Jiří Kylián: “The changing of a person into a dancer is the most beautiful thing.”

This season, Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT) celebrates its 60th anniversary with several special programmes honoring the company’s rich history. For over 30 years, Jiří Kylián shaped the dance company and contributed greatly to its status as an international phenomenon. However, in 2014, Kylián requested NDT to temporarily take his work from the repertoire. It was a way of offering the then artistic director Paul Lightfoot an opportunity to expand the company’s scope beyond the big success of Kylian’s pieces. Sometimes, I wonder marks the first occasion of the maestro’s work returning to the NDT-stage. 

Viewers was your first choreography for Nederlands Dans Theater in 1973. The number of works you created totals over a hundred pieces. What prompted the selection of the choreographies Bella Figura (1995), Claude Pascal (2002) and Vanishing Twin (2008) for the company’s 60th anniversary season?

Jiří Kylián: “Paul Lightfoot put this programme together. This is what he felt he wanted to show and I’m happy with it. I was approached by Paul with the question if we should do something together after the past six years. I said: of course, the moratorium is over.”

The last remark is made jokingly by Kylián, who is kind enough to invite me into his home for the interview before heading back to a rehearsal with NDT. Bringing back a choreography is a demanding task, especially with a completely new cast. It inevitably changes the work in unexpected ways. I ask Kylián if the process has provided him with new insights.

Kylián: “I saw Vanishing Twin in the studio the other day, for the first time after a long interval. I was really shocked. It’s such a combat of the sexes – very strange.”

Vanishing Twin carries the subtitle ‘an unfinished work,’ highlighting that an artist’s body of work is much larger than the results we see, the creations that eventually reach the stage. Could Vanishing Twin be described as a work that addresses the inevitable process of ‘killing your darlings’?

Kylián: “Absolutely. But Vanishing Twin has a double meaning. We all have a dark side we are not very proud of.  A side that’s not very kind, not very sunny. We carry around deficiencies that we don’t want to show in public, but that can attack us at very unexpected moments. For me, Vanishing Twin touches on that fragility. Sometimes it happens that this negativity and this kind of darkness overshadows us. It’s a bit of a psychological work that way.”

Photos: Joris-Jan Bos

Kylián’s pieces often steer away from concrete messages. Instead, he engages his audiences to find their own meaning in the work: “I explain my ideas to the dancers,” he says, “because my task as a choreographer is to make them accept their bodies, their minds, and their emotions and present them in the clearest possible way. With complete honesty. And if one of them doesn’t understand it, we invent something else.”  

Sometimes, I wonder is both an example of Kylián’s presentation of ideas and a reflection on the position of the performer. Comedy and humour feature regularly, such as in Claude Pascal. 

Kylián: “Claude Pascal depicts this very strange family. The script includes quotations from Frankenstein by Mary Shelley which I thought were very hysterical. I wrote most of the text and then added new and other inconvenient circumstances and sounds to it. The family in Claude Pascal appears as an old photograph that comes to life and then disappears again. It really portrays my love of the past. Everything I do has some kind of reference to the past; without respect and recognition for the past you are not going to go anywhere. Claude Pascal captures different time frames simultaneously on stage, without them ever colliding. In the performance, the past and the future meet in a mirror labyrinth or some wormhole fantasy [a speculative structure linking disparate points in spacetime, ed.].

Claude Pascal is also about owning your body, which is the only thing you truly own. That is all. This is who you are. As performers we are extremely critical of ourselves because our duty is to ‘exhibit’ our bodies, souls and minds as works of art. The choreographer’s task is to make dancers understand they are vulnerable human beings and that they have marvelous things inside of them. Something very valuable that people love to see. As a dancer, you have to get rid of your frustrations, open up and say: “This is me. Take me as I am, I’m not hiding”.  But as humans we aren’t like that, we run away from ourselves. There is a moment during Claude Pascal where one of the dancers runs from one place to the next and tries to become something else. You may run away, but you can never escape the fact that you are taking your own body with you. Perhaps the message of Claude Pascal is that you have to try to accept yourself and try to make the best of who you are. Don’t run away, because you might end up running like crazy until you die, and then there’s nothing left for you.” 

The triptych of works that form Sometimes, I wonder is completed with Kylián’s infamous Bella Figura from 1995. In this 25-year-old ballet, the choreographer juxtaposes different notions of sensuality, beauty and aesthetics, and questions the concept of performance itself. 

Kylián: “The changing of a person into a dancer is the most beautiful thing. As a dancer, you practice all day. Then you eat something before the performance, not much, and slowly you start to concentrate. You go through the movements. You start doing make-up and costumes. And then you go to that sacred space, the stage. So the first question is: when and where does a performance actually start? In my mind, it starts long before the curtain goes up, in this mysterious moment that appears to be in some sort of twilight zone. 

Secondly, I would ask: am I able to transmit my thoughts, my fears, my being, my experiences to you? As a dancer you can do your best, but it also depends on the individuals in the audience and how they are able to understand it, which is informed by their sensibilities and personal experiences, their capabilities and their sense of imagination. Let’s say, there are a thousand people in the auditorium. All of them will have a different idea of what the people on stage are trying to express. And no matter what, a dancer has to put on a ‘bella figura.’ This doesn’t just mean a beautiful body; it means a brave face as well. It finds its source in Italian: ‘facciamo una bella figura.’ We strike a pose! Because the audience wants to see the show they paid for, no matter what. That is what Bella Figura is about: it is about the inevitability of putting on the performance, even though it’s this fragile thing that will always be hard to translate to an audience in all its depths and nuances. Bella Figura is one big question mark.” 

In 1975, Kylián became NDT’s artistic director, a position he held for 25 years. He then stayed on for another decade as house choreographer. How did you experience your arrival in the Netherlands? And what did you find when you came to NDT?

Kylián: “It was wonderful. It was Prinsjesdag, and as I landed at Schiphol my spirits were immediately lifted because there were all these bunnies hopping around the fields around the airport. I felt very happy. And then one of the stewardesses whom I had struck up a conversation with on the plane drove me to NDT. I thought the Netherlands was fantastic, with kind and open-minded people. For this and many other reasons, I still live in The Hague after all those years.

When I arrived at NDT, the company was in an unhappy situation because Hans van Manen and Glenn Tetley, the major creative forces from the early NDT-days, had left the company. There was great uncertainty and unhappiness among the dancers; people did not know which way NDT would turn. By the time I was appointed, quite a few dancers had already left.” 

Today, with NDT being one of the biggest institutions in the Netherlands, it is hard to imagine that the company had such humble beginnings. What was it like for you to step in at the time?

Kylián: “I regarded NDT as an already established company. Which it wasn’t, but I never realized that at the time. 

The most important thing to find out is what kind of company you inherit. If you inherit a healthy company,  it is incredibly difficult to keep at at that same level. If you inherit a slightly unhealthy company, there’s this vast open plane of opportunities in front of you. You can improve, widen, and deepen. Because of the state of affairs at NDT back then, there were plenty of opportunities for me.”

How did you know what was required in this kind of situation?

Kylián: “I did not know what was required of me, actually. First of all, I did not know Holland, I didn’t speak the language. I was 28 years old. Moreover, I didn’t feel entirely embraced by everyone; there was a certain degree of resistance. So it was not an easy situation. From the beginning, I knew I wanted NDT to be more than a local company and to make it international in nature. This international nature is one of the biggest assets of dance. At its core, it revolves around music and dance, which don’t require a verbal translation. I was adamant about traveling the world and bringing our art to the people in New York, Moscow and Prague, as well as the Netherlands. 

Through our international tours we also attracted quite a few dancers from different countries who came to work with NDT. It’s a wonderful thing to see so many people from different countries and backgrounds in one place, who have a sense of great coherence and homogeneity. Nobody was really at home in the Netherlands, and it brought people together, they created a home for themselves at NDT.”

You were NDT’s artistic director until 1999. In retrospect, what were the most important features of your directorship?

Kylián: “As artistic director I tried to attract as many talented people as possible. I brought William Forsythe to the Netherlands for the first time. He had performed in my ballets when he was still a young dancer in Stuttgart. I also brought Mats Ek here as a dancer, and a completely unknown Ohad Naharin from New York. I approached some great choreographers who didn’t want to collaborate, such as Pina Bausch, but the list of 75 choreographers that did want to work together is quite impressive. And it also comprises dancers who were educated here and were given the opportunity to start their choreographic careers, such as Nacho Duato or Sol León and Paul Lightfoot.  Furthermore, I wanted to remain close to established choreographers such as Hans van Manen and Glenn Tetley. Overall, I wanted to stimulate creativity in the company, to create a melting pot. That was something exciting, I think.”

“It was also during my directorship that NDT2 for young dancers was founded in 1978. We realized there was a great gap between being a dance student and living the life of a professional dancer. We thought it was important to create a step between the two, to narrow the gap between the school system and a professional company. NDT2 became highly successful. And NDT1 benefited from it, as 80% of NDT2-dancers joined NDT1 afterwards. Later still, I also created NDT3 for dancers over 40. If you have witnessed beautiful artists such as Sabine Kupferberg and Gérard Lemaître mature on stage and perform these wonderful adventures, it is a ridiculous notion to stop working with them simply because they reach a certain age. Why don’t older dancers get a chance to be on stage, and do completely different things than 16, 17, 18 year-old dancers? Something they can do in their own right? I developed the idea over a weekend and by the next Monday I had already signed Hans van Manen, Mats Ek, William Forsythe and myself to create a full-evening programme. NDT3 became its own company and was supported by many colleagues who all contributed, such as Maguy Marin, Carolyn Carlson, Meryll Tankard, Christopher Bruce and others.”

The start of NDT3 coincided with the opening of NDT’s new home, Rem Koolhaas’ Lucent Danstheater. Opened in 1987, it was the first theatre in the world designed especially for dance. Those are the major milestones in my NDT history, of which I am very proud. These elements were unique and elevated NDT to a different category. No other company represented this trinity of dancers and their careers ‘from cradle to grave’, and no other company had its own theatre at the time. Certainly not one built by Rem Koolhaas. The Lucent Danstheater was the first building he ever built in his life! I will never forgive the Dutch for demolishing it. Never.” 

After the interview Kylián rushes off to what remains of the Lucent Danstheater on The Hague’s Spuiplein, which still houses the company’s offices and studios. The former stage has been converted into a studio, where Kylián and the dancers rehearse. “A luxury,” says the choreographer. In 2017, the building was partially demolished to make room for the construction of Amare, The Hague’s new performing arts space where NDT, Residentie Orkest as well as the Royal Conservatory will reside from 2021. Until it is completed, NDT’s performances will be temporarily hosted by the Zuiderstrandtheater in Scheveningen. The future of the company will certainly bring new challenges and pressing, inspiring questions. But an important era from NDT’s rich history now returns to the present. 

Photo Jiří Kylián: Anton Corbijn.