An interview by Astrid van Leeuwen

Dance companies throughout Europe are commemorating the 70th birthday of Jiří Kylián this year. The Czech-born master choreographer was the artistic director and house choreographer of Nederlands Dans Theater for over thirty years. It was under his guidance that the company — often referred to as the ‘Kylián Company’ abroad — made its international breakthrough and celebrated triumph after triumph worldwide. The Hague, where the maestro still resides and works, is of course taking the lead in all of the birthday celebrations: under the title Celebrating Kylián! all aspects of his artistry will be highlighted throughout the year 2017.

At the end of 2016, the prestigious Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris — the birthplace of classical ballet — as it has done so many times in the past, again dedicated a full programme to Kylián. Twenty two performances, the last of which on New Year’s Eve and all of them already sold out down to the last seat in the house. Kylián himself supervised the rehearsals for these shows. “What fascinates me is that I can stimulate the dancers to instil their own life experience and imagination in the works. Because, I tell them: ‘It’s not about the choreography or the steps but about what you put into it. You are dancing now, not five minutes ago’. If dancers understand that and dare to dive into the unknown, it will add new layers to my work which can also appeal to new generations of dance audiences. That is why dancers must be willing to take risks. I always tell young dancers: ‘If you take risks, it could turn out to be amazing or a catastrophe, but if you risk nothing, it will most certainly be a catastrophe’.”

Sparkles in their eyes
Kylián’s work is so much in demand internationally that sometimes three ballets on three different continents are being rehearsed. “I have,” he says, “a fantastic team that handles that.” With some foreign companies he has had an intimate bond for decades now. This includes Les Ballets de Monte Carlo and The Norwegian National Ballet who will both be performing during Celebrating Kylián! in The Hague. “The best part is,” he says about his collaboration with these and other companies, “that these days, I am far better able to explain what I want to say in my work. Because I have come to understand it better now. Also, new generations of dancers — “who always manage to stay young, while I just keep getting older” — give him new energy time and again. “Seeing young dancers grow and get sparkling eyes. And, what’s more, I learn from them. Technically, because they are able to do things that we thought were impossible twenty years ago, but I also learn from their unorthodox ideas. They may pose a naive question which has such impact that it might turn your original approach upside down and even improve the original ballet.”

Shattering shadows
Kylián, however, still sees himself more as a ‘creator’ than a teacher or trainer. “Life is creation for me, to stop creating would be like death.” In his more recent choreographies — of which a wide selection will be performed during Celebrating Kylián! — he routinely experiments with film. And recently, his entire focus, in fact, has shifted towards film and photography. “After having practiced the most fleeting art form of all, I now want to do something that has more permanence. The best aspect of film and photography is that they allow you to capture an instant.”

Besides the Free Fall photo installation — in which his wife and life-long muse Sabine Kupferberg is photographed by two cameras from the front and from behind simultaneously — Celebrating Kylián! will also feature the world premiere of his film Scalamare. The idea originated when he visited the Italian monument for the fallen (Monumento ai Caduti) in Ancona in 2015. “A fantastic monument, beautifully situatedon the seaside. I was so fascinated by the symbolism of the place — the sea gives and takes — and by the play of light on the stairs on which I could see my own shadow shatter in geometric patterns.

The film portrays a couple (Kupferberg and former dancer Peter Jolesch) who return to the site of their honeymoon on their 40th wedding anniversary. “They are ecstatic, throwing their hats, suitcases and topcoats in the air, playing games with their shadows. But suddenly their shadows expand. The light goes dark, the sea, menacing. Ultimately, they undress, throwing all of their clothes into the sea and they give each other — as symbol for a pill of death — a pearl.” The film is not about him and Kupferberg says Kylián, even though they have known each other for exactly 40 years. “I don’t know if we would want or be able to do such a thing, but I do have a great admiration for couples who decide to leave this life together.”

Shrinking time
Kylián realises all too well that the majority of his life has passed. “The recent passing of certain loved ones including my mother and our good friend and Sabine’s life-long dance partner Gérard Lemaître has accentuated that realisation.” Time is shrinking, says Kylián. “Since my departure from Nederlands Dans Theater, I could fill my days however I wish, I have more time than ever before, but at the same time I am constantly aware that time is shrinking. That is why I only dedicate myself to doing things I am totally convinced of.” Still, he feels anything but (nearly) 70 years of age. “Whenever I see myself at a distance in the reflection of a window or mirror, it’s always a bit of a shock. The discrepancy between mind and body is huge. The mind is much, much younger and that mind, my mind — is still full of desires and plans.”