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Prescribed choreographers and works

Researching Sarabande

Maybe many of my later works are full of questions more than answers but I find it extremely exciting to be able to come nearer to the question to which I am pretty sure there are no answers. But just to be able to ask the questions I find very exciting.
Jiri Kylian, speaking in a filmed documentary in 1991

Sarabande, by Jiri Kylian, is a multi-layered choreographic work. In order to understand its layers, it is suggested you research:

and combine this understanding with a close reading and analysis of the work.

1. Kylian's background and body of work

Biography of Jiri Kylian:
Born 21.3.1947 in Prague, capital of the (now) Czech Republic.
Father was a bank manager, mother was a ballet dancer.

1953 - He was sent to a school specialising in acrobatics.
1962 - Studied dance at the Prague Conservatorium.
1967 - Awarded scholarship to Royal Ballet School, London.
1968 - Joined Stuttgart Ballet (external website), Germany.
1970 - Choreographed first dance called Paradox
1975 - Appointed Artistic co-director of the Netherlands Dance Theatre (external website) (NDT)
1977 - Appointed sole Artistic Director of NDT
1999 - Resigned as Artistic Director, continued as Artistic Advisor and guest choreographer.


Selected choreographies from Kylian's body of work:

Return to a Strange Land (1974/75)
Stoolgame (1975)
Symphony in D (1976/77/81)
Sinfonietta; Symphony of Psalms (1978)
Forgotten Land (1981)
Svadebka (1982)
Stamping Ground (1983)
l'enfant et les sortileges (1984)
l'Histoire du soldat; Six Dances (1986)
Kaguyahime; No more Play (both 1988)
Falling Angels (1989)
Sweet Dreams; Sarabande (both 1990)
Un Ballo (1991)
As if Never Been (1992)
Whereabouts Unknown (1993)
Tiger Lily (1994)
Arcimboldo; Bella Figura (1995)
Tears of Laughter (1996)
Wings of Wax/NDT 1 (1997)

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2. The socio-historic context of the choreographer and his work

Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 at the conclusion of WW1.The country was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1938 and was occupied by Germans until the end of WW2. It became independent in 1946 only to be invaded by communist Soviet Union in 1948 after a coup. The Soviets installed a communist government and so Czechoslovakia became one of many Eastern European countries behind the "Iron Curtain" of communist domination.

In May 1968 - first Paris then all of France, became involved in strikes and protests. Originally protesting against a stifling education system, lack of economic prosperity and poor union leadership, about 9 to 10 million workers and students went on strike. Daily headlines showed burning cars in Paris and regular police brutality. The riots ended fairly quickly after big pay rises were offered. This feeling of revolt spread and at the same time a new communist leader in Czechoslovakia - Alexander Dubcek - came to power. He began,cautiously at first,to relax the more odious features of communism (censorship, freedom of speech) and fairly soon, there was talk of the "Prague Spring" and of "communism with a human face". On 21 August 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Prague as the Russians put a halt to these reforms and dismissed the government. With a reference to the Vietnam War being waged by the USA, one of the most popular items of graffiti of the time played with the words Soviet and Vietnam to read "Czech Sovietnam". The crushing of the "Prague Spring" was hugely unpopular and did much to convince the Western World that a meaningful dialogue with the Soviet Union was not possible. Kylian was in Prague at the time, he joined in the street protests and, realising he may not be able to leave Prague, took a train to Stuttgart one week after the arrival of the tanks. Czechoslovakia did not gain independence until after the fall of communism in 1989.

In the early 1990s Czechoslovakia split into two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both are members of the European Union. Thus, all of Jiri Kylian's formative years were under a communist regime with its stifling conformity and lack of personal freedoms. Kylian has been quoted as saying "the only colours I remember from my youth are grey,brown and black. And I don't just mean visual colours; they were also the colours of my feelings. The bleak uniformity imposed upon us was devastating". (Lanz 1995 p. 26). Another prominent feature would have been the long cold winters with the possibility of day after day of grey skies.

2. LONDON IN THE SWINGING 60s (The context of Kylian's early career and influences)
The "Swinging Sixties" would have been well under way when Jiri Kylian spent his year in London. He would have had ample opportunity to go and see the Rambert Dance Company (external website) (where Christopher Bruce was dancing), the London Contemporary Dance Company under Robert Cohen and the "pas de deux couple of the decade" - Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. London pulsed with new drama, new films and music of all kinds and experimental art and fashion. Kylian has said that his one year in London was the most important part of his life to date. He said that he "saw everything". The young Kylian loved film and this can be seen in the strong visual aesthetic of his works.

This of course, varied greatly from country to country but there was an overall renewal of interest in ballet and modern dance undoubtedly helped by touring Americans such as Merce Cunningham (external website) and Twyla Tharp (external website) who gave Europeans a taste of what was happening across the Atlantic Ocean. Soon, Western European countries began to also experiment with these "new" aspects of dance.

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3. Influences on the choreographer

Music plays a huge role in Kylian's work. As a young dance student at the Prague Conservatorium he had to learn to read, write, sing and compose music. His first work - Paradox, was danced by himself and a partner to a recording of piano music that he had composed, played and recorded. His early works often featured the late Romantic composers, Bartok, Mahler, Debussy. From there onwards he used earlier composers such as Haydn, Mozart and J.S. Bach only to widen his choice to include Schoenberg, Janacek, Webern (one of his favourites) and living composers such as Lukas Foss, Arvo Part and Steve Reich - the composer for Falling Angels. As one journalist said: "One thing is certain: that, with Kylian, nothing happens without music ... His choreographies are not only extremely musical; many of them conduct a congenial conversation with the composition." (Scheier, 1994 p.14). The sparse economics of Anton Webern's works allowed Kylian to use what has become one of the choreographic features of his dances - a small movement occurs at exactly the same time as a small, single sound is played.

Kylian has been influenced by the various dance styles he has seen or studied. Much of his early works show the influence of Slavic Folk Dance. Sayers writes of the classical technique and neo-classical style that Kylian brought from Stuttgart to Netherlands Dance Theatre commenting that his work "teems with references to folk dance, which can add another textual level to the dance." (Sayers, 1999 p.134). From folk to romantic classical and neo-classical he has incorporated jazz "whose dynamic, austere and expressive character clearly appealed to him." (Lanz, 1995 p.24).

Kylian visited Australia in 1980 to witness a major Aboriginal gathering and dance event in Arnhem Land. From this he took an abiding interest in the features of the dances of the many Aboriginal cultures he saw. Thus his more recent dance style has - quite accurately - been labelled "eclectic". Smooth, elegant classical lines are followed by several sharp, percussive movements which introduce a series of spasms, twitches and jerks before a duet of exquisite beauty morphs into a compelling shape only to fall apart. Diaghilev's request of "Astonish me" has certainly been taken to heart by Kylian.
(Lanz 1995, p.12)

Frequently Kylian refers to the Netherlands Dance Theatre as being like a garden whose borders are small but whose height is limitless to indicate boundless imagination. This imagination is on an endless quest "to probe around in the hidden corners of the soul and bring things into the light that usually remain hidden in the darkness." (Scheier, 1994 p.14).

Kylian seems to assign special importance to the irrationality of life, speaking of senselessness and the coincidences of existence, believing that human comprehension mainly borders on the irrational (Scheier 1994 p.15).

"There is a line in my work which refers to the whereabouts of our existence ... I have no longing for a message or a mission. I believe that the search for characteristics and values which belong to all races of all times is a journey worthy of the effort."
(Kylian, program notes. Cited by Schaik, 1995 p.37).

If there is one word that helps explain this major influence on the works Kylian choreographs, it is the title of his first work Paradox. A paradox is a seeming contradiction or absurdity which, on closer examination, can express a truth. Kylian’s later works abound with paradoxes. No More Play shows dancers trapped by the "game of life". Sweet Dreams shows a nightmarish world. Can there be such a thing as a Fallen Angel? The title Bella Figura alludes to a paradox; beautiful bodies twitch and contort in their attempts to put on a brave face for the world.

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4. Characteristic features of Kylian's works

1.Kylian's earlier works (1970s to mid 1980s) were often non-narrative dramatic ballets set to well known 19th century composers. They featured a balletic style frequently pushed to extreme limits with subtle references to folk. Traces of this classicism can still be seen in his later works.

2. In 1980, Kylian visited Arnhem Land in Australia. The journal Ballet International/Tanz Aktuell July 1998 published his travel diaries and an interview with Kylian. He methodically lists ten of the main stylistic features of the dances he saw (p. 30).

Many of these listed features can be seen in his post 1980 works; perhaps, most obviously in Stamping Ground.

3.Occasionally, humour is a dominant feature of a Kylian dance work, Symphony in D (4 parts, 1981) and Six Dances (1986) are obvious examples. His interest in the paradoxical and absurd mean that quirky, sardonic, moments are very much a feature of much of his later works.

4.Perhaps the strongest feature of his post-1980 works is the use of symbols and metaphors. Kylian has spoken of his dislike for abstraction refering instead to his process of "economy of means".

"Getting to the essence takes a tremendous amount of work; one distills until one gets there. My notebooks are packed with information, designs, associative material. I finally absorb it all, throw it away and begin to choreograph.The material is slowly pared down until a cube emerges that may seem abstract, but that wouldn't have its particular qualities if one hadn't drilled down through all the strata to the point in which one was actually interested." (Scheier, 1994.15)

5. "The opening of the 1988-1989 season marked the beginning of a new creative period. Kylian asked himself new questions as well as working out themes that had lain dormant in his mind for some time.This artistic rebirth is unmistakably visible in hiswork No More Play (Lanz,1995.149). What followed was a series of dances that later became known as the "Black and White Ballets" primarily because of the abandonment of colour. These works demonstrate features of Kylian's work so it is important that they are referenced when studying Sarabande.

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