, noisy exhalations, and other nervous-making sounds. In the first part of the ballet proper, the dresses act as giant lampshades, exerting a baleful influence on the six male dancers. The ballet is a sort of drill for the dancers, although more bizarre than military in nature. It also strikes me as a form of animal behavior. In fact, in a way, it is the opposite of
is a humorous work with dangerous overtones,
is a disturbing, expressionistic work whose intensity is so heightened that it approaches ridiculousness. Again, costuming becomes part of the ballet itself. The dancers pull their t-shirts over their hands and peer through the neck-holes warily, and later, they pull their pants around their ankles, an episode that is mercifully brief, given the hazards involved. There is some solo work, and as Bach’s Sarabande returns, something resembling traditional dancing almost happens, although this is destroyed at the very end: Pin spots are fixed on each dancer’s head, and each dancer breaks into diabolical laughter, which soon dissolves into muted sobs. Unforgettable, and not a little frightening.
Similarly, many apples reappear (along with a black dress!) in
, which is based on Anton Webern’s
Six Pieces for Orchestra
. Kylián called this “a choreographic collage of absurd aphoristic scenes”—a description that could apply to several of the dances in this collection, but is especially appropriate here. The apples appear to be mediating the dancers’ interactions, which are sometimes violent, sometimes tender, and sometimes erotic. In this ballet, we see another one of Kylián’s trademarks, the fragmentation of the stage into small, brightly lit sectors where separate actions are taking place. Also, in addition to the foreground dancing, there often is something going on the background, although the eye must strain to see what it is. This gives
a layered quality. What do the apples represent? Hunger? Temptation? None of these ballets tell concrete stories, but all entice the viewer into supplying his or her own scenarios.
I won’t discuss the other three ballets, except to say that they are of similar quality. Individually, they are fascinating, but together they are almost overwhelmingly effective.
, the most abstract of the set, is danced to the first part of Steve Reich’s
Drumming. No More Play
also is danced to Webern (his
Five Movements for String Quartet
, which closes the CD, is based on the slow movements of Mozart’s 21st and 23rd piano concertos.
Kylián’s choreography is modern, but not derived in any way from popular culture. It speaks its own language, and hypnotizes viewers in their attempts to make meaning out of it. The 20-some dancers of the Netherlands Dance Theater are both athletes and artists; I can’t begin to imagine the punishment dancing in this manner causes to their bodies.
Black & White Ballets
is a pinnacle of choreography, performing, music, lighting, costuming, and stagecraft. The unfortunate consequence of watching a ballet by Kylián is that everything else, for some time after, feels terribly dull. Most enthusiastically recommended, unless you hate watching people dance, and a sure bet for my Want List later this year!